Raymond & Rochelle Neutra: It’s fine to have idealistic architects, but far better to have idealistic developers.

Raymond Neutra
Dr. Raymond Neutra is the son of architect Richard Neutra. After a public health career in environmental medicine and epidemiology at several universities and the California Department of Public Health he has been drawn back to the legacy of his father and brother. He has been active in the preservation of the Neutra projects. In addition to preservation, he endorses the Neutra commitment to socially and ecologically responsible design inspired by evidence.
Rochelle Neutra
As a clinician, Rochelle has worked with low-income and underserved communities in the SF Bay Area and split her time between advocacy, direct patient care in safety-net clinics and clinical research. She served as the Medical Clinic Director at the Native American Health Center in SF and conducted NIH sponsored research at UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley. Most recently she has served on boards and advisory committees for nonprofits and is interested in the intersection between health, design and architecture.

We are pleased to publish an interview with Raymond and Rochelle Neutra from the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design. In our conversation, we explored the role of science in architecture, the importance of post-occupancy studies and why purpose-driven real estate developers are the key to creating good cities.

Natalia Olszewska: Raymond, I read an article you wrote. You were talking about your father, and you spoke about him as a biorealist. You mentioned some reasons for which people could oppose the idea of applying neuroscience to architecture. What do you think about it?

Raymond Neutra: I think there is a role for science in architecture. In my own career, I did environmental epidemiology, studying mainly harmful things to avoid. But there is also another kind of research about things that are good. If you consider toxicology and medicine, some of the toxicology is about agents that are harmful to the body and others about things which are necessary, like vitamins. The same is true for architecture.

My father established the Neutra Institute in 1962.  His goal was promoting neuroscientific and environmental psychology research and its application in a responsible way to serve humanity. But he was ahead of his time, and he didn’t quite figure out how to do it.

We’re challenged now to understand how we can be helpful. There are people like yourselves who are doing things aligned with the values of the Institute and we need to understand how to do it.

We have carried out conversations like the one we are now having. It’s now nearly 50 people that I have talked to around the world. I am beginning to be struck that there are pockets of people with similar interests but they don’t necessarily know each other. So for example I was talking with Matthew Pelowski from the University of Vienna, from the professor Leder’s research group on aesthetics and art. Are you familiar with him?

Michal Matlon: Yes, I’ve heard of professor Helmut Leder, my colleague knows him.

Rochelle Neutra: So then the kind of thing you are proposing to do is valuable. In the USA there are a few big architectural companies HKS Architects, Gensler, Perkins and Eastman, who have research units as part of their operations. But I am getting the feeling, once again giving the medical analogy, that in medicine, if somebody at Mayo Clinic develops a new operative procedure, they feel the duty to share it with other hospitals, as opposed to keeping it secret to attract patients. And I am not sure whether all these firms are talking to each other.

Natalia: I think it is a good point. I had a chance to meet Upali Nanda from HKS Architects and I was also collaborating with Itai Palti on a project with HKS. I think that Upali believes in the notion of neuroscience-informed architecture. I met her last year in New York during the Conscious Cities Festival, and she was very passionate about it. She was saying that she would like to see the evidence from neuroscience to inform built environment policies in future.

In terms of collaboration between different firms, it is possible there is a lack of it. There is also a lot of lip service. There are many challenges when it comes to applications of research into something actionable. 

House interior by Richard Neutra
When designing houses, Richard Neutra focused first and foremost on fulfilling the needs of his clients. He was even known to use questionnaires as a part of his design process, a surprising one at that time (first half of the 20th century). Photo: Archive of Raymond Neutra

Michal: This is a big question: how do we put these things into practice in the commercial world?

Raymond: A couple of years ago I had a talk at ANFA and I talked to the people at Kaiser Permanente Hospitals which has a research unit built into their program. Kaiser used to do questionnaires, and then they said they realized it was much more effective to spend a day watching what people were doing, and be aware of what the hypothesis was in the design. It doesn’t sound that scientific, but it was quite fruitful for them. I would call it a more qualitative approach.

Just doing systematic post-occupancy evaluation, even of a more anthropological nature, would get you an 80% of the way to improvement. It’s not a common practice. Why isn’t it a common practice? What could one do to make it a more common practice? 

