With the house already the focus of Modernism, Neutra pushed it as the cradle for the psyche. Could architecture be prophylactic?
As much as anything it’s the look of Richard Neutra that bothers; those piercing eyes following you around the room, and those eyebrows; the countenance of a scary owl.
Although he was prone to ruffle feathers, this is not to say he was in the least bit scary in reality; but if you were a client, the prospect of Richard dropping in unannounced when he was ‘low’, or he and Dione (and her cello) turning up for a vacation might be disconcerting. Whatever; in this case the architect really did come with the house.
Born in Vienna in 1892, Neutra learnt from Otto Wagner, was mentored by Adolf Loos, and was a regular at Freud’s consulting room (but not as a patient − he preferred self analysis). His friend and classmate Rudolf Schindler skipped to the USA but Neutra got caught up in the First World War, serving a miserable time in the Balkans. His scary side surfaced at his lowest ebb: self-portraits as a deranged-looking stormtrooper.
But the handsome young man with an eye for the ladies returned, eventually marrying accomplished cellist Dione Niedermann in Zurich. After a stint with Mendelsohn in Berlin he finally made it to the US in 1923; meeting Sullivan and working for Wright. In the process he was perturbed to find the inhabitants of Wright’s Prairie Houses in Chicago largely miserable. Thus he incubated a more scientific approach to architecture as applied biology.
The Neutras soon joined the Schindlers in LA in the legendary house on Kings Road, where Richard complained he couldn’t get any sleep for the Schindlers’ partying and Dione was told off for being too straight. But a fruitful relationship developed, only to fracture over the commission for naturopath Richard Lovell’s Health House (1929): it was commissioned as architecture to make you feel better over previous favourite Schindler who had become suspiciously close to Lovell’s wife. Such a ménage had Mrs Schindler assisting in Mrs Lovell’s kindergarten and drifting around in togas amid much talk of spiritual health.
‘The fact that he was driven crazy with houses he designed to make people not crazy which are now inhabited by people who are absolutely crazy is ironic’
Despite the skeletal steel frame erected in a mere 40 hours, gleaming gunite, Model T headlamps and crowds around the block, the Lovells thought the house too clinical. With no commissions Neutra rushed back to Europe to parade his masterpiece. Winds of change meant a return to Cleveland and a design for a bus, but he soon realised it was cheerier to be poor in LA. Once back, Schindler wanted nothing to do with him.
Ravenous with ‘insane ambition not to falter in any detail’, he steadily built his reputation around single houses ambitious for the mental health of their occupants; requiring clients to submit full autobiographies as well as copious lists as to what made them tick. With the house already the focus of Modernism, Neutra pushed it as the cradle for the psyche; setting about ‘neutra-lising’ the malaise of the times. The consequent architectural language was highly consistent but softer. It was a function of necessity to have ready-made solutions for particular circumstances pulled together in different ways. There was a perennial problem with staff. Browsing the luxurious two-inch thick Taschen Neutra: Complete Works makes for a highly enjoyable game of spot the difference.
So to us, as Sylvia Lavin puts it, ‘what is remarkable about Richard Neutra is his lack of remarkability’. He features in every single architectural history of the modern period (he knew everyone) but perpetually in the supporting role: even when he made the cover of Time. He even anticipated this fate before he married Dione, and it drove him crazy: not because he was dull (quite the opposite) nor because his work wasn’t popular (because it was) or because he didn’t put himself out there (which he did) or even write prodigiously (which he also did). He was simply destined to be terminally major and minor at the same time.
And the fact that he was driven crazy with houses he designed to make people not crazy which are now inhabited by people who are absolutely crazy is beyond ironic.
Lovell Health House, 1929
Von Sternberg House, Northridge, California, 1935
Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, California, 1946
Maslon House of Rancho Mirage, California, 1962
Van der Leeuw House
(VDL Research House), 1966
‘I am an eyewitness to the ways in which people relate to themselves and to each other, and my work is a way of scooping and ladling that experience’
Thomas S Hines’ highly respectable biography dwells a good deal on Neutra’s depression; he was certainly intensely neurotic. From the mid 1930s onward Neutra suffered prolonged bouts as he explored numerous psychoanalytic theories to determine the relationship (erotic or otherwise) between architect, house and client.
This was a complex mediation. Lavin wonders at house as prophylactic. Almost daily letters with the striking Constance Perkins are part and parcel of her Pasadena residence of 1954, but whether her pond was ‘a sensuous part of the house that speaks of the literal body of the client’ is debatable. Alice Friedman is more matter of fact about it: Perkins herself both instigated and drew its shape after Arp and even stated her intention to sleep on the couch to commune with the scene; even if Neutra claimed his bedrooms made for better sex. Lavin implies Perkins paid for continual analysis by a building. Sometimes glass sounds better ‘butted’ (McCoy 1960) than rather arduously ‘mitered’ (Lavin 2004). Perkins herself loved the house and deeply respected her architect until her dying day.
Neutra claimed that all his female clients fell in love with him for his unique empathy. It was apparently as a response to birth trauma that his later houses attempted to merge inside with out. In the drawings, carpets are drawn with the same dashes as grass, and the characteristic spider-leg columns scramble for outlying ground. Indeed this conceptual non-division between inside and out was a metaphysical concern; in Neutra’s own mind stretching holistically across all boundaries.
Some would say this is corny and crazy. But psychoanalysis is very catching; from analyst to patient; patient to self; patient to potential patient. Neutra was traumatised by the early death of his mother, sister and sister-in-law, all of whom he had loved deeply. His first child, Frank, after treatment from Freud, was committed to an institution in 1940. So Neutra wanted to be the analyst; the listener (he is often photographed pensive and listening, and once brandishing an erasing shield); the analyst who fixed via his vehicle for transference: the house. This may be why the bigger commissions don’t get much of a look in.
To state that Neutra had a problem ‘letting go’ is one thing, but his treatments usually worked, with the majority consistently cooing of a newfound ‘happiness and freedom’. Some baulked. The Branches, who had loved their house in ‘42 but hated it by ‘48, retreated to a Boston barn where they felt less intimidated. Others may have wondered why they were expected to hang their curtains using strips of x-ray film badgered from the local surgery, or worried if they moved the dining table.
Underneath lay a powerful rationalist architect but not a cold one: ‘drawing sections through locomotives, but singing the sad song of the miners’; who would work for anybody; realised exemplary low-cost housing communities, schools and plenty more for ‘humans in groups’. Honourable and conscientious, he had the finest of motivations: as far as I know he is the only famous architect ever to be censured for over-crediting his assistants even when those assistants were hostile because he was immodest, tactless, irritating, childish and periodically insufferable.
Illustration by graphic designer and illustrator Magnus Voll Mathiassen (MVM)