The 3rd Skin: Survival Through Design

In this article, I will analyse the traditional spatial vocabulary of a pioneer of modern architecture, Richard Neutra, as we find it in Chapter 22 — ‘Physiological Space’ – Has Direction and Ranges — of his famous 1954 book ‘Survival Through Design’.[1] My purpose is to see continuities and differences with respect to the reformed understanding of spatial concepts that I’m arguing for at (rethinking spatial concepts is a continuous historical process which slowly adapts old terms to new meanings; these new meanings can be more inclusive and necessary to explain the changing vision of reality in a certain epoch; in broad terms, to elucidate the nature of spatial concepts implies the elucidation of the fundamental nature of reality, which in the modern and contemporary epochs underwent profound scientific and philosophical shifts — I’ve already spoken about that since the very first articles: see Paragraph 3 and 12 in the article Preliminary Notes; see the introductory part of Place and Space: A Philosophical History, or notes [1] and [2] in the article Space and Place: A Scientific History – Part One). Why did I choose Richard Neutra? For many reasons: within certain limits, Neutra’s theoretical approach to spatial concepts and their implementation into architecture reminded me of a similar approach that I had before I began to question the traditional meanings of space and place. Second, he was one of the few pioneers of modern architecture who explicitly and constantly referred to the primary role of physiological and related psychological processes in the making of architecture; regrettably, even in our days, if we consider that architecture is men’s third skin, this is not a too much busy road for architects. Physiological and psychological processes determine our adaptation to and degree of comfort in the physical environment so that every architect should consider physiology and psychology basic competences and expertise, which, it seems to me, is still far from the dominant view. Third, given that the theoretical framework that I propose for rethinking the concepts of space and place also passes through the gates of biological processes (biological processes determine one of the four states of place, which reality is composed of — see Table 1 in the paper From Space to Place and Image 2 in the article Preliminary Notes), Neutra’s work can be appropriate to show how biological processes may determine and influence our being in the world as architectural users (or producers), as well as the spatial notions that are necessary for us to understand such a world and communicate our experiences of it. Finally, even if Neutra is acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of the modern movement in architecture, I believe his influence on contemporary architecture and, in particular, his theoretical message contained in the book ‘Survival Through Design’, is a bit underestimated: originally published in 1954, that book was ahead of its time, different from the literary architectural tradition, somehow prophetic, and, for many aspects, still timely.

Image 05: Miller House, Palm Springs, California, US, 1937. Architect: Richard Neutra.
Image 06: Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, California, US, 1946-47. Architect: Richard Neutra.
Image 07: Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, California, US, 1946-47. Architect: Richard Neutra.
Image 08: Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, California, US, 1946-47. Architect: Richard Neutra.
Image 09: Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, California, US, 1946-47. Architect: Richard Neutra.
Image 10: Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, California, US, 1946-47. Architect: Richard Neutra.

I have decided to structure this article in the following way: at first, I will quote, in italics, those passages that I believe are explicative of Neutra’s overall way of understanding spatial concepts and their impact on architecture; then, I will comment on those passages, trying to elucidate commonalities and differences with respect to the theoretical framework that I’m arguing for at

This is the caption that introduces Chapter 22 in Neutra’s book, Survival Through Design:

Einstein seems closer to our energy-bound space-time of the senses than classical Euclid and Newton. —‘PHYSIOLOGICAL SPACE’ HAS IN ITS VERY ORIGIN PRONOUNCED DIRECTION AND RANGES onto which man has later slowly planted his many meanings.[2]

Neutra directly goes to the core of the spatial question: he felt that the traditional (‘classical’) way of understanding the concept of space was far from what we experience through the senses. Thus, he urged for a new understanding of the concept of space, which, he thought, could be more in agreement with the senses (and with his current epoch). According to Neutra, Einstein’s conceptualization of space, by coupling space to time, and being affected by matter, seemed to be closer to our reality of the senses than Newton’s seemingly ‘abstract’ concept of space; in fact, on the physical level, Einstein, in contrast to Newton’s isotropic conception of space, characterized space (spacetime, actually) as a ‘mollusk’ of reference to explain his General Theory of Relativity.[3] That is what Neutra meant when he made the analogy between the space of physics and ‘physiological space’ with its ‘pronounced direction and ranges’. As for Neutra’s reference to the ‘classical Euclid’, we should point out that Euclid had no concept of space, as we usually think of it, as also Einstein affirmed.[4] Euclidean space is a mathematical construction that was laboriously concocted through the centuries; a construct which preserves Euclid’s postulates and axioms, but which could hardly be realized before Descartes’s final intuition of geometrical space, in the sense of neutral three-dimensional reference system for geometrical entities (see Image 26 in the article Space and Place: A Scientific History, Part One). This space, or continuum, was an ideal space of mathematical origin; it was such a space that was reified by Newton, and this is what we should intend for ‘traditional’ or ‘classical’ concept of space, which is essentially a modern concept. This space is a neutral continuum; created as a reference system for geometrical entities, it became a container for those entities, before becoming a neutral physical container for physical bodies, eventually. This is also what we often call ‘background space’.[5] And this is also the same concept that is often mistaken for ‘intuitive space’, which, in my opinion, is a controversial notion: one can have an intuitive understanding of place and its components, that is, one can have an intuitive understanding of the seamless material, temporal, and locational structure of reality, but one cannot have an intuitive understanding of space — I mean the modern neutral container-concept —, which is a notion driven by historical, and sociocultural considerations that took many centuries to concretize, rather than a notion driven by ‘intuitive’ or phenomenological considerations, which, on the contrary, led Aristotle to a notion — topos — radically different from that neutral container-concept that we usually call space.[6] In antiquity there was no concept like that: the ancient Greeks had no words corresponding to such modern conception of space (topos and chōra had different ranges of meaning, we have already seen it in the article Back to the Origins of Space and Place); and, similarly, the old Latin ‘spatium’, deriving from the Greek ‘spadion’, or ‘stadion’, antecedent forms of the English term space, was especially understood as a simple dimension or distance between two bodies, a two-dimensional region, either in the earth and in the vaulted starry sky, or as a temporal extension — again, for further information, I redirect you to the articles Back to the Origins of Space and Place and Concepts of Space in Vitruvius. Neutra understood that the traditional concept of space was a concept detached from reality — detached from the senses —, and, therefore, inadequate to describe the concrete experience of bodies within the physical environment. As Neutra intuited (and as Einstein tried to prove at the physical level), what people usually call ‘space’ seems to be more directional and oriented with respect to the seemingly abstract concept of space devised by Newton. By relying on the spirit of my epoch, just like Neutra did for his epoch, I’m sensitive to the inadequacy of current concepts of space to appropriately come to terms with the way we understand the present-day reality. So, now, we should point out that, according to current physical theories, the spacetime concept that Neutra ideally relied on to go against the traditional idea of space, has been surpassed by the field concept, (which I intend as a typology of place rather than as a typology of space) and this fact inevitably affects the way we should rethink the concepts of space and place (and the relation between space, place and architecture), at the present epoch. On an exclusive architectural level, I can say that, today, both conceptions of space (the absolute and the relative, other than, for certain avant-garde architects, a conception of space more similar to the field-concept) are available to the architect; despite that, I believe our current proposals for rethinking spatial notions need to be even more radical than in the past, given that we have to reconsider these modern and contemporary acquisitions within a wider horizon that implies the return to space within place, in the form of a plain abstract or ideal concept, which puts some limits to its current overwhelming metaphorical power, of which we often lose control. This means that the architect should use and correlate two different kinds of languages: one, more abstract and spatial — the language of space —, which is especially valuable at the stage of the project, a realm of imagination for architects, an ideal realm not exclusive for architects. This language can give architects the freedom to imagine whatever scenario or whatever style of expression for their projects or proposals. The other language — the language of place —, is correlated to space, like yin is correlated to yang; it is more concrete and is especially active when we have to adapt the space of the project — the space of abstraction — to the real place for which the project has been imagined (I mean place understood as a system of interacting physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic processes, and not simply the traditional idea of place as geographical location or socially constructed notion). Architects should consciously comply with both languages and consider them as correlate or complementary, to realize a sense of completeness through their works. Since more than one century, architects have been educated to conceive of architecture as a discipline of space;[7] yet, such an ordinary space was a ‘classical’ space, a space of Newtonian origin, a concept staying on the same substantial level with respect to place (according to the prevailing traditional view in vogue after Newton, both space and place are understood as concrete physical entities). To realize the correlation or complementarity between languages that I call for here, it is necessary to establish differences and continuities between space and place. The difficulty is multiple: it’s about understanding what place really means as a concrete entity; moreover, it’s about understanding a somewhat different role for space (from concrete, to abstract, which means being more careful in order not to lose orientation with our thoughts entangled in its metaphorical use); as a consequence of the previous points, it’s about acting so that place and space become explicative of each other function: one, to begin with, pertaining to the realm of concrete phenomena, the other pertaining to an abstract realm or domain that is useful to square the circle of experience, or knowledge, and reality. With a perspective into the future, these are necessary steps for contemporary architects to meet the requirements of our contemporary epoch, in between concrete and abstract values.

