The early 1930s proved a dazzling time for Richard Neutra. The decade began with the architect receiving widespread acclaim following the completion of his path-breaking Lovell Health House in 1929. In 1932, he was included in the seminal MoMA exhibition on modern architecture, curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock. Shortly after, in 1934, he won first prize in the House Beautiful competition.
He was, according to Taschen’s Neutra: Complete Work “winning on every front”. And so, it is fitting that this was the year that he began work on the house of Ukrainian born American actress Anna Sten and her husband, and fellow Ukrainian, Eugene Frenke, the very same house that would win him the House Beautiful award.
Samuel Goldwyn had brought Anna Sten to America in the hope that she would become the “Russian Garbo”, this proved difficult in the new talkie era but she was soon able to establish herself and bring her husband Eugene to accompany her. As European émigré’s themselves they felt quite at ease indulging in the kind of house that was still yet to really take hold in America.
Situated on the Pacific Coast, in the Santa Monica Hills, the Sten-Frenke House is a distinctly Hollywood House. Not only was it home to movie stars but as recently as 2002 it was featured in the Hollywood-oriented film Laurel Canyon. But more than anything, it is the distinctive layout that really underlines this central aspect of its character.
Most notably, rather than being at the back of the property, the white concrete pool is situated at the front. To get to it, one descends a series of formal landscaped terraces. In this way, the house is the audience to the primary activity going on at the poolside.
The aim was to have the actress and her coterie on display amid their daily privacy, an interplay that is underlined by the front walls, now changed to white from their original light grey, which are rounded, so as to obtain a larger view.
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The house bears a striking resemblance to the aforementioned Lovell Health House. More famous in its own right, the earlier design involved Neutra having to invent a completely new building process, which he had taken from his experience working on steel-framed skyscrapers in New York and Chicago.
It was an innovation that he was evidently pleased with, since the steel grid is clear to see again here, albeit this time utilised more for the effect it has on emphasising the pool area.
However, the glamorous aspect of Sten and Frenke’s lifestyle was far from Neutra’s only concern when designing the Sten-Frenke house. He was also sensitive to his clients’ specific Slavic sensibilities.
When considering how his house should correspond to its owners, Neutra described the actress Sten as loving nature “not as an American sports woman but in a more contemplative, Slavic way.” And so, the house was also specifically oriented to take advantage of the views of the Pacific Coast from a tranquil vantage point.
Photos via Marmol Radziner
After having had only two owners since it was built, the house was recently renovated. The designers have clearly gone to great lengths to minimise the transformation as the images convey a setting that stays very true to its glamorous origins.