“I am an eyewitness to the ways in which people relate to themselves and to each other,” wrote architect Richard Neutra, “and my work is a way of scooping and ladling that experience.”

Neutra had come to Los Angeles in 1925, launching a career that continues to define modern architecture. In 1932, he built a home and office which he named the VDL Research House. The title reflected the experimental nature of its design – not as experiments of personal expression or the artistic flair of an architect, but in the careful consideration of how space could be shaped by studying those who use it.

In this case, the focus of that study was himself. Drawing on concepts from fields such as biology and psychology, the goal was to showcase what could be done for comfort within a restricted space (the lot itself was 60 feet by 70 feet). The building would be designed, and refined, as he and his family lived in it. 

Dione Neutra, an architect who happened to be Richard Neutra’s wife, also worked on the house, along with their son, Dion. Dione described the house in 1970:

With the many glass surfaces, mirrors, pools that reflect trees and flowers, every step from room to room, stairway up and down, is an aesthetic and artistic experience, which I have the good fortune to enjoy, while I move about the house and watch the changing weather.”

The space evolved as they lived within it, becoming a habitat that reflected the way they lived.

The Fantasy of the Hut

Fast forward almost a century, and a fitting passing of tradition is taking place in the same home. Since October 2016, the Swiss Chapuisat brothers, Gregory and Cyril, have been living at the VDL Research House, now the property of California Polytechnic State University. It’s an artist residency in which they brothers are building the residency as they live in it, building a piece they call “CORNERSTONE.” 

The Chapuisat brothers’ work has invited visitors to experience work that touches boundaries of architecture and sculpture for more than 16 years. Working with cardboard, concrete and sometimes several tons of wood, their work harkens back to the organic, natural world.

“Our work reveals the fantasy of the hut,” Gregory writes. It’s an attempt, he says, to “deal with the first shelters and primitive fears.”

For their work at the VDL Research House, the brothers are working with reclaimed dead wood, “removed on request of the fire department from last winter in the northern Californian forests,” they write. They intend to repurpose the wood when the project is finished.

The connection to Neutra is an apt one. Harwell Hamilton Harris, receiving the Neutra Medal in 1982, noted that Neutra’s vision “proclaimed architecture’s role in enabling man to survive technology.”

Surviving Technology

The idea of architecture as a refuge from technology seems lost in an era of smart houses, where novel fabrication techniques don’t merely apply to structures but to a new range of synthetic building materials (even bricks built out of smog). In San Francisco, the redesigned and reopened SFMOMA features fireproof composite panels that push what’s possible in terms of design and safety. 

Developments in 3D printing have allowed the technology to build scale models to build the materials themselves. Printing a house is still out of reach, but printing a wall, ceiling, or facade has already moved into a standard toolkit.

“Online ordering represents a powerful opportunity for architects,” writes David Celanto, “because of its multilayered ability to tender interaction, option visualization, pricing variations, data linking, and statistical analysis of items that generate consumer interest, thus providing a bene?cial feedback loop for product development.”

As software evolves, small changes to plans would automatically update the holistic design. The future promises a strange concoction of unlimited possibilities for architects, paired with the potential for anyone to print their own building from a pre-built set of modular rooms they can browse through on a tablet device. 

All of these movements are fascinating, a complicated and rich mixture of threats and possibilities for the future of living. The Chapuisat brothers’ work reflects a focus on fundamentals: the essence of Neutra’s scooping and ladling.

Living Space

The Chapuisat brothers work on the outside of architecture, and in many ways, they work against it. Their first “building” was made of discarded tree trunks in Geneva, and was meant to serve as a surface for a projection within a friend’s underground art gallery. Jean-Marc Huitorel writes that afterwards, the brothers moved to “co-producing works that, rather than being ‘mirrors of the soul,’ would provide spaces for other people’s experiences, sensations and emotions.”

The work emerges as they live in the space, but unlike architects, the work is intended first to reflect an autobiography of having lived in it.

We live and work ‘in situ‘, in a nomadic way,” Gregory told us, “traveling wherever the projects lead us to in Europe and worldwide, creating a home wherever we are invited to intervene. In our practice of construction, we become hosts and turn visitors into guests.”

If the work they create emphasizes the foundational, emotional and personal aspects of home, then they reflect a concern that overlaps with the needs of architects going back to Richard Neutra’s original vision. It’s a view of living space that stays focused on the small and occasionally eccentric ways that users engage in the spaces they live.

As we approach an era of industrialized custom pre-fabrication and algorithmic design, the Brothers Chapuisat remind us that the spaces we create are a reflection of those who build, imagine, and live within them.

The work is in-progress through April 2017, when it will be deconstructed. Preview events will take place in late January at the Art Los Angeles Contemporary

Photo: Neutra VDL Studio and Residences by DavidHartwellOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.