Michal: I feel it is the right approach. Rather than focusing on pre-design, we could focus on evaluations. We could do that for projects which have been finished. We have already started doing post-occupancy studies in the previous company where I worked, although they were focusing on offices. But I think it was just a start. 

Why might this not be such a common practice? There might be a fear in the architectural community to uncover mistakes. We need to normalize the process. And we could also bring this spirit of continuous learning. It should be viewed as something which contributes to the development of the discipline. We lack evidence-based learning.

Natalia: I think we are talking about values which prevail in various communities. Raymond and Rochelle, why do you think people share research in medicine? And why isn’t it present in the architectural world? 

I think that people still underestimate the impact of architecture on human health. I also know from my own experience that medicine is not always such an ethical and pure field, and there is a lot of competition. 

Just recently I have read about the Archie Cochrane fight for evidence-based medicine, and he introduced this idea of randomized trials and statistics. In medicine, there was also a lot of ego, people didn’t want to be assessed. I think this is a long journey. To me, the problem is about the lack of shared understanding of what is the impact of architecture on human health.

Michal: What would you say to an architect? Why should they do post-occupancy evaluations or why should they apply neuroscience or psychology to their process? 

Kaufmann House by Richard Neutra
Kaufmann House by Richard Neutra in Palm Springs, California designated as Class 1 Historic Site. Photo: Archive of Raymond Neutra

Raymond: One of the issues is that traditional architecture was devoted to a typology of buildings that projected power of either the church or the state. So, if you say, I want to do an evaluation of Eiffel Tower or the pyramids of Giza, it sounds silly. Only gradually, in the 19th century, architects started to design other types of buildings. 

But when I was talking with Upali, I asked how HKS Architects started to do this kind of research. She said it was a branch dealing with hospital design that was influenced by the Centre for Health Design, and that it has been going for a couple of decades now. It has been influenced by physicians, administrators of hospitals, who brought this notion of evidence-based design. 

So there is a spread of evidence-based approach from hospital design, where there is a clear amount of endpoints you can measure. For example, how much morphine you take (VL: as you might experience different levels of pain due to building design) or how many days you spend in the hospital. Hospitals have a lot of money so they can do it. Not schools, or housing. 

I have read an article about Peter Zumthor about his LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) project. It’s highly controversial. Zumthor is going through a very passionate artistic process, and I am trying to imagine whether he would be responsive to a post-occupancy evaluation. Or Frank Gehry with his Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. The LACMA was treated by some as it was a statement, a sculpture.

What becomes more compelling is what my father called ‘an architecture of social concern’. You have a commitment to perform in a certain way. But the real estate company you spoke about, Michal? I am very interested to hear this story. Are developers your target group? Why did this CEO decide to perform post-occupancy evaluations? Do they still carry on or maybe they have decided it was a bad idea?

Michal: The company is still doing it. I think there had been a kind of a ‘wave’ at the time. The previous CEO decided to introduce the idea. He was there for 5 years, and then a new CEO came in. Afterwards, they have kept maybe 30% of the approach, but they still perform them. It’s done in offices, interiors, where you can measure the impact of design on a specific group of users. It’s more difficult to do that in case of facades, which is a public part of the building.

Raymond: One idea that we have had was to form a network of developers who took a plunge, and try to understand what was their motivation and then propagate it. It’s fine to have idealistic architects, but far better to have idealistic developers.

Rochelle: You need to demonstrate how evaluations will affect their bottom line. You will need clearly defined metrics and you will need to know how these metric improve health.

As part of my background, I have done mainly direct patient care and I have been a clinical director for an underserved population. So when I think about why we have shared information, in community health work we have always formed very strong networks. We have strong missions and beliefs, so many times we share information because we want to impact the community. 

The whole system of post-occupancy evaluation needs to become a standard.

We work with a lot of other healthcare centres, and then we work with let’s say Kaiser Permanente. We were designing our clinic flow, we were looking at the development of metrics, tracking them, so having a better system and doing better reporting. 

You are researchers and not architects, and you need to find early adopters. You have to find people who will take this plunge. We started at the county level, then we took it to some clinics, state level, then we have developed federal level metrics, these systems take time to build. Start building your system.

