Think Neutra and immediately the Richard Neutra homes spring to mind and his immense contribution to Californian Modernism. But there is so much more to Neutra, a man who drew inspiration from pre-war Hapsburg Vienna to create an architectural vocabulary for the Hollywood elite and baby-boomer Southern California.
Richard Neutra was born in Leopoldstadt, Vienna, Austria on the 8th April 1908 to an educated, comfortably off Jewish family. He attended the Sophiengymnasium in Vienna and later the Vienna University of Technology, the Technische Universität Wien, where his teachers included Karl Mayreder and Max Fabiani. He studied with Adolphe Loos and was a huge fan of and highly influenced by Otto Wagner.
Vienna had a profound influence on the young Neutra. It was the capital of the vast, polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire, which stretched across Central and Eastern Europe, home to Klimpt, Schiele, Moser, Musil, Broch, Schoenberg and Mahler and the father of psychoanalysis, Freud.
To be in and be part of Viennese society at this time was to be in the midst of hugely creative energy and artistic inspiration with a crisscrossing of lines between architects, artists, writers, composers and philosophers. This was the world where Ernst Ludwig Freud (Sigmund’s son) was a close friend of Neutra and Klimpt sketched Neutra’s sister. Richard had met Sigmund Freud in 1930 and was said to be very taken with him. Neutra later wrote extensively about the Theory of Biorealism (he coined the term himself) which has a clear connection to Freud’s writings about psychoanalysis. The dotted line between Richard Neutra’s pre-war Viennese life and his American life can be clearly plotted. There have been a series of descriptions of Biorealism, this is one from Bethany Christine Morse of the University of Texas;
‘Biorealism was no mere aesthetic approach; it applied the biological and psychological sciences to foster solutions for the built environment. Influences from Neutra’s formative years led him to believe that biorealistic design was the only way the human race would survive. He spent his life and career devoted to this single cause’.
When WW1 broke out Richard Neutra served in the reserves of the Imperial Austrian Army as a lieutenant of artillery in the Balkans, briefly taking time off to go to Germany to complete his final architecture exams.
His first job after WW1 ended was in Zurich, Switzerland working with respected Modernist landscape architect, Gustav Ammann. His next move was to Germany in Spring 1921, at a time when the Weimar Republic was going through enormous change. From March to September Richard Neutra was employed in the municipal construction office in Luckenwalde, Germany working under the guidance of Josef Bischof, the city’s architect. They planned a striking multi-denominational cemetery in the middle of a forested area. This was a natural next step for Neutra as a way of experimenting with what he had learned with Ammann. Neutra did not stay to complete the project. In recently uncovered documents his vision for the funeral home and on-site housing for the employees showed the huge promise he would realise later. Neutra’s f design differed from that which was later completed by his replacement.
Joining Erich Mendelsohn
A role in the Berlin office of Erich Mendelsohn’s architecture practice was accepted. Amongst the projects, Neutra worked on was urban planning in Haifa, the Berliner Tageblatt Building and the 1923 Zehlendorf Housing Estate. Everything was going well but Richard Neutra was not satisfied, he wanted to experience life in the United States, possibly informed by Adolphe Loos who although not able to successfully establish himself in America, was entirely enamoured and seemingly passed on the bug.
Leaving Berlin with his wife and son, Neutra headed to New York and then in Chicago, in 1924 where a chance meeting led him to work in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin East Studio in Spring Green for three months.
Neutra knew he wanted to remain in the US. His old school pal Rudolf Shindler and his wife were living in West Hollywood and Neutra headed west in 1925 with his family. They moved in with the Schindlers in their Kings Road home. It became quickly clear that the families’ lifestyles were incompatible. Schindler’s home was at the epicentre of LA bohemian cool and the Neutras would have seemed rather old world and buttoned up in comparison. Suddenly they were all crammed together in a very small space.
During this period Neutra and Schindler formed a partnership working on projects such as the competition to create a building for the League of Nations in Geneva. It was never built however the design was chosen for a travelling exhibition in Europe. In 1927 they formed a new partnership adding in urban planner Carol Aronvichi, called the Architectural Group for Industry and Commerce (AGIC). The three men found little success. The partnership was short-lived and Neutra’s and Schindler’s friendship did not survive. Whether it was artistic differences or simply that Neutra was wholly focused on his career and family to the exclusion of much else, the relationship between the two families and the two designers faltered. First as friends, as architectural practice partners and, then, post-split, in competition with each other, Neutra and Schindler, lived in the same space for five years from 1925-1930, five, by all accounts, very lively years.
Trying every avenue to earn a living, in 1928 Neutra tutored at the Acadamy of Modern Art in Los Angeles where he counted Gregory Ain as one of his pupils.
1929 was a turning point, when Richard and his family became American Citizens, looking back over their shoulders to a Europe that was leaning more and more towards extremist politics. Whilst they may not have realised it then, the decision is likely to have saved their lives.
That year Neutra was invited to become the American Representative to CIAM’s meeting in Brussels, (he remained as the American rep until meetings ceased in 1941). Until WW2 CIAM was always considered a European project but after 1933 it changed in nature partially as a response to the rise in fascism with key members no longer living in their places of birth. Neutra was a clever choice for the role. He had a deep understanding of European architecture and he was familiar with key characters yet at the same time very connected to American architecture
Looking at Richard Neutra’s Lovell House, Los Feliz 1929
Lovell Health House images Michael Locke
Neutra would bring his first-hand knowledge of Modernism to America, commissioned to build the Lovell House he has been credited in this work with introducing International Style to the United States.
