Synthesis of Survival Through Design

Richard Neutra’s seminal publication on designing for human comfort, Survival Through Design, was first published in 1954. His observations are surprisingly applicable and rarely seem dated, considering the lapse of 60+ years.  It is surprising though, how little work has been accomplished since the first publication, on studying how to create architecture more responsive to the human condition and neurological processing.


I was first made aware of Neutra’s book by attending a lecture conducted by ANFA, where I had the pleasure of meeting Dion Neutra, Richard Neutra’s architect son.  I purchased the book from his foundation, and met him at his home: naturally, a Richard Neutra house on Neutra Place in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.

The 384 pages (no images!) are immense, thick, and at points rambling.  The 47 chapters are separated in no easily interpretable divisions; without a hierarchically based outline, the concepts tend to meander.  In an attempt to synthesize his pertinent points, I’ve titled the chapters according to what I believe is the most rewarding information within each, and I have chosen to select a quotation or two that highlights his points. [note: there are no original chapter titles alongside the reading, however, the prologue contains a chapter title list, perhaps constructed either by Neutra or one of his sons?]  A few of the chapters were so obscure to me, I imagined Neutra furiously typing away with a few glasses of whiskey and a cuban cigar – these are noted as “Drunk Chapters.”

1 Designing Through Nature

2 Speculation vs. Inductive Method

There seems really one thing left to do; that is to by-pass speculative issues quietly, take heart, organize the procedure, and confidently attack the stupendous ubiquitous problem of design, as far as feasible, with an eye on tried inductive method.  And never must we lose a sincere, enlightened interest in the ultimate consumer – our species as a whole.

3 Architecture as Human Extension

If design, production, and construction cannot be channeled to serve survival, if we fabricate an environment of which, after all, we seem an inseparable part – but cannot make it an organically possible extension of ourselves, then the end of the race may well appear in sight.  It becomes improbable that a species like ours, wildly experimenting with its vital surroundings, could persist.

4 Ubiquity + Artificiality

Yet the construction of a contemporary scene which would gratify human needs instead of frustrating them, which would further the smooth functioning of man’s nervous system instead of imposing an intolerable strain on it, is a problem that will most certainly not be solved by lucky accident. . . The farther  man has moved away from the balanced integration of nature, the more his physical environment has become harmful.

5 Scientific vs. Historical/Ancestral

Unlike automotive and other engineers, architects have been trained to keep an eye on the precedents of a distant past.  They have long been accustomed never to discuss even the most novel development of the future without a grain of retrospection.

6 “Sweets”ism: An Architecture of Manufactured Components

The glorious ‘unity of material’ was a thing of the past.  The ‘raw materials’ were no longer raw, but themselve end products of long drawn-out and widely scattered manufacturing processes.  The new building and designer quarried his material from Sweets, the great annual building material catalogue.

7 Individuality and Emergence based on Context

Even wholesale housing projects were doctored up to achieve a spurious individualistic variety.  This was achieved not by means of a truly sensitive site plan, a ‘human’ grouping of homes, and creative landscaping, but simply by superficial architectural recitations of one kind or other. . . Individuality is at last surmised to be not a matter of superficialities but the outcome of profound physiological traits that are not honored by just random diversity.

8 Cultural/Architectural Longevity + Maintenance

While even laymen readily understand that, basically, construction must govern appearance, there is reasonable doubt that steel-built houses would sell well from the start i they actually looked like what they are. . . . ‘Appearance’ is composed of direct sensory stimulation plus an important package of diversified mental associations elicited in the beholder.

There is mental comfort in permanence.  Undoubtedly, al human beings harbor an ideal of it.  But while a primitive people, such as the Pueblo Indians, express this aspiration in a recurrent ritual of rebirth, which more dramatic than piecemeal, current upkeep, advancing civilizations generally tend to build durable structures that do not require periodic maintenance.  The aims is to secure godlike eternity to initial form and color concept.

9 Precision vs. The Rustic

It was within the very historical decades which produced  machine precision that precision itself lost face and was arbitrarily abandoned for ‘beauty’s’ sake. . . Precision was equated with coldness, imperfection with warmth; exactness of detail was discarded, and haphazard ‘rustic’ forms were introduced by the speculative psychologist of the real-estate market.

