“Architectones”: A Black Flag Over Silver Lake
When a family moves into a house, they begin to add personal touches that make it their own. If they’re successful interpreters, the history of the house is drawn into their story.
French artist Xavier Veilhan and has family of five are no different, though the house they’ve moved into isn’t a typical fixer-upper. It’s the Richard Neutra-designed VDL Research House on Silver Lake in Los Angeles, an icon of California Modernism.
Throughout the VDL House, Veilhan has installed “Architectones,” a series of statues, sculptures, models and flat silhouettes that he calls “monochrome interventions.” The objects, ranging from a giant Richard Neutra head on the sidewalk to a sleek rocket car in the penthouse, both abstractly and figuratively trace the history of Neutra’s family in the house while more broadly alluding to the tenets of Modernism itself. The name “Architectones” is inspired by the “architectons” of Russian Suprematist Kasimir Malevich, who created numerous figural three-dimensional black and white shapes in addition to his famous “white on white” paintings.
The VDL House epitomizes the lightweight, airy feel of mid-century Modern, and this transparency is enhanced by the strategic placement of mirrors. Neutra was very much concerned with maximum space efficiency penetrating light into the narrowest of spaces and making even the most restricted confines seem commodious.
In some ways, the installation subverts these themes, particularly with its use of the timeworn color of the architect’s uniform and of heavy industry – black. The black aluminum silhouettes in organic shapes (Neutra’s head, Neutra as a boy in a cowboy hat), the apparent heft of the black polyurethane and fiberglass Ford roadster, and the lava-like sheen of the mounted Neutra statue sharply contrast with the clean lines, soft colors and smooth transitions of the house.
At times it also seems Veilhan is claiming conquest – a silhouette of his own family dominates the second floor balcony, and a black metal flag is frozen in a flap over the circular drum of the penthouse. When the exhibition opened, a plane triumphantly flew a black rectangular banner over the house.
Yet there is also subtle reinforcement of Neutra’s philosophy, interests and humanity. Neutra’s own family is depicted not as a light-absorbing silhouette but as a mirror, prominently positioned at the top of the stairs between the first and second floors, echoing the architect’s use of mirrors to make rooms feel more expansive.
A white-gold mobile bounces light around in a way so complementary to the room it’s easy to imagine it was an original design feature. And Veilhan’s choice of thin black aluminum solids makes more sense when it’s revealed that the black metal disc tucked underneath the stairs is original to the house, and not part of the installation.
The silhouette of the cello represents wife Dione Neutra’s love for music (a piano occupies a good portion of the ground floor music room).
The “tonal” part of the installation comes from a soundtrack by Nicolas Godin of the French band Air. While not necessarily redolent of Neutra or the music of his contemporaries, the lilting piano and quietly thumping rhythm of Godin’s music is part of a continuum of smooth music typified by fellow Frenchman Serge Gainsbourg, Mexico’s Esquivel, and others, that goes hand-in-hand with the high Modern axiom of sophisticated living through technology.
The Ford H-Boy car model is a reference to Neutra’s admiration for Henry Ford and the mass-production techniques that first produced cars, and soon after a wealth of ready-made parts for buildings that thrilled the Austrian when he arrived in America in 1923.
The speedboat and “Blue Flame” rocket-car models celebrate the use of advanced technology, which Neutra eagerly deployed throughout the original house, completed in 1933, and its post-fire replacement, finished in 1963. The compact house is shot through with maritime and aviation engineering, with tucked-in swing beds that swivel for cleaning, new-at-the-time synthetic cladding and insulation materials, push-button controls, ultra-thin metal casements and a dumbwaiter.
This isn’t the first or last architectural intervention of Veilhan’s. In 2009, Veilhan placed 11 large-scaled statues of architects on the lawn of Versailles.
And, for one night this summer, Veilhan’s next project surely would have been top-of-ticket for in-the-know Angeleno archi-ficionados (and I missed it, so I guess I am not one of them). The artist reduced Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #21 to its bare essentials. Removing all the furniture, he filled the minimalist masterpiece with white dry-ice smoke, filled the reflecting ponds with black dye, and placed a series of black panels around the entrance, spacing the verticals in a succession based on – what else? – the Fibonacci sequence.
More Modern icons will get the Architectones treatment this year and next, including Le Corbusier’s Cite Radieuse in Marseille, France; Parent and Virilio’s St. Bernadette du Banlay Church in Nevers, France and the Melnikov House in Moscow.
Fussing about with Modernist masters is a risky proposition, but Veilhan is something of an essentialist. By reducing Modern projects to their basic principles, he reveals that dealing in black and white carries more meaning than the simple juxtaposition of polar opposites. A piano has only two colors, but can produce an infinite array of tone, feeling and color if the right person is seated at the bench. A black-and-white tuxedo could just be a suit, or it could contain the complexity of a Don Draper. With a deft artist at the controls, interpolating the primary components of architecture – figure and ground, pen and paper, solid and void – draws out a new array of interpretations of the classics.
“Architectones” runs through Sept. 15 at the VDL Research House.
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