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The Most Beautiful Box: Neutra’s Taylor House, Mies, and the “effect beyond four walls”
Posted by barbara lamprecht on 14 July 2011 · 4 Comments
The Taylor House, Richard Neutra, 1964,Glendale. View looking south. Photo by Larry Schaffer.
©barbaralamprecht2011 The text below is based on a talk I gave on Saturday June 11, 2011, for the Society of Architectural Historians, Southern California Chapter, at Richard Neutra’s Maurice and Marceil Taylor House, 1964, in Glendale, California. It was a beautiful day. The full-height glass walls on the north were thrown open so the40-odd people could arrange themselves as they wanted, some standing a little removed on the sheltered terrace or under the oak tree off the living room, some draped on sofas and chairs, perched on the wide hearth of the floating brick fireplace, or sat on the floor. 
Breaking the box, thinking outside of the box, being boxed in: all are phrases that speak to the inflexibility of “the box.” InModernist architecture, however, the right-angled box — at least dissembled and unskinned — was intended to be liberating, not confining. Some of Southern California’s finest “boxes” are a stone’s throw from where we’re sitting: in the Pasadena/Glendale area alone, there is the 1976 Art Center College of Design, by Craig Ellwood and Jim Tyler; Ellwood’s Don and Salley Kubly House, 1964; a host ofexcellent post-war projects by “USC School” architects such as Buff, Straub and Hensman, Whitney Smith, Wayne Williams, Thornton Ladd; and houses by Richard Neutra and his protégés Gregory Ain and Harwell Hamilton Harris. What distinguishes a Modernist box from the rest of boxes in architectural history is that the Modernist box is bigger than its actual footprint, as a Mies van der Rohe (1886 – 1969)anecdote illuminates: As the chief organizer of the 1927 experimental Weissenhof Siedlung housing complex in Stuttgart, Mies laid out the overall scheme, which included houses designed by great names such as Peter Behrens, Walter Gropius, Mies, Le Corbusier, Hans Poelzig, Max and Bruno Taut, Johannes Oud. Mies made a model of the hillside site plan: rows of little white flat-topped boxes, somebigger, some smaller, depending on whether they were single-family, multi-unit, or apartment blocks. Some were free-standing, some were detached, all staggered so that no box lined up with another above it or below it, and all were oriented parallel to the slope of the hill. The deliberately staggered configuration of volumes of different sizes, heights, and distances from one another collectivelydefined the little boxes as unified urban fabric, which a rigid alignment would not have achieved.
Postcard, Weissenhof Siedlung Stuttgart, posted by Rafael Carzola
When a colleague on the organizing committee, a devout Modernist, challenged Mies’s apparently arbitrary scheme as not having enough Sachlichkeit, Mies acidly retorted, “You seem to understand a plan only in the old sense, as somany separate building parcels. The model was meant to convey a general idea, not actual sizes. I believe it is necessary to strike … a new course. I believe that the new dwelling must have an effect beyond its four walls [my italics].”That is, these boxes engaged the outdoors – the landscape, the sky – and other surrounding buildings — in new ways, and do so in ways that required elasticconsideration of how much space there should be around a building. In effect, through the intentionally fluid location of his buildings on the site, Mies was asserting his individual will, acting against Sachlichkeit’s more formulaic and comforting retreat into the “functional.” Obviously buildings throughout history, such as free-standing Greek temples dramatically sited in a larger complex against...