10 Unnatural Hazards + Imitations

It has become imperative that in designing our physical environment we should consciously raise the fundamental question of survival, in the broadest sense of this term.  Any design that impairs and imposes excessive strain on the natural human equipment should eliminated, or modified in accordance with the requirements of our nervous and, more generally, our total physiological functioning. . . Many of our cultural changes – often the more conspicuous ones – are accounted for not by a steady positive evolution but by a negative factor, fatigue. . . especially for the more highly developed human neuro-mental system a stati changelessness seems especially unfit.   

By the same token, articles that superficially imitate the workmanship of a bygone day are ipso facto pseudomorphic. . . It obviously takes energy not to imitate.

11 A Rant on Linoleum

Design must be a barrier against irritation instead of an incitement to it. . . An element of design may be habit-forming and thus attractive but still incompatible with the requirements of our constitutional system.

12 Drunk Chapter.  “Chaos of Incomprehensibility”

The picture of an ordered operating cosmos is a useful staff or reassuring crutch for the difficult obscure road through the chaos of incomprehensibility.  The ancient idea of a world wisely ordered to function affords an emotional gratification that has shown eminent and long-tested survival value.  It is the inspiration for all planning and designing.

13 Frivolous Decoration vs. Formerly Function Decoration

Ornamentation cannot well be rationally invented and applied in cold blood, and current arbitrary decoration lacks the initial emotional impetus, the authentic purpose of gratifying a deep primordial urge. . . In discussing decoration, we must mention the fear of emptiness.

There is another category of, strictly speaking, non-functional material we tend to retain in our environment.  This might better be characterized as no longer functional, but as still charged with lingering associations suggesting actual use and comfort, and must be differentiated from the void-filling kind of decoration and from the survivals of magic emblems mentioned above.

14 The Emotional Component of Decoration

15 How Aesthetics Create Functions in Nature

What does actually make a wild azalea attractive to a bee? . . there is something elementary at work which may not necessarily be present in the more involved gratification a human mind derives from perceiving a form integrated with function. . . if we had never seen a fish swim, we could probably reconstruct its function from its form. . . It is in this more complex world, as we see it in the light of current organic research, that the coming designer must operate, not in the pure aesthetics of a bygone brand of speculation.

16 Amortization of Excitation

The idea of aesthetic appeal must be divested of a quality of timelessness or eternity often attributed to it in the past. . . .But all appeals should be graded with respect to their duration or rather the duration of our receptivity to them.  Each has, so to speak, a definite amortization period.

17 How Natural Complexity May Soothe Us

If we find such landscape surroundings attractive and beautiful – restful beyond words – it certainly cannot be because of order.  There is no trace of Platonic regularity. . . we have been hypnotized by incomprensible irregularity.  

18 The Satisfaction of a Design Solution

19 Drunk Chapter.  

20 Spatial Acoustics + Illusions

It should be emphasized that ‘illusion’ is one of the designer’s common instrumentalities, and that he would do well to familiarize himself with some of the serious research in this field. . . Thus the designer can, for instance, make a structural member seem strong or heavy by giving it large apparent dimensions, although it may be composed merely of inflated surfaces around a hollow.

21 Steriognosis: Spatial Sense of Smell, Air, Material, Gravity, + Kinesthesis

Future design of living environment may operate effectively with positive olfactory ingredients and not merely guard against the presence of the most obviously obnoxious ones. . . Intimately related to our reception of odors is our sense of the moisture content of the air enclosed by architectural space and of the movement of this air. . . Here we must not overlook that sitting on an upholstered chair, lying on a springed sofa, stepping on a padded carpet – or for contract, on a terrazzo stair – registers certain inner muscular perceptions that are quite different from tactile impressions. . . The taking and holding of a posture, the going into any muscular action, in turn establish what is called kinesthetic pattern, a pattern of successive and simultaneous inner stimuli. . . we ought now to touch a little more upon our complex sense of gravity.

It should again be emphasized that none of the discussed responses occurs truly independent of each other.  On the contrary, they are tightly woven together in what is called stereognosis.

