By Julian Steiner
On August 15, 1949 the face of world-renowned Austrian-American architect Richard Neutra adorned the cover of TIME Magazine. As unusual it may seem for us today that the famous magazine would choose an architect on its cover, Neutra at the time was at the peak of his success. He had been designing houses in the U.S. for about 20 years, leaving his architectural mark in the Los Angeles area.
Neutra was born in Vienna in 1892 and studied architecture in the capital of the Habsburg Empire in the era of Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, and Gustav Klimt. The young Neutra grew to admire these three artists and even met Klimt while he sketched Neutra’s sister. Fin de siècle Vienna had an immense influence on Neutra’s understanding of design and architecture. While the three painters above created masterpieces of art, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schönberg, and Alban Berg provided the soundtrack and Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, and Adolf Loos designed Vienna’s landmark buildings of the time, many of which still stand as proof for this golden era of Viennese intellectuality, culture, and art.
The city was also home to Arthur Schnitzler, Robert Musil, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whose works broke taboos and shaped modernist literature. All of these names not only became giants in their fields, but also shaped Neutra’s world-view. As part of the Viennese intelligentsia, Neutra was a close friend of Ernst Ludwig Freud, the son of Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis. Neutra also studied under the famous Adolf Loos, whom he called “his hero.”
As a young architecture student, he became intrigued by the works of Otto Wagner who designed the Stadtbahn stations, the Postsparkasse and many more landmark buildings in Vienna. While he had never worked with Wagner, Neutra intensively studied his buildings, which heavily influenced his style of architecture.
After serving in the reserves in World War I, Neutra finished his studies and accepted a job in Germany. He later also worked in Switzerland, where he met his wife Dionne.
It was his teacher, Adolf Loos, who kindled his interest in America. Although Neutra himself described Loos as “the most Viennese man I can imagine,” Loos had a deep love for the United States. He had lived in lower Manhattan for three years from 1893-1896. In his article “When I came to the States,” Neutra tells Loos’ story and paints an all-too-familiar picture of immigrants coming to New York in the 1890s.
With only 50 dollars in his pocket, Loos came to the U.S., dreaming of a new life on the other side of the Atlantic. Even though he was highly educated, the only jobs the young Adolf Loos could get were manual labor jobs. Living among German, Russian, Jewish, and Italian immigrants, Loos “never met any ‘real’ Americans. But to him all those brave and hopeful people were Americans.” It was not until the last months of his time in the U.S. that Loos would work as architect and furniture designer.
Neutra seems somewhat astounded when he describes Loos’ passion for America: “He had the worst experience imaginable, but he loved this country! It was a sad and unanswered love. Despite all his failures, I have never met anyone who was this passionate about the States!” Inspired from the stories Loos told about the United States, Neutra developed a similar passion, fueled by a book he came across in Vienna about Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings.
For Neutra, Wright’s structures seemed like they were “from a different planet.” He had never seen such drawings and plans before and envisioned them in a U.S. prairie setting, not knowing that most of the buildings shown in the book were actually built in the Chicago suburbs. Deeply fascinated by Wright’s work, Neutra travelled to Chicago, expecting a futuristic and clean city after he had read about electrical streetcars in Chicago as a child. “At first I thought I had come to the wrong train station in the wrong city,” Neutra remembered his first time in Chicago. “Over the dirty floor of the station, I walked past stinking slaughterhouses to the settlement of the famous Jane Adams.”
Despite Chicago not being as imagined, Neutra started his search for his idol Frank Lloyd Wright and his works - a search that proved to be tougher than expected. The architect had become a “black sheep” in Chicago’s society at the time and none of Neutra’s contacts proved helpful in his quest for Wright. However, Neutra managed to find the structures he had admired in the book in Vienna and was stunned by their appearance: “The people I met seemed not to fit in a building like this and did not enjoy it at all. For me, however, those houses were exactly how I envisioned them to be. It was an overwhelming feeling to see them in front of me.”
Finally, he met Wright, lived and worked with him for a number of months, describing his idol as “a misunderstood artist who wanted to reform, a defiant rebel.”
