On Neutra and Narrative

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Writer David Plick’s interview with Peter Tolkin and Sarah Lorenzen for “The Value of Architecture.” (August 19, 2017)

Three weeks ago The Value of Architecture had the pleasure to host a Twilight Event at Richard Neutra’s VDL Research House II, a designated National Historic Landmark. It was there where we had the pleasure to meet Sarah Lorenzen, AIA, a professor of architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, and partner at the innovative Los Angeles firm, Peter Tolkin Architects. Sarah has been spearheading the renovation of Neutra’s VDL House for the past ten years, and during the event she shared with us some of the work she’s been doing at her firm. Immediately we became enormous admirers.

This is an exciting time for Peter Tolkin Architects. In the coming months the firm will be breaking ground on a pilot project for the State of California in collaboration with Southern California Edison to test the feasibility of a “Zero Net Energy Building”—a building that is off the grid. The project, currently entitled 245 ZNE, and located near Los Angeles’ Gold Line, will be a small medical office. The firm will test the building’s pioneering features, and report data back to the state. 245 ZNE, which features a fabric façade shading structure, a VRF air conditioning system, and photovoltaic panels and batteries on site to store energy, exemplifies the approach of Peter Tolkin Architects—a firm that is simultaneously scientifically innovative and artistic, engineering and design-focused, yet still process-oriented and creative.

Sarah Lorenzen and Peter Tolkin took time to speak with us about Los Angeles architecture, Richard Neutra, modernism, and the role of narrative in their creative process.

TVOA: Sarah, how has the experience been restoring Neutra’s VDL House?

Sarah Lorenzen: It’s been a highly collaborative process. Marmol Radziner helped us with this pro bono since they have a lot of experience in restoring Neutra. We also worked with Cal Poly Pomona architecture students, and some of it my husband and I did ourselves. The city also came out to help us. The LA Conservancy and Linda Dishman were instrumental in helping us to get funds. We had all kinds of people helping: Neutra’s children, a lot of different preservation groups, many architects, many donors, many manufacturers.

The goal was to follow the interior’s standards of restoration and make sure that everything that was original in the house that could be salvaged was just cleaned up and put in, and anything that had to be replaced was replaced with exactly the same materials. The only thing that we altered were the roofs because they had leaking problems. We replaced them using contemporary high-end roofing technology, and they still look exactly the same on the exterior.

The VDL House is also a lab for our architecture students at Cal Poly Pomona to learn historic preservation and the legacy of modernism, the history of Richard Neutra, and to speak to the public about what architecture is and what it isn’t.

TVOA: Were either of you influenced by Neutra when you began your professional careers?

Sarah: Not really. I wasn’t. My interest in Neutra was circumstantial. Since then I would say that it has had a big influence on me, but I wouldn’t say that I started out with a big interest in it. I came out of, and I’m sure Peter did too, a period of education more focused in postmodernism. It was a different kind of education, really not observing the legacy of modernism, but looking at how to overturn it.

Peter Tolkin: I grew up with a father who I would say is a modernist architect. So I was exposed to Neutra at a very early age, but I also think Sarah’s right that there was a critique of modernism going on when we started our education, and I think it still continues today. At the same time, there was a resurgence recently in the marketplace of mid-century modern in major design publications. I think we’re a part of that, but also with a slightly different relationship. What I find more interesting is contemporary architecture—it certainly absorbs the lessons of modernism but also takes it from a slightly different position.

TVOA: How has midcentury modern filtered into your designs?

Sarah: There are a few things. One of the tenets of midcentury modern is the idea that we should have a more relaxed life, connect the inside and the outside, and maximize the use of outside spaces. Also, the notion of dematerialized architecture—when the focus is on not containing spaces but making the most out of the site, connecting the site to the larger environment. I think those things are particularly relevant in California, because of the climate but also the lifestyle. And I think that remains. A lot of the work we’re doing here connects to the landscape and takes advantage of the site itself.

Peter: There are distinct differences though, between our contemporary approaches and midcentury modern. Neutra’s approach, what he sought to embody, was scientific and economic rationalism. In a way the social mission that’s a part of that rationalism is still really important and active, but today there’s been some questioning of that rationalism. Our work is not purely rational. We do seek to create a sense of openness of freedom with our work, but because the constraints are different in our time period, the designs are different.

Sarah: The formal language the architecture has taken has also changed, and so has the thought process.