This is the next quote:

If architecture is an affair of many senses, the stage assigned to it, space itself, is in fact also a multisensorial product which begins to evolve for us while we are still in the uterus.[8]

I agree with Neutra’s fundamental point: architecture is an affair of many senses. No doubt: this is a profound, timeless truth. It should be a starting point for architects, and it was a starting point for me too. In the past, like Neutra, and like everybody who takes the spatial terminology from ordinary language, without investigating its origins and variegated meanings, I acknowledged that stage as space. However, now, in the light of a more accurate recognition of the senses and origins of the spatial concepts, which was possible thanks to the contribution and diffusion of new intellectual resources (both scientific and philosophical), I wouldn’t basically define that stage in terms of space: that stage is more complex and richer than what the term space may convey or suggest. That stage is where two different but correlated realms meet, bringing forth each other: as I’ve said, one concrete, or actual — this is the realm of place, to begin with —, the other abstract or ideal — this is the realm of space. One is the space of the project; the other is the place where the project is turned into stone. Then, the ordinary perspective is overthrown: if we consider reality as the stage of two different and correlated realms, this implies that space cannot be understood as a ‘multisensorial product’: that multisensorial product is place. Space is an ideal or abstract entity, the result of cognitive, intellectual and symbolic processes that are necessary to understand the concrete nature of reality-as-place (cognitive processes are correlated to the senses). Thorough thinker as he was, Neutra made the following pertinent reference to that stage as ‘a multisensorial product which begins to evolve for us while we are still in the uterus’. History and language can help us to elucidate this question concerning that stage, in between questions of space and place: if we remind the fundamental definition of place (topos) given by Aristotle, — ‘That is what place is: the first unchangeable limit (peras) of that which surrounds’ — [9] it means that the uterus is the limit that surrounds the unborn child: then, that limit, literally defines the (Aristotelian) place of the unborn child. We can even think at that pristine stage or creative matrix for human beings, as a Platonic receptacle — chōra —, which is a spatial/placial notion I’m very close to, and which influenced the structure of the notions of place and space that I’m arguing for, here. Then, that ‘multisensorial stage’, which, from the very beginning as intuited by Neutra, concretely acts on the body and its senses, is always a place; conversely, space — the modern neutral container notion of geometrical origin — acts on the intellect at a later stage (it is a product of the intellect, precisely). The two situations (senses and intellect, place and space) are correlated: one brings forth the other; but to say, sic et simpliciter, that space acts on the senses is to assign space the role of place, which is the reason why Newton became famous in the end. This fact, space acting on the senses, prevents any possibility of correlation between concrete and abstract realms described in spatial/placial terms (if space acts on the senses it means that it is a concrete entity, therefore, given that place is also concrete, no correlation between abstract and concrete domains can be possibly described in spatial/placial terms, which is a great epistemological limitation and a known quagmire). Apart from historico-philosophical and epistemological considerations, I repeat what the American psychologist James J. Gibson said concerning the association between space and the senses: ‘the concept of space has nothing to do with perception… The visual third dimension is a misapplication of Descartes’s notion of three axes for a coordinate system. The doctrine that we could not perceive the world around us unless we already had the concept of space is nonsense. It is quite the other way around: We could not conceive of empty space unless we could see the ground under our feet and the sky above. Space is a myth, a ghost, a fiction for geometers.’[10] When we talk about perception and the bodily experience of the physical environment, either built or natural environment, we’d better start talking in terms of place and of its concrete constituents, rather than space. If we refer to the senses, we should speak in terms of electromagnetic fields that fire our bodily receptors, waves propagating through the air, water, etc., or, at bigger scales, in terms of other sensible entities like objects or bodies, which are all concrete entities, and which, according to my hypothesis, should be intended as states of place; in general, the fields of physics are states of place (they are not states of space, given that space is an abstract entity, contrarily to place, which is a concrete entity, to begin with), and beyond that level, entities at higher levels can be understood as biological, social and/or symbolic states of place. Of course, mental states like imagination, memories and the likes — which we could consider things belonging to abstract realms or domains, see the article What Is a Thing? — integrate perception; but, within the evolutionary hypothesis that I’m arguing for here, at RSaP – Rethinking Space and Place, our senses are first engaged with the concrete environment, offering the raw material on which the mind acts, completing the circularity of experience, or knowledge. To begin with, such an environment, either at fundamental or superior levels, must be understood in terms of place, not space. We perceive things and/or places, but we cannot perceive ‘space’ if, by the term perception, we mean the possibility to see, hold, touch, or hear concrete entities; we can only imagine it, and architects are very good at doing that. As architects, we imagine architecture in a realm of space — we have the freedom to create spaces — and we built them in the realm of place, that is, we modify places through architecture; that’s why I say that architecture creates spaces and modifies places for dwelling. Both realms (place and space), or levels of knowledge, are necessary to engage with reality as a unitary, complex system. But only if we can consider place and space two correlated domains, or realms, with their own complexities and prerogatives, one concrete, the other abstract, can placial/spatial reality disclose, and be understood, in all its complexity and encompassing embrace, from concrete to abstract values.