Neutra’s American career now began to take off but that it is not to say it was not peppered with real difficulty in the early years. He had decided that the West Coast was where he wanted to be, however, there were times in the early 1930s when he had a hard think about relocating to the East Coast. The economic impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s in America was deeply felt and home building all but came to a halt. Richard Neutra survived and arguably ultimately thrived in the lean years by working in the film industry at Universal for German emigre, Carl Laemmle. He was commissioned in 1932 to build a mixed-use office building for the studio on the intersection of Hollywood and Vine comprising a ground floor restaurant and shops with offices for the studio above.
Politically aware, Neutra did dabble with other ideas and it should be noted that he had expressed an interest in housing in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, though this did not lead to him accepting a commission.
In 1932 Neutra was included in Philip Johnson’s major show about Modernism at MoMA in New York, Modern Architecture: International Exhibition
Neutra’s career from that point went from strength to strength, at each point along the way he was invited to join prestigious organisations whilst receiving a huge number of commissions to build family homes. Many simply think Richard Neutra’s work in Palm Springs but, frankly, he was so much more than that. In his designs, he was bringing together much that had impacted his early life plus a fascination with how people live in a house. The notion of a client answering a detailed questionnaire before Neutra began designing for them seems entirely obvious, now, but it was not when Richard Neutra presented this idea to clients.
In 1936 he employed Julius Shulman as a draftsman and to take photos of the Kun Residence. This launched an important architectural photography career for Shulman and a long collaboration followed with Neutra.
From 1942 to 1946 Richard Neutra sat on the advisory panel of the Architectural Review. He was also one of a group of architects who built the Case Study Houses from 1945-64.
Post WW2 Neutra went into partnership with Robert E. Alexander until 1958 working on large scale commercial designs as well as many notable homes. To have a Richard Neutra home mattered in Southern Californian society.
In 1965 Neutra went into partnership with his son Dion. It was a prolific time for Neutra and he built a series of villas in Europe. Amongst these was a commission by the politician and publisher of Die Zeit, Gerd Bucerius for a family home. That same year Neutra accepted the role of Consultant to the Austrian Government for the Building Research Organisation
Richard Neutra died in Wuppertal, Germany on April 16, 1970.
A selection of Richard Neutra projects:
1929 Lovell House Los Angeles California, credited as the US’ first International Style home aka Health House
1932 Neutra VDL Studio and Residence aka the Neutra Research House aka the Van der Leeuw House
1934 Sten Frenke California (for Russian actress Anna Sten who was signed to Universal)
1934 Beard House Altadena California
1935 House for Josef Von Sternberg, San Fernando Valley (Director of The Blue Angel) House demolished 1972
1936 Josef Kun House
1937 Koblick House, Silver Lake
1938 Windshield House, Fishers Island New York State. The subject of a film by the granddaughter of the owner’s Windshield: A Vanished Vision. The house collapsed shortly after completion in a hurricane was rebuilt then collapsed again in another hurricane in 1972
1937 House for Leon Barsha (numerous films and The Twilight Zone and Rawhide for Television)
1937 Miller House Palm Springs California designed for actress Grace Lewis Miller
1937 Strathmore Apartments in Westwood, residents included Orson Wells, Luise Rainer and Dolores Del Rio
1938 House for Albert Lewin, Hollywood Film Director (The Picture of Dorian Grey) later home to Mae West
1937 Landfair Appartments Westwood LA, International Style
1940 Davey House, Carmel
1941 The Bonnet House
1947 Kaufmann Desert House, Palm Springs Califonia built as a holiday home for Edgar J Kaufmann retail magnet, considered an excellent example of Biorealism
1947 Tremaine House Montecito California
1948 – 1961 The ‘Neutra Colony’
Sokol House 1948
Sokol House Richard Neutra 1948 Image: Michael Locke
- Edward J Flavin House 1957
Edward Flavin House Richard Neutra 1957: Image Michael Locke
1949 Millard Kaufman House Hollywood Hills for the screenwriter who created Mr Magoo
1950 Holiday House Motel Malibu California
1955 Perkins House, Pasadena for Constance Perkins with noted indoor/outdoor pool
1955 US Embassy in Karachi.
1956 Chuey House
1957 Airman Memorial Chapel at the Miramar Naval Air Station, San Diego California
1959 Oyler House Lone Pine California, famed small scale commission for a ‘working class government employee’
1960 The Sale Residence
1962 Eagle Rock Clubhouse LA (rumour has it that William Holden was on the guest list for the official openning)
1962 Los Angeles County Hall of Records with architect Robert Alexander
1962 The Cyclorama Building, Gettysburg battlefield visitors centre, Pennsylvania demolished 2013
1962 Maslon House Rancho Mirage Califonia demolished 2013
1964 The Rice House, Lock Island, James River, Richmond, Virginia International Style
1968 Orange County Courthouse / Central Justice Center
Awards and Honours:
City of Vienna Architecture Prize 1958
Wilhelm Exner Medal 1959 (Austrian Association of Crafts)
Order of Merit Federal Republic of Germany 1959
The Klimt Award, Vienna 1961
AIA Award Southern California Chapter 1939 1947 1949 1963
AIA Fellow 1947
Noted in the Hall of Fame of the 1939 World Fair in NYC
Richard Neutra Room established at the Library of the University of California, LA 1953,
Bicentennial Silver Medal from Columbia University 1954
The Honorary Doctorate University of Graz, Technical University of Berlin, University of Rome,
Header image of Richard Joseph Neutra © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10) Julius Shulman photography archive, 1936-1997. Series II. Architects, 1936-1997