Richard Neutra is considered to be one of the world’s most prominent modernist architects. He was born in Austria but spent the majority of his career working in Southern California. Neutra’s pioneering designs inspired many and transformed how we define Southern California architecture.
Neutra and his son Dion, also an architect, had a dual focus on evoking well-being and delight for their clients. While carefully integrating the natural landscape with the buildings, Neutra emphasized simplicity and gave birth to the indoor-outdoor lifestyle to which the climate lent itself to.
Understanding how his clients socialized and what they did informed his philosophy of design that supports and serves the environment and humanity. The home’s seamless transition from indoor to outdoor consciously erased the separation of the two, inviting users to equally divide their time in both.
His time as a landscape architect weighed heavily in his building designs. The use of glass walls framing the surrounding landscape was used in lieu of art.
The Lovell Health House
The Lovell House, built in 1969, was his first commissioned project that launched his illustrative career. This building helped create a template for the simplistic, streamlined homes we now think of as mid-century modern.
As the name implies, the Lovell Health House owner was a health-food guru and self-proclaimed naturopath. He wanted the building to reflect his beliefs and the social and physical landscape of Los Angeles at the time.
The Lovell House was the first to use several construction techniques that up until then hadn’t been implemented in residential builds, such as its steel frame structure. The bedrooms all had “sleeping porches” so visitors could sleep outside if they chose. Hydrotherapy equipment outfitted most of the bathrooms.
The connection between health fads, recuperative healing, fresh air and even sunbathing to modernist architecture quickly started to see an influx of these homes dotting the hillsides and deserts of Southern California. Neutra was one of the architects at the forefront of what was considered a healthy home.
It’s hard to imagine a time when the client’s voice wasn’t considered in the beginning stages of building their home, but the intersection of architect and client was born in this era.
Architect for everyman
Neutra not only worked with wealthy clients who could afford to take on massive projects but he was also known to take on a modest project, giving it the same attention and care. An example of that is The Oyler House in Lone Pine, California.
Richard Oyler was a government employee who came to Neutra in his Silver Lake office and asked him to design a modest home for him on a parcel he’d purchased in the tiny desert town. Neutra came to the property and fell in love with its topography and agreed to build this family home.
As a way to save money and build sustainably, Neutra had Oyler collect rocks on the property that were then used to face walls on the interior and fireplace. Neutra was using words like sustainability in the fifties and implementing eco-friendly practices long before it was being used in the public lexicon.
There is even a pool inside a boulder that the center was dynamited out to create the concave swimming hole. It is said that the pool has its own inner living climate imparted by the rock and is unlike swimming in any man-made pool.
The Kaufmann Desert House
While his first California project seemed to dominate its location, Neutra’s subsequent projects sought a more harmonious fusion of the West’s unique terrain and temperate climate. This can be seen in his most iconic Kaufmann house in Palm Springs. It is considered the quintessential architecture of Palm Springs and was forever immortalized by Slim Aarons’s famous “Poolside Gossip” photo.
The steel case frame structure that he used on the Health House remained, as did his flat roofs, but subsequent projects saw low-slung, one-story, or split-level homes that do little to interrupt the scenic mountain vistas. Giving the home a nestled feeling while still experiencing the expanse of the desert through the walls of fenestration.
Kaufmann, who was also the first owner of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Fallingwater home, commissioned the house as a desert getaway to escape cold winters. It was a prime example of Neutra’s floor plan maximizing access to the outdoors. The glass doors pocket into the walls to create floating rooms that feel completely exposed to the elements and panoramic views.
The legacy of Neutra’s philosophy is very much alive in the Green build movement. Biophilic design has roots in this sustaining environment where landscape and building coexist to honor both.
His third son, Richard is a physician as well as an environmental epidemiologist who runs the Neutra Institute for Survival and Design. “Surviving in the climate crisis through well-researched design that helps humanity and the planet thrive,” says Neutra’s son in a decidedly appropriate homage to his father.
Images via Wikimedia Commons