Throughout Chapter 22, in Survival Through Design, Neutra rejects the formalism of Newtonian space and its abstractions, in favour of an almost opposite ‘physiologically conceived space’. Apart from the intrinsic epistemological difficulties behind the expression ‘physiologically conceived space’, I cannot help but subscribe the spirit of Neutra’s clear-cut pronunciation about the relation between architecture, geometry and reality. Neutra says:

If we really want to fit the architecture of construed environment to life and so put it on a physiological basis, we must decisively step beyond and outside the abstractions of Euclidean geometry.[11]

I would only extend his statement on the role of geometrical abstraction, from Euclidean geometry to any type of geometry (especially today, when architects use complex geometries, far beyond Euclidean geometry,  thanks to the aid of computer technology), and remember that the real question addressed here, beyond the initial intentions of Neutra, is to avoid misplacing space — which is always abstract — with the structure of life, which, to begin with, is concrete, and which — I say — has a fundamentally-placial character (reality is a complex place, or system, emerging from the correlation of concrete and abstract values, that is, from the correlation of physicochemical, biological, social and intellectual or symbolic states). The problem for Neutra and for those who, at the present time, keep on using the term/concept space indifferently across abstract and concrete domains, is that, they make almost no (ontological) distinction between space and place: it is this shortcoming that causes a sense of confusion, with the consequence that the space of geometry is often misplaced for the alleged space of real life. Neutra was conscious about this fundamental conundrum, and he tried to overcome it with the intellectual tools and notions available at his time, adapting scientifically based concepts to architecture and introducing a new terminology (this is why he referred to spacetime, rejecting the space of Newton, and used an expression like ‘physiological space’, or, beyond spatial considerations, this is why he employed a novel expression like ‘biorealism’, on which I’ll return later on). That problem was present and felt at the time of Neutra, and it is still present and felt now. The fact is that there is not ‘a space of real life’, or, better, real life has, to begin with, a placial structure, it is a place which is, all-at-once, physically-extended, that is material, temporal and locational,  and if, as Neutra rightly affirms, ‘we really want to fit the architecture of the construed environment to life’ we must act so that architecture complies to, or confront with place understood as a system of actualized physicochemical, biological ( physiological and psychological) and social processes, before symbolization comes into play, that is, before space, as a symbolic, ideal or imaginary entity, comes into play to complete the encompassing structure of reality-as-place, which varies from concrete to abstract values or patterns.

With specific reference to the refutation of Newton’s theorization about space, in favour of a more realistic conception of ‘space’ (either physiological or relative in Einsteinian sense), Neutra is quite explicit when he writes:

instead of saying ‘space in its own nature’ Newton should have said, in his Principia: Space by current definition or by a convention derived from classical geometry. [12]

This is certainly true. Yet, with hindsight, after decades of philosophical and scientific developments, we could probably say that Neutra, in the wake of Einstein, moved the ball forward by adopting another version of space (relative spacetime as a way to endorse ‘physiological space’), which, in itself, is another abstract ‘convention’. One could argue that any term or concept is an abstract convention (hence, place too), which is a thing we cannot deny. But, I’ve already spoken about that in the past articles: some terms or conventions are closer to the stubborn reality of facts than others; or, to put it another way, some terms or concepts are more inclusive than others, or explain phenomena with more accuracy (in this sense I say that they are ‘more realistic’). This was certainly the case of relative space (or its biological/architectural version ‘physiological space’) against absolute space. This is also the case of the field concept, or of a reformed notion of place of the kind I’m arguing for here, against other typologies of space. Then, the real point to stay closer to the reality of life, as in the intentions of Neutra, is not to pass from a concept of space to another concept of space, but to shift the focus from space to place, or better, from space to the complementarity between place and space – a concept I sometimes express through the formula place( )space – to understand reality as an encompassing placial-and-spatial system of concrete and abstract values or patterns, once we have established that place, to begin with, is the realm where actual or concrete happenings and events occur, while space is the abstract realm or domain where happenings and events are ideal, possible, hypothetical, etc. (I’ve partially dealt with this question in the first part of the article Urban Spaces or Places?).

Image 11: Oyler House, Lone Pine, California, US, 1959. Architect: Richard Neutra.
Image 12: Oyler House, Lone Pine, California, US, 1959. Architect: Richard Neutra.
Image 13: Two mighty rocks in front of the Oyler House, in the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California, US.

Architecture is a discipline in-between theory and practice, in-between abstraction and concreteness. Neutra had the ability to transform thoughts, words and projects into some architectural masterpieces — icons of modern times; especially, his projects for private dwellings, which found an appropriate milieu in the North-American context. Many of those residences are still fresh after so many decades. Thanks to the universal value of physiological and psychological processes through which our body is correlated to the physical environment, when and where Neutra’s design met the appropriate sociocultural conditions, he was able to transform architecture into an archetypal experience. In these happy circumstances the architecture of Neutra, by going beyond the limits of the classical spatial language of his time, transcended the limits of time as well. By explicitly recognizing the concrete implications of biological processes on architecture, he was able to give architecture an appropriate ground, both theoretical and practical. It is starting from this ground that architecture should be erected; on this ground, social, cultural, and symbolic dimensions should be also cultivated to make architecture a complete system, fully integrated with reality. This timeless truth, which was already implicitly enunciated by the Roman architect Vitruvius a couple of millennia ago, is often forgotten by architects. It was Neutra himself, who, in the chapter we are considering, reminded us that, many times, in the course of history, architects neglected the basic role of biological processes, that is the basic role of ‘physiological space’ or ‘organic space’, as when, for example, Donato Bramante and Michelangelo Buonarroti designed the plan of St. Peter, in Rome, according to ‘a purely geometrical, multiaxial, nondirectional abstraction’, which was contrary to ‘a processional, a gradual forward movement, a forward-facing toward the holy’ so typical of Christianity.[13] This architectural abstraction, this a-priori neglect of the body and its intrinsic directionality — Neutra notes — was vindicated by the subsequent projects of Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who modified the original abstract plans for St. Peter, so that Neutra concludes:

Even a Titan of the powers of a Michelangelo will have to operate within biological necessities, or else the chance for survival of his work will be impaired

Then Neutra continues: ‘Thus, a symmetrical center of the world has to remain precarious theory, an idea strange to concrete feeling… Whenever the Deity may be convinced to dwell, that ego [i.e., the ego of man], by its nature, would have to face it, prostrate itself before the supreme, use an actual and animated body in adoration, bend the head down in humility or raise eyes and hands upward in hope. The ritual will always conform with the tenets of physiological space, with its strong directional accents. Building design must follow suit.’[14] To paraphrase a famous principle for architects in vogue since the late 19th century — form follows function — [15], according to Neutra’s principles, we should now say: ‘form follows physiological space’. At this regard, when during my first years at the university I understood that architecture was a question of space, I began to think about that famous modern architectural principle as ‘form follows space’; now, a couple of decades later, I would transform that architectural principle into a more profound and encompassing metaphysical principle, which is still valid for architecture:

Form follows process.

The key to understanding this principle also regards the placial/spatial question explained through the notion of limit — see the article Limit Place Appearance, in particular Images 3 and 4, where the limit is nothing other than the actualization of a form-as-place of processes.