Peter: Also, because of technological advancements, digital design, for example, we can build in ways that weren’t possible before. And a lot of these ways aren’t purely rational. They could be expressive. They could incorporate sustainability.

There’s a whole new system of rules now too with current zoning codes and laws. So, the things that were done during the heyday of midcentury modern couldn’t be done today unless you were working in a historical preservation like Sarah’s doing with the VDL House. For example, windows today have to be dual paned, which changes the relationship to the light coming in the house, the relationship between inside and outside. Also, the amount of drawings that architects had to do during Neutra’s period to build a house is a small fraction to the amount that are required today.

Sarah: The other thing about technology that’s a little bit different, particularly with Neutra, was the material palette he used. He purposely used inexpensive, off the shelf products. These are products that are readily available but that could be assembled in an interesting way. The goal wasn’t to make unique products. And in some ways, that’s continued in architecture. But the advent of technology has made people interested in what’s possible, like with new fabrication techniques. Our bicycle shed was an inexpensive, off the shelf product, but it’s also using fabrication technology that allows you to bend the material in a certain way to create a new geometry that wouldn’t have been possible before. It’s not using the product as a raw product, but manipulating it to become a new and different shape, a new extraordinary expression of a material that used to be ordinary.

Peter: We can use tools to do something special, something that’s customized, but not handmade. There are just so many possibilities that architects can explore.

Sarah: Also, one of the goals of modernism was to create a universal language, a common culture and style that modern humans share, a globalized architecture that would apply to all people. It was supposed to be exportable.

To some extent that is still true—we live in a globalized world. But there’s also an interest in saying that architecture is a cultural industry, one that is influenced and inflected, either from resources or artistic traditions, from all different parts of the world. The work in this office is primarily interested in being of the time, being contemporary, but we are also interested in how borrowing from other cultures, not appropriating them, can inflect the design in some way.

Peter: We work towards trying to have some kind of synthesis. There’s no such thing as a universal global architecture. That was what they tried to do with clothes. I think that the best work we’ve done, and are trying to do, somehow does take various influences and internalizes them which comes out in the work in some expression or the way it’s actually made or feels. For instance, an early project where I was influenced by another culture was Saladang Song.

I wasn’t making a Thai pagoda or lifting a motif and putting it on a building. I really tried to look at how a culture could inflect a building but also how it could transform the way we make it. In that case it was a tilt up building, something commonly used in Southern California back to the 1920’s, but also we used technology, such as using lasers to cut steel, to incorporate patterns into the facade. With those two elements coming together, everything becomes transformed. I think that transformation is critical. In Southern California there is a prevalence of an attempted presentation of some other culture. And it’s just appropriated, but not transformed. We try to be open to all the experiences that happen when you work in a city.

TVOA: On your website you have a section for the stories of your projects. What’s the role of narrative in architecture?

Peter: I don’t exactly know what the role is, but I know that it’s been a way of generating the work on some level. It allows for an entry point to the experience of a building. At the same time, I think that buildings are experienced differently, often subconsciously, as opposed to a narrative in a movie or book or telling a story to a friend. When people experience architecture, they try to untangle it. They start to look at the structure, and there’s a moment when the pieces come together.

The best work transcends the boredom of reading a sentence. It’s something you experience and feel.

Sarah: It’s also our interest in the culture of architecture, the fact that we’re looking at so many sources, so many inputs into the design process. To manage all those inputs, to string these elements together, you need to construct a narrative.

Some architects rely on a coherent style, something that’s recognizable project by project: they’re always white or a certain shape. For us, we’re always taking as many influences as possible, but then for us to be able to manage all those inputs, we need to construct a narrative.

The stories on our website are capturing the design process for the public, but even internally in the design process, a lot of it is about constructing a narrative that will allow us to move forward.

Peter: That’s an important difference, Sarah mentioned, that a lot of architects have their signature that they do from one project to the next. This office, by contrast, is more interested in the project becoming what it wants to become, rather than being predetermined by an aesthetic outcome. It causes problems from a marketing standpoint because the client doesn’t really know what they’re going to get. So, a lot of the clients we get tend to be rather adventurous. They have to be wiling to go on a journey. For instance, the Sherman Residence is a ranch style house coupled with modernity, and a new project, the Branch House, might have the same elements to it, but I’d say it’s much more contemporary.

But if you look at many of the arts, I think there is a logic and coherence from project to project—you just have to understand that it’s a process-oriented way to get to that logic. If you look at different artists, musicians and filmmakers, the story or song might be different, but the way they tell it could be the same.