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Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs was designed and built in 1946–1947, although some sources claim that the preparatory contact between client and architect occurred in 1945. The house exemplifies Neutra’s approach to designing a house and its surroundings as a single, continuous environment, a concept he had begun to work with in the early 1940s. Other examples are Neutra’s Nesbitt House (1942, Los Angeles) and the Tremaine House (1945–1948, Montecito). The Kaufmann House is an early example, and one of the clearest, of a post–World War II southern Californian modernism that closely integrates the building with its environment. For Neutra, however, the house also symbolized a universal type of dwelling for difficult-to-settle environments.
Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. (1885–1955) and Liliane Kaufmann (1889–1952), Neutra’s clients, had been patrons of modern art and architecture for many years, mainly in the Midwest, where they owned a department store in Pittsburgh. Until they commissioned the Desert House, the Kaufmanns had been loyal patrons of Frank Lloyd Wright, who had designed an office for E. Kaufmann inside the department store (now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London) and Fallingwater near Mill Run, Pennsylvania, both completed in 1937.
The Desert House stands in the northern part of Palm Springs, where the lower slopes of Mount Jacinto meet the plain of the Coachella Valley. Neutra responded to the flat site with a pinwheel floor plan whose four wings follow the cardinal directions. The house is entered through the southern wing, which is oriented perpendicular to the street. The spaces of the entrance passage hint at recurring design themes of the house. Visitors first follow a short, irregular pathway that traverses a small, landscaped area with boulders and desert plants. They then enter a straight walkway leading to the full-height glass entrance door. On its left side, the walkway is delineated by a wall faced with dry-set Utah sandstone; a cantilevered roof offers shade. To the right, the view goes across a lawn with interspersed boulders toward an outdoor swimming pool. Behind the sandstone-faced wall Neutra placed a car garage and a secondary entrance into the western wing of the house, which contained the service spaces and servant quarters furthest west.
The central hub of the pinwheel plan is the living area to the right of the entrance hallway. Floor-to-ceiling sliding glass panes along the right side and the far end fill the room with abundant light, unless the curtains are pulled, and, depending on the weather, open it to the outdoor swimming pool. Forming the center of the room is a fireplace set into a wall, as well as an adjacent sofa. Behind the fireplace a passageway leads along another full-height glass wall to the eastern wing, which accommodates a master bedroom with bathroom, a dressing area, and a small study or den. A covered, outdoor walkway leads from the enclosed living area along a low water channel, or lily pond, to two guest bedrooms in the northern wing. Except for a series of vertical, pivoting aluminum louvers that are mounted above the water feature and offer, when turned into the closed position, some protection from the winds blowing down the mountain on the western side, the passageway is open to the elements. Along its eastern side, the walkway widens into an outdoor terrace between the living area and the guest rooms. Neutra created another outdoor seating area by placing a lookout pavilion above the living area of the otherwise one-story building. The pavilion’s western and northern sides are lined with the same aluminum louvers as used below, while the other two sides are left open. Neutra named this elevated room a “gloriette,” a northern European Baroque term that denotes an elevated pavilion offering views of a garden or a landscape.
The variety of spaces, ranging from enclosed to semi-enclosed to open, transcends any traditional distinction between indoors and outdoors in favor of a continuous, human-made environment. The palette of materials, which include, for example, steel, glass, concrete, Utah sandstone, and aluminum, underlined the artificiality of the house; Neutra emphasized in his writings that this house, like any other, was inserted into its location rather than growing out of its site. Moreover, the new environment was designed so that its occupants could fine-tune its features for physical comfort, most notably the radiant heating and cooling systems for the concrete surfaces of the outside terraces. Lastly, within the hostile desert surroundings the new environment was to be a safe one as exemplified by the mirrors Neutra installed in unexpected places, which allowed the inhabitants to scan their immediate surroundings. Among the most prominent roots for the Kaufmann House’s design characteristics was Neutra’s interest in Wilhelm Wundt’s late-nineteenth-century physio-psychology but also his own prolonged experience of nature’s malevolence while serving in the Balkans during World War I.
The Kaufmanns used the house mainly as their winter residence, relocating to Palm Springs during the colder months. After 1964 two subsequent owners altered the house, increasing the square footage from approximately 3,200 square feet to just over 5,100 square feet, which compromised the original design. In 1993, the house’s current owner hired Los Angeles architectural firm Marmol and Radziner to return the house to its original state by relying on many painstakingly researched original materials and production processes. The architects also designed a pool house located to the west of the swimming pool.
The Kaufmann House is privately owned and cannot be visited. Only the entrance front is visible from the street.
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