Resurrecting Richard Neutra: Xavier Veilhan on His VDL House Interventions

Xavier Veilhan's "Mobile (Neutra)," 2012
(Courtesy Xavier Veilhan. Photo © Joshua White ; © Veilhan / ADAGP, Paris, 2012)

Richard Neutra’s former home, the VDL Research house, is leaking. The Viennese immigrant, an icon in modernist architecture, built the house on Los Angeles’s Silverlake Boulevard 80 years ago for his family of five — he, his wife Dione, and their three children. Since then, the glass house, with its rooftop balcony and gardens, has fallen famously into disrepair. The roof needs patching. The estate’s pools lie empty. “If you leave anything unused for a while, then it’s incredible how it fades so quickly,” French artist and short-term VDL tenant Xavier Veilhan, told ARTINFO.

The state of the VDL house has set Veilhan on a mission. Empathizing the transformative effects that the Golden Coast can have on a European — he being a Frenchman, and Neutra, an Austrian — Veilhan has actually moved into the deteriorating house to “reactivate” this landmark of modernist architecture. During his five-week sojourn, Veilhan has not only moved his family in, he’s installed a series of design interventions called “Architectones” throughout the estate (a far cry from the palace at Versailles, where he placed similarly site-specific installations, on the grounds and inside, in 2009).

 

The show takes its name from a series of architectural sculptures by Kazimir Malevich, as Veilhan attempts to foster an active dialogue between his artwork and the existing environment, paying homage to the man who built it. The sculptures represent the duality of Neutra and his work, according to Veilhan: VDL is at once a private residence and public landmark, a real-time experience and historic relic. The openness of its façade is a perfect example of that modernist seamlessness between inside and outside.

The pieces are both two-dimensional and sculptural, solid but abstract, artistic and architectural. Many of them are cut-out silhouettes inspired by anecdotes from Neutra’s children about their father. The ground floor features carpet cut-outs of shapes significant to his life — the state of California and the nation of Austria. A sculpted black banner, seemingly waving in the wind  behind a black model of a Cessna airplane, represents the high-flying, leisurely California culture based on grandiose signs. The banner’s lack of message is what Veilhan describes as a “proposal to the viewer, a blank void that you can fill with a certain feeling.”

Veilhan spoke to ARTINFO about his project, Suprematism in 3-D, and the challenges of breathing life into an ailing icon.

Are you actually, really and truly, living in the Neutra House right now?

Yeah!  It’s been a long trip for me. I arrived 5 weeks ago. My family joined me here ten days ago.

And is it comfortable?

Yeah, very. It’s not a place you think you would live in. It’s more a place you would see in books. It’s not related to the idea of a space that you have in a normal house. You’re both inside and outside. It doesn’t have a scale, so it makes it very interesting. It was very difficult to capture the size of the house, and I’ve been making quite a few mistakes. It’s a very confusing space; there’s a lot of play with mirror reflections that allows you to see some very strange angles. Like you bounce maybe five different mirrors off of one another and it allows you to see outside while you’re sitting in your bed.

Is there a surreal quality to living in a house you’ve read about so often in books?

The experience of living in a place is very different from knowing it in theoretical writing. It’s when you live there that you take a shower and you open the fridge, so there are some functions that are not abstract at all, and you have to enjoy it in the small details. It was surprisingly easy to live there.

The VDL fallen on difficult financial times in recent years — the roof, I hear, is leaking. How does living there compare to creating installations in at Versailles?

The thing is, after Versailles I didn’t want that much to deal with issues of scale. The scale there is so amazingly large that I used Google Earth instead of using plans. One of the reasons I was interested in doing these things is that these are privately owned places. VDL was Neutra’s own house. What’s also interesting is that it’s a template for modernity. It’s not grandiose; the lot is quite small, and it completely avoids the idea of scale and magnificency. Do you say that? Magnificency?

No, I don’t think that quite translates. Maybe you mean extravagance?

Yeah! It’s so modest. You can really see the house as a machine. He lived most of his life in these rooms at the end of his career, when he had heart problems. There is an old system of switches in the house and could control remotely.  And the rooms are built more like boat cabins. Everything is built in, and they’re rather small.

After this, you’re scheduled to make installations in Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #21, on the roof of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseille, in Claude Parent and Paul Virilio's St Bernadette du Banlay Church, and the Melnikov House in Moscow. What sparked this modernist mission?

