Today there is overwhelming evidence that environments containing qualities of nature foster human well-being. Richard Neutra fused his early training in landscape design with his lifelong study of psychology – disciplines that proved a quantitative relationship between the senses and the environment. Neutra’s genius was in recognizing that these two disciplines were often saying the same things from vastly different places. His architecture harnesses that convergence. While his cool, sleek forms are canonically Modern, his is an ideology of biology.
At the start of his inaugural speech to the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1970, he asked the audience a question. “Why is Uganda, this country in central East Africa, important to landscape architects?”After a short pause, he continued: “Because as we now know, from Mr. Leakey and Ardrey and others, this is the country of origin of the human species. Humans came down from the crowns of the trees, walking over the meadows of Uganda.”
Neutra was referring to what is known as the Savanna Hypothesis, which argues that components of the landscape in which humans have evolved are part of our genetic ancestry. That landscape, which included broad, open views extending to the horizon line, copses of trees, expanses of brush and grasses, and bodies of water, was associated with survival.
According to some evolutionary biologists, because our brains and bodies retain that ancestry, such qualities must appear in contemporary settings to realize our full humanity and harness all our senses. Neutra ardently believed this to be the case and sought to incorporate such qualities in his work.
At that same 1970 lecture, he urged landscape architects to take more responsibility for human well-being. For example, while “living walls” are quite fashionable today, Neutra ushered nature into the office corridor a half-century ago, calling for “building living, hydroponic walls.” Notably, these walls were not just to be visually alive with greenery “drowning in chlorophyll,” but to also release oxygen and appeal to the ear. With “the auditory sounds of twittering birds and insects, (…) even the walk to the bathroom should be pleasant.”
Neutra knew something about this, having presented that very suggestion to the administrators of his Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana. He also urged the administrators to enrich spaces typically overlooked as secondary, such as stair landings, to facilitate spontaneous conversations. (They declined.)
Landings would become “wonderfully colourful, over-greened galleries.” By making these “mere passageways” more meaningful, valuable, and psychologically and physiologically refreshing, Neutra was also “stretching space.” Not just visually, as when he would extend the eye out into the landscape, but in providing more and different habitable spaces to use and explore. Unfortunately, although he vigorously made his case for the positive “various behavioral and biological issues involved,” the courthouse administrators declined.
Neutra’s First Design Project: A Forest Cemetery
In 1958, Neutra was interviewed as part of a University of California at Berkeley study exploring creativity in famous architects. One question was, “When did you feel you had arrived as an architect?” Neutra named two projects. One, predictably, was the Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs. The other, however, took me aback. “When I did this cemetery in Germany.”
The cemetery, a quiet forested setting located thirty kilometers southwest of Berlin, is called Luckenwalde Waldfriedhof. Luckenwalde is a small 12th-century feudal city; Wald means forest and Friedhof literally a place of peace. The lead gardener was a man named Gustav Ammann. Now beloved as one of Switzerland’s finest twentieth-century landscape architects, Ammann was not just a great nurseryman but embodied the mid-nineteenth-century shift from plant husbandry and upscale garden design to the new discipline of landscape architecture. The “microscopically paid apprentice job” was to serve Neutra for the rest of his life.
Ammann tutored him in the soil requirements for trees and shrubs. On his knees, Neutra made cuttings and placed them in little wooden boxes. He made “very detailed spacetime drawings” and learned to organize plants according to growth, size, color, and season of bloom. He built plywood contour maps, joined in theoretical discussions, and visited Zurich’s Botanical Gardens.
Amman actively participated in emerging theoretical discussions on the ethics of landscape architecture for a new century of servantless, middle-class households, and in turn, shared them with Neutra. The tutor and his colleagues promoted the role of the physical landscape as a factor in human well-being, a concept that Neutra later explored himself, finding additional rationales based on modern theories of environmental psychology and evolutionary biology. Decades later, Neutra used the phrase, “constant subtle change” to describe the needs of the human nervous system as evolved in ancient landscapes.
Beginning with the geographer Jay Appleton’s 1975 book, The Experience of Landscape, leading psychologists James A. Wise, and Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, science has already produced hundreds of studies on the topic of human-environment relations. According to them, humans perform best in environments that are fairly reliable, open, and easily visible to spot food, mate, or foe, while other parts of the environment may change abruptly.
Our brains need that backdrop of stability to use cognitive functions to address more urgent changes that might mean life or death, such as a sudden change in the grasses that portended a predator. That dialectic of stability and change was part of the Savanna Hypothesis. Thus, for evolutionary biologists, distant views were not a luxury for rich aristocrats as they had been before public parks became popular, but a means of assessing an environment’s potential for survival.
The Japanese Inspiration
Neutra spent approximately two weeks visiting the cities and regions around Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo, departing for Marseilles from Yokohama on June 15, 1930. His trip was sponsored by Kokusaikenchiku, a prominent Japanese architectural magazine that was devoted to Modernism After this trip, Neutra’s approach to site design did not immediately change. His response to Japan was one of admiration and confirmation, not revelation: in the foreword to Japanese Gardens of Today, he wrote, “A generation ago, when I accepted my first invitation from Japan to express my ideas on a biological, naturalistic approach to design, upon arriving there I suddenly felt as if I were coming home.”
