Kaufmann Desert House (1946)

Kaufmann Desert House is an instantly recognizable classic of Modern Architecture. A perfect marriage of glass, stone, and steel the house is a triumph of modernist ideals and post war exuberance.

Richard Neutra, Kauffman House, entrance

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Richard Neutra

Designed by Richard Neutra the house was commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. as an escape from the harsh winters of his native Pittsburgh. Kaufmann was no stranger to important works of architecture as 10 years earlier he commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design another getaway home for him, the epochal Fallingwater. Completed in 1946, the Kaufman Desert House was an instant sensation with the five-bedroom, five-bathroom vacation house becoming an important catalyst that kick started the post war surge of Modernist architecture in and around Palm Springs.

Info source: https://www.mcmdaily.com/the-kaufmann-desert-house/

The Kaufmann House is one of the most famous buildings by Neutra, who was a key figure of the modernist architecture movement. He was lauded for designing homes that were tailored to the warm California climate, using ample glazing, boxy constructions, light facades, and outdoor living areas. The architect championed the importance of “ready-for-anything” designs that have open, multi-use spaces, and coined the concept “The Changing House” for an article he wrote in 1947 for the Los Angeles Times newspaper.

Richard Neutra, Architect

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Born in Vienna in 1892, Neutra studied under architects Adolf Loos, Max Fabiani and Karl Mayreder. After serving in the Balkans in the Great War, he practised with landscape architect Gustav Ammann in Switzerland, and then Erich Mendelsohn in Berlin.

In 1923 he moved to the US, where he worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and close friend Rudolf Schindler. Neutra started his own practice in 1930, where he designed many Californian homes based around simple geometry, clean lines and airy construction. A handful of his projects are located in Palm Springs, which – thanks to its location two hours east of Hollywood – became a hotbed of modernist architecture during the mid-20th century. Movie stars and celebrities in the 1950s and 1960s hired architects to build contemporary weekend residences that were in vogue at the time.

Richard Neutra, Kauffman House, 1946, Photography by Julius Schulman

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Info source: https://www.dezeen.com/2018/02/16/richard-neutra-kaufmann-house-desert-architecture-palm-springs-modernism-week/


The home was commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr as a desert retreat from harsh winters, and was built in 1946. It was made famous by the 1947 photos by Julius Shulman. After Kaufmann died in 1955, the house stood vacant for several years. It then had a series of owners and had several renovations. These renovations enclosed a patio, added floral wallpaper to the bedrooms and removed a wall for the addition of a media room; additionally, the roof lines were altered with the addition of air conditioning units. In 1992, the home was rediscovered and purchased by a married couple: Brent Harris, an investment manager, and Beth Edwards Harris, an architectural historian; at the time it had been for sale on the market three and a half years.

Kauffman House back yard

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The Harrises purchased the home for US$1.5 million, then sought to restore the home to its original design. Neutra died in 1970 and the original plans were not available, so the couple brought in Los Angeles architects Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner to restore the design. For clues to the original design, the Harrises looked through the extensive Neutra archives at UCLA, found additional documents through Columbia University and were able to work with Shulman to access some of his never-printed photos of the home’s interior. They were able to obtain pieces from the original suppliers of paint and fixtures; they purchased a metal-crimping machine to reproduce the sheet-metal fascia that lined the roof.

Richard Neutra, Kauffman House, with the typical Utah’ rocks

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Additionally, the Harrises were able to have a long-closed section of a Utah quarry reopened to mine matching stone to replace what had been removed or damaged. To help restore the desert buffer Neutra had envisioned for the house, the Harrises also bought several adjoining plots to more than double the land around the 3,200-square-foot (300 m2) house. In October 2008, the house was listed for sale at US$12.95 million.

Info source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaufmann_Desert_House

House structure

The design of the house is quite simplistic; at the center of the house is the living room and the dining room that is the heart of the house and the family activity. The rest of the house branches out like a pinwheel in each of the cardinal directions.  From the center of the house each wing that branches out has its own specific function; however, the most important aspects of the house are oriented east/west while the supporting features are oriented north/south.

Richard Neutra, Kauffman House, Plans

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The north and south wings are the most public parts of the house that connect to the central living area.  The south wing consists of a covered walkway that leads from the center of the house to the carport.

The north wing is the guest’s quarters that are publicly accessible, but retain their private needs as they are separated from the rest of the house.  The west wing of the house is the service wing, which is fairly secluded from the rest of the open plan design.  The east wing is the most privatized aspect of the house as it is the Kaufmann’s master suite.

Kauffman House garden

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The house’s swimming pool is one of the most iconic and recognizable aspects of the Kaufmann House; however, it is not solely a photographic gem or simply a recreational feature.  The swimming pool creates a compositional balance of the overall design of the house.  The house alone is unbalanced and heavy as the wings are not equally proportioned, but with the addition and placement of the swimming pool there is a cohesive balance and harmony throughout the design.

Richard Neutra, Kauffman House pool view

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The low, horizontal planes that make up the pinwheel design bring the house closer to the landscape making it appear as if it is hovering above the ground.  The floating effect is emphasized through a series of sliding glass doors that open up to cover walkways or patios. The way in which Neutra designed the Kaufmann House was such that when the sliding glass doors were opened the differentiation of interior and exterior was blurred as if it was a sinuous space.

Richard Neutra, Kauffman House, Interior living room

Image source: http://www.marmol-radziner.com/kaufmann-house-interiors/

The flow from interior to exterior space is not simply a spatial condition rather it is an issue of materiality that creates the sinuous experience. The glass and steel make the house light, airy, and open, but it is the use of stone that solidifies the houses contextual relationship.  The light colored, dry set stone, what Neutra calls “Utah buff,” brings out the qualities of the glass and steel, but it also blends into the earthy tones of the surrounding landscape of the stone, mountains, and trees.

Info source: https://www.archdaily.com/104112/ad-classics-kaufmann-house-richard-neutra


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