The little girl who appears to live at 2300 Silver Lake Blvd. has been playing cowboys and Indians. She's set up an all-out, hand-to-hand battle on the living room floor. Little figurines face each other. Some stereotypically shirtless Native Americans crawl along the carpet. A cowboy stands watching from the porch of the plastic saloon, which doubles as a post office. That miniature building is up against the built-in bookcase, filled with volumes written mostly in German. The girl's figurines were made in East Germany, possibly by a government-run toy company called VERO, around the time of the release of the German film The Sons of Great Bear, a “Red Western” that cast Native Americans as heroes and expansion-hungry Americans as villains. It's hard to tell which side is winning the living-room battle, but the fact that the girl has a rainbow-colored feather headdress laid out next to the doll and dress on her bed down the hall suggests she's angling for Native American victory.
The imaginary family in the house could be spies
Richard Neutra, the Austrian-American architect who built this house for himself in 1932, did not actually have a daughter. He had three sons, one of whom helped him to rebuild when fire damaged the home in the 1960s. Nor was he an East German pilot, as the uniform in the master bedroom suggests. Nor did he have a collapsible, Hungarian-designed garden egg chair in the nook by the phone, though the blue-and-white one there now looks quite good.
The Neutra VDL Research House in Silver Lake has been invaded, its Western-made, midcentury accouterments replaced with Eastern Bloc artifacts from the Wende Museum's Culver City vaults, for a show called “Competing Utopias.”
Although East and West were competing at the time they were made, the efficient Eastern objects don't actually seem to be competing with the California modernism of Netura. “The most comical reaction has been from the person who came in and asked, 'Where is the exhibition?'” says Patrick Mansfield, the Wende Museum's collection manager.
The house, a mostly glass, tiered structure with a rooftop garden and reflecting pool, is a gorgeous example of the architect's work — wide open to sunlight, specifically suited to his living and working needs. It has office space downstairs and a kitchenette for employees. Neutra's widow, Dione, gave the house to Cal Poly Pomona University in the 1980s.
Architect Sarah Lorenzen, its current director, lives in the back house with her husband, designer David Hartwell. They have been trying, for two years now, to make it a changeable, contemporary space.
“House museums can be somewhat dry and boring, frozen in time,” says Bill Ferehawk, a filmmaker and longtime friend of Lorenzen, who made a short documentary about the Wende Museum in 2013. The museum's collection of Cold War–era objects is mostly in storage in Culver City, though it's scheduled to move into the more exhibition-friendly former National Guard Armory within the year.
It occurred to Ferehawk, who already knew that American midcentury modernists had the same Bauhaus influences as Eastern Bloc designers, that the Neutra VDL house and the Wende had traits in common, so he introduced Lorenzen to Justin Jampol, the Wende's director. Both museums preserve recent histories with ideological underpinnings that have been simplified in retrospect and that didn't necessarily catch on as planned — Neutra's brand of environmentally aware modernism was not the wave of the future, nor was Eastern socialism.
“In the grand scheme, it's a blink of an eye,” says Jampol, of the 25 years since the Cold War. But there are still so many deeply embedded conceptions about that era, such as that the East was drab, repressed and unimaginative, something the whole “Competing Utopias” curatorial team — Lorenzen and Hartwell from VDL, Jampol and Mansfield from the Wende and Ferehawk — enjoyed toying with.
“We're not really trying to teach anyone about design,” Ferehawk says. “By its nature, it's super playful.”
The process began with Mansfield, who knows the Wende collection intimately, walking through the Neutra house, imagining which Eastern Bloc objects could go where, then making proposals to the group. The idea was to mix objects that looked as though they could have been there all along with objects that were a little off and objects not found in the West at all. The wood chairs in the living room, for instance, were replaced with red plastic chairs, and Lorenzen and Mansfield cite that scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman's character is advised, “One word: plastics.” That same scenario could have played out even earlier in Eastern Bloc nations with poor access to steel mills and a need for affordable alternatives. Petrochemicals became so tied to Eastern economics that the communism-protesting Czech band called itself “Plastic People of the Universe” when it formed in 1968.
To help them conceptualize the installation, the curators invented a family as the house's inhabitants: the man who's a pilot, his wife and the little girl. The bathrooms, bedrooms and living room correspond to this premise fairly well. Plus, the rooftop telescope and upstairs surveillance booth could be worked into a plot resembling FX's The Americans, where Russian spies pose as normal citizens. “We decided if anyone was a spy, it would have to be the wife,” Mansfield says. “We wanted to give her agency.” Only, given the glass walls, she must not be that afraid of detection.
Some other rooms don't fit the family narrative as well, such as the dining room with china and unopened Champagne bottles from the East German Palace of the Republic, or the bust of East German politician Ernst Scheller in the entryway. The administrative waiting room that has been set up in Neutra's former studio doesn't quite fit, either, but the curators enjoyed approximating a government office. There are only four chairs facing the wooden podium at the front of the room, however. “The smallest audience possible for the bureaucrat,” says Lorenzen, who feels that, by making a story that never could have happened seem strangely plausible, the installation invites viewers to think about their relationship to history.
“What we call midcentury modernism is even a bit of a fiction,” Lorenzen says. “It's really an invented term.” Architects from that era, such as melodramatic John Lautner, earthy Rudolf Schindler and Neutra, had different interests and ambitions. They weren't always fixated on the form-follows-function minimalism for which they have become known. Neutra, for instance, was fascinated with ambient moods and the way light shines through trees.
“We all tend to reduce ideas to make them very singular,” Lorenzen continues, “and it's good to be a little more willing to see that there were many, many ideas at play.”
COMPETING UTOPIAS | Neutra VDL Research House, 2300 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake | Through Sept. 13 | neutra-vdl.org