In his autobiography Life and Shape, he noted the Japanese attention to the senses in “seeing, hearing, smelling a scent from the tiny garden court, enjoying one’s inner senses of position and muscle strain in following a zigzag path and gently climbing a bridge over a lotus pond.”
Vernacular Japanese buildings and Neutra’s architecture share an apparent simplicity of composition. While the details in both Japanese and Neutra’s work can be quite complex, the effect is one of clarity rendered in strong, uninterrupted planes and lines. However, the time and labor required to devote to such apparent simplicity were ameliorated by refining a standard set of details and also by typically employing a restricted palette of commonly available materials.
One such is wax-rubbed tempered Masonite, smooth and silky to the touch. Often used for sliding cabinet and closet fittings, the boards of pressure-molded wood fibers provided a rich brown warmth to interiors akin to dark Japanese woods, softening any potential cold or industrial ambiance.
In addition to apparent simplicity and engawa (the extension of the floor into the outdoors, often wrapping the house as a pathway), the traditional Japanese house is renowned for its openness to the outdoors using post-and-beam construction that negates the need for load-bearing walls or shoji (full height sliding wood doors with translucent paper panels).
In many Neutra compositions, whether public or private, the quality of this liminal space, this kinetic frisson between indoors and outdoors, is reinforced by maintaining the same material for wall, ceiling, and floor planes. Neutra also regularly employed “borrowed landscape,” in which Japanese landscapes and gardens incorporate surrounding distant mountains and scenery (a type of view known as shakkei, whereas nearby views, or experiences of landscape in small interior courtyards, are termed tsubo-niwa).
While Neutra often sited a building around a striking feature such as a tree, he also made good use of boulders in his site design, a typical feature of Japanese landscapes, most famously exemplified in Julius Shulman’s photographs of the boulders percolating throughout the setting of the Kaufmann Desert House.
Neutra often chose or located such boulders, carefully orienting them in the landscape to present a particular “face” to the viewer. Many of the boulders he used are particularly gnarled or pocked, appearing aged or eccentric.
Working with Landscape Architects
While Neutra worked with many landscape architects, many famous in their own right, typically he never abandoned his primary task of positioning the building to permit the experience of nature at various scales and perspectives.
Within those parameters, landscape architects could design with considerable freedom. For example, Garrett Eckbo’s 1948 landscape for one of the owners of the Johnson/Stafford houses in Los Altos, is strongly angular, geometric, and dense with a concentrated variety of plants and outdoor paths and “rooms”.
By contrast, Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx’s design for the DeSchulthess House in Havana, Cuba, featured lush, rounded, and banked areas of colorful plants whose gentle, painterly effects offset the architecture’s crisp rectilinear lines and planes. Marx was an especially close friend of both Richard and Dione and appreciated Neutra’s goals for the setting. In his introduction to Pflanzen Wasser Steine Licht, Marx wrote movingly of his friend’s thinking:
“Conversations with Neutra were especially meaningful, how clear and precise the individual elements in the buildings and garden systems had to be worked through, in space, the body, and surfaces, indoor and outdoor, as a single unity. The design of gardens, green surfaces, and outdoor areas [were] to him always good to carefully study and nurture as areas of architectural endeavour, that mediate the change from surprise to surprise.
He loved these altered states, these changes, and protected the dynamism of the garden against the statics of the building. Through the exchange from day and night, from open and covered skies, through light and shadow, in these achievable gardening experiences he was resourceful, and incorporated them into his plans. In dry areas he used water as a life-giving element. That also served him well in creating places for contemplative reflection, provoking stimulating reflections in defining space and expanding perspective.”
In conclusion, it is clear that Neutra capitalized on the emerging discipline of landscape architecture through his fortuitous interactions with Ammann, Foerster, and others, and brought them to Southern California. Neutra was exposed to progressive and new ideals, most importantly that garden or landscape design was a part of the overall composition of the setting and had to be designed with rather than after. As he wrote in an unpublished essay titled “The Landscape Architect Cannot Come Later!” the landscape architect “comes in right from the start … [after all,] the landscape is here from the beginning, in fact, long before we think of threatening it with a building.”
Article adapted from essay in Eden, Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society, Fall 2020, Vol. 23, No. 4.
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About the Author
Dr. Lamprecht is the author of Neutra: Complete Works (Taschen, 2000), Neutra (Taschen 2004), and Richard Neutra Furniture: The Body and the Senses (Wasmuth, 2015). She earned an M. Arch. at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and her PhD. at the University of Liverpool. Her dissertation explored Neutra’s late nineteenth and early twentieth century roots in neuroscience and landscape, especially concentrating on his work linking the body, the senses, and the environment as synthesized in his philosophy of biorealism. Dr. Lamprecht also contributed a chapter for William Krisel’s Palm Springs: The Language of Modernism, 2015. She is a “qualified architectural historian” per the NPS, and regularly prepares nominations and Mills Act contracts for historic properties. The author wishes to thank Dr. James A. Wise for his unfailing support, intellectual generosity, and insights into the connection among ancient humans and habitats, our contemporary minds and bodies, and Neutra.
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