There is a limit to the art, even if I’m doing large-scale pieces. Often, art is quite disconnected from the architecture, especially in these white cube situations.  Everybody is always confused about meeting people and forgetting their names, because we don’t know where we met them; it’s something that happens especially in white cube situations, whether in Paris, New York, or Tokyo.

What I want is to connect my art with architecture that has a very strong personality, and those places are so beautiful to me that it makes it more difficult to add something without destroying it. On the other hand, if I manage to do that, I can capture the strength of the place, and it gives a special impact to my work.  

Let’s talk about the sculptures themselves. Based on your previous work, especially your installations at Versailles, they look very different from what I expected — much more two-dimensional than geometric.

The pieces are really at the junction of many different impulses. I like going to the site first. It’s the starting point. I stayed, actually, in the Neutra house in January, and I read a lot and looked a lot at documentation on the Internet. I talked with a Neutra specialist and also to the Neutra kids, which was extremely interesting. Not only was it his story, it related to the family life and their experiences as kids in that house.

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Is that why you brought your family?

I wanted to stay as long as possible, so it was a good way to combine my family life. It was a practical thing. In this special case, I wanted my family to be involved. We lived in the house. We cleaned it. They appear in some of the pieces. We’re a family of three kids, teen-aged now, and it’s a little bit of the same thing: Neutra also had three kids, and so we kind of replayed Neutra’s life as a European coming to the U.S.

So you’re playing house.

Yes! Now, the shape of the work integrates anecdotes that Raymond and Dion Neutra, the last two living sons, told me about their father. I completely randomly and arbitrarily reinterpreted those stories because I was interested in the articulation between the person as an architect, their father, and the more public and theoretical part of his identity. So, it’s very much about this private house that turned into a public monument. The show is like pointing out how those two parts fold together.

Can you share some of the stories with us? What inspired the flag sculpture, for example?

I can tell you about the flag, but it's not really based on a specific story. But the "Blue Flame" piece, that's a small statue of Richard Neutra sleeping in a car that looks like a rocket. That was an idea of modernity, to win the world speed record on the ground in the Bonneville Salt Flats [in Utah]. The “Blue Flame” won in 1970, the exact year Richard Neutra died, and the reason why I put this reclined or sleeping Neutra in this rocket is that because Neutra, as Raymond told me, loved to travel in Los Angeles from one construction area to another. He loved to recline in the car as a passenger, so he could look at he sky and make sketches. Most of the time his wife Dione drove the car, a very special kind of car called the Nash car, where you could completely recline in the front seat.

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When you install interventions in historic landmarks like this, how do you tailor the pieces to the environment while simultaneously respecting what already exists there?

I think one of the key things is not to be academic and to try not to work like an art historian, but with a central feeling for the material or for the story of the house. As a European, I really found that I understood Schindler and Neutra, both coming from Austria, and what it was like for them coming from cold Europe and arriving in cool California. It’s funny, Neutra was a mysterious and serious person, but at the same time, he was very interested in the relation to nature and the development of psychological studies, and so he was very laid back. It was the contact with the West Coast. I tried to identify in my own feelings something close to what they might have felt and develop it again. The main difference is that you can’t recreate modernism today like they did at the time. I’m not sure it’s possible anymore. 

Why is that?

The ideology that you see in  le Corbusier, Neutra, and Melnikov — they wanted to make a kind of a living template for everyone, but everyone preferred to live in traditional houses that don’t have the quality of these modernist houses. They never succeeded in this model of architecture, but in a way, I have more sympathy for this because of this failure. I love the fact that it’s relatively modest, not made with grandiose gestures, and that it’s so beautiful. 

Modernism, to me, has always evoked an idealism and optimism like no other movement.

The first time I came was only a few years ago, but it was before having this idea of doing this architectural project and I was shocked because I’m a museum person; I love to look at art, but when I was presented with those houses in real life, ones that I knew from photographs and books, I had such a strong aesthetic shock. Once, with my kids, I entered a house. When the owner opened the door, it was so beautiful, I got a real strong shock, and my kids made fun of me because I was so stunned. I thought, "I have to make something out of this feeling."

Xavier Veilhan's "Architectones" is on view at the Neutra VDL Research House through September 16. To see his installations, click the slide show.

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