Villa Aurora / Pacific Palisades, L.A., California, USA

Villa Aurora / Pacific Palisades, L.A., California, USA

for all fields: visual arts, fine arts, music, literature, film, journalism, courating, etc.Getting the feeling of exile in paradise

Villa Aurora is a unique cultural and historic memorial of German exile history. Artists based in Germany (not necessarily of German nationality) can apply for a three months stay and a one-year fellow is nominated for a residency at the former mansion of the German Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta. They settled here in the mountains above Santa Monica, California, finding their new home in the early 1940’s, fleeing the Nazi regime with several stops e.g. in the south of France and Switzerland, and a dramatic escape over the Pyrenees. Armin Müller-Stahl, Roland Emmerich, Peter Lilienthal, the eccentric filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim as well as the writers/dramaturges Heiner Müller or Wolfgang Becker (writing the film script of ‘Goodbye, Lenin!’ at this house), the directors Hannes Stöhr, Veit Helmer, Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck (film ‘The Life of Others’, 2006), Marc Rothemund (film ‘Sophie Scholl – The Final Days’, 2005) – they all have already been here in this refuge, whether as guest or for an artistic retreat to find the idleness for research, writing and creating. From the terrace towards the downhill side you have a magnificent view to the Pacific Ocean between Santa Monica and Malibu, just where the Sunset Blvd. meets Highway no. 1, leading along the coastline. In February this garden not only hosts the fellows, staff and audience of the cultural events for one evening taking place here, but also the guests and Oscar
nominees of the annual ‘Oscar Party’.In the hallway on the first floor a life large painting of the former owners, the writer in exile, Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta helps keeping their spirit in this special mansion alive.

Nowadays Pacific Palisades is one of the most expensive residential areas where stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Cosby, Steven Spielberg or Diane Keaton. (Diane Keaton published a book about Spanish Revival architecture, also dedicating one chapter to Villa Aurora and showing a window of this house on the cover.)

California Romantica: Spanish Colonial and Mission-Style House
Text by D. J. Waldie
Created by Diane Keaton,
Photographed by Lisa Hardaway and
Paul Hester Rizzoli, 2007

When Marta and Lion purchased it for only 9.000 US Dollar in 1943, this house was offside of civilization even though showing all means of modern technical features like air conditioning, refrigerator and dishwasher, but it was not in a good condition. The biggest risk was that one part of the house would slide down the mountain. To stabilise the statics was the biggest focus of the reconstruction in the 1990’s.
To get an idea of income in that time: Heinrich Mann came to the States through a ‘writers contact’ and wrote scripts for Warner Brothers for a salary of more than 100 Dollar per week. Lion Feuchtwanger earned about one year after purchasing the Villa Aurora nearly 40.000 Dollar for one script only. From this money bibliophilic Lion Feuchtwanger was fitting out a library and collecting books more than this house could bear. At the end, Lion also stored books in his own bathroom, filling the bathtub until the ceiling. Still today the residential fellows can grab Seneca, the Thora, Machiavelli, Wilde and Ibsen. library & working room 1st floor By car it takes about 40 minutes to get from the sea to Hollywood, to L.A. downtown more than one hour. But in this area, surrounded by orange- and lemon trees, already Thomas Mann and his family, Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel, the Schönbergs and many other artists and intellectuals in exile settled and created something like the ‘Weimar underneath palm trees’. Apart from Bert Brecht also Theodor W. Adorno, Hanns Eisler, Kurt Weill, Aldous Huxley, and especially Charley Chaplin belonged to the close circle of the Feuchtwanger friends, spending a lot of time in their house and garden.
Four rooms are reserved for the fellows – three of the stipends are accommodated for a 3 months period and one for a whole year: the artist in exile stipend, housed in a small apartment parterre. All have their own facilities, sharing several working rooms, library, kitchen, salon, living room. Also extra guest rooms e.g. for board, interns etc. and the operating office are located in the Villa. So there is enough space to gather together as well as to find the peace to work solely, like the upper working room where you still find the original typing machine of Lion or the Blüthner grand piano. (Also an organ is hidden in a room next to the grand salon.) The most likely place to meet up for a funny evening still is the garden terrace coming up the back entrance stairway.
What did not succeed with the property of Thomas Mann, personalities from the German arts, media and politics achieved here – setting up a foundation and raise money to re-purchase the from the University of Southern California (Marta Feuchtwanger donated the mansion and the considerable library to this university after her death in 1987 as the couple did not have any descendants) realising an artist residency according to the idol of Villa Massimo in Rome, Italy, and preserving it as historic landmark of German exile history.

One of the main goals of the transatlantic organisation ‘Villa Aurora e.V.’ is networking for the residential artists. This happens with welcoming and farewell receptions at location, collaborative events at different spots, and connecting in a rather informal, personal way. Co-operations with the Getty Center, the Los Angeles Museum of Art, the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and the University of Southern California with their Feuchtwanger Memorial Library which is located on the second floor of Doheny Library, were set up. One of the first addresses especially for filmmakers is the Goethe-Institute in L.A., specialised on film and usually screening the films of the residents as a public event.
For those who are more into fine and visual arts: L.A. has a vibrant gallery scene, mainly situated in Chinatown. Have a stroll around there Friday evenings. There you not only can see open exhibitions and the art interested audience, but also have a free beer – yes, a tin of something alcoholic on the street in the US!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWelcoming event for the new fellows

To get in touch with locals and the student scene and to regain the feeling of real life (apart from the closed areas of hidden properties like Bell Air) go and discover the districts Silverlake and Los Feliz.
E.g. at the relaxed bar and restaurant ‘The Dresden’ with relaxed live music you might end up spending an entertaining evening with laid back celebrities.
Even though renowned artists are among the residents of Villa Aurora, it shall not be a house of establishment only. The variety of artistic talents as well as the space and theme related projects are what counts to achieve the well-financed fellowship, including a monthly grant, the reimbursement of the return flight costs, project support, and of course accommodation at the Villa Aurora. Perhaps it is not easy to become selected, but for sure it is worth applying in order to spend an unforgettable time at an extraordinary place combining the creative isle with vibrant urbanity.

transformed Exit signRe-designed EXIT sign by Heiner Müller

The architecture of the Villa up in the mountains of Pacific Palisades in Spanish Revival style built 1928 and renovated in the 1990’s was inspired by a small castle in the south of Spain, as the wood ornamentation on the beams outside as well as the frills on doors and walls inside. Also the ornate tiles – the azulejo-mosaiques – seaming the patio are still originally preserved.

It happens that it does not rain for maybe even two years in this area of former barren landscape. When in late autumn strong winds from the desserts in Nevada come over, the so-called ‘Santa Ana Winds’, forest fires burst easily through the drought and heat, as it was end of 2007.


I took this beautiful sunset photo by the sea just down the Paseo Miramar, the address of Villa Aurora, through the smoke swath approaching from the wood fires in Malibu and Pacific Palisades.

Firefighters, also using helicopters, were struggling to contain the fires for several weeks. Therefore, sometimes threats are very close, even in paradise.

Article in cinearte XL, June 2008

The photos I’ve taken during my three months stay in 2007/2008 were published in cinearte XL, a magazine for film professionals, in June 2008 with the nine pages long article ‘Refugium am Pazifik’ by Karolina Wrobel (in German language only).

Photos: A.M.