Austrian born Richard Joseph Neutra (1892-1970) is considered one of the world’s most influential modernist architects. His structures on the Christ Cathedral campus—the Arboretum, the Large and Small Galleries, and the Tower of Hope—exemplify his focus and philosophy toward simple geometries of design. Neutra’s philosophy grew out of his feeling that “our environment is often chaotic, irritating, inhibitive and disorienting. It is not generally designed at all, but amounts to a cacophonous, visually discordant accretion of accidental events, sometimes euphemized as ‘urban development’ and ‘economic progress.’ ” These buildings also show Neutra’s sensitivity toward blending the interior and exterior of a space such that it would “place man in relationship with nature; that’s where he developed and where he feels most at home.” Reverend Robert H. Schuller developed a longtime professional and personal relationship with Neutra, and Neutra’s theories and ideas deeply affected many of Schuller’s design decisions. Neutra’s legacy of modernist architecture is a gift to many, and his influence is visible throughout the Christ Cathedral campus today.
Richard Neutra was born in Vienna on April 8, 1892 to Samuel and Elizabeth Neutra. Samuel Neutra forged brass and bronze parts for Vienna’s gas and water meters. While Samuel and Elizabeth weren’t of high society, their well-educated and artistically minded children eventually met such Vienna luminaries as psychologist Sigmund Freud, composer Arnold Schoenberg, and artist Gustav Klimt. Young Neutra grew sure that he was destined to become an architect. For years, on his way to school, he passed by the construction of Otto Wagner’s light-filled Postal Savings Bank. Some consider Wagner the father of modernism in architecture. The bank, unique for its time, had white marble, gleaming aluminum ‘heat-blowers’ (aluminum was new at the time), a vaulted glass-paned ceiling, and a first level glass floor which introduced light to the ground floors in a revolutionary way. Neutra’s daily walk past the light-filled building influenced his development as an architect. By 1912 Neutra was studying architecture at the local technical school, Technische Hoschule. He studied under architect Adolf Loos who was well known for declaring what might be considered a modernist theme, “ornament is crime.”
When World War I broke out, Neutra was sent to the Balkans, which halted his education one year short of graduation. Like many others in the modernist movement, the rampant waste and destruction of the war deeply affected Neutra. He ‘craved an environment of substance, beauty, and function in the service of humanity.’ Suffering from illness after the war, he convalesced in Switzerland and gradually gained enough strength to work and continue his education. He finally graduated in 1917. One of Neutra’s later jobs was working with landscape architect Gustav Ammann in the summer of 1919. Neutra became familiar with and grew to love botany. He also worked with Quakers on social projects in Germany, was city architect in the town of Luckenwade (near Berlin), and worked at the firm of expressionist architect Erick Mendelsohn. In Zurich, he met Dione, his future wife, and when he saw a poster that read “California Calls You,” he made emigration to the United States one of his goals. Neutra’s exposure to architects Wagner, Loos, and Mendelsohn, and his interest in botany garnered from Ammann, point to Neutra’s future ‘biorealism’ theory, design philosophy and design aesthetics. Neutra said it thus, “Place Man in relationship to Nature; that’s where he developed and where he feels most at home!”
Neutra arrived in the United States in 1923 and after a time, his wife and young son Frank joined him in Wisconsin at Taliesin, the home and educational grounds of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright had offered Neutra a job, a home, and use of Wright’s studio. Neutra had named his son after Frank Lloyd Wright. The Neutras stayed with Wright until 1925 when they headed to California.
Neutra’s first impressions of the 1920s Angelenos were that Angelenos were “mentally footloose,” with a cultural naiveté, “bordering everywhere on mixup.” In his early days in California Neutra wrote the book “Wie Baut Amerika?” (“How Does America Build?”) based on his travels and his careful documentation of construction sites throughout the U.S. Through this book he embraced a stripped down style in architecture, and the use of more modern materials. Neutra eventually grew to love Los Angeles. With the support of friend and fellow Austrian-born architect, Rudolf Schindler, Neutra’s first major commission, the Lovell House (1929), began Neutra’s illustrious career. The Lovell House, a sensation at the time for its new building methods and design, was tethered to its steep hillside by steel cables.
Neutra became excellent at self-promotion, and after the Lovell House was built he made sure the owners allowed tours to other wealthy Southern Californians. Neutra was then invited to display his work in “The International Style” show at Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA), curated in 1932 by his contemporary, and future architect for the Crystal Cathedral, Philip Johnson.
Neutra’s architectural practice grew. He developed lifestyle questionnaires for clients and created designs for the Southern California climate where extensive use of glass allowed indoor and outdoor spaces to flow freely together. A journalist once described his work as ” . . . the most amiable relationship between science, technique, industrialization and good taste.”