Natalia: This is the approach of Itai Palti who I worked with. Hume, his studio, had a project in London, ‘Portland House’, a Landsec’s commercial building in the Victoria neighbourhood of London. Similar story, from the start of the project we spoke about human metrics, how they would be measured in the building, and what aspects of users’ experience they would be indicators of. The ROI aspect had to be clear as well – might be ‘dwelling’, ‘longer lease’, ‘improved collaboration’ and ‘productivity’ of office workers. Companies need to see a profit in this.

Rochelle: The whole system of post-occupancy evaluation needs to become a standard. And eventually, it has to be users who ask about evaluation. Or investors and developers. We need to educate the public. This way people, architects and developers could start advocating for change, as they will start having a clear sense of what can be done.

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Michal: Have you also met some signals of this new approach? Have you seen any initiatives taken by municipalities and cities? For example, in Bratislava, we have this new institute, Metropolitan Institute, which deals with the strategic development and people-centred approach in cities. Have you noticed any initiatives like this?

Raymond: No, I haven’t. Tell me a little bit more about it, Michal. What is the Institute in Bratislava doing?

Michal: So it’s called the Metropolitan Institute of Bratislava and it was created by a new mayor, Matúš Vallo, who won the election last year. The mayor is an architect, a progressive one, so this Institute is part of his vision. He has even written a book with a team of 80 experts on how to improve the city. They are dealing with public spaces, they create manuals, they work on participation. When they renovate a street, they organize a participatory process and create briefs for architects. They recognize it’s very important to have a good brief. The other function is about city planning for the future, zoning, how the city should develop in a coordinated way. There is also a similar Institute in Prague, it’s called the Institute of Planning and Development, they have around 200 people

Raymond: Did they have anything there from Environmental Psychology? 

Michal: Not really, right now there are mainly architects and urban planners.

Natalia: On one hand we are talking about post-occupancy evaluations, on the other hand, there is a discussion going on about prototyping environments. Prototyping in the world of the built environment is very costly, but VR prototyping starts to become more common. Some companies are even making an attempt to perform some neurophysiological tests in the VR conditions. What do you think about VR and this kind of prototyping?

Raymond: Kristie Mun gave a talk on patterns of gaze, at the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. You could do a similar kind of study with people who would be wandering in real and VR settings and check if there are any differences.

Rochelle and I have had a visit with Chris Downey, who is a blind architect, who helped to create a facility for blind people. We have understood it is very important to model the soundscape for them. But there are some limitations for VR at the moment, could we simulate touchscapes? 

Michal: This is also coming. There is even research on simulating tastes using electricity and warmth. I have a question that we ask every person. Could you give us some positive examples of buildings, where knowledge about humans is applied?

Raymond: A successful building that my father designed is a laboratory school at UCLA. He designed eight schools with indoors and outdoors learning facilities, but this is the only one where they took the advantage of the design. They are happy with the facility 70 years on.

Rochelle: San Francisco LightHouse for the blind and visually impaired. They have done interesting work around sound and lighting. They have created well-lit areas that do not produce glare and provide even illumination. They have left the floors bare so you can hear footsteps and canes tapping and created a stairway handrail that is smooth and pleasing to touch and fits the palm of the hand.

San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired
San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Picture:

Natalia: I was revisiting articles from the Intertwining magazine, and reading about the design of a school by Richard Neutra, and the fact he stressed the importance of connection to nature. Recently I have been doing research with my colleague Nour Tawil to understand what are the drivers of pro-environmental behaviour, and there is more and more research about connectedness to nature. Early education is important. I guess we are more and more detached from nature, and this results also in what we design, and how we design.

Raymond: So you think that the urban environments divorced from nature hamper our sense of preserving it? Recently I have been reading a book by a philosopher, Martin Hagglund, called ‘This life’. He is talking about our life and part of it goes into the notion of maintenance, our life is like being on the ocean on a boat we are constructing. Part of that is building and part of that is maintaining. 

Our ethical challenge is to recognize that we are going to die. Life is too short, the brief is changing, we redesign, we are responsible for the brief, we are responsible for nature, and its maintenance. I’m lucky here, sitting in the garden, I see the gardeners coming and doing things. 

If I was to do it, I would stop doing some things, I would be much more sensitive to nature, so it’s not only about looking at nature, but also being engaged in nature. For sure it has implications for us and society, but things are complex. It requires social interventions and natural adoption of the mindsets.

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