22 Awareness of Our Psychological Space: What it Means to be in Front, in Back, to the Left or Right, or Above and Below

Ten feet measured vertically is perhaps a sizable dimension when taken as the height of a room.  Laterally, as the width of a room, these same ten feed suddenly appear to have another, very much reduced magnitude. . . All things in front can be controlled or tackled; things behind are out of such control, but are better not left unsettled.

23 Designing with Time Implication

To look at time in terms of a wrist watch is basing it on a man-made mechanism. . . But we may notice that the elephant’s heart beats 25 to 28 times a minute, whereas the heart of the mouse beats 520 to 780 times during the same period.  At this rate the mouse cannot possibly live as long as the elephant; it dies after three years or so while the elephant. . . enjoys 80 to 100 years.

24 Color Dynamics

Only mono-chromatic light – that is, light of one color and wave length – can be fully focused at one moment by the lens of the ey. . . It is obvious how much our space, which is a product of our physiological make-up, appears affected by color choice in design. . . the act of seeing occurs not only in space but also very much in time. . . While it takes 1/25 of a second to shift focus from white to black, it may take 25 times as long, or a full second, to return from the blackboard to the white book page. . . And lack of change is sufficient to explain our resultant color fatigue, a fatigue that hardly ever occurs in natural surroundings.

25 Stimulation, Fatigue, and Regeneration

The receptors, however, as well as the nerve fibers, have a certain accommodative capacity: when a stimulus is applied constantly, there is no corresponding continuous discharge of impulses.  Only a few initial ones take place and these soon abate. . . The consumer of our design must have his opportunity for comeback through a certain amount of rest.  His minute accommodations or fatigues must at least be considered by the designer, if not actually calculated.

26 What Constitutes a Natural Environment?

27 Nerve Receptors

It may be interesting to trace the supply lines and especially the initial sources of nervous events.  We find sensory stimuli are the prime movers, and the switches that they operate and activate are senses, the same instrumentalities by which also design first becomes noticeable and effective.

28 The Nervous System + Its Inner Communication Systems

Contrasted with the other organs and organic matter, the entire nervous apparatus could indeed be considered as one organ, of its own kind and on a level of its own. . . there is in mammals no further increase in the number of nerve cells from a time soon after their birth.  Growth after that concerns increase not in cell number but in cell size, and in the amount of intercellular material, of axons and dendrites.

29 Behavior, Conditioning, + Response Processes: Dominance, Inhibition, Differentiation, Induction

30 Reflexes: Startle, Orientation, Defense, Control, Precision

31 Physiology of Habituation

The growing of a path, or the channeling of responses, is intensified by what holt has called ‘adience’ – the principle that any stimulation will cause the organism to act and move toward more of the same kind. . . A perpetuated response pattern is, of course, what we call a habit.

Canalization – preference acquisition – is largely what might even be called the forming of a personality.  It is distinctly felt as impairing the personality to give up a once canalized response.  To keep canalized responses intact means to keep one’s ego defended, its image untainted.  “The insertion of a new value. . . may set up a sense of strain and disturbance, a sense of not being one’s self, a sense of pressure to embark on an uncertain voyage.  Here is a plausible explanation for resistance to innovation in design, and for the time lag in acceptance so well observed by sociologists  It is a problem cardinal to the designer.

The designer, the architect, has appeared to us as a manipulator of stimuli and expert of their workings on the human organism.  His technique is really with the organic matter of brains and nerves, however familiar he should be with the trades of the steel fabricator, the mason, the plumber, devoted to external inorganic tasks.  Organisms are group phenomena and human beings belong to a society.  In altering a tradition or in substituting something else for it, we must bear in mind that new habits or fixations cannot possible be created in a vacuum but are sedimented by a novel dominance over older, established habits.  In general an entirely new response, one utterly different from earlier ones, and one fully detached from a reflex basis, is not in the cards.

32 Evolution of Cultural Habit + Tradition

The breaking and supplanting of habits, the glory and downfall of tradition are best understood by an unbiased outsider, and it is by this token that we find distant Japanese circumstances more revealing than corresponding trouble in our midst.

33 Intuition + Appealing to the Subconscious

A proposed environmental change through design must be carefully prepared for such acceptances.  This is often achieved by preconditioning through verbal explanation or what has been called enlightenment.  It works through a frequently repeated intellectual appeal that must be accompanied by one of emotional nature and is best introduced with judicious gradualness. . . The designer will be most useful to his consumership if he does not let himself be side-tracked into reduced subhuman, merely sensory aesthetics.