In 1931 Neutra’s famous “VDL Research House” was built at Silver Lake in Los Angeles. Neutra lived here with his wife until the house burned down in 1963. It was rebuilt under the direction of his son and assistant architect Dion Neutra. Neutra worked steadily during his life, and partnered with his son Dion in 1965. Neutra and his son often worked upstairs, away from Neutra’s office. Dion Neutra writes: “Dad’s best time for creative thinking was early in the morning, long before any activity had started in the office below. He often stayed in bed working with ideas and designs, even extending into appointments which had been made earlier. His one concession was to put on a tie over his night shirt when receiving visitors while still propped up in bed!”
Between 1932 and 1970, Neutra carried out more than 200 projects: detached houses and villas, hospitals, schools, residential areas, museums, swimming-pools, skyscrapers, churches, conference halls, trade union centers, embassies, colleges and universities. He trained several young architects, including Gregory Ain, Harwell Hamilton Harris, and Raphael Soriano, who all later became iconic figures in the mid-century modernist movement.
Neutra died on April 16, 1970 while working on one of his last projects, the “Kemper House” in Wuppertal-Germany. He was awarded a gold medal from the “American Institute of Architecture,” (AIA) in 1977, one of the many honors he received. In 1982 the first complete work on the life and works of Neutra, “Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture: A Biography and History” written by Thomas Hines, was published. A retrospective exhibition was organized at MOMA. After the death of Richard Neutra’s wife Dione, in 1990, the Neutra’s home in Silver Lake was inherited by Cal Poly Pomona of California. His son Dion works to preserve his father’s legacy at the Neutra Institute for Survival of Design, a non-profit California corporation established in 1962. Its name is derived from Neutra’s book of the same name. The Neutra Institute is “dedicated to the expansion and implementation of the ecologically kind and philosophically-based Neutra design principles and the study and preservation of existing Neutra works.”
Neutra’s philosophic approach to architecture, important to Schuller and the basis for much of the design that took place on the campus, was the natural world incorporation with the interior of a building. Neutra distilled his approach in a philosophy he called “biorealism,” which he described as “the inherent and inseparable relationship between man and nature.” Neutra’s 1954 book, “Survival Through Design,” expressed his concern over the health of modern dwellers.
The Society of Architectural Historians says this of Neutra’s concept: His concept of “biorealism,” his own term for his life-long passion in enlisting the sciences—especially psychology and biology—into the art of architecture so that design exploited, with great sophistication, the realm of the senses and an interconnectedness to nature that he believed fundamental and requisite to human well-being. Biorealism joined “bios,” or life, and “realism,” the idea that architecture could be based in the everyday realities of existence rather than shaped by an endless search for form. The assembly-line means of Henry Ford, were to be employed to this end, never an end in itself, in creating truly “functional” architecture.”
Neutra was devoted to shaping the life of those that inhabited his structures. Biorealism is now the Neutra term chosen by the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design to represent “the firm’s ideal of the ‘person-centered’ approach to the planning of the environment and the managing of ecology in ways that will be of lasting benefit to individuals comprising mankind.”
“There was a mutual chemistry. [Neutra and I] were both driven by a compulsion to excellence.”
— Reverend Robert H. Schuller, founder, Crystal Cathedral
Friendship with Rev. Robert Schuller
Schuller’s relationship with Neutra spanned the years from when they first met in 1958 until Neutra died in 1970.
Schuller wrote that he would never forget his first meeting with Neutra. Schuller had recently seen Neutra’s picture on the cover of “Time Magazine” and prayed before entering the office. “I believe that God popped these words out of my mouth: ‘Why should I hire you?’ I almost couldn’t believe I’d said it…a 30-year old unknown pastor of a small congregation asking a world-respected architect such an impertinent question. The words had left my lips; they had been spoken. No chance to retrieve them now. But Neutra’s answer was immediate. ‘You should hire me because I will design your buildings and they will NEVER go out of style. My buildings are not fashionable…my buildings will be considered classical—a hundred years from now they’ll look as good as they do today.’ What an answer! I was sold!”
Schuller learned from Neutra the importance of using architecture to help people inside buildings be relaxed and soothed, therefore to be more open to tranquility and tranquil communication. Schuller and Neutra discussed how mankind could successfully commune with God from the asphalt jungle of a city. Neutra told Schuller that the cities couldn’t be demolished, but that people could build beautiful buildings. Neutra wanted people to be able to see, hear, and breathe inside a building, also he also wanted human beings to feel emotionally and spiritually relaxed and at home in his structures. “Great communication does not happen if the human being is not relaxed,” said Neutra.
“How do you place persons inside a structure protecting them from rain, wind, and the direct sunlight and still allow them to see and hear, and feel the sky, trees, green grass and gently flowing water? This is profoundly fundamental to creating a peaceful, relaxed mood with persons, and especially so for persons attending a church service.” Schuller took these fundamental principles into mind for all of the buildings on his Crystal Cathedral campus. Schuller’s views about the importance of nature, the necessity for the campus to engender peace whenever people walked on it, and his outdoor/indoor church concept, were a good fit with Neutra’s views and philosophy.
