A Virtual Look Into Richard Neutra's Unbuilt Case Study House #6, The Omega House

This 3D model is as close as you can get to the real thing, as Omega House is one of the few Case Study Houses that was never built. Presented early in the case study program of Arts & Architecture magazine in 1945, it presents one of the most innovative design concepts in the series, one you can now explore in your browser.

The architect, Richard Neutra, was a celebrity in his own lifetime, and among the most esteemed of the high modernists. Neutra was born in Vienna and already over 30 when he arrived in America in 1923. He worked for Erich Mendelsohn, for Frank Lloyd Wright, and briefly with Rudolph Schindler. Many of his commissions were domestic houses, structures that he managed to make wonderfully photogenic. Neutra carried himself with some of the aristocratic manner of a Mies van der Rohe, but tempered by the lively west coast egalitarianism of Charles and Ray Eames (link to previous project). He made the cover of Time Magazine in the forties, and might be one of the only prominent architects ever to build a drive-in church. Perhaps most remarkably, Ayn Rand wrote the screenplay to The Fountainhead whilst living in a house designed by Neutra.


Richard Neutra on the August 15, 1949 cover of Time Magazine

Richard Neutra on the August 15, 1949 cover of Time Magazine

In 1945, Omega House was a revelation, a modest family house turned inside out; it offered a cruciform plan extrovertly oriented to the brightly lit Southern Californian landscape. The house, as Time would write about Neutra’s architecture, merges “clean lines, common-sense convenience and liberating openness of style with the warm overtones of home.” On one arm of the cross is a demonstrative, high-ceilinged living space for entertaining that opens onto a large paved outdoor area, effectively bringing the outdoors in. There’s the secluded master bedroom at the end of the next arm, and then an enclosed space for children’s bedrooms (where they enter from the garden via the shower cubicle!). The final arm contains the kitchen and spaces for informal dining. The plan allowed for a small house to express sophisticated splits between public and private, adult and child, day and night, activity and rest.


Courtesy of Archilogic

Courtesy of Archilogic

And the clients? Well, they were imaginary. In designing the Omega house, Neutra invented a pretend brief that enabled him to present this ideal model as a realistic possibility. In this American dream, Mr and Mrs Omega are past their first matrimonial decade, and they have weathered it well. Mrs Omega describes herself as a housewife with artistic and musical interests. They have three children: two daughters and a son of ten, nine and five years of age respectively. They want a house that balances their life, and Neutra obliges.


Courtesy of Archilogic

Courtesy of Archilogic

In the cover article celebrating Neutra in 1949, Time Magazine wisely advised its readers, “learn to speak knowingly of furring and flashing, soffits and reveals, muntins and mullions, gambrels, spandrels, hips and door butts.” The innuendo would have pleased Neutra. He didn’t grow up in Vienna for nothing: a friend of Freud’s son Ernst, Neutra had very developed views of the relationship between a house and the family that inhabits it:

“The ‘family group,’ small or large, held together by bonds of closest genetic relationship, often also carrying the healthy seeds of centrifugal development and inner antagonism, has been studied by psychologists as humanity’s basic element… The snail’s shell, the bird’s nest, the wasp’s hive, the ant’s hill—all these, built quite reflexively, become the immediate physical surrounding of these animals and are no less important to them than is constructed housing to a family. With this environment our soul searchers have concerned themselves unjustifiably much less than with marital relations or those between parents and children. I well remember how Professor Freud used to smile at my statement that housing architecture, the daily and nightly impact of physical surroundings, decisively raises conditioned responses.” [1]


Courtesy of Archilogic

Courtesy of Archilogic

Neutra was also an acolyte of Otto Rank, whose 1923 book The Trauma of Birth argued that the definitive problem in human existence—the prototype of all suffering—was the pain of being born. Rank had been a major figure in the psychoanalytic movement until the birth trauma theory. His colleagues decided that it was ridiculous, and he was more or less drummed out of the movement. Neutra, however, took the birth trauma hypothesis very seriously indeed, and his buildings double-down on psychoanalysis. Neutra used psychoanalytic techniques to study his clients and their needs, and to persuade them to build his structures. As Time reported, Neutra was known for making every member of a client’s family write diaries describing every thing they did for a week. Neutra took special interest in the diaries of his client’s wives. This was a calculated strategy to make them fall in love with him. By showing more interest in their lives than anyone had ever taken before—finding them more interesting, in fact, than they found themselves—he set up a perfect scenario for what psychoanalysts call transference, the moment when the patient falls in love with the doctor. Needless to say, with her distaste for manipulation and psychoanalysis, Ayn Rand would have hated him for this.

That wasn’t all. Neutra designed the buildings as if he was conducting a psychoanalysis. As he wrote about himself for Art & Architecture: “they tell stories of how you design things without a pencil, thinking them out while lying on a couch”. He thought of his buildings, as Sylvia Lavin writes in her memorably titled book Form Follows Libido (2004), as therapeutic treatments. Because the passage from inside to outside the house was a micro-reenactment of the trauma of being born, it had to be done gracefully, easing the resident in and out of doors. Where Le Corbusier’s ribbon windows kept the landscape at a distance, equating it with the horizon, Neutra’s big plates of glass welded inside and out into a single whole. Alternately, as some wags would later describe it, each living space should be “a womb with a view.”


Courtesy of Archilogic

Courtesy of Archilogic

Put slightly differently, the floorplans of Neutra’s houses are constructed almost as diagrams of the neuroses of clients. So what else then, does this model betray of the fate of the Omegas? Well, it shows how the slope of the roof makes the adult’s living spaces grand, even while it keeps the children’s rooms enclosed and secure. It also shows how significant the outdoor areas are. The open space for sports was to be separated from the patio for cooking by a splash pool. Neutra thought of grilling with great seriousness. This wasn’t just about outdoor cooking and sociable alcoholism, it was about the hunt and the sacrifice: a kind of primitivist smithy for forging sausage sandwiches, a place where fathers could calm the castration anxiety of their children by offering them hunks of severed meat. The splash pool was for social tanning, in which the mother would not just be a mother, but a star in an endless oedipal drama. What’s especially weird about Neutra’s houses is that, for all his care with spatial transitions and thresholds, there is no way for a transition into adulthood to take place in these houses. Children are kept in a midget world of small, low ceilinged, interconnecting rooms. The house betrays a terror of adolescence. Neutra, with his obsession with birth trauma, had perhaps missed the real annihilator of the perfect American household: puberty.

Don’t miss Archilogic’s previous models shared on ArchDaily:


Courtesy of Archilogic

Courtesy of Archilogic

References

  1. Neutra, Richard Joseph. Life and human habitat: Mensch und Wohnen (1956) p.20


Source: A Virtual Look Into Richard Neutra's Unbuilt Case Study House #6, The Omega House