After spending time with Wright in the Midwest, Neutra’s friend and classmate Rudolf Schindler invited him to Los Angeles in 1925. The two native Austrians and classmates became roommates in Schindler’s Kings Road house and soon the first tensions surfaced. Schindler and his wife Pauline built the house for entertaining. They were very much part of the L.A. high society, known for being sexually progressive and their leftist political views.
Richard and Dionne Neutra, however, did not enjoy the all night parties and, in comparison with the Schindlers, were much more conservative. Neutra himself contributed to a number of Schindler’s projects, but established his own architecture practice in 1926. When Schindler designed the Lovell Beach House, Neutra was in charge of the landscaping and garden design. In 1929, Philip Lovell planned his city house and turned to Richard Neutra instead of Schindler, partly due to the fact that Schindler allegedly had an affair with his wife.
The Lovell House, or “Health House” as Neutra called it, brought him international fame and also serves as perfect example of Neutra’s architectural modernism. Built on a terraced hill in Santa Monica, Neutra designed the house to uniquely fit into the landscape. Apart from being the first all steel frame construction in the U.S., the design earned praise for its combination of glass, cable-suspended balconies, and open space. It has views of both, the Pacific Ocean, and the city of Los Angeles.
During his friendship with Ernst Ludwig Freud, Neutra made acquaintance with Ernst’s father Sigmund. He would also visit him in Vienna on a Europe trip in 1930. Neutra’s architectural style, “biorealism,” was heavily influenced by Freud’s psychoanalysis. He called his buildings “the anchors of the soul” and believed strongly that an architect needs to design a building to fit the personality of its owner.
Thus, many of his clients had to fill out a long questionnaire before he would begin his design. For him, the architect was much more than a mere “designer” of a house: “the architect surrounds the people from birth to the grave with environment.” Neutra saw his buildings as an extension of nature to raise the lifestyle of its owner. In an essay in 1952, Neutra explained his style by connecting hearing, smelling, and other senses to architecture. “An architect has to use all opportunities to benefit our health and lifestyle,” Neutra wrote, pointing to the influence structures can have to one’s physical and psychological health. Rooms and their equipment can trigger both: a high sense of life or depression.
In his designs, Neutra skillfully combined metal constructions and stucco elements to an open and translucent structure with special emphasis on the garden and landscape around it. Recurring themes are the “reflecting pool,” a shallow pool of water in which the building and its natural surrounding reflects, and the “spider legs,” columns which hold the flat roof extending over the exterior wall. For some clients, Neutra even designed furniture to complete his Gesamtkunstwerk.
While Richard Neutra is most famous for his single family homes, he did also design larger structures, e.g. a number of apartment buildings in the Los Angeles area, the Garden Grove Community church in Santa Ana, CA, a sports complex in Reno, NV, and the then-U.S. Embassy in Karachi, Pakistan. Unfortunately, two of his more famous buildings can no longer be admired.
The Cyclorama Building in Gettysburg, PA, designed in 1958 and opened in 1962 was one of Neutra’s most visited designs. Until 2005, it was home to the famous Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama by Paul Philippoteaux. Despite heavy protests, the building was not added to the National Register of Historic Places and demolished in 2013. Neutra’s 1962 Maslon House in Rancho Mirage, CA befell a similar fate. The house had previously housed the Tamarisk Country Club and frequently housed famous club members such as Frank Sinatra, Ben Hogan and the Marx Brothers.
However, after buying the famous building, new owner Richard Rotenberg had the house demolished under a massive national media outcry. Luckily, many of Neutra’s structures do still stand as evidence of his architectural geniousity. He partnered with his son Dion and created masterpieces of modern design. The Lovell, Kaufmann and Van der Leeuw Houses are well known monuments for Neutra’s biorealism, but there are many more around the country. Neutra’s last residential commission in the United States before he died in 1970 stands in Washington, D.C. – A clear structure perfectly placed in its natural surroundings.
You can visit the Neutra Office & Museum online at neutra.org
By Julian Steiner