Few lines after the aforementioned quotation on Michelangelo, continuing his argumentation in favour of the intrinsic directionality of the body, Neutra made the following statement concerning the arrangement of things and tools that workers — cobblers, draftsmen, officers, tailors, etc. — or common people use on daily bases (i.e., the disposition of forks, spoons or knives at the dining table): ‘these arrangements, originating from the normal functioning of human bodies, bluntly disparage symmetry to which the paper-planning architect so long allowed himself to be enslaved.[16] Neutra’s reference to the paper-planning architect suggested me the following considerations about the fact that we could grossly divide architects into three typologies (which I experienced first-hand, in the different phases of my architectural career, as student, practitioner and professional): according to a growing gradient of experience and expertise, and within a systemic understanding that wants higher competences and expertise to include lower ones, the first typology is the one mentioned by Neutra —  the paper-planning architect (the architect that designs facades with a supposedly aesthetic ethos); the second is the typology that I would call ‘space-planning architect’ (the architect that thinks about the life of people within buildings); the third and final typology is the one that I would call ‘place-planning architect’ (the architect that understands architecture as a system within systems, where the maximum level of complexity is reached working on the complex entanglement between architecture and reality intended as the concretization of physicochemical, biological, sociocultural and symbolic processes) or, using a famous Platonic notion, ‘chōra-planning architect’ (hence, the more intuitive name ‘choral architect’, in the metaphorical sense of the architect that is able to give many different parts an integrated unity). Names apart, the last typology especially regards those architects who, in their works, are especially sensitive to the divide between abstraction and concreteness and, possibly, those who are sensitive to the intrinsic possibility for architecture to consciously fill that divide. I’d certainly include Neutra in the category of ‘choral architects’ or ‘place-planning architects’, even if, like any other modern architect, his vocabulary has been oriented to a ‘classical’ understanding of space, — a more or less neutral container of phenomena, a concept  which Neutra had the intellectual force to reject —, and to a reduced understanding of place — as a simple location, site, or plain geographical notion, which Neutra did not contrast.

Neutra’s attention to the distinction between abstract and concrete approaches to architecture, which, according to him, especially originated in the directionality of the body, surfaces at any point in Chapter 22, as when he says that ‘we are in form and function anything but close to physiological symmetry in a strict geometrical sense. And yet, endless exhibits of symmetrical beauty and geometrical simplification — from courthouses and railroad stations to footwear — testify how designers have concentrated on this sort of abstraction and how little concerned they were with vital reality. Their products might fill a strange museum of physiological abortions and miscarriages… Physiological factors or consideration have little to do with geometrical arrangement… elementary examples prove the importance of permeating environmental design with the use of tested data of organic significance.[17] And Neutra concludes:

A physiological concept of space, then, is needed

This takes us to a final important question Neutra deals with, in Chapter 22 of Survival Through Design, with which I want to close this article: the relation between physiological space and other notions of space, in primis, sociological space. This question allows me to clarify the overall placial and spatial framework that I’m arguing for at, and its influence on architecture; and, hopefully, it can also contribute to understand what the complex work of the architect consists of, and, indirectly, it could also offer a contribute on how to judge the work of an architect, which is necessarily bound to historical or time-related contingencies, and to physicochemical, biological, and sociocultural or place-related contingencies. This is an extremely important question to elucidate since, in my opinion, it should affect the theoretical foundation of future spatial/placial theories that aim at surpassing the meaning of traditional concepts of space and place, especially their epistemological and ontological limits. Specifically, the question I want to deal with regards the role of reductionistic and deterministic modes of thinking to understand the variegated phenomena of reality, at the dawn of a new epoch.[18] Neutra says:

Physiological space must prevail in the end. It must be helped to prevail over any other arbitrary notion on space. It may have to overrule and rectify all these notions and sociological concepts of space, to which the individual humbly, often amazingly, has submitted for many generations. Sociological space, after all, is only what man as a social being with all his cerebral teamwork of distillings and embroiderings has derived from basic physiological space and what group life has superimposed upon it. The base must remain to bear the superstructure.[19]

