Moving from space to space has revived the question in my mind of ‘What the best way to live?’. More specifically, this transition era in my life has made me wonder what the most healthy way to live, what is the best way to conduct my life? But while I may be wrestling with this issue for the first time in the past few years, architects have been tackling it for almost a century, buildings homes as their structural response.
Affect Theory is the idea that our built spaces affect our mental and physical well-being. While this may seem relatively intuitive now, it is actually an artifact of the 20th century and the growing academic interest in psychoanalysis. But the groundwork for this was laid in the decades between the two World Wars in the form of the Modernist Movement. Prior to the age of Industrialization, the grandiose, historical Beaux Art style was the preferred aesthetic of the European bourgeois. It was commonly used as a marker of wealth, a tie to history and as a marker of buildings with cultural significance, such as the Paris Opera House. The Beaux Arts style was an amalgam of the Graeco-Roman tradition with the Baroque; it raised the history of the arts (read: the European history of the arts) on a pedestal as something to be admired and respected.
All that changed with the advent of the wars.
After the First World War, there was a growing sentiment that the ways of the past had failed the general public in the most egregious way. This sentiment manifested itself in the arts by a complete departure from the time-specific and location-specific styles of the past and the creation of the new International Style. In this new style, there are no ties to history and an emphasis on technology. But I find the implications for health to be especially compelling. Whether ‘miasma’ or germs or general clutter, many believed cities and the urban way of life to be the root of disease and other health issues. As a result, the International Style aspired towards one-family homes set far away from the hustle and bustle, with no built-in storage for clutter to accumulate, huge windows to maximize light in the interior-their response to all the ills of historical architecture.
Many European architects brought some of this ideology to the United States, one such designer being Richard Neutra. Neutra worked briefly with Frank Lloyd Wright before establishing his career in Southern California, working for “Bohemian” patrons concerned with the connection between their health and living spaces before it was in the mainstream consciousness. Neutra really established himself with one of his earliest works: The Lovell ‘Health’ house built in 1929.
Situated at 4616 Dundee Drive in Los Angeles, CA, the Lovell House was built for physician Philip Lovell. The house is the first example of the use of a steel frame for a domestic structure (as opposed to the New York skyscrapers) and is iconic as the backdrop of the 1997 film L.A. Confidential. The house hangs from the top of a cliff and allows the viewer a panoramic view of trees. The upper levels of the house are used as residential area with bedrooms, a large staircase is encased in glass and the lower floor is a living room that opens spectacularly to the pool, an open plan with a full mountain vista.
The Lovell Health House challenges previous conceptions of what constitutes interior and exterior in order to relieve our everyday neuroses. Neutra believed that such pressing issues like PTSD or other psychiatric disorders of a similar magnitude could not be fixed outside of a psychiatrist’s office. But he did believe that there were many quotidian neuroses that could be addressed by manipulating our living spaces. The use of light and shadow through the spider leg vaulting to even the reflection of the pool are all constructed with the intention of producing a calming haven away from the activity outside of the realm of the domestic. The clean lines of the house could subconsciously streamline our mental clutter as well. In building a new architectural style, Modernists ( including Neutra) wanted to build a new lifestyle as well, free from the burdens of the past. In this way, I think that the Lovell Health House can be seen as a sort of hybrid of the European and American modernisms. In style, it looks like the International Style but in approach, it mirrors that of Wright more closely by integrating the relationship with nature into the home.
The Lovell Health House seems timeless to me. Although it was built in the early 20th centuries, it is somewhere that I could envision myself living comfortably. This is what has always fascinated me about the American Modernism. Many houses built by the European “pure” modernists were built for an ideal person and rooted in deep philosophical beliefs in the right way to do things but in a way that did not always take the messiness of being human into account. European Modernism is built to address a concept, a building for a utopian Modern person. But of course, the beauty of humanity is in the imperfection-we are not robots. What the American modernists addressed is not how to live the right way, but rather how to live in a better way. American Modernist homes address this visceral desire for comfort, in addition to light and space. They feel like they could be safe havens from the external world, whereas European Modernist buildings feel like they are putting the user on display. Be it flooding the rooms with light from huge panes of glass, incorporating natural materials into spacious and avant-garde design, or even just playing with such details as the reflection of water on a ceiling, the Lovell Health House is the first in a long legacy of American Modernist buildings actually built for the realities of being a modern American.
Further Reading: “Open the Box: Richard Neutra and the Psychology of the Domestic Environment” by Sylvia Lanvin (1999).