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Richard Neutra's Biorealism Begets Green Design
Green design is becoming expected from both consumers and architects, but to some it's thought to be a relatively new concept in the building industry. Yet, some architects have been using the principles behind green design for decades—long before it became one of the most talked about elements of design that it is today.
Architect Richard Joseph Neutra, who coined the term biorealism to describe "the inherent and inseparable relationship between man and nature," used natural elements throughout his design work. Neutra's buildings, both residential and commercial, brought the outside in through the use of large windows and sliding glass walls, as well as through the use of natural materials such as water, light and concrete.
In January 2001, Beverly Russell, editor-at-large for Interiors & Sources magazine and host of Breakfast with Beverly, an Internet video talk show devoted to the architecture and design industry, interviewed Dion Neutra and asked him about his father's use of the term biorealism.
"My father was a lonely advocate for the application of the insights of the biological and behavioral sciences to the problems of architecture, as opposed to always deferring to the bottom line. This is what he called biorealism," he explained.
Said to be one of modernism's most important architects, Neutra is also credited with introducing the International Style to American architecture, as well as introducing Los Angeles design to Europe.
Neutra was also said to have given great attention to his clients' needs, and he would sometimes use detailed questionnaires to ascertain those needs, which has helped create some of the most talked about architecture in Southern California.
Among Neutra's vast residential portfolio is the Grace Miller House in Palm Springs, which was built in 1937 and was first modernist residential home to go up in Palm Springs, according to The Palm Springs Modern Committee (PSMODCOM), an advocacy group that strives to save historic buildings throughout the Palm Springs area.
The house was built for Grace Miller, who brought the European "Mensendieck" exercise technique to Palm Springs and taught it in the house/studio. Neutra worked extensively with Miller and listened to his clients wants and needs. He designed a dwelling perfect for Miller's lifestyle, one which used natural light and a modern esthetic, as well as was customized to her in (he even created custom wardrobe elements to fit her clothing).
Throughout Neutra's career, he favored post and beam construction, which was evident in the Miller House, as well as numerous other buildings he created. Experts call Neutra's approach to the Miller House almost one of anti-design, keeping the lines clean and simple, and using the outside to produce the most dramatic effects.
For example, Neutra played on the beauty of the property by using nearly floor-to-ceiling glass in one corner of the house, with stucco providing the shell for the exterior walls. In that corner, Neutra placed a sheltered reflecting pool, yet another way he brought the outside into the project, as he planned for the fact that the reflecting pool would cast dancing light on the white ceiling.
And Millers' own insistence on raising the ceiling 6 inches helped afford the interior a light and airy feel, which was further played upon by the use of windows throughout.
After Miller sold the home in the 1940s, it was altered and ended up a neglected rental property for several decades. In 2000, Catherine Meyler bought the house and made it her mission to bring the house back to its original elegance.
Her restoration efforts included replacing the roof; re-piping and re-plumbing; replacing the electrical system; reframing the living room and garage; installing new insulation in all walls and ceilings; replacing window glass; refinishing the concrete floor; and adding a 6-foot wall around the property. She also had a new HVAC system designed to fit seamlessly into the existing structure, and commissioned craftsmen to recreate the original built-in furniture in the living room/studio and master bedroom.
Neutra was born April 8, 1892, in Vienna, Austria, and studied at the Technical Academy, Vienna, and the University of Zürich. He studied under Adolf Loos and Erich Mendelsohn before coming to the U.S. in 1923 and becoming a naturalized citizen in 1929. Neutra briefly worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, and then Rudolf Schindler, before opening his own practice in Los Angeles with his wife, Dione. Neutra formally partnered with his son in 1965, establishing Richard and Dion Neutra and Associates. Neutra passed away April 16, 1970, and today, Neutra's son, Dion, runs Richard and Dion Neutra Architecture in Los Angeles.