A Missing Piece of Modernism: Uncovering the Dramatic Story of Richard Neutra’s Lost Windshield House

Elissa Brown’s directorial debut film, “Windshield: A Vanished Vision,” is an intimate look into her grandparents’ collaboration with modernist architect Richard Neutra.

Sydney Franklin Sydney Franklin

In the film “Windshield: A Vanished Vision,” the great modernist Richard Neutra is quoted saying: “Building millionaire mansions cannot be the taste of modern architecture. Modern architecture is to improve the life of the working class.” And yet, as the story goes, the Austrian-American architect’s career would be characterized by creating iconic homes for the West Coast elite. One of his first major commissions, documented in this film, details Neutra’s intimate collaboration with the ambitious East Coast art historian John Nicholas Brown II.

Determined to build a house for his family that rivaled its modernist contemporaries, Brown asked Neutra to design a 14,500-square-foot aluminum and steel structure in the quiet, familial community of Fishers Island, New York. More than a passion project, the building — ironically named Windshield — became an obsession for both Brown and Neutra. When it was destroyed by a hurricane just weeks after completion in 1938, it was a personal tragedy for both men who were looking to elevate their statuses as forefathers of American modernism.

More than 40 years after the rebirth and eventual second death of Windshield by fire in 1974, documentary filmmaker Elissa Brown — the granddaughter of John Nicholas Brown — reveals extensive, previously undisclosed footage of her family and Neutra, allowing viewers to sink into the sad fate of this quasi-modernist, monumental house. “Windshield: A Vanish Vision” expertly conveys the sense of idealism both men maintained while building the house and the unimaginable despair that came with its structural failure. Using a lecture from her father, former National Gallery of Art director J. Carter Brown, as the central narration of the film, Brown weaves together voices in architectural history and personal accounts from both her grandparents and Neutra to piece together this honest, fascinating and profound glimpse into the past.

In anticipation of Palm Springs Modernism Week, where the film premieres today, Architizer spoke with Elissa Brown about the film, her family’s history with Neutra and Windshield itself — the beloved mid-century modernist house that is now physically erased from sight, but not from memory.

Sydney Franklin: When your producer, Joanna Dattilo, first approached you about making the film in 2009, what was your initial reaction? In what ways were both of your visions for the film realized?

Elissa Brown: Joanna started working on the film in 2001 after seeing my father’s lecture about the house. When she reached out to me to see if I’d like to be involved, I was skeptical of how to make a compelling doc about a bunch of dead people and a building that no longer exists! However, after I did some archival research with her, I became really fascinated by the challenge.

Years later, when it became clear that she was indefinitely stalled on the project, I asked her if I could take a stab at it myself, and that’s when it became a personal story. Even though my dad’s lecture was her original inspiration, she didn’t think it would work in the film, but I felt strongly that his personal connection was the way to make people care. I think the final version hits on most of the intellectual themes she wanted to include but also satisfies my need to flesh out characters.

Preliminary Plot Plan for John Nicholas Brown House by Richard Neutra in colored pencil

The film is different from other documentaries you’ve worked on, not only because it’s your personal story, but because it includes mostly old footage of your subject. As your directorial debut, what were your goals for the structure and aesthetic of the film?

The biggest point of departure for me was subject matter, having previously been involved in social issue films. I have always loved architecture and design; I majored in Urban Studies and count films like “My Architect” as reasons why I ended up in this field. But I still struggled at first with the fact that this was more about scholarship than saving the world.

As for structure, my main goal was for it to flow and make sense! I had never intended to edit it myself, but I found that all those long hours were the best way for me to arrive at where the story truly lay and decide which of the many highs and lows deserved the most focus. Aesthetically, I was somewhat limited because I knew that it didn’t make sense to reshoot Joanna’s talking head interviews and that the only way to make the film visually compelling and unique was to rely on as much of my grandfather’s footage as possible. In a way, that was a bit of a gift for a first-timer because I had clear boundaries to work with, but I’m also chomping at the bit to more fully explore aesthetic options from scratch in my next film.

