In the Footsteps of Richard Neutra: An Expedition in California

with Andreas Nierhaus, David Schreyer, and Peter Stuiber

Beginning in 2020, the Wien Museum MUSA presented the exhibition “Richard Neutra. Homes for California”. This expedition highlighted the US-based work of one of the Austrian history’s foremost modernist architects. To accompany it, a publication was made that also focuses on Neutra’s contemporaries. The basis for this was an intensive research trip undertaken by Wien Museum curator Andreas Nierhaus and architectural photographer David Schreyer. A conversation.


Peter Stuiber: When and how long were you on the road to gather the material for this book and exhibition?

Andreas Nierhaus: We were on the road in California for a total of five weeks, spending the main part of the time in Los Angeles. The research trip, funded by the Arts Section of the Chancellor’s Office, took place in early summer 2017 – in other words, during the transitional period from “June Gloom” to “Summer Heat”. The weather was actually too good to be true.

Richard Neutra: Miller House, Palm Springs, 1936/37, Foto © David Schreyer

PS: The trip came about in the course of a research project. What were the initial considerations? What was the concrete motivation?

AN: We noticed that Richard Neutra, probably the most prominent and influential Austrian architect of modernism in global terms, is hardly known in his own country – and we wanted to change that. His buildings fascinated us from the very beginning: Neutra not only developed an architectural system that was consistent over decades and could be adapted to different design challenges…

David Schreyer: … He has also shown how one can respond structurally to extreme climatic conditions, especially heat, without a great deal of technological effort, and how clever spatial configurations can make small houses large in themselves. On site in Los Angeles, we found that to understand Neutra’s buildings, we must look at them in the context of the work of his contemporaries. Not only are there direct or indirect influences; his work is one thing above all: extremely stringent – both in form and content. And this is then virtually self-explanatory through the confrontation with buildings by his contemporaries.

PS: How did the selection of the houses come about? Which ones were in focus?

DS: We came to California with a “short list” of about 80 houses. Immediately after our arrival we started to visit these places. This alone provided the link to other houses that seemed interesting for our topic. We deliberately did not visit the famous houses – such as the Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs – but rather the small, lesser-known ones, which, however, seemed to us to be far more relevant to contemporary questions of living.

John Lautner: Salkon House, Echo Park, Los Angeles, 1948, Foto © David Schreyer

PS: The houses you visited are not open to the public. Was it foreseeable whether one could gain access to a relevant number of houses at all?

AN: From the very beginning, the research project was designed as an experiment, or better: as a kind of expedition. At the beginning, we didn’t know what would come out of it. What will the weather be like? Who will open the door for us? Chance was a factor we took seriously. But with an initial selection of 80 houses, we knew that within five weeks we would come up with a respectable number of buildings actually visited and photographed. But in return, we were on the road around the clock. Even if it sounds unbelievable, there was only one beach and sun.

PS: How challenging was the organization of this trip? How do you manage to coordinate such a large number of appointments? What hurdles do you face?

AN: Above all, it was a lot of paperwork. And you had to be prepared to drive many many kilometers by car through this sometimes seemingly endless city. Our daily routine usually looked like this: in the morning we made contacts, dealt with the extensive correspondence and organized viewing appointments. In the afternoon, we would drive to the houses, and while David photographed the buildings, I would conduct interviews with the residents – and then keep them happy until David had finished his work.