I am writing this piece at a time when access to art is very limited: museums and art galleries are closed; and plays, operas, and other music performances have been postponed or canceled due to coronavirus. As much as I appreciate many virtual gatherings around the arts, they are not perceived in the same authentic way when experienced from home. Yet on one of my many walks around the neighborhood, I have realized that the art of architecture has remained relatively accessible. As I admired closed gothic churches, libraries, houses, and many other buildings in the city, I began thinking of all the hopes and stories behind them and of all the architects that had realized them.
My work as a processing scholar of Richard J. Neutra’s correspondence in the CFPRT combined my passion for 20th century architecture–especially that of Eastern Europe and Russia–with my interest in special collections and archival work in general. Richard J. Neutra (1892 – 1970) was one of the most influential architects of the 20th century. Find out more about him in our finding aid for the Richard and Dion Neutra Papers.
The project came with as many unexpected challenges as it did rewards. The biggest challenge was preservation of print materials that had sustained water damage prior to coming to UCLA. Materials that were moldy required freezing and vacuuming, so the decision was made to reach out to the UCLA Library Conservation Center for guidance. We were informed that since I was working on preservation, it was paramount to use a special hood when vacuuming as well as a mask and gloves to avoid any contact with mold. Moreover, because some materials were in such a poor shape, tools more advanced than a vacuum needed to be employed. As a result, some materials were successfully preserved, some were so damaged that preservation became impossible, and those in need of more advanced equipment and technique are still waiting their turn.
I developed a peculiar relationship with mold. It was tragic to see the damage it has done to printed correspondence, documents, blueprints, photographs, film, and advertisements. At the same time, however, it wasn’t something I have ever seen before. I was mesmerized by the shapes and colors through which mold manifested itself. I also noticed that some kinds of paper were more susceptible to mold than others. It was a lesson in patience, attentiveness, and care for the preservation of historic documents, most of which existed in a single copy.
Figure 1: An example of a document damaged by mold
Though there are still documents that need to be tended to, the fastmoving timeline required me to move forward with the processing of the correspondence.
Letters exchanged between Richard J. Neutra and his son Dion Neutra with the clients of the firm allowed me to enter backstage and view the intricacies of planning and designing someone’s new residence, a church, a school, a hospital, a museum, and many other projects both in and outside of the United States in countries such as Venezuela, Pakistan, Italy, Belgium, Austria, and others. One was a story of Ms Quandt, a librarian who commissioned Richard J. Neutra to design a house in Apple Valley, CA. It is worth quoting some of its passages here to see how exactly a place of residence is born out of a desired lifestyle.
“In my [Ms Quandt’s] new desert home, as here, my daily program during the school year will follow a rather set pattern, for my position as librarian of the Apple Valley Junior High School will demand more of my waking hours than will my home. Nevertheless, despite the necessity for routine and a schedule of activities designed to get me to my work, my home will mean a place of beauty and serenity, where I can move freely about inside and out enjoying the view and romping with my dog. It will be a place of refreshment to mind and body.”
In addition to describing her way of living, Ms Quandt described her weekends as well. “During my weekends, however, I like to read, listen to music, watch some television, bake, and write letters in addition to caring for the garden and playing with the dog. I anticipate that at Juniper Springs in the summer Miss Crowell and I shall swim frequently in the Sky-Hi Ranch pool and entertain family and friends. We shall walk in the hills, watch birds, and take pictures.”
Stories like this one of Ms Quandt’s are the stories I now think about whenever I stroll down the streets of my own neighborhood. I imagine the care with which different houses were designed by architects like Richard J. and Dion Neutra who paid much attention to their clients’ needs and desires.
It is also important to note that although the correspondence largely consists of typewritten letters and agreements, it also includes many mid-20th century advertisements. They immediately transport you to the time when technology looked very differently. It is not at all like the washing machines, fridges, and other appliances that we have today. Thus, CFPRT projects combine both the historic past and the archival tools of the present in order to introduce young professionals to a world of special collections.