As an architect, my life has been governed by the goal of building environmental harmony, functional efficiency, and human enhancement into the experience of everyday living
- Richard Neutra
The Kaufmann Desert House, situated in Palm Springs, Southern California, was designed by architect Richard Neutra and built between 1946 and 1947. The house was conceived as the perfect summer retreat, set amid a breathtaking desert landscape, and has come to be regarded as one of the finest examples of the mid-century Modernist house ever built in the United States.
Approached from a distance, the Desert House maintains a very low profile, rising only marginally above the desert in which it sits, and yet this is in fact a sizeable house, with pool, guest wing and servants' quarters. The house is a constructed as a series of horizontal planes appearing to float over transparent glass walls, and as a result the structure has a very light and transient presence. Furthermore, Neutra's choice of materials (dry-joint stone walls, stucco finish) and reluctance to stray from the desert colour palette allow the uncompromisingly Modern building to integrate entirely congruously with its surroundings.
The house is arranged over two levels, and the upper of these is little more than a sheltered roof terrace. Despite the resulting low-lying stance, the composition of the house is strongly three-dimensional, the vertical dynamics remaining just as vital as the horizontal - enhanced perhaps by the slight slope in the terrain and the siting of the pool at a somewhat lower level than the house.
In plan, the Desert House consists of four wings, pin-wheeling out from a central chimney, which provides a focus and an anchor for the house. The wings are bounded by little more than the sliding glass walls, allowing the interior space to flow continuously into the exterior patios. This movement, along with the roof terrace and the poolside, elegantly obviates the distinction between inside and out, and between house and landscape - an effect which seems entirely apposite in the context of a summer house, and indeed one amid a dramatic setting.
Neutra's client for the Desert House was Edgar J. Kaufmann. A department store owner, and clearly a man of considerable taste, it was Kaufmann who a decade earlier had commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, perhaps the most famous private house in the world1. In turn, the Desert House took on a similarly iconic status to its predecessor, becoming - not least through the highly evocative photography of Julius Shulman - a further symbol of the 'American Dream.'
Richard Neutra was born in Vienna in April, 1892 and studied architecture in Vienna and Zurich, before emigrating to the United States in 1929, subsequently working as an assistant to Frank Lloyd Wright himself. Having settled in Southern California, Neutra developed 'an especially appropriate regional architecture, adding a new dimension and direction to the several regional design systems in that area'2.
Later in his career, Neutra completed commissions for office developments, churches and cultural centres - however, it is his houses for which he will continue to be best remembered: alongside the Desert House, major commissions included the Lovell Beach 'Health' House3 (Los Angeles, 1928) and the Tremaine House (Santa Barbara, 1948). It was through these houses that Neutra introduced the international style of Modernism to the United States from Europe, arguably paving the way for the acceptance by American clients of seminal building designs by fellow Modernist architects including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. The Kaufmann Desert House is held to represent something of a pinnacle in Neutra's career - it is the complete house, and a truly elegant response to context and surroundings.
Richard Neutra passed away in April 1970, and by the mid-1990s the Kaufmann Desert House had been extensively modified by works carried out by successive owners in the decades since it was built. Large extensions had been built on, almost doubling the size of the house and significantly compromising the spirit of Neutra's work.
Happily, the decision was finally made by rather more enlightened owners that the house should be returned to its original condition. The refurbishment was carried out between 1994 and 1998 in the more than capable hands of California architects Leonardo Marmol and Ronald Radziner, who took as their guide Julius Shulman's famous 1947 photographs. The later additions were removed and the garden was reverted to the indigenous desert planting which Neutra had intended. The addition of a largely concealed heating and air-conditioning system brought the house up to contemporary living standards while compromising none of the architect's vision. The refurbishment won numerous awards for Marmol Radziner - but more importantly, the Kaufman Desert House has finally been allowed to serve as a fitting legacy to the career of a Modern master.