Die Ideen des Richard Neutra: The Ideas of Richard Neutra

This is a wonderful and little-known documentary. The Viennese-American Modern architect Richard Neutra (1892 – 1970) not only discusses but in a very physical way demonstrates his radical, prescient ideas about how to design for the human being. The setting is his birth home, Vienna, where Neutra gets to show off in the best sense of the phrase: he is witty, his sly sense of humor on display – the film is even sexy (at least in one special spot: if you’ve ever seen the 1965 movie of swinging London, “The Knack and How to Get It,” the Neutra film does one scene, a woman mounting a staircase, one better.)

The film was buried for a long time, and for a decade I tried to get it into the public realm. With the help of the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design (named after Neutra’s ardent belief in the power of design and his 1954 book, Survival Through Design, now as a new edition to be released in 2023 under Atara Press), this has been done. Raymond Neutra, president of the Institute and Richard and Dione’s youngest son, led the effort, assisted by filmmaker Russell Brown. The original German was translated by Birgit Knauf-Goedeking, who lives with her husband Hilmer Goedeking, president of the Neutra Gesellschaft (Society), in their home in the Neutra tract development called Bewobau in Germany. (I had a great time with Birgit to finesse nuances in English, but she didn’t need much help.)

The film departs from the norm in several ways. Background angles shift restlessly. The camera becomes a person, in a way, stepping this way and that. The actions of the film crew, the lighting and sound equipment, play a role. Neutra’s oeuvre is presented in an unusual but effective way. Even the crew’s impatience for a lunch break is evident, politely restrained but quickening, a break deferred because of Neutra’s indefatigable interest in exploring the senses, a sudden turn into a “storeroom” (crew trailing behind) and in the sensual implicationsof materials. At his request, the filmmakers even produced a baby, there to help Neutra model the effects of the floor on an infant. I was also struck by the music by Hugo Köch, who conceived of the idea as well. Atonal and angular, while not at all friendly, it is quite moving. Dione Neutra (1901 – 1990) reveals herself as an intelligent, articulate woman with a keen understanding of her husband’s work. Nonetheless, there is a sense of loneliness about some parts of the movie, a very fitting sort of feeling for this beautiful black-and-white portrait of a solitary quest.

When Neutra isn’t involved in a busy scene indoors on set, the movie captures him walking alone in Vienna. His light raincoat classy but simple and unaffected (so 1960s), his shock of thick white hair, perambulate through those childhood haunts, while he reminisces about the places that shaped his earliest memories of architecture.

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