Neutra Territory

Add to
By Raymond Richard Neutra
Richard Neutra's son Raymond examines the internal architecture of his legendary father through a 1958 Berkeley psychological study.

In the late afternoon of Friday, December 12, 1958, a caravan of automobiles pulled away from the Oakland and San Francisco airports and headed for the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. They stopped in front of a brown-shingled building on a hill at the upper end of the campus, and out stepped a remarkable cargo. Ten of America’s most famous architects emerged onto the sidewalk and climbed a set of wooden stairs to the living room of the house above. There, they greeted colleagues who, like them, had agreed to participate in a weekend of psychological testing aimed at understanding, once and for all, the personality traits that combine to produce extraordinary creativity.

Neutra Territory - Photo 1 of 7 -

My father, Richard Neutra, was, at 66, the oldest of the bunch, with a productive and influential career that had begun in the mid-1920s. Pietro Belluschi, who had immigrated to the United States around the same time as my father but had gotten a somewhat slower start, was now Dean of Architecture at MIT. Louis Kahn, another late bloomer, had likely been chosen by the architecture editors and professors who comprised the selection committee on the strength of his 1953 Yale University Art Gallery and the Richards Medical Center, which was then under construction at the University of Pennsylvania. I.M. Pei, at 41 one of the youngest in the group, had formed his own firm a couple of years earlier. Gropius-trained Eliot Noyes was at that point designing the Selectric typewriter for IBM. Marcel Breuer–trained John Johansen was already well established and a member of the Connecticut clique (along with Noyes, Breuer, Philip Johnson, and Landis Gores) known as the Harvard Five. Ernest J. Kump, A. Quincy Jones, Warren Callister, and Raphael Soriano had variously distinguished themselves as leading lights of what would become known as California’s mid-century modernist movement.

Neutra Territory - Photo 2 of 7 -

Talking about that evening 40 years later, research psychologist Wallace B. Hall told me it was a convivial meeting over sherry. For the subjects of this unusual UC Berkeley Institute of Personality Assessment and Research study, the prospect of spending the weekend in each other’s company was part of the attraction. For me, that weekend is connected in memory to a day not long afterward when I came home from college for Christmas vacation. My father had just received his test results, and I have always remembered his gleeful reaction to them. They had conclusively demonstrated, he said, that he should never have been an architect at all. He should have been a missionary instead!

Of course, in a sense that’s exactly what he was—a missionary for a particular kind of architecture. He and the generation of European architects who had watched the slaughter of their best and brightest during World War I had vowed to do away with the vanity of European royalty and the havoc it had wrought—indeed, to strip from architecture all the trappings of historical reference and imperialist fantasy. Theirs was to be an architecture for Everyman. Conversion was called for in California, away from the styles born of clammy climates, away from the contrivances of outmoded social elites. For my father, this meant using the latest technologies to serve a client’s sociological, psychological, and physiological needs and bring that client back to a nurturing and unpretentious nature. The gospel of the flat roof and the sliding glass door had arrived.

Neutra Territory - Photo 3 of 7 -

It was years before I gave any serious thought to what had gone into this valiant and endearing attempt by some of the country’s smartest psychologists to explain what made people like my father tick. In 1980, when I moved to Berkeley to begin my work with the state health department as a physician epidemiologist, I knew that the records from that weekend were probably stored somewhere on the UC Berkeley campus, and I thought I would try to locate them some day. I wondered if they would show me my father as I knew him, and I also wondered if they would confirm my father’s belief and my own observation that he went about doing architecture in a way that was somewhat different from other successful architects.

