Sarah Lorenzen AIA, has been Resident Director of the Neutra VDL House since 2008. She is now stepping down from her duties as Director this year. Without her leadership, it is unlikely that the Neutra VDL House would exist in anything like its current form. Indeed, it is probable that it would no longer exist at all. Her role in the physical restoration of the building and its development as a venue for arts programming has been remarkable. Delirious LA is happy to be able to interview Sarah as she prepares to move on from her position as Resident Director of the Neutra VDL House.
You have been Director of the Neutra VDL House for over a decade and are stepping down this year, how have the priorities of the Directors position evolved during your tenure?
People are always surprised when I tell them that there was no real programming at VDL when I took over as director. We started the tours, the artist-in-residence series, and all the other events that are now features at the house. Note that I will use the term “we” throughout this conversation, because my husband David Hartwell has contributed to all the activities and restoration projects for which I often receive sole credit. The reality is that we have shared the responsibilities of directing the Neutra VDL House. Our efforts as a team, have been a key part in the development of the house as a cultural venue in city of Los Angeles.
In terms of the evolution of our priorities during our tenure at VDL, we began by sounding the alarm about the poor state of the house. When we arrived in 2007 the house was in disarray. All the roofs were tarped, interiors were in very bad shape, and the gardens and planters (an integral part of the architecture) were lifeless. There were no sources of revenue to repair things. One of the first people I contacted to disseminate our need for help was Orhan Ayyuce, who was then an editor at Archinect. He wrote a piece explaining our situation and became an advocate for the house (and a dear friend) in the process. Many others (too many to list here), came out to help including Linda Dishman (from the LA Conservancy) and Leo Marmol. Raymond and Dion Neutra (sons of Richard and Dione Neutra) were both also involved in different capacities. Raymond helped with fundraising and outreach and Dion consulted on our restoration efforts. Raymond also took on writing the Historic Landmark nomination, which the house received with help from congressman Adam Schiff. Early on, Lauren Bricker and I, set up a course where students were trained to serve as docents for the Saturday tours. These tours are still our principal source of revenue, and are very effective in telling of the story of the house and describing its unique architectural character.
The artist-in-residence program came about when I was pitched an installation project in 2010 by artist Santiago Borja. The project he proposed was very compelling, and he created a giant loom on the roof of the house. After that installation, we decided that contemporary art at the VDL would be a great way to breathe new life into the house. In the ten years that followed we continued to pursue restoration projects as we developed the cultural and arts programming. Many of the cultural and arts programs have been collaborations with other institutions, including the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design. We did events with many well-known figures in the LA architecture and art world, including Mimi Zeiger and Pilar Tompkins Rivas. Over the years, we have continued to pursue the fundraising and programming missions at VDL, both of which became easier as time went on, as the house (in its role a cultural institution), became more widely known.
You have witnessed many artists, designers, critics, and educators use the House as a context for their work over the years, what are some personal highlights of yours from the past decade of programming?
My favorite exhibition was “Competing Utopias,” which we curated with Justin Jampol and others from the Wende Museum, and filmmaker Bill Ferehawk. The exhibit looked at the loss of purpose of the artifacts, objects and the spaces of the VDL House. The exhibit’s premise was simple, we took the original furnishings, books and objects out of the Neutra VDL House and replaced them with similar items made in East Germany and other countries in the former Soviet Bloc that belonged to the Wende. The stipulation was that the objects from the Wende’s collection would be from Ca.1965, which was roughly when the VDL II House was occupied. We have struggled with the term “house museum” because it implies such a static reading of the house. It is the problem of preservation in general, which requires that we present the house as existing within a particular time period. This fictional nature of the “house museum,” creates what are in fact “period rooms,” and the fallacy of this concept made this exhibition from the Wende so wonderfully relevant to us.
The Competing Utopias intervention replaced the “standard” fiction of the house with a new fiction that could never have happened, but that fit perfectly within the house. What made it so odd, but also pleasurable for visitors, was that we didn’t label any of the Wende’s collection objects so visitors were free to interpret or misinterpret the house and its history at will. The house looked more lived in than it has at any time since the Neutra’s lived there. There were toys on the living room floor, clothes laid out next to a suitcase on the bed, food and alcohol in the cupboards, and toiletries in the bathrooms. I believe we introduced over 2,000 items into VDL, all from the Wende. It was as if the fictional family that had inhabited the space during the 1960’s had just walked out. The critic Dora Epstein Jones described moving through this exhibit as “like through a non-narrative film, which was also the product of cold war, a kind of end of medium. The words are dislocated, things are dislocated, and there is a production of fiction.”
I was also really taken by the performance art piece “Case Study” by artist Stephen Lichty and Neil Marcus, accompanied on piano by Daphne Honma, which only ran for one weekend. Marcus and Lichty both have a neurological disease, which impairs their movements, and their art work offered a new way to understand and engage people with disabilities. The event began with a piano piece in the downstairs music/conference room, the audience then moved upstairs. During the performance, Lichty supported Marcus (who’s movements are extremely restricted) with his own body and together they performed a mutually enhanced dance in the upstairs living room. This was definitely the most striking and moving piece we’ve had at VDL.
How do you envision the future of the house and its role in the community of Silver Lake?
I am very happy that the house is in much better shape financially and physically, but I am most proud of having created a cultural space for the neighborhood. It is amazing how many people come to our events and openings. For our current installation by Shio Kusaka curated by Douglas Fogle and Hanneke Skerath, over 500 people came through the house on the opening day. It is a bit chaotic to manage so many people through the VDL, but everyone was incredibly respectful. I love seeing all the Cal Poly Pomona alums (many of whom were docents before they graduated), colleagues, and neighborhood regulars at these events. One local resident, told me how much she loves coming back to see the house transformed in novel ways with every new artist. Most of our visitors are tourists, primarily interested in the architecture and history of the house. They likely come once to take a tour on a Saturday. But local Silver Lake residents, and local (meaning greater LA) architects, artists, and critics come back over and over. That is why doing these events and exhibitions is so important. My hope is that this programming will continue when I step down.
An important aspect in how we run the house is that all our events are free (or had a very minimal fee) and are open to all. In a world where access to these kinds of houses (both private and public) is reserved for those with means, we took the opposite tack. I have often joked that you were invited to stay at VDL if you were doing interesting work and couldn’t afford a hotel room in Los Angeles. Given that the Neutra VDL House is run by CalPoly Pomona, which is a public university with a mission to be as inclusive as possible, I think it is very important to reflect those inclusive values in all the programming that we do. I sincerely hope that the incoming director will continue to perpetuate these principles as the Neutra VDL House moves into the future.