Design for Living

Building the Central Column

Escape from Structured Environment

As a child, I’d always wanted to be outside climbing trees, picking persimmons or pears to eat, or buckeyes that bring luck if carried in your pocket. I hated being trapped indoors in the sterile “educational” environments created to torture young children. Some of my least favorite recollections are of being stuck in cafeteria lines with a plastic tray of plastic-looking food, or sitting among rows of classroom desks with desktops that swung over your knees, trapping you. (I prayed for Walt Disney characters to come sailing outside the classroom window, to put down a gangplank and rescue me and carry me away to Neverland: “Second star on the right and straight on until morning.” Peter Pan: Philip Barry)

Organic Environment: “As Without, So Within”

A revelation that changed the way, even today, I look at man-made environments was modernist architect Richard Neutra’s Survival Through Design (Oxford, 1954). Neutra was perhaps the first modern architect to discuss a building not as an aesthetic design statement of an architect’s or an owner’s personal taste, but rather, as a space that has no meaning or function except with respect to the person or people that occupy it, and how they interact within and with that space. The human organism is regarded as much a “natural, organic system” interacting with the space, as is the natural environment outside of the building.

Neutra’s statements like the one below have led many to regard him as one of the first environmental architects:

“The designer is often seen as a man who cleverly… [solves problems through]
his aesthetic acumen…But when the designer does anything essential for us…
he deals primarily with nervous systems, and he caters to them.”
-Chapter 27, Survival Through Design

* (Forty years after this was written, I learned that Richard Neutra had made a number of trips from southern California to study the breakthroughs then being made in brain science, about the human nervous system and our sensory interaction with our environment – in none other than the Stanford University lab of Dr. Karl Pribram! I gave a copy of Neutra’s book to my architect, John Spears.)