A Look Inside the Neutra VDL House

A Look Inside the Neutra VDL House

Gregory Han
Aug 6, 2013

Name: Sarah Lorenzen, Associate Professor & Chair, Architecture Department Cal Poly Pomona
Location: 2300 Silver Lake Blvd. (main house) - Los Angeles, CA
Size: 1,100 sq. ft (garden house) / 2,300 sq. ft. (main house)
Years lived  5 years

Hidden behind a sentry of towering decades-old eucalyptus trees, Richard Neutra's VDL Research House was designed as his very own experimental live-work residence in 1932. Behind the foliage curtain, a gradual process of renewal has been unfolding, thanks to the efforts of Sarah Lorenzen and countless architecture disciples drawn to the home's architectural glass and beam pedigree...

The VDL Research House I (named after the home's first benefactor, Dutch philanthropist Dr CH Van Der Leeuw) currently operates as a working/learning center for Neutra and architecture students for Cal Poly Pomona, with the main house preserved/restored in historically precise detail and open to the public for tours (details below) and the back garden house renovated as a residence for Sarah Lorenzen, the house’s current director, and her husband. 

As a nearby neighbor whose apartment windows overlook the VDL's roofline and who has toured the house numerous times, I've often wondered about the livability of the residence. Sarah was kind enough to offer some insight about the VDL's phoenix-like rebirth from disrepair, and what it's like to live within a seminal example of Los Angeles indoor-outdoor modernist architecture.

Can you tell our readers about how you became involved with the VDL?
VDL is owned and managed by Cal Poly Pomona. I was appointed by the College of Environmental Design to serve as resident director in fall 2007.  Since then my husband and I have lived in the back garden house. When we arrived both the garden house and the main house were in poor shape. We have spent the last five years raising funds, working on restoring the property, and developing new programs (tours, lectures, exhibits) to activate the space. 

The house is a tremendous asset for the school. It is an extremely famous piece of architectural history and a monument. Because there is so much interest in the house, it helps to bring attention to Cal Poly Pomona. Architecture students conduct tours of the house every Saturday, which is a great learning opportunity. Students often use the house to do research, and we also hold studio reviews and events at the house. 

The main house has been painstakingly preserved, including original kitchen appliances, automation, and electrical controls.

In the last three years we have had an artist in residence program featuring in-situ art installations by Mexican artist Santiago Borja, French artist Xavier Veilhan, and American artist/architect Bryony Roberts (currently on display until September 7th.) On occasion we also host visiting architectural scholars and architects, including those receiving the Neutra award. 

What's it like living inside a historically significant residence on a day to day basis?
It is a wonderful opportunity to be able to learn from the house. While visiting the house allows one to appreciate the beauty of the space, it is only by living in it have I grown to understand the environment: the complexity of spaces created by the use of reflective surface, the way the house changes with the changes in light, the forethought that was put into making it an easy place to live and work.

Are there any unusual quirks or details only evident to someone living in the VDL?
The reflections on the mirrors and glass can be quite confusing. It takes time to figure out exactly where the shadows and reflections are coming from, which can make it seem like there is someone walking around inside the house when in reality it is someone by on the street. One of the most intriguing features of the house are the reflecting pools, located on all three levels of the house.

Visiting the house in 1997, Los Angeles Times architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote of the rooftop reflecting  

The effect is mesmerizing. Gazing towards the sunset from the penthouse, your eye travels across the reflecting pool over a sliver of land to the glimmering lake. Looking back from the sun deck, the effect is equally transparent; your eye bounces along a series of reflected planes – glass, mirrored wall and water – or straight through the room to the greenery in back. Sometimes the effect of lightness is overwhelming enough to make you queasy.” (Jan 30, 1997)

The main house is preserved and furnished with original pieces designed by Richard Neutra for the house. Could you share which pieces you've chosen to furnish the garden house where you reside?
It's a mixture of Design Within Reach (couch, dining chairs) and CB2 (living room chairs), Chilewich carpet, wood flat files given to me by my old firm Lord, Aeck, and Sargent, Dining Pine table (unknown), Regency Ball and Claw Foot side tables, magazine basket (notNeutral, Rios Clementi Hale Studios), framed photographs by David Hartwell and Michael Calderwood, Rodolfo Nieto etching.

In 2011 David Hartwell and I released an iPad App about VDL. The app includes a history of Neutra, the construction process, and a description of the house. The app also has a list of all the materials and systems used in the house. The app is available on iTunes.

Information about visiting/touring the VDL Research House: The Bryony Roberts exhibit at the VDL is currently open on Thursdays 3-7pm, Saturdays 11-3pm, and Sundays 11-3pm for the duration of the show (July 13 - Sept. 7 2013). Large Groups (10+) can tour the house by appointment (available only on Tuesday or Thursday.) Cost is $10.00 per person. 

Thank you, Sarah!

(Images: Gregory Han; Jaime Kowal)

• HOUSE TOUR ARCHIVE: Check out past house tours here.
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