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Address: Rua do Lago, 876, Cidade Universitária, São Paulo, SP, 05508-080, Brazil

e-mail: joselira@usp.br


Richard Neutra is considered to be one of the main figures of the Modern Movement in world architecture. Born in 1892 and trained in Vienna, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1923, where he would soon reach an outstanding position in the professional scene. This paper does not focus on this very well known role he played in 20th Century architectural history. It rather addresses to a somewhat obscure aspect of his career. Starting with his work as consultant for the Puerto Rican government in 1943-45, it explores the moves from a bio-realistic approach to culturally and socially informed agendas within his work and efforts to succeed as planning advisor in Latin America. My intention is to examine how a certain foreign-modern perspective on so called Third World countries relates to the building of the professional, cultural and political networks of planning in the region.


Richard Neutra is considered to be one of the main figures of Modern Movement in architecture (McCoy, 1979; Drexler and Hines, 1982; Hines, 2005; Lamprecht, 2006).

Born in Vienna in 1892, he was trained architect at the local Technische Hochschule.

In 1914 his education was suddenly interrupted with the outbreak of war and he was sent to front in the Balkans. Having finished his course in Vienna in 1918, he moved to Switzerland after the armistice, and to Germany in 1920, where he would engage larger commissions. In 1923, he finally could embrace his American obsession and emigrated to the U.S.

He arrived in New York City late that year and moved to Chicago after four months, where he undertook his first experience in a large scale building for the old and prestigious firm Holabird and Roche. His great efforts to find his path in the New World, his fascination for the modern metropolis and the new construction methods would soon lead him to an outstanding position within the North American architectural scene. In 1924, he joined Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin East, in Wisconsin, and then moved to Los Angeles to work with his fellow countryman Rudolph Schindler. With him, he took part of the polemic 1926 League of Nations competition. In 1927, he published Wie Baut Amerika, about the problems and possibilities of American architecture and urban design, and in 1930 the book Amerika, developing some of his early ideas about the subject. In 1932, he was recognized as the main American avant-garde architect at the MoMA’s “The URBAN TRANSFORMATION: Controversies, Contrasts and Challenges International Style” show. Being a member of the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM) since its creation in 1928, he was elected wartime American-based president of the organization in 1944 (mumford, 2000: 142-149).

At the time he was already very well known for the design of some of the most remarkable buildings in contemporary architecture, mastering a whole California style influential both in the international avant-garde and its tropical margins.

This paper does not focus on these outstanding pieces of work nor on the acclaimed role he played in the history of architecture from the 1920’s onwards. It rather addresses to a somewhat obscure aspect of his activity. Starting with his engagement as architect for the Puerto Rican government in 1943-44, I will explore his subsequent strategy to succeed as a planning expert and consultant in Latin America.

My intention is to illuminate the changes within his career as exemplary of a collective professional movement to respond to work opportunities raised in the so called “Third World” fringe, where modernizing efforts were starting to be seen as organic parts of the expansion of capitalism and the industrial civilization.

Cosmopolitan Tropicalism

Like many other modern designers, Neutra has traced a rather erratic and cosmopolitan professional itinerary. Apart from his early emigration steps, in 1930 he embarked on an extended European journey to confirm the exchanges with his modern-architectural peers. He lectured in Vienna, Zurich, Basel, Prague, Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Rotterdam in one single and long trip. In Germany he met Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, who invited him to teach for a month at the Bauhaus as a visiting critic. He met Brinkman and Van der Vlugt in Rotterdam and also Le Corbusier, in Brussels, while taking part of the 3rd CIAM as an American delegate. In Tokyo and Osaka, where he sailed to on his way to Europe from Los Angeles, he was received as a celebrity, lecturing to wellinformed audiences. On the way, he also visited Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and Canton, publishing in Berlin his impressions about Asia. (Hines, 2005) Throughout the 1930’s, Neutra didn’t travel much abroad, consumed by more than a hundred commissions he had taken, mostly in California and neighboring states. But the end of the War points out to a change in his usual destinations, when he starts a rather mobile professional venture in Latin America and elsewhere. Right after his experience in Puerto Rico in 1945, he went to Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and embarked into a US State Department sponsored tour through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. In ‘47 he was back to Peru, soon after travelling to India, where he would return several times along the years.

In ‘48 he published in Brazil his book about his experience in Puerto Rico as a sort of introduction to wider plans for the subcontinent. While working in Guam and trying his way in Micronesia, Pakistan, South Africa and East Nigeria, he went to Venezuela in 1955 for the 9th Pan-American Conference, and to Brazil in 1959 for the International Art Criticism Conference held in Brasilia’s building site, as well as in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, where from he extended his trip to Buenos Aires, La Plata, Cordoba and Rosario in Argentina.

This great mobility reveals an exploration of new geographic, professional and disciplinary frontiers, which resonates the reshaping of the contemporary agenda for architecture and architects. Attempting to move from private to public practice,


his modern sensibility seems to gradually evolve from a prodigal design approach to California’s sun and landscape, to more socially and environmentally concerned planning attitudes, in which a civilizing mission of modern architecture is selfassigned.

