A decade after Edgar Kaufmann Sr. hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design the renowned Falling Water at Bear Run, he wanted to establish a West Coast base. Not impressed with Taleisin West -Wright’s summer atelier hunkered into the Arizona bedrock- he turned to Richard Neutra, anticipating an equally brilliant voice but a lighter touch in Palm Springs, a town better known for frivolity than morality. (Unsurprisingly, Wright, who had once called Neutra’s work “cheap and thin,” was outraged.)
Within the many residences built between the 20s and 40s in Palm Springs -Including the Neutra’s Miller House- the 3200sq big Kaufmann villa became the most important example of Palm Springs Modernism. A shiny aircraft just landed on a “moonscape”, as Neutra liked to define the area.
The wilderness around Palm Springs, fascinated Neutra. ln his 1927 book Wie baut Amerika he concluded with images of pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona, praising their stacked rooms with rooftop terraces and the ability of mudbrick masses to respond to a punishing climate. Despite the polished precision of the Kaufmann House, it suggests the spirit of the pueblos he admired.
Being aware of inevitable comparisons with the Wright Falling Water House, Richard Neutra highlighted the difference between his and Wright’s approach to architecture stating that his designs were “inserted” in to the landscape and “not grown” there. He liked to create the juxtaposition between the building and the surroundings to underscore “the weather, the silver-white moonlight, and the starry sky.”
Like other seminal 1940s projects, here the volumes relax into the site without relinquishing the taut quality of his earlier work. The Kaufmann House distills space into silver horizontal planes sliding above transparent glass. The only pronounced vertical is the chimney flanking the “gloriette,” as Neutra called it. This is the rooftop space that crowns the house, a man-made mountain peak with a hearth. (As with his own house, Neutra deftly evaded a second-story prohibition by eliminating the gloriette’s walls except for the fireplace and the movable vertical aluminum louvers. Aesthetically, they define a diaphanous plane; functionally, they act as a wind shield. He also had the foundations dug and permits pulled just before a wartime building moratorium began.)
Neutra’s original drawing of the pinwheel floorplan reveals other contrasts. Using loose curves, the landscaping percolates through the orthogonal design. In contrast, taut parallel lines drawn on the diagonal represent the high winds and sand storms so common at the northern end of Palm Springs. This move animates the drawing but also reflects reality: the winds from the northwest are relentless, blasting whatever they can carry into the house even today, despite the upgrades, louvers, and solid walls. (And though having so much unprotected glass on the dwelling’s south side may seem perverse in the desert, the house was to be used for one month a year, January.)
In the plan of the villa the living area is at the centre and the pinwheel provides that the four arms of one volume rooms get enough daylight and ventilation. Except this thoughtful function of the plan, the four arms also reveal a specific social order: Extreme privacy for the host, servants and children at each their own area, while they could mingle in shaded walkways, common inside areas or outdoor spaces.
Not only Neutra provided the Kaufmanns and their guests with inner comfort and privacy but also with a comfortable outdoor space. As an example, the louvers flanking the lily pond created a cooled patio protected by sand storms. The radiant heat -placed in the low seating wall- accompanied the hosts an their guests from the house to the pool guaranteeing warmness during a pool party on a chilly January night; the only month the Kaufmann lived in the house.
The floating effect of the villa was possible because of the structural system that combined wood and steel in such a way that the requisite vertical supports are minimized. This is shown best in the south east livingroom, whose glass and steel walls open while the roof and the beam supporting the sliders dissapear. It appears this way that the villa is linked with the pool while fusing the outdoor with the indoor space. This effect, know as the “outrigger” detail, became essential for the villa: the spider leg that became the fluent connection between the landscape and the building.
The Neutra will to pay homage to the desert environment surrounding the Kaufmann House, it’s also clear looking at the materials he used. Neutra wanted to use the so called “Utah buff” stones to decorate indoors and outdoors -complementing the smoothness of the other finishes- and had them perfectly chiseled by the masons whom also worked at the Wright Falling Water House.
At the southern gutters Neutra thought of a lively detail. There he let the gutters at their eastern end suddenly become much narrower just before they terminate, to create the effect that any overflow rainwater would flow east beyond the building before it would fell on the rocks below. This kind of banal gutters became Modernist gargoyles adept at romance. And perhaps this was small pinch from Neutra towards Wright’s Water Falling House at Bear Run.