The Prescience of Richard Neutra’s Theory of “Biorealism”

The architect's writings on the topic—of human survival, in general—seem more than a little relevant half a century later.
Illustration: “Nature Near” Joseph G. Brin © 2012

Talk about biophilia, biomimicry, or biodiversity and another “bio” comes to mind—that of late architect Richard Neutra. He himself coined the term “biorealism” to connote “the inherent and inseparable relationship between man and nature.”

Neutra, who was famous nearly all his life, passed away in 1970. His time has come again. We now face countervailing forces, both an atrophy of the senses and a passionate desire to reunite with the natural world. Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods speaks to a prevalent “nature deficit disorder,” as he calls it.

So what does Neutra’s legacy hold for us now? He completed a ton of commissions across the country and overseas, was featured on the cover of Time magazine, and was considered a natural born salesman. His own firm actually carries on in the spirit of its founder as Neutra Associates under the stewardship of Dion and Richard Neutra, his sons. But Neutra’s classic, erudite, 1954 book Survival Through Design could have been minted this morning.  For those of us who believe it’s possible, that title says it all.

Turns out it’s not just the title that is fresh and pertinent. This book, read through a certain filter, is both prescient and current. It starts out indignantly with the kind of fiery oratory reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright to whom Neutra dedicated his book. “Nature has too long been outraged by design of nose-rings, corsets and foul-aired subways.” Kids these days, with their nose-rings and corsets…

Neutra, however, is candid in suggesting that design “seems to be the way into trouble and it may be the way out.” He concludes the introduction with an assessment that we must “command views over an earth which we shall have to keep green with life if we are able to survive.” He casts doubt on technology and wants us to think deeply and urgently about our cave dweller mental inheritance (“hard wiring” as we say today). “Tangible observation rather than abstract speculation will have to be the proper guide. Drifting will no longer do.”

From there, Neutra proceeds to give a fascinating series of lectures on each of the senses as supported or thwarted by architecture and design. His command of human physiology and psychology is vast and may account for the enduring value of this work. His discussion of acoustics and sound reproduction speculates about a future “acoustical space mirage.” Who wouldn’t want to know more about that? (FYI: Page 141, 1969 edition.)

The take-away message from Neutra’s book, for me, is his adherence to architecture as a “sensorium” enhancing all the senses for human wellbeing and delight. The late, great architectural photographer Julius Shulman’s iconic photographs promoted his work visually. Embedded in his stylish constructions, though, was a core belief in the inextricable connection between man, architecture, and nature.

Neutra, apparently, was arguing with a client when he dropped dead of a second heart attack in 1970. Architect Richard Meier once said about his hero, “I can’t be Le Corbusier but I can damn well be Richard Meier.”

As an architect or designer you can’t be nature itself. You can only design what is humanly possible to engage all the senses with a vital connection to the natural world. As if an expert musician fine tuning an instrument, though, you may still attain perfect pitch.


Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist and writer based in Philadelphia.

Categories: Sustainability

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