This statement concerning the role of ‘physiological space’ as an ultimate ground (at least, an ultimate ground for the activity of the architect), is a reductive statement: not just reductive in epistemological sense (reductionism is a mode of thinking and knowledge that had its roots in the mechanistic and deterministic visions of reality developed after thinkers and scientists like Bacon and Galilei, Descartes and Newton, a mode of thinking which is still alive and kicking), but also reductive in a literal sense: in fact, Neutra, in specific circumstances, has been able to integrate a reductionist approach to knowledge within a more holistic conception of life and reality. This is especially evident in his theoretical summaDesign Through Survival — and in his North American architectural production, which I especially refer to in this article. At theoretical level, this is what should distinguish traditional spatial concepts from more contemporary spatial/placial perspectives, ultimately: the impossibility to use spatial or placial concepts as reductive tools for explaining phenomena in a world that, according to more recent scientific and philosophical findings and instances, seems to be indeterministic and systemic, and, therefore, fundamentally anti reductionistic. In a passage before, I’ve agreed with Neutra on the fundamental value of physiological and psychological processes for architecture and design practices: I’ve said that architecture should be erected on that ground; I’ve also added that Neutra ‘was able to give architecture an appropriate theoretical and practical ground’; an appropriate ground, not the (only) appropriate ground, which is what I understand when I read that ‘physiological space must prevail in the end’. On the base of system-thinking and of an ecologically-organized approach to reality, which, in turn, had an important philosophical source in the philosophy of process and organism elaborated by Alfred N. Whitehead,   I believe architecture, just like reality, has a multi-folded ground, a fourfold ground at least (physichochemical, biological, social and symbolic grounds), which we cannot reduce to a single trait, ground or level, in abstraction from others, if we want to thoroughly understand how the whole system works (to understand how a system works, as parts within the whole, we should think at the hierarchical organization of levels within an ecological system: I’m an independent organism with respect to the cells, tissues and organs that compose my body-and-mind; however if they do not work appropriately, my independence soon may dissolve into dust, that is, there is a fundamental balance or correlation between the parts and between the parts and the whole organism. We can go on the other way around, from the organism, through populations, communities, ecosystems, and biomes, to the ecosphere, our planet, and even beyond — with regard to the systemic fourfold I often refer to, and its ecological working principle, see also Table 1 in the paper From Space to Place, and Image 2, in the article Preliminary Notes). With respect to architecture, I believe we cannot discriminate on the priority of biological processes with respect to social processes or even on the supremacy of physicochemical processes on different kinds of symbolic processes: for me, they are all equally fundamental and correlated to each other. The greatness of an architect consists in the ability of correlating the different parts or processes of the system-architecture, which in turn is a part within a reality that we should understand as an encompassing whole of processes; when the processes concerning architecture meet the contingencies of the processes of reality, architecture reaches its fullest degree of completeness and a masterpiece results. The difficulty consists in staying in perpetually precarious balance between those fundamental physicochemical, biological, (→ ecological), sociocultural and symbolic processes that are common to architecture and reality; processes which, for their nature and constitution, are in perennial transformation. Correlation or complementarity are the key words of my entire system, either we refer to reality or architecture as such (correlation between the parts and between the parts and the whole) or to place and space, which are concepts that we need to understand how reality works, or how architecture works, as a part of reality. Those four equally-fundamental modalities or states of reality that I have spoken about on the base of system thinking and of an ecological approach to knowledge (see also Paragraphs 3 and 4 in the paper From Space to Place), emerge from each other (higher systems emerge from lower systems) and shade off into each other so that from their correlation, a more fundamental and encompassing sense emerges, both for reality and architecture. Thus, coming back to Neutra, I wouldn’t say that ‘physiological space’ (that is ‘biological space’) is more fundamental than ‘sociological space’, and that the latter must always conform to the former; they are equally fundamental, in different ways. As architects and free thinkers, we have the possibility to estimate what is the role of biological processes with respect to physical, sociocultural or symbolic processes, (or with respect to ecological, economic, political, technological, industrial, artistic, ethical, etc. processes, which are all epiphenomena of the four fundamental typologies of processes) and decide priorities. But this esteem must be done after having accurately examined the problem we are investigating with a systemic or ecological perspective of the kind I mentioned above, and considering the systemic/ecological implications behind our answers — architectural answers if we are architects. This means that a preliminary understanding of system thinking and the functioning of systems within the ecological working principle mentioned above is necessary for contemporary architects and for all those who want to embrace this new sensibility for understanding the world and its phenomena far beyond the restraints of mechanistic and reductionist modes of thinking only. Yet, be careful: I’m not denying the achievements and the necessity of certain reductionist approaches knowledge; I’m saying that any reductionist approach should be thought of in correlation with a more holistic and systemic vision of knowledge and reality. System thinking and other recent scientific, social scientific, or philosophical developments were not available at the times Neutra wrote those words, or they were just at the beginning; so, we are in a vantage point with respect to our predecessors. Despite Neutra’s reductive statement concerning the primary role of physiological space with respect to ‘any other arbitrary notion on space’, it seems to me that, in general, Neutra’s work cannot be simply tagged as ‘reductive’. Neutra was fundamentally aware of the role and the necessities of scientific reductionism within a more holistic or global vision of reality, which is, for me, the essential condition for human progress. Like no other architect before him, Neutra showed an instinctive and sometimes explicit awareness of systems and their impact on architecture and planning; his approach was not only physiologically, or technologically and industrially oriented, as his architectures clearly show, but also ecologically oriented, at least for what concerns the fundamental awareness of the hierarchically organized level-processes that are intrinsic to architecture, life and the physical environment: physicochemical, biological, (→ ecological) sociocultural and symbolic processes. Otherwise he couldn’t have said that ‘Every city is a complex of solid and liquid bodies and gaseous exhalations, teeming with several populations. The two most prominent are the human and perhaps the bacterial populations. There are, however, several others: entomological (bugs and termites), lower mammalian (rats, cats, dogs), vegetative (from lichens in basements to boulevard greens and a few trees in lucky backyards). In order to achieve a successful symbiosis — an ecological balance, a productive living together of ‘desirable’ elements, always with marked preference for humans — large-scale planning must be applied.’ [20]  Or he couldn’t have said  that ‘design must serve physiological and social processes’, which means that he had in mind a systemic organization of reality and architecture, as an intrinsic part of reality, even if, today, we might contest the final reduction of his system of thought to biological processes only. [21] With hindsight, that is with a different sensibility dictated by the contingencies of time and history, we could question the value of a phrase like ‘marked preference for humans’, entering the realm of ecology and ethics; or we could question his industrially and technologically oriented vision of society and its products (a vision ingrained in the minimalistic and standardized aesthetics of his architectures) prevailing over a wide-ranging  understanding of sociocultural questions, which is, I think, the reason why Neutra’s formula especially succeeded in a specific context. But this is not my point, here. Almost a unique case in his epoch, Neutra was one of the first architects to understand and theorize explicitly upon the intimate interconnection between physicochemical processes (the physical environment) and biological processes (physiological and psychological processes), which he sometimes fused into a perfect unity, brilliantly expressed through a technologically-modern architectural language. In these happy circumstances, Neutra, apart from mastering the correlated roles of (i) physiochemical and (ii) biological processes pertaining the relation between the physical environment and the human body-and-soul, also demonstrated to have an explicit awareness and control of economic, industrial, technical, technological and certain social dynamics — generically, (iii)  ‘sociocultural processes’ — and, despite his overall aversion to formalism, he certainly knew the important role of architecture as a figurative language — generically, (iv) ‘symbolic or intellectual processes’—, which are different yet equally foundational dimensions for architecture.[22] It was that unity, or the theorethical tension towards it, that Neutra was able to synthesize into a personal architectural approach, which he called ‘biorealism’,[23] and which, given the differential focus that Neutra put on the aforementioned constitutive processes, had its natural and appropriate milieu in North America. In virtue of this perfectly realized union between man, architecture and that milieu as place of specific qualities, Neutra’s words sound appropriate:

My experience, everything within me, is against an abstract approach to land and nature, and for the profound assets rooted in each site and buried in it like a treasurable wonder.

He continues: ‘The ancients thought those vital assets spirits. By listening intently, you can hear them miraculously breathe in their slumber. You may subtly awaken them to startling values of design truly assured of duration, growth, and never-ending life… All of our senses are affected by the setting; many of our conditioned responses and associations are determined by it. It surpasses all merely mechanical influences. “Gestalt psychology” has taught us to beware of looking at this manifold stimulation as if it were divided or divisible. It is one miraculous entity. What a site produces on our total being is, in fact a combined total impact — a magic spell, hard to gauge, to analyse or to exhaust in its effectiveness. It suns or overshadows our growth and decay, our failures and successes, our dire withering away or our happy survival.’ [24] Such a poetic description of places and landscapes that justifies the wonderful fusion between many residential dwellings designed by Neutra and their natural surroundings contrasts with the ordinary use of the term ‘site’, which, in this context especially, I consider a reductive term. I think Neutra’s frequent use of the term ‘site’, in this and similar contexts, revealed the more or less conscious fight of Neutra against the traps of ordinary spatial vocabulary, not only with respect to the classical concept of space (a question Neutra was aware of, and which he tried to overcome adopting what he considered a more realistic spatial concept physiological space’), but also with respect to the ordinary (and reductive) understanding of place as ‘site’ (a question Neutra did not consider). Concerning this important question for architects, the reduction of place to ‘site’, or ‘location’, was a process that was accomplished by Newton and Leibniz see Casey’s account, in the article Place and Space: A Philosophical History; Neutra was against their abstract spatial philosophies, but by frequently employing the more abstract term ‘site’ in circumstances where the more concrete term ‘place’ (a physical concept of Aristotelian tradition) would have been appropriate, he unwittingly accepted part of their abstractions: precisely, he rejected their notions of space, while he formally accepted their implicit reduction of place to site or location, which is a problematic position  to sustain from an epistemological perspective.[25] As clearly emerges from the overall content of that statement, what Neutra had in mind was not a natural setting reduced to ‘site’, but a powerful stage for the life of man immersed within the circumambient world, a stage where many fundamental processes are interlaced; therefore, I argue, there is no term more appropriate than place to suggest the stage or setting — either natural or urban — where a new architecture is going to be built.