34 Ownership + Possession

Portions of the constructed environment that we are physically able to modify, and later, those that we have the right to modify or to make use of at will, have pleasurable associations.

35 Drunk Chapter.  Transplantation + Complexities of Ownership

36 Storage, Consumption, + Disposability

37 What is Home Ownership

Louis XIV did own Versailles. . . the frugal American pioneer in his forest clearing owned his humble cabin in very much the same way.  In contrast to this, there is the home ownership of a person who has the limited choice of a fifty-foot lot in a standard, previously established subdivision. . . An owner of this sort merely acquires the privilege of carrying capital charges and amortization over twenty years.

38 Makers vs. Consumers: Obstructions to Innovation Adoption

The division of the human species into producers, percentually perhaps a shrinking group, and consumers, less and less able to grasp production methods behind the scene, is strikingly and specifically non-animal. . . Constructed human environment reflects the conflict of two initiatives.  First, the initiative of production and producers, often enough individuals not at al working in unison. Second, the initiative of acceptance, wielded by a frequently amorphous, non-organized mass of consumers. . . Rejection and resistance. . . Cultural evolution or progress is thus infested with a continuous struggle, hardly ever fully conscious , between two unequal but complementary agents.

39 Resistance to Innovation

. . . gaslight was again tenaciously clung to when electricity threatened to break in; dim gas street lighting was characterized as romantic as contrasted with the glare of electric lighting, and the lamplighter was sentimentalized.  . . The commercial profit-making drive of the railroad builders. . . were not concerned with remedying its ugliness, smoke, and grime.  

40 Drunk Chapter.  Analogy of the Biblical Flood

41 From Artisans to Blueprints, the Architect’s Changing Role

Historically speaking, drawings and blueprints are a rather recent development.  In past periods, the originator of a design usually communicated his idea directly to his working crew, and clarified it by showing them what to do. . . Thus, instead of becoming a harmonious whole, the man-made environment has turned largely into a jumble of separate productions, expediently thrown together. . . The freelance designer preparing plans to be submitted to competitive bidding is an entirely diffrerent position.

42 Designer vs. Worker

We must never forget that, rightly or wrongly, there is a class difference between workman and designer.

43 An Experiment with Education Design

An interprofessional commission was formed for the state of Texas. . . for the purpose of studying the light and brightness distribution in elementary classrooms and all factors that thereby influence the growth, health, behavior, and learning performance of 160,000 Texas school children.

44 The Science of Designing for Nature

45 A Proposal for Experimentation

46 What Makes a Neighborhood?  An Expansive [Chaotic] History of Urbanism

Cities, as far back as we can trace their patterns, fall into two categories: those that appear to have been planned, and those that seem to have arisen without a conscious effort. . . Monotonous stacks of rectangular city blocks have been made to climb up hillsides or run blindly into river bends and across irregular peninsulas.

What can be called a neighborhood has an optimal size that will not change greatly. . . The social psychologist Cooley experimented with what he calls the face-to-face group.  He demonstrated that members of such a group, sensorially linked, can achieve a wholesome mutual adjustment of behavior, identification with each other and the group, and social integration much more readily than members of mere ideological groupings spread over wide geographical areas such as the nation, the state, or the mammoth city. . . The huge institution, the mammoth consolidated school, the gigantic hospital, the colossal park were for a while declared to be the ‘economical solution.’ . . The biological cell, the face-to-face group, is, however too easily disowned in such a tendency toward gigantism.

47 Channeling a Human Benefit + Purpose Within Our Art

I should like to do away with the implication that the designer in his functioning can be wholly governed by scientific attitude or methods, or should aspire to be a scientist himself.  He sometimes accomplishes his most important work in fractions of a second, as fast as a human brain can live in time.  He must continue to rely on intuitive insight often telescoped almost into an instant.

It is of equal benefit to the designer himself as he tries to deal selectively with materials, surface textures, forms, space itself, and combines all in arrangements of purpose, useful to humans. . . An architect, like any other artist, can never prove things – strictly speaking.  They must slowly prove themselves to others.


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