We just couldn’t leave summer behind without one last Neutra.
One of only three homes designed by Richard Neutra in the Palm Springs area (the other two being the Kaufmann House and the now-demolished Maslon Residence), the Grace Miller House remains one of the architect's most deliberate and utilitarian residential spaces. Completed in 1937, just as the architect had gained international fame for his work in and around Los Angeles, the house was an experiment in customization, a design dedicated to modernism's programmatic possibility. His first commission in the California desert, the Miller House may seem unremarkable in size, but its design, a small machine for living wholly devoted to Miller's daily routine, reflects the unique relationship between architect and client and the complex process of constructing a modern home.
In the winter of 1936, just two months after the death of her husband, St. Louis socialite (and historian!) Grace Lewis Miller left the Midwest for California. A practitioner of the Mensendieck system, a posture improving exercise technique developed in Germany during the 1920s, Miller wanted a winter home and exercise studio in the experimental enclave of Palm Springs, a place she hoped would welcome her unconventional program. After arriving in the desert town, Miller hired Richard Neutra, a visionary that shared her belief in the mental and physical benefits of well-designed architecture, to build a small home and studio. With a budget of just $5,000, the pair set out to create a house that was completely customized to Miller’s lifestyle.
Located on a two-and-a-half acre piece of property, the 1,100-square-foot house is defined by its unusual program and sparse landscape. A minimalist box with reinforced concrete walls trimmed in aluminum and framed views of the surrounding desert (unfortunately now obstructed by development), the Miller House is a successful combination of Neutra's modern machine aesthetic and his client’s therapeutic goals. On the interior, an open floor plan influenced by Japanese tea houses (the architect visited Japan in 1930) offered flexible space for both living and training. The open, airy environment promoted mental and physical health while providing plenty of natural light and privacy to its occupant. A creative and functional design, the Miller House responded to the desert climate with a panel of north-facing windows for light and ventilation and wide overhangs on the south and west for much needed shade. Artful and forward-looking, the house is a complete reflection of Miller's routine, a thoughtful and detailed architectural response to one woman's philosophical and physical needs.
Though the Miller House might not be the most formally innovative Neutra design, it does offer insight into a unique architect/client relationship. Sharing an affinity for the modern aesthetic and the belief that architecture plays a role in improving the human condition, Neutra and Miller worked together to construct a desert home with a truly modern psyche. Lengthy correspondence between Miller and Neutra demonstrates a complex design process steeped in mutual respect, idealism, and the complex cultural conditions of the era. In the commission for Miller's home and studio, Neutra successfully weaved his own theoretical modernism with his client's progressive attitude, resulting in a highly personal and enlightened work of art.
You can read more about the Miller House and the Neutra/Miller relationship in Stephen Leet’s Richard Neutra’s Miller House (2004).
Image at top: By Ilpo's Sojourn (Miller House in Palm Springs) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
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