Neutra Territory - Photo 4 of 7 -

He used to muse about his slightly older Viennese compatriot, Rudolf M. Schindler, who had died five years before the Berkeley gathering. Despite the fact that they had both apprenticed to Adolf Loos, who had declared ornament to be a crime; despite the fact that they had both admired Otto Wagner, who late in his career had broken away into a new, "modern" way of doing architecture; despite the fact that they had both worked for Frank Lloyd Wright—in short, despite telling similarities, my father and Schindler approached architecture and their clients in radically different ways. My father, who had one short-sighted and one far-sighted eye, tended to think in terms of easily separated horizontal and vertical planes. He held Schindler in awe for his ability to imagine, design, and build innovative three-dimensional spaces. Schindler, who early on had given up sculpture to become an architect, looked at the shaping of internal spatial volumes as the legitimate objective of architecture. He created one innovation after another by improvising as he went, often without drawings since he frequently served as the general contractor on his jobs. My father aspired to achieve a steady evolution toward ever more serviceable products by using standardized details and elaborate working drawings. Affable Schindler accommodated his clients’ wishes in an informal way and often maintained a personal friendship with them. My father aspired to be like a kindly family physician—he recorded his clients’ needs in a formalized diary and after making the diagnosis he "prescribed" the necessary environment. While he stayed in touch with some of his clients, he always maintained a degree of distance.

Neutra Territory - Photo 5 of 7 -

Most of all, while he shared with Schindler—and many others—an interest in the engineering of new materials and structural types, my father was unique in his belief that the ideal architecture was informed by physiology. The psychological and sociological program was important, but physiology held the key to successful design. He hoped that scientific knowledge would enable him to create environments where the probability of certain definable results would be increased and that some of these results would pertain to experiences that formerly had been couched solely in aesthetic terms.

Was it possible that the Berkeley researchers could have picked up on these traits and differences? And would my memories of my father bear any similarity to their findings?

In October 2002, I sent an inquiring email to the chairman of the psychology department at UC Berkeley. A few evenings later, I received a phone call from Dr. Hall, who had been a member of the research team. In the quavering voice of an elderly gentleman, he informed me that the materials related to my father were in fact stored at the university. Although he had retired 20 years earlier, Dr. Hall still went in every day, and he invited me for a visit. He ushered me into a large, windowless room lined with tall, olive-colored, metal filing cabinets—the fruits of a generation of creativity research directed by a man named Donald MacKinnon, who, among other things, had developed tests to assess the suitability of World War II soldiers for assignments as OSS spies. Dr. Hall pulled out my father’s file and a number of articles that outlined the conclusions derived from the tests.

Neutra Territory - Photo 6 of 7 -

It’s worth going into some detail as to the design of the study, because it shows the lengths to which the principal investigators went to unravel the riddle of the creative personality. The general intent, as described in the quarterly publication of the Carnegie Corporation of New York (which funded the study), was to find out what highly creative people were like, how they thought, and what kinds of situations would foster or smother creativity. Professor MacKinnon chose to focus on archi-tects because they had to combine artistic, interpersonal, business, and technical skills in order to be successful. From there, he and his team zeroed in on the question of what distinguished the renowned creative architects from the rest. Ultimately, in a 1962 article in American Psychologist, MacKinnon would conclude that the renowned creative architects had a greater degree of self-assertive energy, a more complex ego structure, and greater flexibility, and were reasonably independent of social constraints, uninterested in making a good impression, capable of being aggressive and assertive, and free to follow their own aesthetic values and ethical standards. He noted, too, that they were able to embrace and resolve the tension between their strong theoretical and aesthetic commitments. They demonstrated unusually wide interests and were more open to emotion than the other architects were.

Using lists generated by professors of architecture and editors of architectural magazines, MacKinnon had selected 40 of the most creative architects in America for the study. (Frank Lloyd Wright had declined the invitation.) My father was placed in one of four subgroups of ten. Another group of 40 architects who were younger associates of these luminaries served as one comparison group. A third group of 40 architects, chosen at random, served as another. The second and third groups were sent tests to complete at home. The first group completed those same tests and were interviewed during the course of the weekend by clinical psychologists, who then composed reports.

Neutra Territory - Photo 7 of 7 -

The report on my father’s session opened with this impression from the young clinical psychologist who interviewed him: "R. Neutra gives an extremely impressive appearance. A shock of white hair, very black, bushy, angular eyebrows, tall of stature…he could easily look foreboding; but his slightly weak mouth eases the severity of his appearance and perhaps gives a suggestion of cruelty."

