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Looking Back at Richard Neutra's First US Commission

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Corbis via Getty Images

Modern architect Richard Neutra and New York developer Joseph H. Miller met at a Hollywood party in 1927. Neutra had experience as a city architect in Luckenwalde, Germany, and as a landscape gardener in Zurich. He had a green thumb and a love of the land. Miller had champagne dreams and caviar wishes and was plotting his newest investment in Los Angeles—a series of luxury apartment buildings fit to house the city's bourgeoning population of movie stars. Miller's plan called for some buildings that were five stories tall, and others so grand that they would reach skyward at 13 stories tall. However unlikely a pairing these two were, the meeting introduced Miller to the man who would produce his lofty dreams and Neutra to the man who would offer him his first US commission: the Jardinette Apartments. Today, as LA approaches its annual Neutra Earth Day Celebration on April 27, that project sits neglected in East Hollywood—but it represents everything worth celebrating about Neutra's work.

Neutra and Miller broke ground on their project on September 24, 1927. The Jardinette Apartments—today called the Marathon Apartments—was set to be the first building in Miller's $5-million series of International-style apartment buildings. Miller's champagne dreams, however, soon fizzled as he found himself bankrupt. He panicked and fled town to escape the wrath of his creditors. The Jardinette Apartments was the only building of his series ever completed.

The Austrian-born Neutra, who emigrated to America in 1923, had been working in architecture for several years when the Jardinette broke ground. He worked first for a short time in New York, and then in Chicago alongside one of his idols, Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1925, Neutra moved to Los Angeles, where he established his architecture practice. He is best known for his many contributions to Southern California architecture and for his austere design, which seamlessly merges structures with their natural surrounds. Neutra has also designed works worldwide, such as the recently-demolished Gettysburg Battlefield visitor's center, the Gettysburg Cyclorama, and the US Embassy in Karachi, Pakistan. Neutra eventually published his philosophies on environment and design in his seminal 1954 book, Survival Through Design. The book communicates Neutra's core belief that the human race's ability to plan and think makes the environment our sole responsibility.

On April 27, Los Angeles commemorates Neutra Earth Day. Just like worldwide Earth Day (observed on April 22), Neutra Earth Day emphasizes sustainability and green lifestyles. But like most things in Los Angeles, it's done with a Modern twist: it celebrates Neutra as a pioneer of the environmental movement.

These green fundamentals shine in the Jardinette Apartments. The single building, named from the French word jardinette, meaning "small garden," is four stories tall, houses 43 units, and sits in a gentle U-shape with a courtyard at its center. It is the prototypical International-style garden apartment building. International style matches Neutra's philosophies well: it favors unornamented design, function, and a connection with nature.

To bring a garden-style apartment to a densely-populated urban setting like East Hollywood, Neutra had to think creatively about how to achieve cohesion with nature. "He didn't have a chance to have gardens on parade or anything," recalls Dion Neutra, Richard's son and former business partner. "And so that building was a matter of interior design that he came up with."

Neutra's goal was to exploit light and air. He accentuated the building's flow along the landscape by employing long, horizontal bands of windows. He also cantilevered balconies on the second, third, and fourth stories so that they cast out from the building and into the expanse, creating a bridge to open sky. Each balcony also included built-in planters for easy home gardening. Finally, Neutra took the idea of an urban garden one step further by providing his urban apartment dwellers with a communal rooftop garden. This space was also cantilevered, projecting off the building's east wing, allowing it to thrust out and dissolve into the skyline.

The building also features Neutra's trademark austere design in its interior. Inside is a small reception area and elevator lobby leading into a stark, narrow corridor that follows east to west. The austere aesthetic of Neutra's Jardinette Apartments was, at the time in 1927, completely out of place in a Los Angeles rife with ornamental Art Deco design.

The LA Times commended Neutra for a brave design, referring to it as "new art." The article echoed Neutra's sentiments that a building should be indigenous to the soil on which it stands. The rest of the press soon jumped on the Neutra bandwagon. As Neutra biographer Thomas S. Hines notes, however, it was likely nepotism that sparked this flurry of attention. An unsigned article appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on June 12, 1928, singing the praises of Neutra's groundbreaking design. The article is presumed to be the work of Pauline Schindler, the wife of renowned Modern architect Rudolph M. Schindler, a one-time partner of and long-time friend to Neutra. In fact, Neutra even lived with Schindler and his family at their home in Los Angeles for a time. The article raved: "Light and sunshine flood the apartment house and create a new harmony of family life and contentment." The Christian Science Monitor feature spawned a series of articles in other publications across the US and Europe. In 1932 the Jardinette Apartments was featured in the Museum of Modern Art's Modern Architecture exhibition. Richard Neutra was a household name.

The Jardinette Apartments represents, in both name and form, a commitment to the environment. "We were thinking about these things long before the term 'green architecture' came about," Dion Neutra says. "All of our work has always been about bringing man a relationship to nature." There are stronger examples of Neutra's blending of environment and design—the Lovell "Health" House, all white and glass in the Hollywood Hills, stands as the pinnacle of Neutra's International style and has been featured in films such as LA Confidential. But it is the Jardinette Apartments where this Neutra trademark was first showcased.

With its design, Neutra launched an architectural trend. For the next four decades, the modern garden apartment populated the Los Angeles landscape as well as the landscapes of cities in the emerging Southwest. For its revolutionary design, the Jardinette Apartments was listed in the US National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

The building has been altered very little over the years—but it also hasn't exactly been preserved. "The Jardinette Apartments is a really long reach to get to [a preserved state]," Dion Neutra admits. The building is now painted salmon and green, with swaths of mismatched white paint, presumably covering graffiti or other flaws. What's more, it is coated in a layer of dirt and grime. The Jardinette Apartments stands unremarkable amid the neighborhood's other Spanish-style fourplexes and early Twentieth Century small-scale apartment buildings. And despite the building's immortalization in the National Register, the Jardinette Apartments is today known officially as the Marathon Apartments, named for Marathon Street on which it sits. Yes, Neutra's first US Commission will forever be referred to as the Jardinette Apartments by architecture buffs and long-time Angelenos alike, but the building has been stripped of its social message.
—Timeline by Amy Schellenbaum
· Richard Neutra [Curbed LA]
· Curbed Features [Curbed LA]