The Kaufmann House is one of the most photographed and iconic example of Mid-Century modern architecture. Ten years after he commissioned to Frank Lloyd Wright the Water Falling House at the Bear Run Nature Reserve, Edgar Kaufmann wanted something different for his new house in a arid lot near Palm Springs. Kaufmann decided to ask Richard Neutra, a former employee of Wright, who’s work was considered to have a lighter touch than the work of his former boss: perfect for Palm Springs, a town better known for frivolity than morality.
Since the 1920s, the city at the foot of Mount San Jacinto drew Hollywood types seeking a getaway. Albert Frey, Le Corbusier’s protg, built his own house here in 1940; Neutra’s tiny Miller House was completed in 1937, but the $348,ooo, 3,2oo sq.-ft. Kaufmann House reigns today as a grand Modernist villa, a recently landed silver aircraft on a green carpet weighted down only by carefully positioned boulders on this “moonscape,” as Neutra called it.
The wild desert area surrounding Palm Springs intrigued Neutra. He wanted to bring back the spirit of the flat-roofed with mudbrick boulders houses from the early inhabitants of the nearby ‘desert states’ New Mexico and Arizona. In a way Neutra brought a polished version of those houses that responded to the punishing climate.
Though both Falling Water and the Kaufmann House share a use of stone masonry and a floating weightlessness, Neutra emphasized his architectural distance from Wright in that his buildings were “made, not grown.” He “inserted” the house into this harsh backdrop. lt was “set on footings,” whose juxtaposition of artifice and artificial climate underscored “the weather, the silver-white moonlight, and the starry sky.”
The Kaufmann villa became one with the site without losing taut quality, which was the signature of Neutra’s earlier work. The result was that space is divided by shiny horizontal planes sliding above transparent glass. The chimney is the only pronounced vertical element of the house, that flanked the rooftop space, or as Neutra called it “the gloriette”.
Neutra’s original drawing of the pinwheel floorplan reveals other contrasts. Using loose curves, the landscaping percolates through the orthogonal design. In contrast, taut parallel lines drawn on the diagonal represent the high winds and sand storms so common at the northern end of Palm Springs. This move animates the drawing but also reflects reality: the winds from the northwest are relentless, blasting whatever they can carry into the house even today, despite the upgrades, louvers, and solid walls. (And though having so much unprotected glass on the dwelling’s south side may seem perverse in the desert, the house was to be used for one month a year–January.)
The house plan has the living area as hub and the pinwheel provides that the four arms of one-volume rooms get enough daylight and ventilation. At the end of each arm there are bedrooms -for the hosts, servants, children and guests- providing privacy but also revealing a specific social order. The dwellers could only gather along the shaded walkways, common inside areas or outdoor spaces.
Neutra thought in his design about comfort for the future users. Examples of this are the louvers flanking the long, dark lily pond that connected the guest wing to the rest of the house. This patio was water-cooled and protected to sand storms. Furthermore there was a radiant heat – placed in the low seating wall – which would guarantee warmth during a pool party on chilly evenings.
The floating effect of the villa was possible because of the structural system that combined wood and steel in such a way that the requisite vertical supports are minimized. This is shown best in the south east livingroom, whose glass and steel walls open while the roof and the beam supporting the sliders dissapear. It appears this way that the villa is linked with the pool while fusing the outdoor with the indoor space. This effect, know as the “outrigger” detail, became eessential for the villa: the spider leg that became the fluent connection between the landscape and the building.
A second strata of contrast is manifest in the materials: the light-colored, dry-set (mortared from behind) “Utah buff” stone Neutra used indoors and out creates a rich chiaroscuro effect, complementing the smoothness of the other finishes. However, even the stonework is carefully chiseled, both in the original -for which Neutra trained the masons who had worked on Falling Water, whom Kaufmann had flown in- and in the five-year restoration by the new owners in the mid-1990s.
Details make the difference and Neutra knew it. In the Kaufmann House the gutters -at their eastern end- suddenly become much narrower just before they terminate. In this way they allow any overflow rainwater to flow east beyond the building before it falls below; a feature of typical Japanese gardens and medieval cathedrals but also an homage to the Falling Water House.