The researchers also employed two well-known personality assessment tools, the Gough Adjective Check List and a Q-sort by Block. On a 1 (low) to 9 (high) scale as to ten traits, my father scored a 9 for inquiringness, aesthetic sensitivity, sense of destiny, and maturity
and responsibility. He scored an 8 for ability to evaluate, personal stability, and adjustment. He scored a 7 for intellectual competence and independence. He scored a 6 for originality.

On the basis of what I know about my father, I would have awarded him a 4 for stability and a 9 for originality. My father had tremendous ups and downs, and while he ultimately did cope with the setbacks, he perseverated on the problem at hand and invariably pulled in everyone around him to share in the grief. With regard to originality, it must be acknowledged that the breadth in form of his creations did not come close to that of a Frank Lloyd Wright or an Eero Saarinen or even a Rudolph Schindler. As I’ve mentioned, he developed a philosophical rationale for the stability and evolutionary nature of his productions. Indeed, when asked to name his best work, he demurred: "The whole thing is one whole river.

I see the whole development—like in a tune, which is the best part?" But when pushed, he chose the Palm Springs winter vacation house that he designed for Edgar Kaufmann, who spent his spring and summer in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. He characterized it thus: "The problem in its purest form. Just a question of human response to mystery of the site. Can I make it fit in terms of human response?"

I think it would be inaccurate to assume that my father tried to be a volcano of new forms and in failing developed an elaborate excuse for his lack of originality. I would guess that he felt a genuine satisfaction in the act of subtle refinement, akin to the obvious satisfaction that he spoke about and revealed in body language when he spent hours, with a soft pencil, shading in dark shadows in an architectural rendering to make the shape of a new design sing out to the viewer. (It may be that he bequeathed similar synaptic connections to my older brother Frank, who was autistic. Frank could spend hours smiling and toiling over his geometric coloring book, making sure that each shape was smoothly and perfectly shaded, with no overlap to the adjacent shape.)

However, with regard to intellectual matters, my father was really one of a kind. I’ve had the opportunity, in the course of my own career, to meet some remarkable people, yet I have come across few who were as willing to think through things from first principles or in ways that showed as much independence and originality as my father. He was a thorough-going contrarian in conversation, always playing the devil’s advocate and often remarking with satisfaction after some particularly interesting riff, "I don’t think anyone has looked at this issue in quite this way before." My ability to follow where his thoughts were taking him—to challenge him with relevant questions and to truly enjoy and admire the fireworks of his monologues—was the most positive and affectionate aspect of our relationship. It was this kind of mental fencing that made up his attempts to engage with other people, and those who either enjoyed playing the straight man to his verbal antics or were capable of engaging in full-fledged, if playful, battle made up the very small number with whom he really clicked.

The psychologist’s report touched on these intellectual tendencies: "To simply say that he has a high need for achievement would tend to be misleading. That statement is too mild. There is no room for question regarding his ability to solve any problem that might interest
him. Not only must he be able to solve them all, but he must solve them better than anyone else."

A battery of pencil and paper tests had come forth.

Dr. Hall had the architects build a mosaic from one-inch colored squares, and the results were rated by art professors. My father did not particularly distinguish himself here. There was a Concept Mastery test by Terman, a Gottschaldt Figures test, an Allport-Vernon-Lindzey Study of Values test. My father resembled the others in his group by scoring low on economic values and high on aesthetics. He scored unusually high on theoretic matters. The Barron-Welsh Art Scale showed that he and his ilk were significantly more likely to prefer complex line drawings. His group as a whole also had a high femininity score on the Minnesota Multiphasic Person-ality Inventory, and again on the Strong Vocational Interest Blank, reflecting wider interests and openness to emotion. It was in this last test that my father’s vocational interests were observed to be more theological than architectural.

One of the most dramatic differences between my father’s group and the comparison groups was their relative scores on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.

My father scored moderately as Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, and Perceiving (INFP). According to the Team Technology website, INFP types function in a team by contributing innovative ideas, generating team spirit through sensitive listening, and finding win-win solutions, while they also irritate by being idealistic, seeming to be out of touch, spending too much time thinking, avoiding conflict, and focusing too much on interpersonal issues. I think I recognize some of my father’s traits in this description.

