A New Group Show at Neutra’s VDL House Remembers Those Who Lived There

Curated by Los Angeles gallery Marta and Erik Benjamins, Built In explores the architect’s family legacy through multiple disciplines and mediums.

Architecture is by no means a static practice or experience. Despite what its title might suggest, a new group show at Richard Neutra’s landmark VDL House II, Built In, investigates what’s unfixed and permanent, physical, and intangible.

The iconic modern home and studio across from Silver Lake Reservoir in Los Angeles was designed by Richard Neutra with his son, Dion. According to Benjamin Critton, co-founder of art and design gallery Marta in Echo Park, such homes can propagate the tendency to “idealize them or forget that people lived here.” Critton and Marta partner Heidi Korsavong curated the exhibition to feature original works by over 30 artists and design entities in collaboration with independent curator and artist Erik Benjamins, in partnership with VDL director Noam Saragosti.

Some were responding to the architecture and its materiality and structure, but a lot of people were responding to the past inhabitants.

Benjamin Critton, co-founder, Marta
Occupying a built-in center shelf on the second floor, Nancy Kwon’s monumental interior landscape made of unglazed ceramic takes inspiration from Korean offerings and landscape paintings to create a vista for internal healing and transformation. Courtesy Erik Benjamins and Marta, Los Angeles

Built In pulls back an imaginary veil and projects multiple narratives to activate all the spaces in the residence, which functioned as the house and a satellite office (Neutra’s primary studio was nearby on Glendale Boulevard) following a 1963 fire that destroyed the first VDL House. His wife, Dione, remained in the home until she passed away in 1990, and bequeathed it to the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona. Built In is the first on-site exhibition open since the beginning of the pandemic, and also coincides with the property reopening to regularly scheduled public tours hosted by Cal Poly Pomona.

Among the participating artists and creatives, all of whom are based in L.A., some were “responding to the architecture and its materiality and structure, but a lot of other people were responding to the past inhabitants,” Critton notes. A backyard bench by TOLO Architecture is emotionally striking; its rear edge where it meets the exterior wall follows the pattern of the stone and memorializes Frank Neutra, the eldest son who has been rendered nearly invisible because of his autism. (His ashes are located nearby, along with plaques commemorating other Neutra family members.) “It’s really built in,” Critton says about the piece, which is one of the few on view that are not for sale.

A functioning water fountain on the second floor patio features a large seashell, which sits atop a stainless steel cylindrical form inspired by the piano leg intervention made by Neutra himself on the ground floor piano. This piece also intends to have a sonic element, serving to combat the white noise of Silver Lake Boulevard immediately below. Courtesy Erik Benjamins and Marta, Los Angeles

“We love that there’s work that’s very present along with work that’s subdued, quiet, and sensitive to the narrative,” Critton says. Ceramic artist duo PapiBoyBabyBoy make the first statement visitors see with Flipped Flipper Numbers, a literal replacement of the house numbers that’s a cheeky commentary on Neutra’s unintentional ironic impact on newly gentrifying neighborhoods.

Some items check multiple boxes of the brief, such as the Japanese-inspired tokonoma composition that architects Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena, who is also an ikebana practitioner, placed on the ground level underneath the cantilevered staircase. Ikebana artist Kyoko Oshiro will continually refresh arrangements throughout the house using found existing containers for the duration of the installation, which will remain on view through November 7.

Kyoko Oshiro uses existing vessels at the Neutra VDL as bases for ikebana arrangements that will change throughout the exhibition. Courtesy Erik Benjamins and Marta, Los Angeles

Early conversations were “loosely couched as an exploration of domesticity and all of its various rhythms,” hence the range of creative disciplines and mediums involved. Chefs/restaurateurs Kwang Uh and Mina Park have distributed sacred salt bowls in strategic positions throughout as per Buddhist tradition and put their fermentation experiments on the kitchen shelves. Emily Endo created a trio of scents, one for each level of the structure, that are placed in bowls of her own making filled with small, filled vials for guests to take as souvenirs. Tactile stone scent diffusers by BC and the Institute for Art and Olfaction are inserted into that most highly specific of built-in feature: the concealed stainless steel toothbrush holder by mass manufacturer Hall-Mack. (The blender affixed to the kitchen counter is a strong contender in this category, too.)

Additional senses are holistically taken into consideration with Dione and Her Own Space, Jeremiah Chiu’s soundscape played on loop that integrates a cello performance recording by Dione Neutra along with ambient sounds from the home and other archival audio related to the VDL II. Song of Saint James II, a water feature composed of a shell mounted on a stainless-steel cylinder and placed in a basin at the second floor patio by architecture and interior design firm Charlap Hyman & Herrero, provides white noise to partially drown out the near constant soundtrack traffic below.

Replacing the a pre-existing mid-century modern lounge with a custom re-upholstered and accessorized La-Z-Boy™ recliner—which works in harmony with the pre-existing color palette of the space—L.A. Door seek to present a piece of furniture imbued with a decidedly contrasting form of domestic comfort. Courtesy Erik Benjamins and Marta, Los Angeles

A playful spirit of experimentation paying homage to Neutra’s approach to materials is palpable throughout, such as the lamp by Three Sheep Studio and artist/builder Bob Dornberger that incorporates agave fiberglass and horsehair, and Stock-a-Studio’s stucco-covered faux finished metallic ladder. The curatorial team also made a lasting contribution to the Neutra archival project, tapping Jeff Khonsary of publisher New Documents to catalogue and publish the contents of the built-in bookcases on the second-floor sitting room in a new book that also contains all the personalized inscriptions to Richard and Dione.

The many gestures seen, felt, smelled, and heard at Built In honor the rigor of craft and discipline, imbued with empathy and humanity. It’s part of “remembering all the people that lived here,” Critton observes, and their experiences that encompassed “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

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