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1892: An Architect Who Loved Light but Not His Customers Is Born

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Richard Neutra's iconic Kaufman House in Palm Springs, California, built in 1946.
Richard Neutra's Kaufman House in Palm Springs, California, built in 1946.Credit: Julius Shulman, Wikimedia Commons

April 8, 1892, is the birthdate of Vienna-born, modernist architect Richard Neutra, the man who brought the International Style in design to the United States when he emigrated there in 1923. After settling in Los Angeles, Neutra made a name for himself designing airy and light-filled private homes that were meant to answer both the material and spiritual needs of their residents.

Though he was extremely successful financially and socially, Neutra never achieved the critical acclaim he aspired to, and, as architecture writer Paul Davies put it, he was destined to be “terminally major and minor at the same time.”

Richard Neutra was born into a prominent Jewish family living in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt district. His father, Samuel Neutra, owned a foundry that did bronze castings; his mother was the former Elizabeth Glazer. Richard was the youngest of their four children.

He studied at the Sophiengymnasium, graduating in 1910, and in addition to his classical education, he showed great talent in drawing, and was a regular theater- and opera-goer, lover of classical and modern art, and an inveterate reader. A close friend while growing up was Ernst Freud, son of the founder of psychoanalysis, with whom Richard went touring in Italy after high school. 

Interrupted by World War I

Following a year of obligatory military service, Neutra began architecture studies at the Vienna Institute of Technology, in 1911, where his most influential teacher was the Modernist pioneer Adolf Loos. Unfortunately, Neutra’s education was interrupted by World War I, much of which he spent at the Balkan front. It was only in 1918 that he was able to finish his degree.

He didn’t see much action, but he did contract malaria, from which it took him several years to recover. It was after the war, while at a rest home in Zurich, that Neutra met Dione Neidermann, a cellist and an architect’s daughter. (They would have three children, one of whom, Dion, would become his father’s partner and professional heir.)

During his time in Switzerland, he was employed by a landscape architect, which may be why his later building designs reflect a great sensitivity to landscape questions.

Richard NeutraCredit: Ed Clark, Wikimedia Commons

After brief service in 1921 as city architect for the German town of Luckenwalde, Neutra took a job in Berlin with architect Erich Mendelsohn, with whom he participated – and won – a competition for the design of a commercial center in Haifa.

Well-being and the house

Neutra had been drawn to America from the first time he saw a folio of drawings by Frank Lloyd Wright, and soon went there. After a brief stay at Wright’s Taliesin community, he ended up in Los Angeles, where he began working with boyhood friend Rudolf Schindler. They did residential work, but also designed a (non-winning) entry for a competition the League of Nations Palace in Geneva, in 1926.

The Neutra-Schindler partnership foundered after former Philip Lovell, a former client of Schindler’s, asked Neutra to design his new home. Lovell, a well-known LA naturopath, was seeking “a resident that would enhance the health and well-being of its inhabitants” – and Neutra was just the man for him.

In fact, holistic architecture became something of a speciality for Neutra, who once explained that, ''I try to make a house like a flowerpot, in which you can root something and out of which family life will bloom.'' He interviewed his A-list clients at length about their habits and desires, and, employing state-of-the-art technology, was very effective in designing residences that spilled seamlessly into their natural surroundings.

He certainly attained acclaim: Neutra was one of those invited by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock to participate in an exhibition of modernist architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, and in 1955, the U.S. Department of State commissioned him to design its new embassy in Karachi, Pakistan. That was just one of many important institutional commissions he received late in his career.

Even his family acknowledged that Neutra was a difficult man, however, and that he suffered frequently from depression, especially as he aged. When he died, on April 16, 1970, he was in Wuppertal, Germany. According to his grandson Justin, he had a heart attack while arguing with a client.

The Lovell House (Health House) designed by Richard Neutra in Los Angeles, California.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The now-demolished Gettysburg Cyclorama at the Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania. Designed by Richard Neutra, in typical harmony with the environment.Credit: Acroterion, Wikimedia Commons