The Villa Aurora in Los Angeles - A Residence for Culture
It was a refuge for Lion Feuchtwanger and a meeting place for German and American intellectuals. Today, Villa Aurora continues this tradition: as a residence for transatlantic cultural interchange.
Enlarge image The Villa Aurora now serves as both an artists' residence and a historic landmark. (© Courtesy of Villa Aurora, Photo: Jon Vidar) Even the name of the street in which Villa Aurora stands, sounds promising: Paseo Miramar. You drive up the serpentines, high into the hills of the Pacific Palisades district of Los Angeles, and gaze back over the headland of Palos Verdes to the Pacific Island of Santa Catalina. There you can imagine how the Jewish-German writer Lion Feuchtwanger (1884–1958) and his wife Martha might have felt, when they first caught sight of this splendid villa at the beginning of the 1940s. Thomas Mann, also a refugee in Pacific Palisades, called the residence, that was built in 1927 in Spanish colonial style, “a veritable castle by the sea”.
When the Feuchtwangers moved into Villa Aurora in 1943, it became the most important meeting place for exiled German intellectuals and their American colleagues: Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler-Werfel, Alfred Döblin, Albert Einstein, Ludwig Marcuse, Bruno Frank, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Arnold Schönberg, Hanns Eisler, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, and Theodor Adorno. Artists and scholars from the most diverse disciplines, united in their rejection of the Nazi regime, gathered at Villa Aurora for readings and musical evenings, for celebrations and discussions. At the time some referred to it as “Weimar on the West Coast”, others even called it a “New Weimar”. Feuchtwanger was one of the few German writers to find a readership during his exile. His novels The Lautensack Brothers (1944), Raquel, the Jewess of Toledo (1955), but above all This is the Hour (1951), a novel about Goya, were very successful in the United States.
Enlarge image Portrait of author Lion Feuchtwanger (© picture-alliance / dpa)
The villa, named after the Roman goddess of the dawn, had always been something special. It acted as the “Los Angeles Times Demonstration House” at the end of the 1920s, a prime showcase example of contemporary high-tech living, before it was transformed into an artists’ residence. In December 1995, Villa Aurora again became a meeting place for German, European and American culture. Continuing its tradition of interdisciplinary debate, up to 16 scholarships are awarded every year in the areas of literature, fine art, film and music in the German-American cultural exchange program. The photographers Tilman Peschel and Thomas Florschütz, filmmaker Marc Rothmund (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days), artists such as Via Lewandowsky or “Eva and Adele” from Berlin, the composers Eliav Brand and Charlotte Seither and numerous writers have already been guests at the villa.
In addition to this, Villa Aurora joins hands with the American PEN Club and the USC Feuchtwanger Memorial Library to present a writer-in-residence award for an author who is currently persecuted in his or her native country (Feuchtwanger Fellowship). This Writer in Exile program draws attention to the worldwide problem of intellectual and cultural oppression, but it also acts as a reminder of the times, when many exiles found refuge in Los Angeles.
Enlarge image While the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library was donated to the University of Southern California, about 20,000 volumes are kept at the Villa Aurora. (© Courtesy of Villa Aurora, Photo: Jon Vidar) Today, Villa Aurora is the only remaining cultural monument that acts as a reminder of German exile in the United States: the houses of Thomas Mann and other refugees are either privately owned or have been demolished. The dilapidated villa was rescued thanks to the initiative of some private individuals, engaged intellectuals such as the journalist and Feuchtwanger biographer Volker Skierka, the former Rowohlt publisher Michael Naumann, the cultural journalist Fritz J. Raddatz and the political scientist Freimut Duve. The conservation of the building turned into a success story in the annals of foreign cultural policy. In 1990, with help from the German Lottery Foundation and the German Federal Foreign Office, the Villa Aurora Association in Berlin managed to purchase the building and have it restored to its original splendour. In 1996 the renovation of this historical building received an award from the city of Los Angeles. The villa is now listed on the historical register. Meanwhile, the Foreign Office is involved in funding the preservation of this unique cultural monument.
Villa Aurora not only has an impressive history, it also differs from other cultural institutions, in that it is present in two locations: the villa itself, set in the hills of Los Angeles, and the Villa Aurora Forum in Berlin, which presents the scholarship-holders’ creative results to the general public in exhibitions, film screenings, readings, concerts and the publication of editions following their stay at Villa Aurora. In addition to this, the Villa Aurora Forum supports specialist conferences in the transatlantic context, and organizes programs focusing on cultural interchange between Berlin and Los Angeles, Germany and the United States. One of the permanent features is the annual Oscar Party celebrating Germany’s nominees, as was the case in 2007 with director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and his award-winning film The Lives of Others.
The key to all of the activities in Berlin is “making cultural exchange visible, so that it becomes a sensual experience,” says Mani Pournaghi, cultural manager of the Villa Aurora Forum. This overriding goal is also served by the recently introduced “Long night of the Villa Aurora”, which took place for the first time in November 2007 in the Leibniz Room of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. The event presented the new scholarship-holders and exhibited the works of former holders. It is with activities like this that the Villa Aurora Forum hopes to create a network among the supported artists from around the globe, across the Atlantic and beyond.
By Tanja Dückers
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