Speaking of the footage, what was it like for you personally to unearth the rich video that your grandparents shot throughout their lives?

It was amazing! Until Joanna sent me all her hard drives, I actually had no idea how much footage he had shot. Obviously the scenes that pertained to Windshield directly were really helpful, but overall it gave me this incredible opportunity to discover my grandparents through what they chose to document about their own lives, and I had a chance to imagine and project a whole life for them that had never been clear to me previously.

Perspective view of the John Nicholas Brown Windshield House by Richard Neutra in colored pencil, graphite and gouache

Your grandparents worked so intimately with Richard Neutra on this passion project. In the film, you make it clear that Windshield was a pivotal part of Neutra’s career. After its destruction, he went on to create some of his most enduring projects. How were you able to get to know him through your research?

Knowing that anyone could give an account of Neutra’s life and career, I decided it would be too hard to contribute something new, and so I chose to focus on a story only I could tell, which ended up centering more on my grandparents. I loved getting to read both sides of their correspondence, though, and Neutra’s two sons told some wonderfully revealing stories about him that unfortunately I wasn’t able to weave into the film. The architecture experts in the movie also shed light on him for me, and I found myself particularly intrigued by the idea of Neutra’s struggle between what he thought was the appropriate role of Modernism in society versus what he was actually designing in Windshield. Neutra was a shameless self-promoter but also believed strongly in his ideals.

The building itself is a central character in the film. Watching Windshield’s death (in both instances), it was easy to feel the devastating loss that your family and Neutra experienced. Looking back, how do you view your family’s history with this project and what feelings come up for you when you visit the vanished site?

Given my grandfather’s upbringing and how stodgy that generation seemed, I’m consistently surprised that he wanted to build a modern house at all. Part of the fun in making the film was trying to get inside his head and understand his motivations for commissioning something so radically different from what he was used to. He loved the house and was really proud of what he and Neutra had accomplished together.

Not having a real career of his own, the design process and close collaboration gave him the chance to feel more professional and also to explore a new aesthetic sense. I think the project itself meant as much to him as the finished product, which probably made the destruction even more devastating because it must have felt like that much more of a personal failure. When I finally visited the site I was shocked by how connected I felt to the land and how conflicted those emotions were, simultaneously sensing all the really happy memories my family had there and, of course, the deep losses.

Interior Perspective (Music Room) of the John Nicholas Brown Windshield House by Richard Neutra in colored pencil and graphite

Your father, John Carter Brown, was obviously greatly affected by his parents and their love affair with Windshield. An interest in architecture and art runs in the family. How do you perceive the world, in particular the built environment, because of your background?

I am extremely lucky to have grown up with the exposure to art and architecture that I did. My father believed strongly in learning through osmosis and had this great philosophy in museums that you should see a few things well and then leave before you suffered from “visual indigestion.” Given his job as director of the National Gallery of Art, nearly all of our vacations were based around trips that he needed to take to secure an important loan for an upcoming exhibition, and as a result, I had access to some of the great art in the world as a child.

In terms of the parallels between my father and I and our formative experiences with architecture, my “Windshield” was the East Building of the National Gallery. My dad had so much fun working with I.M. Pei on that design, and I was able to get to know that building in a way that most visitors never could. My life now is a little different — I live in an old Victorian in a small town in Montana — but I still love cities, and one of my great joys when I visit them is seeking out new and interesting buildings to experience.

Do you think that telling this story in some ways redeems the hard work that Neutra and your family put into Windshield? If there was one thing viewers could take away from seeing this film, what would it be, in your opinion?

One thing I was very conscious of in making this film is that it not glorify the building, which I really don’t think was a masterpiece. Despite my grandfather’s best intentions, his requirements for the house got in the way of it being the “important monument in the history of architecture” that he had listed as one of his primary objectives. What I found more compelling than the end result was the human story that offers a close look at an unusual relationship and collaboration between client and architect, especially at the moment in history when they were working together and residential modernism was only just finding its footing in the United States.

Even though the movie takes place 80 years ago, I hope audiences today will find value in understanding the collaborative and creative process through these two personalities.

Images courtesy of Rhode Island School of Design