Raymond Neutra on the VDL Research House

Raymond Neutra – VDL Research House: Dutch connections

There is a long standing connection between Het Nieuwe Bouwen (New Objectivity architecture) in the Netherlands and modernism in the US. The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright on modernism in the Netherlands is well known; through Berlage, van ‘t Hoff, Jan Duiker, Jan Wils, W.M. Dudok, Gerrit Rietveld, and others the prairie style was adapted to Dutch domestic living. Soon after the pendulum swung and the experiments in Europe inspired architects in the United States. A very interesting connection exists between Richard Neutra and Cees van der Leeuw (the director of the Van Nelle Factory, see my book review on the monograph of the architects Brinkman & van der Vlugt, a book on the architects who designed the factory building).

Van der Leeuw had read “Wie baut Amerika?”  and was eager to meet Neutra. When Neutra visited Europe to attend the CIAM conference in Brussels in 1930, van der Leeuw invited him to stay at his modernist house in Rotterdam.

There is the famous anecdote that Cees van der Leeuw, on a later visit to Neutra in Los Angeles, asked him why he did not build his own house, upon which Neutra replied that he did not have the money. Van der Leeuw drew his check book and asked “How much do you need?”. Modest Neutra did not accept the money as a gift, but took out an interest free loan of $3000.-, which was an adequate sum at the time. What is less well known, however, is that Neutra was deeply impressed by van der Leeuw’s house in Rotterdam (designed, again, by Brinkman & van der Vlugt in 1928) (pictured above) and hailed it as follows:

“It was the most modern house I had ever dreamed of […]. An assembly of technical novelties, from English sheet rubber to cover the floors and winding metal stairways to microphonic conversations at the entrance and from room to room, exhausts for cigarette smoke as soon as it left the mouth; organization down to a complicated dashboard of switches over our guest beds to activate all kinds of illumination, move the window drapes, electronically turn on hot and cold water in the bathroom.” (From Neutra, Life and Shape, pp. 252-57)

The connection eventually led to the building of the VDL (van der Leeuw) research house by Neutra, and in this lecture  Raymond Neutra, the son of Richard, explains these connections in greater detail.

Neutra's VDL Research House 1, Los Angeles 1932

Neutra’s VDL Research House 1, Los Angeles 1932

In response to Raymond Neutra’s lecture three remarks:

1. The Theosophical Society building in Amsterdam, which was designed by Brinkman & van der Vlugt, in which Neutra recognises a Wrightian influence, in fact predates the Guggenheim Museum by 15 years. The architect who received the job first, (and whose name Neutra does not remember), is K.P.C. de Bazel. He was a contemporary to Berlage and designed ‘De Bazel’ a former bank building and now the city archive of Amsterdam. De Bazel died before the job started and Brinkman and Van der Vlugt were commissioned. The building is now a public library.

Theosophical Society Building Amsterdam, Brinkman & van der Vlugt Architects 1927

Theosophical Society Building Amsterdam, Brinkman & van der Vlugt Architects 1927

2. I don’t think Loos ever said “Ornament is Crime”. The title of the manifesto was “Ornament und Verbrechen”, Ornament and Crime, in typical Loosian fashion is ironic rather than explicit!

3. Cees van der Leeuw’s name is Cornelis (Cees) Hendrik van der Leeuw, not Cornelius. I have noticed a lot of misspellings out there! I also never heard before that he was from an aristocratic family, as Neutra claims. He was from a merchant’s family. In the Dutch context the prefix “van” or “van der” does not necessarily denote nobility. The word “van” can just mean “from”, i.e. that your family originally came from a place. The Dutch painter Kees van Dongen, for instance, most likely has family roots around the town of Dongen.



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About thomaswensing

Architect and Activist. Over the years I have become increasingly aware that I need to actively engage with the issues I care about. My passions and irritations are many and change often, but a red thread is always a deep concern over the fact that capitalism does not work as it is claimed it does, democracies only serve the needs of the few and environmental resource depletion and pressures continue to mount. I think it is time for citizen's activism to create pressure, to bang on the doors of established powers and interests until we get it right. As you will notice, if you continue to follow my blog over time, there are certain fetishes I have; modernism, social housing, the avant-garde. I propose to recuperate the Modern Project from the dustbin of history and re-establish the link between social engagement and architecture. Watch it all come down needs to be followed by let the good stuff blossom!

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