From the aforementioned quotation of Neutra, I understand that what he described using the questionable term ‘site’ is not far from my idea of the physical environment as the place of interacting physicochemical and biological processes, to begin with (it is this fundamental placial experience, where man and the physical environment fuse together, that urged Neutra to coin the term ‘biorealism’). In this case, it seems to me there is a certain gap between Neutra’s real understanding of the physical environment and his linguistic description of it, by means of a reductive spatial term like ‘site’. In spite of this linguistic limitation due to the contingencies of time especially, Neutra was a clear and rare example of an architect who tried to go beyond the restraints of the ordinary spatial language of his time, which he was able to overcome, on a practical level, with some of his iconic architectures, and, on the theoretical level, with new concepts that he put into the focus of architects (‘physiological space’ and, above all, ‘biorealism’).

I maintain that reformed concepts of place and space should conform to the relatively recent systemic or ecological sensibility for life and the Cosmos, which is slowly but relentlessly percolating throughout any sector of our contemporary society. These new modes of thought inevitably affect another long-standing question which especially interests architects and was implicit in Neutra’s argumentation: is architecture an independent system of knowledge — an autopoietic system — with its own principles, rules and regulations, or is architecture dependent on other systems, like, for instance, environmental systems, biological systems, social systems, etc.? Since the epoch of the Roman architect Vitruvius, this is a recurrent question for architects; a question that deserves a careful inspection in other articles, given that the question is everything but settled.

In conclusion, there are times I take a distance from certain spatial expressions like ‘physiological space’, ‘living space’, ‘natural space’, ‘organic space’, or ‘site’, when they are used in contexts that are better understood within an alternative and more concrete placial hypothesis (it means that, in certain circumstances, behind space or site, there is a pulsating place, actually); after all, realism and concreteness is what Neutra was fundamentally seeking for, and what distinguished his research from other architects. So, when Neutra says that ‘a physiological concept of space is needed’,[26] and I confront these words with his built architectures and his sensitive attitude towards vital reality, behind those words I prefer to see a more profound necessity communicated through a different spatial vocabulary: before all, a physiological understanding of place is needed. Similarly, I distance myself from Neutra when, for instance, he says that ‘no two solids can simultaneously exist overlapping in the same space’,[27] given that, within the placial and spatial framework that I propose, space is an abstract concept, and in an abstract domain any superposition between solids is ideally possible; conversely, it is in place, in the concrete placial domain of facts and phenomena — the domain of concrete particulars — that such superposition is impossible (see also Paragraph 2  Ontologies and Epistemologies of Limit in the article Limit Place Appearance). The distance I take from the spatial terminology used by Neutra in certain passages of the text, that is, fundamentally, the distance between two different ways of understanding the concepts of space and place, is exacerbated by the different epochs that inevitably affect one’s vision of reality and influence our understanding of the spatial and placial concepts that we use to come to terms with reality (is reality spatial? Is it placial? Is it both spatial and placial?). What, in a passage above, I defined as an archetypal experience of architecture based on the senses — that is, an experience based on the correlation between biological processes and physicochemical processes concerning the intimate connection between the physical environment and men’s body-and-soul — always remains valid; therefore, at this regard, Neutra was right. However, as time goes by, with the acquisition of new learning and competences, it has become clearer and clearer that such archetypal experience based on the senses should be thought of in correlation with other equally-fundamentals forms of knowledge and experience that make architecture an even more comprehensive phenomenon that we thought in the past (a phenomenon whose range varies from physicochemical to biological, from ecological to social, from cultural to symbolic or even ethical patterns of value), whose complexity mirrors the systemic complexity of life and the Cosmos. Each time we are called for disentangling problems, either architectural or not, we cannot reduce them to an ultimate level or form of knowledge; each time, we need to re-discuss and re-establish priorities between the four systems, levels or dimensions of reality, which are behind any known phenomena and which are equally fundamental, but which push and pull against each other to gain supremacy — otherwise said: we have to find the perfect balance between matter, life, society and thought since reality fuses them into an encompassing unity. The architecture as well as the theoretical approach of Richard Neutra is still alive after so many decades since, in them, we can still find traces — sometimes strong, other times faint — of the systemic entanglement of processes that incessantly run in and between the different dimensions that coalesce into reality, of which our bodies, souls, and architectures are integral parts.


[1] I have used the 1969 edition for this article: in Richard Neutra, Survival Through Design (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 156-170.

[2] Ibid., 156; the capital letters in the text were used by the author.

[3] The metaphorical expression ‘reference-mollusk’ was used by Einstein in the book Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1920), 99, to visualize the basic property of spacetime. As we read in the preface, the book intended to give an insight into the fundamental scientific and philosophical aspects of Relativity to those readers ‘not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics.’

[4] Einstein writes: ‘Euclid’s mathematics, however, knew nothing of this concept as such [space]; it confined itself to the concepts of the object, and the spatial relations between objects. The point, the plane, the straight line, the segment are solid objects idealized. All spatial relations are reduced to those of contact (the intersection of straight lines and planes, points lying on straight lines, etc). Space as a continuum does not figure in the conceptual system at all. This concept was first introduced by Descartes, when he described the point-in-space by its coordinates’; in Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, fifth edition (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1960), 279. See also Salomon Bochner, “Space”, in Dictionary of the History of Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 295: ‘Greek mathematics did not conceive an over-all space to serve as a “background-space” for geometrical figures and loci. There is no such background space for the configurations and constructs in the mathematical works of Euclid, Archimedes, or Apollonius, or even in the astronomical work Almagest of Ptolemy.’

[5] See Salomon Bochner, “Space”, in Dictionary of the History of Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 295, 302. See also note [4] above.

[6] I understand the structure of reality as, all-at-once, material (this pertains to physical extension — the what of things), temporal (this pertains to temporal extension — the when of things) and locational or locative (this pertains to physical localization — the where of things). Space, as a simple mono-dimensional extension originally regarded the what of things, not the where: space was the measure of concrete things, before becoming a more abstract unit of measurement (at first, the distance covered by oxen carrying the plough without a rest, then a footrace, or, later, the building for the footrace — Stadion —, and, eventually, the famous unit of measurement in classical antiquity; there is a growing gradient of abstraction, and a passage of time, between these moments — see the article Back to the Origins of Space and Place). Yet, as a measure, space was in itself an abstract what. Extension, severed from matter, is abstract, non-consistent, ideal. So, in the case of matter, the what of things is concrete, substantial. In the case of space, the what is abstract, unsubstantial or ideal. It was the inconsistent what-nature of space that eventually transformed space itself into an entity that seemed to pervade concrete things or bodies, and therefore, transformed itself into the container-like entity that we all know. Here, we are ambiguously suspended between the concrete and the abstract, between language and reality. Newton bent the original what-character of space from abstract to concrete to suit his needs and give a physical foundation to his theories (see the article Space and Place: A Scientific History – Part One); as a consequence of this transformation, space superimposed to place, which was the original entity appointed to express the concrete where of things; in this way, space replaced the traditional locational function of place (space definitely assumed within itself the locational function for things that was originally assigned to place by Aristotle — this reconstruction that I’m doing here is thoroughly analysed by Edward Casey’s book The Fate of Place, which is the extended subject of my article Place and Space: A Philosophical History). This ‘conceptual monstrosity’ — this is the way the physicist Ernst Mach tagged absolute space, see note [16] the article Space and Place: A Scientific History – Part Two —, was partially corrected by Einstein: the shift from absolute space to relative spacetime corrected the substantial nature of space, but space, or spacetime, remained a concrete entity having a self-subsistent ontological status different from matter (in reality, there is not a space, or even a place, severed from the entities which are all-at-once extended, durable and localized; extension, duration and localization of entities are all seamlessly tied together and physical laws need to comply with this ultimate relational truth). Einstein was conscious about this incongruity: he was ready to go beyond Relativity abandoning the concept of space (actually, spacetime) in favour of a more epistemologically and ontologically-sound concept to prove his Unified Field Theory, but he didn’t succeed in his attempt — that ‘ontologically-sound concept’ is the ‘total field’, a four-dimensional continuum endowed with material properties, the all-encompassing entity I have mentioned above, which, I say, we should understand as a physical state of place rather than a physical state of space, given that, according to the original histories and meanings, space is an abstract concept, while place is not. In the future, I will return to Einstein’s conceptions of space by presenting Ludwik Kostro’s book ‘Einstein and the Ether’.