By the time I got to the "intuition" versus "sensing" test, though, I had begun to formulate the opinion that there was something unsatisfactory about at least some of these psychometric tests. In this particular one, those who "sense" are people who prefer to act on facts that can be observed through their senses rather than rely on possibilities and relationships that can be intuited. One hundred percent of my father’s group preferred intuition to sensing, compared with 59 percent of the randomly chosen group. Seemingly an enormous disparity, but was it a valuable one? I decided to test the test. In 1960, there were about 34,000 architects in the United States, only 40 of whom—or 0.12 percent of the total—were apparently considered by architecture professors and editors to be the top tier creatively. What would have happened if every architect in America had taken the Myers Briggs Type Indicator test? We can presume that 59 percent of them, or about 20,000, would also have preferred intuition to sensing. Among them would be found the famous 40, lumped in with a few extraordinary but unrecognized talents as well as thousands of undistinguished architects. It makes me wonder how successful those psychometric tests were in predicting promising spies in World War II.

This kind of problem piques my interest because, as an epidemiologist, I look for tests that are "specific" —whether they’re trying to pick out patients with a rare disease or architects with a rare talent. To be "specific," a test like Myers Briggs must almost never predict creativity in someone whose true nature is plodding and dull. But I doubt whether any of the tests the architects took could meet that specificity criterion.

And if all these psychometric differences are interesting but don’t add up to, say, the precise personages of my father, Kahn, Pei, and the others—then do they serve any purpose? Reading through the test results, I found them meaningful but probably not in the way the researchers had hoped. Assuming (as I do) that most of these differences would have been present even when the subjects were young and not yet famous, they remind us that much of artistic talent is inborn, and that this talent involves many traits that can provide a virtual infinity of ways to become a great architect or artist. This tells me that we need to support creative possibility. As a public health professional used to the idea of broad-based campaigns, I would assert that there are nutritional, child-rearing, and educational interventions that are cheap enough to provide to everyone and that, once applied, can help increase the rate of successfully creative people. 

This brings us back to my father. He had been very lucky in this regard. He grew up in fin de siècle Vienna, with an excellent classical high school education; inexpensive access to theater, opera, symphonies, and museums; and family connections through which he came to know the likes of Freud, Schoenberg, Loos, and Klimt. The Hapsburg investment in these public goods produced my father and Schindler in one generation—two extremely creative architects per 2 million population. The Viennese education didn’t make all students into geniuses, but you could argue that it increased the rate of fully realized geniuses enough to make a societal difference. It doesn’t take too many Leonardos or Botticellis to get things hopping and remembered later as exemplifying a golden age.

My interest was recaptured when I read in the psychologist’s report that my father needed to have people not just love him but be devoted to him, and that he feared loved ones would leave him. This finding was apparently based on his having mentioned that he had a recurring nightmare in which his parents abandoned him. Indeed, he said he had had it the night before.

Nothing in what my father ever revealed about his family would have suggested a real risk of abandonment, nor was there any evidence of harsh family pressure to excel. What I know is that he was born to my grandmother when she was 41, 12 years after the birth of her third child; judging by his mother’s age and the close spacing of the other children, I think it likely that his conception was not intended. Still, he was the much-admired pet of his parents and older siblings, according to his autobiography. Yet his youth was not without trauma. His mother died when he was 16. The Vienna that nourished him as a boy and young man collapsed after World War I. The emotionally rich community in which he had been reared was in shambles. If he was to have community, it would be of his own devising.

I knew that my father prized, even clung to, sympathetic and skilled collaborators, and I came to learn that he experienced as abandonment the inevitable departure of the many young people who came through his office to get experience. One of these young architects, Joe Hansen, wrote to me about his decision to leave in the early 1960s: "The reality is that people leave offices. The issue was that he feared that reality. It was that fear I saw in his eyes when I announced that I had decided to work in Europe. It made me feel bad because I saw the pain it caused him. I was not leaving him; I was furthering my education. If only he could have empathized with my feelings, he could have shared my happiness and saved us both pain. I still feel the loneliness of that moment, and I wish I could have done something to alleviate it."

