Ranked second only to Frank Lloyd Wright in American Architecture, the Austrian Architect Richard Neutra sought out to explore the ideas of modern architecture. At the start of his career, Neutra studied at Technische Hochshule in Vienna, and moved to Los Angeles already heavily influenced by the functional designs of Adolf Loos. Once in America, Neutra worked for many architects, one of which was Frank Lloyd Wright himself. His fascination for Wright’s work provided him with even more inspiration. After finally breaking away from the names of other architects, Neutra designed with three significant ideas in mind: the past, the environment, and the people. By continuously furthering his knowledge and curiosity for the three major ideas, Neutra successfully pushed the boundaries of architecture as they were known.
One of Neutra’s main goals in his designs was to return to the simplicity of earlier times. After moving to America, Neutra couldn’t stand the wastefulness of the country, and he was determined to challenge the idea of building many new buildings while neglecting the old ones. Neutra once described the American’s careless process of building as similar to their lack of care with “footwear, automobiles, street paving… it is the country where one continuously buys new socks and discards the old ones… everything is in flux and whatever is dying disappears before you can say Jack Robinson” (Hines 46). In addition to leaving behind the modern, wasteful mindset, Neutra also studied the architecture of the past. Especially fascinated by the simple structures of the Pueblo Indians, Neutra’s Southern Californian architecture often mimics their concepts.
Neutra found the cubes that made up their living spaces to be complex, despite their simple appearance (Hines 46). Following the simplistic and early designs of the Pueblo Indians, Neutra’s buildings are basic in appearance and construction, yet they all stretched the boundaries of modern architecture.
In his designs, Richard Neutra placed most of the focus on the environment surrounding the building. Neutra developed the term “biorealism”, meaning “the inherent and inseparable relationship between man and nature” (“Richard Neutra” Online). Knowing that nature and humans were meant to dwell in a common space, Neutra designed with the idea of merging inner and outer space (Hines 78). For his first commission, in addition to using steel, which had never before been used for home construction, Neutra used large amounts of glass to open the interior space into the landscape. By using many series of glass panels, Neutra opened the inner space and brought in the natural space, which achieved his goal of connecting man and nature. Neutra also used other methods of connecting his buildings with the surrounding environment. As seen in his Kaufmann house, Neutra was often inspired by the landscapes of the sites where he was working. He saw the Southern California terrain as “moon landscape”; therefore, this house is often described as a “silver aircraft that has just landed on a green lawn” (Kuhl 78). While the description makes it seem as if this home would stand out, it blends effortlessly with the barren landscape.
Neutra made remarkable strides in his architecture through his focus and study of people. Most curious about the “biological and behavioral sciences”, Neutra documented his opinions and findings in his book Survival Through Design (Hines 6). Written in 1954, Neutra explored the importance of design to every individual. Even the title was meant to express his strong feelings about design literally: design is essential for survival. Since Neutra’s main concern was for the health of his homeowners’ “brains and nerves” he developed many theories about threatening aspects of design (Neutra 72). Neutra’s key focus was on elements of bad design and how they affect one’s everyday life. He believed that although small and seemingly insignificant, poor designs weigh heavily on one’s mind, which overtime destroys one’s health. Even Freud, who inspired many of Neutra’s theories, didn’t grasp the importance of everyday encounters with poor design. While Freud understood many aspects of life that affected individuals psychologically, he never thought to investigate the designs around the individual that could be affecting him more than any other factor. Another one of Neutra’s theories was that architecture should stimulate all senses. In chapter twenty-one of his own book, Neutra explains the “not consciously recorded” effects of odors and sensations on the nervous system (Cronan Online). Neutra describes the influence particular smells can have on one’s subconscious. Certain smells to certain individuals can cause him to enjoy a particular space more than aesthetics alone. In addition to scent, Neutra believed in recreating sensations from one’s past. Neutra believed in the theory that humans are naturally driven to return to neonatal conditions. He theorized that humans instinctively desire to be in a safe, protected environment that mimics the conditions of the mother’s womb. Just as a baby enters the harshness of the world for the first time, Neutra believed that humans are often thrown into harsh, uncomfortable living environments. He saw the California deserts where he was building as the most extreme examples of a harsh outside environment; therefore, Neutra made it his goal to design homes that fulfilled one’s desire of a womb-like setting (Cronan Online). In addition to creating a space that subconsciously fulfills individuals’ needs, Neutra felt that all designers should design with a mother’s instinct. Neutra believed that mothers were designers because they bear an “innate gift for… sense conscious surroundings” (Neutra 40), meaning that they seem to know their children before they are born. Neutra stated that designers are similar to mothers since they should also know how their children (buildings) will turn out. Neutra used all of his theories to create his goal as an architect: to improve and enhance the lives of the inhabitants. Neutra was devoted to building with the desires of humans in mind, but also to shape the lives of all people who inhabited his structures.
Richard Neutra was a great contributor to the ideas of modern architecture. His renowned status as an influential American Architect is still remembered; however, Neutra’s ideas are most evident. Neutra revolutionized the architecture of his time by designing with the past in mind. He also transformed the concepts of architecture by creating structures that blended the outer environment with the interior space. Perhaps Neutra’s most significant addition to architectural design is his study of people and the psychology that surrounds them. His ability to analyze and theorize about one’s mental health allowed him to truly design for the individual. Despite his death in 1970, Richard Neutra expanded the boundaries of modern architecture, and his findings continue to inspire the growth of architecture today.
Cronan, Todd. “Design in the Nuclear Age.” Design and Culture 3 (2011).
Hines, Thomas S. Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture: A Biography and History. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.
Kühl, Isabel, Kristina Lowis, and Sabine Thiel-Siling. 50 Architects You Should Know. Munich: Prestel. 2008.
Neutra, Richard. 1954. Survival Through Design. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
“Richard Neutra.” Triangle Modernist Houses−Documenting, Preserving, Promoting Residential Modern Architecture. Triangle Modernist Archive, 15 Jan. 2007. 20 Oct. 2012. <http://www.trianglemodernisthouses.com/neutra.htm>.