[7] From Karl Bötticher’s embryonic observations concerning the influence of spatial organization (Raumeinrichtung) on the shape of buildings, to Gottfried Semper’s concept of tectonic enclosure,which directly fostered a shift of the architect’s focus towards the concept of spatial enclosure; from Camillo Sitte’s idea of exterior space, passing through artistic, architectural, and psychological studies on spatial form and perception, undertaken by Adolf Hildebrand, Alois Riegl, Robert Vischer,  Theodor Lipps and others, at the end of the 19th century; from August Schmarsow’s novel idea of architectural space (1893), to the modern architectures of Hendrik Petrus Berlage —  ‘The art of architecture resides in the creation of spaces, not in the design of facades’, Berlage wrote in Hendrik Petrus Berlage, Thoughts on Style 1886-1909, trans. by I. Boyd Whyte and W. de Wit, (Santa Monica: The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1996), 29 —, Adolf Loos (Raumplan), Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and many others, in the period between the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of 20th century; and, finally, from Sigfried Giedion’s influential book ‘Space, Time, Architecture’ (1940), to Nikolaus Pevsner’s famous imprimatur on the spatial value of buildings and architecture —  ‘Everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in, is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal’, in Nikolaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture (London: Penguin Books, 1948), xix — and to Bruno Zevi’s ‘Architecture as Space’ (1964), architecture has been understood and explained by many critics, historians and architects as a discipline of space, since the late 19th century.

[8] Richard Neutra, Survival Through Design, 156.

[9] Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 55.

[10] In James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (New York: Psychology Press Classic Editions, 2015), xv, xvi.

[11] Richard Neutra, Survival Through Design, 157, 158.

[12] Ibid., 158.

[13] Ibid., 162. Actually, this is a case where it is evident the equally-fundamental entanglement between biological and social processes (Christian rituals); later on, in the text, we will return on this important question for architects.

[14] Ibid., 163; the verbs that express actions where the directionality of the body is implicated — to face, prostrate, bend, raise upward — were written in italics.

[15] This famous modern principle ‘form follows function’ is attributed to the American architect Louis Sullivan, who, in the article The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered (1896) wrote that ‘form ever follows function’.

[16] Richard Neutra, Survival Through Design, 163.

[17] Ibid., 164-165.

[18] Concerning the assertion ‘at the dawn of a new epoch’, see note [23] in the article Preliminary Notes; see also note [14] in the article Urban Spaces or Places?

[19] Ibid., 166.

[20] Ibid., 340.

[21] Ibid., 171.

[22] The general question concerning the role of ‘symbolic processes’ (in this case, by ‘symbolic processes’ I especially mean architecture as an expressive formal language), is a controversial aspect in Neutra’s production, which is anyway characterized as an exemplary case of style: International Style. Architecture is a powerful symbolic tool of expression, a peculiar form of art, to begin with. This was an especially relevant issue at the times Neutra grew up, in the first decades of the XX century. However, architecture, apart from being a peculiar form of art, also covers many scientific aspects. Neutra, as a reaction against the historical period he grew up, was one of the first architects who preferred to focus his attention on the most pragmatic and scientific values of architecture, apparently uncaring the direct role of abstract, formal or stylistic values, which, according to his perspective, appeared as an indirect consequence of more profound considerations (this is consonant with the modern motto form follows function). Neutra’s biorealistic approach — see note [23] below — is nothing other than the quintessence of this fundamental bias toward scientific realism, against the traditional understanding of architecture as a pure form of art or a pure form of aesthetic appreciation. If we can say that architecture is the art and science of building, it is also because of the pioneering contributes of Neutra, who extended the field of scientific applications to architecture, beyond mere functional and engineering aspects. In many passages of Chapter 22 in Survival Through Design, as well as in other chapters or books, Neutra often remarked his distance from purely formal or stylistic approaches to architecture. Despite that, abstract or formal approaches to architecture are an inherent and fundamental part of the architectural process. This abstract or formal approach can be so important that we could sometime transform the aforementioned modern motto into its opposite: function follows form (actually, I consider form and function two correlated moments of the same phenomenon, which is the effect of different processes — physichochemical, biological, social…). Neutra was aware of that possibility, even if, at least at theoretical level, he eventually reduced and resolved that possibility within the hypothesis of biological processes or, as he said, ‘of current organic research’ (see Chapter 15 in Survival Through DesignFunction May Itself Be a Follower, 111-118), thereby putting emphasis on scientific concerns to the detriment of what I consider equally fundamental symbolic (and, on a different level, social) concerns. However, at practical level — the level of the building, its physical appearance — the absolute symbolic or stylistic/formal value of Neutra’s architectures is undebatable and goes beyond words or theorizations (the Lovell House, or the Kaufmann Desert House are modern icons); this, I’ve said, is the happy synthetic result of Neutra’s instinctive systemic approach to reality and architecture, where a certain necessary reductionist vision concerning scientific questions was correlated to a more holistic vision concerning other questions that inhere in architecture — economic, industrial, technological, social, artistic, aesthetical, etc., —, which are difficult to put in the exact order or hierarchy and sometimes may also work at an unconscious level: that’s why we say that the activity of the architect necessarily passes through the gates of synthesis. The systemic elucidation of the role of ‘symbolic or intellectual processes’ with respect to other kinds of processes, ‘physicochemical’, ‘biological’ (ecological’) and ‘sociocultural process’ to begin with, is always an open agenda, not just for architects. Beyond its formal architectural expression, but without excluding its overall value, the work of Neutra interests me since he was one of the few modern architects who, more explicitly than others intended architecture as a complex system integrated within reality at many levels, not just at formal or merely functional levels.* Behind this approach there are certain universal values that make Neutra’s work still valuable and productive on a didactical perspective, even beyond the intentions of the author, dictated and limited by historical circumstances. The processual, organicist (in Whiteheadian sense) and systemic approach to reality and architecture that I call for here, has nothing to do with form or stylistic appearance as such, as well as it has nothing to do with biological or social processes as such; rather, the framework I propose hinges on the different correlated processes — physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic processes — that sustain the structure of reality, the life of man (as biological, social and cultural entity), and architecture, which are entangled dimensions of a unique reality. That’s the sense behind the formula ‘form follows process’, that I have mentioned in the text and which surpasses the old dualism intrinsic in the formula form follows function or, its opposite, function follows form.

