The Neutra Connection

Rehabilitating and honoring famed architect Richard Neutra’s work in Southern California.

Vienna-born Richard Neutra was a towering figure in the international modernist movement that shunned architectural ornamentation in favor of sleek geometry, traded classical marble for glass and steel, and downplayed boxy rooms to create fluid indoor-outdoor spaces. Los Angeles, which became the architect’s home base and inspiration in 1925, was a hotbed of modernist experimentation, with bold architecture that responded to the sunshine and mercurial coastal atmosphere.

LPA’s architects, engineers and interior designers have worked on three large-scale efforts to revitalize and reinforce the master architect’s work, wrestling with the challenges of preserving a design of historical significance while making the buildings relevant for decades to come.

In Garden Grove, California, LPA assisted the Catholic Diocese of Orange in restoring and extending the life of two mid-century modern religious masterpieces by Neutra that were so neglected that church leaders considered demolition. Another LPA team fulfilled Orange Coast College’s modernization needs in Costa Mesa, California by designing a large new classroom-office building, reinterpreting Neutra’s work on the campus during the 1950s.

“Having grown up in a mid-century modernist house in Pasadena, I went into architecture with an awareness of modernism’s sublime yet livable designs,” says LPA Principal and Studio Director Jim Wirick. “It’s easy to make buildings complicated, so hard to make them simple.”

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Reverend Robert Schuller hired Neutra to design a revolutionary new house of worship in Garden Grove: the first drive-in, walk-in church based on the Protestant evangelist’s belief that California car culture was here to stay. When the 22,000-square-foot, glass-enclosed Christ Cathedral Arboretum opened in 1961, it seated about 800 with hundreds more attending the same service in their cars, parked so they faced an outdoor pulpit. Narrow steel columns and beams supported the light-filled church and Schuller moved between his indoor and outdoor pulpits through modern sliding-glass doors.

He also hired Neutra to design the Tower of Hope (1968), crowned by the intimate Chapel in the Sky, adjacent to the Arboretum. Schuller wanted the cast-in-place concrete tower to be the tallest building in Orange County, and with its cross atop a 13-story building, it held the record at 227 feet for a decade. With its floor-to-ceiling glass windows, the Chapel in the Sky embraces a 270-degree view for 140 worshippers.

After the Catholic Diocese of Orange and the Christ Catholic Cathedral Corporation acquired the 34-acre campus and its seven buildings in 2012, LPA architects, engineers and interior designers collaborated with Rob Neal, the Diocese’s representative, on rehabilitation of the buildings, as well as the reflecting ponds and landscaping. To make sure they interpreted Neutra’s intentions correctly, they brought on consultant Barbara Lamprecht, an architectural historian and Neutra scholar.

“When you work on buildings like these,” Neal says, “you climb into the man’s head—and he’s a genius.”

The designers realized that preserving Neutra’s vision was not enough—the buildings needed to become functional and efficient in the modern world.

“Aesthetically, we were looking back to retain Neutra’s architectural character and materials; technically, we were looking forward” in both buildings, Wirick says.

Neutra 3A Neutra 3B Neutra 3C

LPA had nine months to assess, design, pull permits and restore the Arboretum, a breakneck pace complicated by unexpected challenges. There were no pews remaining, as they had been removed in 1975, when the church became a fellowship hall equipped with folding chairs. When workers removed part of an interior wall, the wall began to sway dangerously due to hidden decay.

This structural weakness also threatened hundreds of clear glass panes installed in a rhythmic pattern on the long west and east facades. LPA had to replace 640 panes with slightly reflective, double-pane glass to combat heat gain in summer and help retain warmth in winter. Because the new glass weighed more than the original, LPA worked closely with the curtain wall contractor to find stronger, larger mullions that emulated Neutra’s slimmer ones.

Air conditioning, which the church lacked, was also urgently needed. A roof-mounted system was proposed, but there was concern that putting the bulky machinery on the roof would destroy Neutra’s vision. “LPA would have been excoriated by the architectural community if we did that to Neutra’s building,” Wirick says.

Instead, an under-floor air conditioning system was devised, which added expense but allowed for the preservation of Neutra’s design. “There were a lot of stakeholders in Orange County wondering what kind of steward the Catholic Church would be,” Neal says. “This was an important test for us.”

