Neutra unbound



New York Times/April 21 2002: “In a move that has stunned, outraged and saddened admirers of modern architecture, the city of Rancho Mirage, Calif., recently approved the demolition of an important 13-room house designed by Richard Neutra in 1963. Neutra, who died in 1970, helped introduce the International style to America, redefining architecture in the 20th century with a series of remarkable residential pavilions. His houses are now cherished in the same way as Frank Lloyd Wright’s—as testaments to a uniquely original vision and a particularly pivotal moment in design history.”


Reno has done it differently. Two rare Neutra buildings (most of his structures are in California) are disappearing from Reno not through demolition but by being smothered. The recent addition of glass boxes to the west side of the Church Fine Arts Building at the University of Nevada, Reno, has further minimized Neutra's original design for that building. And farther south, his design for the Centennial Coliseum—now the Reno Sparks Convention Center—seems to have disappeared as completely as its name. Additions to the building appear to have swallowed it up, obliterating its exterior from view.

Born in Vienna in 1892, Neutra was trained there, and also in Switzerland and Wisconsin. He arrived in the U.S. and took citizenship in the 1920s. In 2011, Architectural Digest said, “Neutra (1892–1970) was a prophet of clean, crisp modernism, and his houses, most of which were built in California, have inspired countless architects and emboldened preservationists in an area of the country notoriously quick to raze landmarks. And why not? As Time eloquently observed, ‘Their beauty, like that of any sea shell, is more than skin-deep—practical, not pretentious.'” One of Neutra's structures became familiar to movie fans when his Lovell Health House played the role of the home of “Pierce Patchett” in the movie L.A. Confidential.

Not all liked Neutra's modernist designs, but their importance was recognized and his two Reno designs were once a point of local pride. He was so influential that Reno structures he did not design were sometimes cited by the National Register of Historic Places as Neutra-influenced. For instance, of the now-demolished Union Federal Savings and Loan building at Court and Sierra streets, built in 1959, the National Register reports, “The UFS&L has been compared by architectural historians to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan designed by Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander in 1958. The USF&L's most distinctive details were brises-soleil, first employed in modern architecture in 1933 by Le Corbusier on the Maison Locative Ponsik in Algiers. Brises-soleil are exterior vertical panels that move with the sun and provide heat or shade to the interior of a building.” The USF&L was torn down to make way for a courthouse expansion.

The Rancho Mirage and the Gettysburg Cyclorama in Pennsylvania, both demolished, are listed as “lost” Neutra structures. It's not clear whether obscured but still existing structures fall into that category.