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A half-told tale

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review - Richard Neutra's Miller House By Stephen Leet. Princeton Architectural Press, 2003. 200 pp. £26

This is a likeable little study of one of Richard Neutra's inter-war desert houses. Likeable and little because it reads rather like a student's dissertation, in the way its neat chapters set the scene about the client, the newly widowed St Louis socialite and teacher of posture training, Grace Lewis Miller; about the Mensendiek system of exercises; about the location, Palm Springs; about Neutra and his ante-Miller House domestic work; about the connection between health, hygiene and Modernist architecture, and then the clientarchitect correspondence to which author Stephen Leet has been given access.

But like many such extended university essays carefully eschewing any hint of unacademic popularism, these elements in the story are presented with little colour - despite the photos of women in less than their smalls and a couple of Health and Efficiency-style German blokes (the Mensendiek system involved exercising in the nude and was popular with the Nazis).

These mildly risquÚ visuals clarify the intricacies of the Mensendiek system a little, but their strict relevance to the design of the house is difficult to fathom. Maybe they are over-compensations for the author's curious disengagement from the personalities of the protagonists: Neutra, Miller and, later, the young photographer Julius Shulman.

Other players are left out altogether - like Grace Miller's two lads. And H Grant Wood. He first appears in the text of the introduction: 'She drove west on Route 66 to California, accompanied by her close friend H Grant Wood and her two young sons, tucked in the rumble seat of her new Ford coupe.' Is the author not hoping we might read between the lines, because this trip into the unknown occurs just two months after the death of her husband (whose name we never learn)?

Since Wood appears from time to time later in the narrative, but seemingly as a Palm Springs newspaper person, you really want to know a bit more about him. Was he that kind of close friend? And this being the time it was with regard to the place of women in the home, you wonder if he might not have had some input in agreeing the final plan and hiring Neutra. But you learn in the acknowledgements that the two Miller lads, long grown-up, were particularly helpful in providing detail for the author. Historians of the recent past, unless their courage is steady, can all too easily fall hostage to the perceived sensitivities of their still-breathing sources.

The other missing person is Peter Pfister.

There he is, billed as 'collaborator' in an image from a May 1937 Architectural Record. Yet not a word appears about him in the text. And missing too, astonishingly, despite many pages of footnotes and a bibliography, is an index.

Of timber frame, the Miller House was not very well built. In one of Shulman's photographs you can see bumps in the rendering of what was intended to be a flat, pristine white wall. The contractor went bankrupt not long after it started leaking following a terrific desert rainstorm, and eventually, when Miller had lived in it for only four winters, it rapidly fell into disrepair, as the exclusive resort turned into one of the biggest military bases in wartime California. Yet it is still there - not on the edge of the desert any more but deep in the Palm Springs suburbs.

Sutherland Lyall is a freelance journalist

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