To install the innovative system, workers removed its concrete slab, then excavated to a depth of six feet. They poured a concrete “bathtub” into this huge cavity, where they later placed the air distribution system, which offers cool or warm air through round vents that church members can control.

Neutra was famously particular about details, including his architectural palette, so LPA hired Patti Grant, an artist and color expert, to match and mix paint on site. Neutral colors were used throughout the project, with one brilliant exception. Studying vintage photographs, the design team discovered that a glazed area had originally been a large exterior panel painted orange. Lamprecht researched the color and found something similar with the name Untamed Orange. She believes Neutra devised this 200-square-foot accent panel—the only pop of color on the entire campus—to draw all eyes to Schuller when he preached in front of it at his outdoor pulpit.

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The adjoining Tower of Hope presented different types of challenges.

“The church was an architectural renovation that we had to address structurally, which is the opposite of the Tower of Hope— a structural renovation and seismic retrofit we had to address architecturally,” Wirick says.

The 26,000-square-foot tower, completed by Neutra’s architect son Dion and architect Sergei Koschin, was in danger of being razed because it would not withstand a strong earthquake. Bryan Seamer, head of LPA’s structural engineering services, devised a system of viscous dampers, like shock absorbers, that were installed on floors two through five in the 13-story building. Seismic forces would be transferred downward to terra firma, but the dampers don’t disrupt the glass-walled, first-floor lobby, overlooking a reflecting pool, or the Chapel in the Sky’s panoramic views. The X-shaped dampers hug the outer walls of the four floors, preserving Neutra’s open plan of 2,000-square-foot, column-free floor plates. LPA also strengthened columns and walls with fiber-reinforced polymer, concealing this work with architectural materials that complement Neutra’s original choices.

The ecumenical Chapel in the Sky and its wooden pews have been restored to sparkle like a jewel box, with Neutra’s clear-glass window patterns animating the room. Architectural rhythms and graceful proportions evident in both religious buildings mattered to Neutra, biologically and aesthetically. “He understood the senses, how we experience architecture,” Lamprecht says. “You have major and minor tempos here that collectively convey a sense of order. Then he’d suddenly introduce a bold gesture like the orange panel.”

Neutra’s interest in the human heart beat or a measurable stride are wrapped up in his philosophy of “biorealism.” He defined it as “the inherent and inseparable relationship between man and nature,” a stance now considered prescient.

Neutra 4A Neutra 4B

Strong connections to nature helped drive LPA’s collaboration in 2009 with Orange Coast College in creating the new 91,000-square-foot Interdisciplinary Building on a campus designed by Neutra and his partner, Robert Alexander, in the 1950s. Tasked with replacing the existing buildings, LPA Design Director Franco Brown and his team of architects, interior designers and structural engineers borrowed from Neutra’s timeless, biorealist ideas, such as enhancing well-being by capturing natural light and cooling ocean breezes.

“Rather than imitate the originals, we asked, how can we honor his ideas?” Brown says. “We looked at his work philosophy and sustainable concepts, which are more relevant today than back in the ‘50s, to come up with Neutra 2.0.”

The new elongated and “kinked” building, completed in 2015, houses the Math, Business and Computer Science departments, providing faculty offices, classrooms, lecture halls, labs, and a computing center; and sunny and shaded outdoor areas for socializing or studying. Clad in colored glass that flickers between gold and honey, the building is arranged for the most traffic on the first floor, while modular classrooms that can be secured fill the second and third floors. A bridge at the second level connects wings and swells into a rounded terrace.

LPA emphasized Neutra’s pioneering indoor-outdoor connections. Outdoor corridors deliver natural light and ventilation deep into the building, glass window-walls frame landscaped views, and the building bends back on itself to form a quiet courtyard.

LPA’s building is a 21st century abstraction and expansion of Neutra and Alexander’s original brick-and-glass classroom buildings, which Brown describes in campus diagrams as linear bars. “We placed these bars high on a concrete podium to collect the ocean breezes and give students access to elevated gardens and social spaces,” Brown says.

For everyone involved in these projects, the collaborations on Neutra’s design stands among the most rewarding work of their career. “Making Neutra’s buildings come alive again was for me pure joy,” Wirick says.

This story originally appeared in Catalyst Issue 2 2019. Subscribe today to receive Catalyst, a quarterly publication that takes a deep dive into design ideas, industry leaders and initiatives.