After Neutra’s death, Schuller conducted Neutra’s memorial service in the Neutra-designed Arboretum. Schuller stated that his relationship with Neutra was one of a handful of defining experiences in his lifetime.
“I learned from him that the eyes, the ears, the skin were designed to be channels through which healing, harmony and tranquility would come—and the human being would thus be emotionally healthy!”
—Reverend Robert H. Schuller, founder, Crystal Cathedral
Over ten years Neutra designed three separate but related building projects with Schuller’s input on what is now the Christ Cathedral campus; the Large and Small Galleries, the Arboretum, and the Tower of Hope.
Large and Small Galleries
Designed by Neutra in 1958, the first structures built on the grounds were the low-lying, single-story buildings with sliding glass walls which looked out into gardens and water landscaping. These buildings and their flexible-space rooms housed the church’s offices and fellowship hall during its early years. While the Garden Grove Congregation was busy raising funds from 1959 to 1961 to construct the world’s first walk-in/drive-in church, the larger fellowship hall served as the indoor sanctuary. At the same time, a temporary outdoor platform provided the pulpit for the drive-in congregation seated in their cars. After the congregation moved into the Arboretum, the rooms served as the church kitchen, offices, and an Art Gallery. The Art Gallery once showcased the impressionistic artwork of George Chann.
Now undergoing refurbishment by the Christ Catholic Cathedral Corporation, these inviting and light-filled rooms and their gardens will serve as a gathering place for parish, diocesan, and other activities.
As the congregation of Schuller’s Garden Grove Community Church continued to grow, development began on what would become the centerpiece on the first ten acres of property. The mid-century Arboretum, originally called the Neutra Sanctuary, was conceived by Schuller and designed by Richard Neutra in 1960 and completed in 1961.Schuller, continuing his “Come as You Are in the Family Car!” motto, was able, via a balcony that extended outside, to move fluidly between the inside of the sanctuary and the outside. Visitors could sit inside, outside in chairs on the lawn, or in their cars in the parking lot. This indoor/outdoor design, for 1960, was quite extraordinary. The light-filled Arboretum served as an indoor/outdoor sanctuary space for Schuller’s congregation, and the television studio for Schuller’s live sermon broadcasts, the “Hour of Power,” until 1980, when the congregation moved into the Crystal Cathedral.
Neutra’s Arboretum has recently undergone an extensive renovation on the Christ Cathedral campus through the efforts of its restoration team (The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange (owner), LPA Inc. (architect), Cannon Building (general contractor), Davis Partners/Hager Pacific Properties (construction managers), and Lamprecht archiTEXTural (consulting architect). The restoration efforts have won five prestigious design awards, including a Design Citation of Merit from Docomomo. Docomomo, an international organization, stands for the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the modern movement. Docomomo states that it promotes the study, interpretation and protection of the architecture, landscape and urban design of the Modern Movement. The Docomomo jury noted the impressive effort on behalf of the restoration team to reinforce and strengthen the original structure, hide new air conditioning systems, while retaining the original design intent. The restoration included the development of a new window system to sensitively replicate the original design as well as the rehabilitation of deteriorated fountains and reflection pools, and interior finishes.
The Arboretum is now the temporary home to the over 10,000 members of the Christ Cathedral Parish, with Masses taking place in English, Vietnamese, and Spanish. This stunning modernist building with its light and airy feel, is also available for weddings, conferences, concerts, and family-friendly events.
Tower of Hope
In 1967 Schuller called Neutra again to design another building to house offices and Sunday school rooms. Schuller and Neutra originally envisioned another horizontal building, possibly two-stories high. Then, while vacationing, Schuller took Neutra’s preliminary sketch and turned it on end. He called Neutra and asked him to “go up instead of out!” The result is a 15-story tower. With the help of Neutra’s son Dion, the Tower became the final building Neutra would design for the Schuller ministries. Built in 1968, the Tower of Hope with its neon cross was the tallest building in Orange County upon completion. Located on the 13th and 14th floors is the 24-foot ceilinged Chapel in the Sky (made possible by a gift from Vern and LaVon Dragt).
Currently undergoing renovation, the Tower of Hope was named for the nation’s first 24-hour telephone counseling and suicide prevention service sponsored by a church, the New Hope Crisis Counseling Center, started by Schuller’s wife Arvella in 1968. The hotline has operated continuously for almost 50 years and is now being operated as an ecumenical ministry by Catholic Charities of Orange County..
The Tower of Hope now hoses the offices of the Cathedral Parish and the Christ Catholic Cathedral Corporation. The Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) also has its first West Coast television news and broadcast facility there. Additionally Immaculate Heart Radio has a radio broadcast facility in the tower that broadcasts original catholic radio programs throughout Southern California. The beautiful ecumenical Chapel in the Sky with its panoramic view of Orange County will be available after renovation for small, intimate weddings and other religious services.