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(image copyright julius shulman)

13 April, 2002

Richard Neutra designed a villa for Luella and Samuel Maslon in the upscale resort city of Rancho Mirage. Samuel died in 1988, Luella in July 2001. They were from Minnesota. This was their winter home.

Escrow on the $2.45 million sale of the house closed Thursday February 28th.

It was sold to Richard Rotenberg, a dashing 45-year-old-old developer who lives in Minneapolis. He is famous for introducing himself to the Minnetonka, Minnesota, City Council saying, “Richard Rotenberg, Beverly Hills, 90210.” He owns a few developments and according to an article written in the Star Tribune in Minneapolis by Jon Tevlin, owns a $1.7 million, 8,000 square-foot house in Emerald Ridge and a home on Rodeo Drive. He owns a black Lexus with vanity plates bearing his initials, a black Land Rover, and a black Mercedes Benz. His divorce papers in Hennepin County were sealed, and he is engaged to be married.

Land for the two lots comprising the site was estimated by local realtors at $1.3 million.

A permit to demolish the house was issued Tuesday March 19th.

Demolition was completed by Thursday evening, March 28th.

In a letter to the Star Tribune, Jim Maslon, son of Luella and Samuel, wrote about “the terrible tragedy that befell our family home … We were totally deceived by Mr. Rotenberg, who never in any way indicated that he would tear the house down …”

[Not a fact] Rumor has it that Rotenberg plans to build a +10,000 square foot mansion on the site.

Narrative: We were returning to Los Angeles from Phoenix and swung south off the Ten freeway in part to see where the six-bedroom villa had lived. I had seen it before, and studied its drawings, a single white stoke floating above the endless plane of a perfect green fairway.

In Phoenix we were fresh, if that’s the word, from seeing the slickest residential development ever, where houses with smeared details are selling at 100 per month. Some front doors were decidedly unwelcoming with their mean width of 2′-8″. Here granite-surround sinks do not face a mountain view, nor are they located where children playing might be under a watchful gaze, typical Neutra moves. Instead the sink looked into a room filled with a gigantic television. The “oak” kitchen cabinets were badly hung, and the particle board baseboards were painted with a matte finish, inviting maintenance problems. Continuing our walkthrough, we were clucked through decorated vignettes by a salesforce armed with brochures about add-ons and “lifestyle.”

Contrast: Neutra assumed his clients led lives of intelligence. He designed lean, strong houses built to last both intellectually and structurally. They were meant to respond elastically to changing family needs. “Lastingness” was one of the qualities he absorbed from his mentor, theorist Adolf Loos, in Vienna. People keep asking what we have lost. One thing is knowledge that things don’t have to be disposable. Perhaps the architectural community has conspired in this, in that we have presented Modernism as a style to be consumed rather than as a set of intelligent questions about intelligent dwelling, about living lightly on the land but never without grace, zest, dignity.

But there’s another thing we’ve lost here that is specific to Neutra, and that is his conviction that architecture could speak in a generic language to meet the needs of an individual. Yes, the Maslon House was a 5,060 square-foot palazzo crammed with art, Giacomettis butting up with Donald Judds. The Maslons’ collection was valued between $24 and $33 million; after Harvard Law School, Samuel had clerked with United States Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis and co-founded a very successful law firm in Minneapolis. The Rancho Mirage house was their second home. [According to the Star Tribune, Rotenberg did not finish law school in San Diego, though he may have completed it elsewhere. People keep wondering whether there was a personal vendetta so vicious it was worth a one million dollar teardown, but Rotenberg so far has said nothing.]

By now, except for a very few, Neutra’s houses are celebrity collectibles. I averted my eyes as the public relations material for my book shrieked, “Tom Ford has one! Kelly Lynch has one! And Leonardo DiCaprio wants one too!” Well, the extra-ordinary thing about Modernism is that everyone YOU NEVER HEARD OF not only has one, but deserves one. The compact little Miller House, designed for a single mother/progressive educator, is just as compelling, if not more so, as the Kaufmann House, designed for one of the most famous patrons of 20th century architecture. Both “lebt noch”, they live still, in Palm Springs. The Miller and the Kaufmann homes were far more custom, more eccentric, more representative of paradigm shifts in Neutra’s career than the Maslon House, which embodied the mature sleekness of a suburban Neutra content to refine rather than to innovate. The Maslon could knock back a fine martini while making you a better one. This wasn’t a masterpiece, just a damn good house.

So every time we lose an example speaking to that kind of “absurd optimism” about changing the world, as architect Renzo Piano put it, we lose a witness to a different conception of dwelling. As a society we prefer fast-food houses whose taste is as perfectly calibrated as a Mcburger. Rudolf Schindler’s spectacular Wolfe House on Catalina Island, whose interlocking volumes cascade down to the sea, is another recent example. But it doesn’t have to be a house or even in America. Slated for demolition now is the 1917 grain silo by Gunnar Asplund, the father of Swedish Modernism. “Over 35 meters high, it stands over the town of Eslˆv like the Eiffel Tower stands over Paris,” wrote Henrik Borge in an urgent petition to save it. (http://www.lagerhuset.nu)

Narrative. We were on the way home on the 10 Freeway, and decided to swing south to see the site.

Legend has it that Tamarisk Country Club was founded by Jews when Gentiles turned their sisters and brothers away. It is a gated community off a couple of dusty, downscale streets, the extremely wealthy protecting themselves against the generic wealthy, famous for residents including the Marx brothers, Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye. I buzzed the gate. Speaking into the little metal box, I told a muffled voice who we were, having little recourse but to state our request to see the site. Inexplicably, the black gate slowly swung open. We drove in, into plump grass and fat trees, the heat and questions of sustainability left behind.

Without the architecture the site was primarily striking in its banality. Architecture changed the site: genius locus absunt est. Now it was just dirty building materials surrounded by fussy houses. We all got out of the car and tramped around, including the dog. I told the dog that if he wanted to pee, this would be a pretty good place to do it. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for territorial marking, just as temporary as a house, as Rotenberg has shown us.

The usual desert sunset, drop-dead trashy gorgeous, was busy streaking pink and red light onto the re-bar sticking up out of the ground, the galvanized pipes, clumps of brown-orange Roman brick hearth, some pieces soot black from 38 years of use. The reflecting pool, as Neutra called one of his trademarks, was choked with debris.

I hoisted two big pieces of the especially used, especially black Roman brick away and put them in the back of the wagon. I gently pulled at the address sign, perfect Gill Sans typeface, silver against a dark brown stained wood, letters spread nicely. I tugged harder, attempting to quietly apply strenuous effort while maintaining a demure scholarly demeanor. I failed. I wondered whether I had a crowbar my convictions about honesty would prevail. “I don’t think you’re the first person who’s tried,” Jason mildly observed, looking at me and the oddly battered sign.

So, that’s that.

Beyond eloquent complaint, it remains to us to preserve and create manifestos, however quiet their tenor, of alternative acts of dwelling. Before we drown in particle board.

    The Forum thanks Echoes Magazine for its kind permission to reprint this edited version of an article from its forthcoming issue.

    The Forum thanks Julius Shulman for his kind permission to use his photograph. Copyright Julius Shulman.