From a series written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. The Perkins house was first broadcast on 29th October. You can listen to the audio here.
If history is the best teacher then there’s a great lesson in moderation and empathy sitting on a hillside in Pasadena, California.
The Perkins house was designed by Richard Neutra seventy years ago and it’s a demonstration of the success that occurs when an architect truly understands what his client wants. Art historian Constance Perkins recognized that she was tenacious and wilful but in Neutra she found a kindred spirit. After the death of her father, with whom she lived, Perkins wanted to create her own private retreat that would also support her work. After intensive research and armed with a small budget, in 1952 she approached Richard Neutra, one of America’s most sought-after architects. Born in Vienna, he studied architecture under Adolf Loos before working with Erich Mendelsohn. That meant doors opened when he moved to America in 1923, and he quickly found work with Frank Lloyd Wright. But it was the stunning home he created for a Californian doctor that propelled his fame. The Lovell Health House was completed in 1929 and became the archetypal American dream for west coast living, with its steel frame, sparkling white walls, and abundant terraces. The glamorous Kauffman house in Palm Springs in 1949, famously photographed glowing in a desert sunset, cemented his reputation. And yet, despite such high-profile clients, Neutra’s Viennese background gave him an interest in low-cost housing and he became a major contributor to the Case Study house programme sponsored by Arts and Architecture magazine in the 1940s, which aimed to highlight affordable design.
His interest was piqued by the forthright Perkins who sent him not only a detailed list of her likes and dislikes but also a comprehensive autobiography. Having worked in Australia and New Guinea during the Second World war, she wrote how she wanted to live again ‘amidst lush green plants and exotic flowers.’ The chosen site for her new house on a dusty hillside in Pasadena was certainly not that. She also wanted the best of modern living – open plan, lots of glass. Neutra was hooked. He had been a close friend in Vienna of Sigmund Freud’s son and understood that a house must always support the client, unlike some architects who imposed their ideas, often souring relationships – Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye being prime examples. The Neutra-Perkins relationship remains a model for all architects. The single-level house is approached by steps leading up from its driveway. It’s crisp and simple, with intersecting planes of roof and wall, and white masonry contrasted with raw wood. Everything is designed to suit Perkin’s demands, from the height of its fittings to the placement of storage. It’s as tailored as a pencil skirt yet it still packs a punch. The sinuous shape of a reflecting pool was inspired by a Miró painting and not only draws light into the house but enters it, slipping below a plate glass window, a very literal connection between outside and in. Luxuriant plantings are balanced by the sharp lines of the house. The open-plan living area leads into a studio space in which Perkins worked and slept, the only bedroom reserved for guests. It’s a modest house without being humble, and Perkins lived there until her death in 1991, a clear sign of the design’s success. She said it was an art object that gave direction to ordered thought. The Perkins house remains a blueprint for the intelligence of its client-architect relations as well as its clever use of space and site, leaving an unpretentious structure that’s resoundingly satisfying.