It is true that his commissions in Latin America throughout the years would still be very much tied up to his reputation as the architect of well designed private houses according to thermic isolation concerns. (Museu de Arte de São Paulo, 1951;

Instituto Eduardo Torroja, 1968) The proof being his DeShulthes house in Havana from 1956 and the Gorrondona villa in Caracas from 1962, two of his very few achievements in the region where he would supposedly attest his ability to respond to physiological and biological needs of human habitat within the tropics.

Nevertheless his efforts to deal with wider public commissions would clearly show a different approach to mild climate realities.

The experience in Puerto Rico is a major turning-point in this process. Unfortunately there is not much historical account for his work there. According to Thomas Hines though, the period refers to an important shift on Neutra’s public persona. Apart the fluctuation within his design work - from the white, cool, flat-roofed International Style to a more textured architecture of brick, wood and slanting roofs - all throughout the war years and during his term as head of CIAM he would get involved in larger discussions on post-war planning and reconstruction, taking part of the San Francisco meeting which gave birth to the United Nations in the Spring of 1945. For him, the vast rebuilding of the world should be a task to be assumed by contemporary architects. Particularly on a time of uncertainty about the future of

modernism and of relatively unpromising professional perspectives (Hines, 2005:


The fact was that in late 1943, when Neutra was called from Washington to lead a massive design and construction program in Puerto Rico, he had very little work to do. Sharing the liberal beliefs of American-appointed governor Rexford Tugwell, between the Autumn of ‘43 and early ’45, he established and directed an office of Puerto Rican architects and engineers. They were responsible to carry on a large building program according to the preliminary guidelines of what he saw as “the most advanced system” of public health and education, which included four district hospitals, many rural and urban health stations, schools, village centers etc. 1 His

commission for the work was described by himself in an article of 1944:

“Governor Rexford G. Tugwell had appointed a committee for the Design of Public Works: Dr. Rafael Pico, distinguished chairman of the Planning, Zoning, and Urbanizing Board; Mr. Sergio Cuevas, Commissioner of the Interior; Santiago Iglesias Jr., son of the late Resident Commissioner of the same name in Washington; Paul Edwards, very active chief of the War Emergency program; and last but not least, Louis Sturcke Jr., head of the realistic and cautious Bureau of Budget. Looking for a reputed architect of some cosmopolitan adaptability and familiar with sub-tropical and tropical UCLA/ Young Research Library/ Special Collections. Richard Neutra Papers: Articles Miscelaneous. Box 176, Folder 7: Planning and Fabrication (PL): “Puerto Rico performs”, 12/2/1944, p.1 URBAN TRANSFORMATION: Controversies, Contrasts and Challenges conditions, the Committee came to invite me from Los Angeles to the Island and then commissioned me as their architect and consultant. I immediately commenced and aided in the organization of a Puerto Rican office to plan and project public works.”2 He certainly had a reputation. In his book about the Puerto Rican experience he included a letter from the Board of Education of the City of Los Angeles, dated February ‘41, recommending the work he had done on the completion of large size units of elementary and junior high schools there. He also published a second letter dated August ‘43 from the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles expressing their appreciation for his “outstanding” design and building supervision of Channel Heights Housing Project. (Neutra, 1948: 196-197) The very fact of including them suggests that he regarded his engagement on the welfare policies of the Roosevelt era as having played a part on his ability to coordinate social tasks as those performed in Puerto Rico.

Among the local team engaged in the design work, there were young architects like Raul Reichard (1908-1996), Osvaldo L. Toro (1914-1995) and Miguel Ferrer (1914and engineers such as Antonio Calderon, who according to Neutra belonged to “a gifted and forward looking generation” to whom “I was expected to exert a stimulating influence (…) and so help forward a general renaissance of planning and design on this island in transition.”3 Open air schools for over 150 villages and 128 rural health sub-stations were planned, designed, and redesigned, as well as several milk dispensaries, storage buildings, cisterns, village fountains, neighborhood centers with dance floors, stages, speakers’ platforms and broadcast equipment for educational, assistance, leisure and political purposes. These projects had been given urgent priority over the design of institutions of higher professional training, a Medical College and Nurses’ Training Centers, Industrial Arts schools and other facilities for urban zones including San Juan, which have never gone beyond their initial planning stage.

Not much of the planned buildings were actually erected, but numerous type studies were developed, many of which were included in his “Architecture of social concern in regions of mild climate”, a book to be published in Brazil in 1948. A general design attitude may be summarized: principles of flexibility, adaptability and extension were adopted on the spatial and programmatic level; standardized and semiprefabricated reinforced concrete structures were designed to fit different, expandable or replicable situations; formal frugality was invested of regional and psychosomatic attributes such as outside patios, the spread of inner spaces into the outdoors, the fronting into prevalent breezes, the use of screens and awning doors and the design of light and removable furniture in order to respond both to the “climatic asset” and the “human material”. With no neglect to the bio-realistic approach (Castillo, 2003) once raised in California, concerns related to low-cost construction and local spatial and architectural patterns were clearly reinforced in face of the new socio-economic reality. After all, along with the obvious design improvement, there were other benefits intended with the program. Neutra himself referred to his expectations that such facilities would

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