* Isn’t the following pronunciation by Neutra very close to the vision of reality as a continuous system of places that I have described in the article Places Everywhere?  ‘The universe of which we are a part is a dynamic continuum. It extends from the most distant galactic systems into our atmosphere, biosphere, and terrestrial mantle, wafting even deeper into an energetic array of molecular and subatomic events that configure all matter, motion, and mind. Our skin is a membrane, not a barricade, [on the meaning of ‘membrane’ as ‘cum-finis’, or moment of union between inside and outside, see also my article Limit Place Appearance] and these universal processes reach through it, locking into our innermost vitals. The most remote contours of the cosmos are not just “out there somewhere” but causally interlaced with the nearest and deepest folds of our interior landscape’, cited in Barbara Lamprecht, Neutra, Complete Works, ed. Peter Gössel, preface Dion Neutra, photography Julius Schulman (Koln: Taschen GmbH, 2015), 50. That ‘dynamic continuum’ Neutra speaks of is what I call ‘place’ and we — who are parts of it, as Neutra rightly affirms — are places as well: as living beings, we are the place of biological processes, to begin with. That’s why I speak of places, within places, within places… The place of processes: that’s what reality is — a system of places —, and that’s also what architecture is.

[23] The term Biorealism was coined by Neutra to explain his personal approach based on the study of the intimate coupling between physiological, psychological and physicochemical processes applied to architecture. As far as I know, that term was adopted in the book World and Dwelling (1962), where Neutra defined Biorealismthe most practical sort of all realism, and its concerns include everything that is soul and body of man and without which we cannot get along’, in Richard Neutra, World and Dwelling (New York: Universe Books, Inc., 1962), 10. We also find the same term, ‘biorealism’, in the book Life and Shape (1962), where it was used as an abbreviation for ‘biological realism’, which is an expression that Neutra used more frequently than biorealism; this is the extended quotation: ‘I have called it biological realism, or biorealism for short. It is reasonable, and, once more, “a must”, to strive and profit in design from all current scientific information, and from actual application of it’, in Richard Neutra, Life and Shape (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962), 326. In the same book, on page 128, Neutra made this important consideration that reveals the connection between architecture and biorealism, or biological realism: ‘Architecture, properly gauged and satisfying, is the least abstract art. Twenty-four hours a day are spent in closest contact with concrete response-responses naturally grown and acquired over a lifetime, everything pulsatingly real: biological realism’. The term ‘Biorealism’ was also used in the book Building with Nature (1971): here, Neutra referred to ‘Biorealism’, or ‘Life-realism’, as a ‘new and growing humanism’ fed by scientific research; he described the architect as ‘a physiotherapist and an economist [who] can certainly support vitality and health without which each individual life and each living in togetherness becomes depraved’, in Richard Neutra, Building with Nature (New York: Universe Books, 1971), 222. The expression ‘Biological Realism’, to define Neutra’s personal approach to ‘the building of human habitat’ was used in the book Life and Human Habitat: Mensch und Wohnen (1956), where Neutra also defined this practical approach ‘the art of building as applied physiology’, in Richard Neutra, Life and Human Habitat: Mensch und Wohnen (Stuttgart: Verlagsanstalt Alexander Koch GmbH., 1956), 29. While in the book Survival Through Design (originally published in 1954) the same bias concerning the fundamental entanglement between biological processes and physicochemical processes of the environment applied to architecture and planning, was expressed in terms of ‘organic realism’, on page 341 (in this book, the expression ‘Biological Realism’ is just mentioned in the section ‘Contents’, on page xvi, while, if I’m not mistaken, there is no mention of the term ‘biorealism’ as such).

Further basic information on Neutra’s ‘biorealism’ can be found in the Thesis work by Bethany Christian Morse — Richard Neutra, Biorealist — which includes the quotations on ‘Biorealism’, in the book ‘Building with Nature’, and ‘Biological Realism’, in the book ‘Life and Human Habitat’, which I have mentioned above.

Further information on the work of Richard J. Neutra and his legacy can be found consulting the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design.

[24] Richard Neutra, On Building: Mystery and Realities of the Site (New York: Morgan & Morgan Publishers, 1951), 14, 16.

[25] this is the sense of the quotation ‘To the great seventeenth-century thinkers such as Newton and Leibniz, space in its own nature was absolute, always self-similar or homogeneous, not involved in any dynamic phenomena’; both the Newtonian and the Leibnizian conceptions of space (one absolute, the other relative, or relational, therefore intrinsically abstract) are not directly involved in concrete phenomena, which was contrary to Neutra’s belief; the same holds for place, which they reduced to a ‘simple location’ or ‘site’, which are concepts emptied of any dynamical power, which, on the contrary, was a quality pertaining to the Aristotelian concept of place. Had Neutra knew the philosophical (and physical) connotations behind those placial concepts, he would have probably adopted the more concrete and dynamic Aristotelian term ‘place’, more frequently than its reduced/abstract form as ‘site’. In Richard Neutra, Survival Through Design, 158.

[26] Ibid., 165.

[27] Ibid., 165.

Works Cited

Berlage, Hendrik Petrus. Thoughts on Style 1886-1909, introduction by I. Boyd Whyte, trans. by I. Boyd Whyte and W. de Wit. Santa Monica: The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1996.

Bochner, Salomon. “Space”, in Dictionary of the History of Ideas. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973.

Casey, Edward S. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Einstein, Albert. Relativity: The Special and the General Theory. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1920.

—. Ideas and Opinions. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1960.

Gibson, James J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. New York: Psychology Press Classic Editions, 2015.

Kostro, Ludwik. Einstein and the Ether. Montreal: Apeiron, 2000.

Lamprecht, Barbara. Neutra, Complete Works. Edited by Peter Gössel, preface by Dion Neutra, photography by Julius Schulman. Köln: Taschen GmbH, 2015.

Neutra, Richard. On Building: Mystery and Realities of the Site. New York: Morgan & Morgan Publishers, 1951.

—. Life and Shape. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962.

—. World and Dwelling. New York: Universe Books, Inc., 1962.

—. Survival Through Design. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Pevsner, Nikolaus. An Outline of European Architecture. London: Penguin Books, 1948.

Image Credits

Featured Image and Image 08, 09, 10: Kaufmann House, Neutra, Richard Joseph, architect; Shulman, Julius, photographer. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

Image 05 by Ilpo’s Sojourn on Wikipedia Creative Commons

Image 06 by Carol M. Highsmith Archive

Image 07 by Brent Harris on Wikipedia Creative Commons

Image 11: Oyler House, Neutra, Richard Joseph, architect; Dewey Nicks photographer.

Image 12 and 13 screenshot from the documentary The Oyler House: Richard Neutra’s Desert Retreat

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  • Theo Cuccaro
    Posted December 19, 2020 9:52 pm 0Likes

    Hey there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I truly enjoy reading through your articles. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same topics? Thanks a ton!

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