Ironically, my father thought that one of his key traits was empathy. When asked if he had any unusual talents, he named empathy and the ability to draw and to communicate orally. (Interestingly, he didn’t attribute his success to hard work—his typical day, seven days a week, went from four in the morning to 11 at night, and he proudly claimed never to have taken a vacation.)

What my father called empathy, I would call "social intelligence." He delighted in imagining the interests, needs, and values of unknown users of the schools and public buildings and city plans that he developed, and these imaginings were vivid and accurate enough to result in successful designs. He was selectively observant and intensely interested in clients’ and coworkers’ motivations, interests, and values, and he used his insights to motivate them to pursue a particular course of action. He knew how to satisfy enough programmatic needs that clients would forget they weren’t getting the Cape Cod house whose magazine image they had brought to their first conference with him. When asked how he would define creative achievement in architecture, he answered: "By solving the problem with the full conviction of the client, putting emphasis on something entirely different than what they started with."

In my experience of him, he wanted very much to believe that everybody loved him and that he worked for other people’s welfare, although they might on occasion feel threatened by his brilliance; I remember that he advised me once to hide my intelligence whenever possible, because I would not be loved for it. (I’m enough of a show-off that I didn’t take the advice, and I don’t think I have suffered greatly as a result.) He had a manic enthusiasm that he selectively deployed and that was hard to resist. But there was something purely analytic about his assessment of other people. Temple Grandin, the prominent high-functioning autistic who is a professor at Colorado State University, describes herself as "an anthropologist on Mars." She studies people to figure out what motivates them but doesn’t imagine that she feels what they feel. This resonates with my perception of my father. Faced with the fledgling architect’s flight from the nest, my father could not empathize with the very same kind of exhilaration he himself must have felt in leaving his family, his roots, and his employer (the pioneering architect Erich Mendelsohn) for a new life in America. He just couldn’t feel it. Instead, he was flooded with the sense of abandonment.

So there it all was, laid out in a neat record of "objective" testing, the interviewer’s notes and inferences, and the interviewee’s self-assessments. All there, but incomplete, inconclusive. I saw my father in the test results, and yet—how could it be otherwise?—my own memories and reflections enlarge and alter somewhat the personality that was captured in that process. Despite the high score of 9 on the aesthetic sensitivity test, the picture painted of him did not, for me, properly emphasize his true sensitivity. I think of his deep craving to call upon a muse that would deliver unexpected order and beauty—even as he chose to present himself as the can-do, practical engineer, the prescriber and guarantor of efficacious environments. He didn’t reveal that other part of himself, but it was there and it was central.

I have a vivid memory of lying next to him, as a teenager, on the fold-down bed in the back of our car as my mother drove us slowly down the winding road of the Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve in a canyon of the Northern California coastal range. Sweeping past above our heads through the back window were the overhanging boughs of white rhododendrons. We lay there transfixed and in silence as the clouds of blossoms swept by us. There were many moments like that with him. The serenity of the near-nature buildings he designed was for him an antidote to the pervasive anxiety of the production process, and a path to the realm of that sensitivity.

One parting note: Buried among the many answersmy father gave the psychologist was one concerning me. When asked about his children, he said, "Third son fared badly. He can’t become an architect. He wants to become a psychiatrist. He is in conflict."

At the time my father said this, I was doing quite well in my second year at Pomona College, completing my premed courses with good enough grades to eventually get me into medical school. At the same time I was enjoying, without any conflict that I was aware of, a smattering of philosophy, art, drama, and history.

I was completely oblivious to my father’s concerns; to his credit he never shared them with me.

He had wanted me to live at home and attend UCLA as a day student so that I could continue to benefit from his tutelage. I, on the other hand, wanted to knock off the rough edges of the first-generation American from an avant-garde European family and develop some protective coloration in a small residential liberal arts college. My mother backed me on this, and I suspect that my father was still smarting from that lost battle.

My departure must have resonated with his recurring dream of abandonment. Like so many other young people who would later look back at him with affection, I had left his orbit.

Get a Daily Dose of Design

Sign up for the Dwell Daily Newsletter and never miss our new features, photos, home tours, stories, and more.