Form Follows Libido
Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture
192 pp., 9 x 11 in, 36 b&w illus.
- Published: September 28, 2007
- Publisher: The MIT Press
- Published: January 21, 2005
- Publisher: The MIT Press
How modern architecture came to embrace the urges and fears of the affective unconscious.
"Eight million Americans a year cool their heels in psychiatric waiting rooms. Design can help lower this nervous overhead."—Richard Neutra, 1954
Sylvia Lavin's Form Follows Libido argues that by the 1950s, some architects felt an urge to steer the cool abstraction of high modernism away from a neutral formalism toward the production of more erotic, affective environments. Lavin turns to the architecture of Richard Neutra (1892-1970) to explore the genesis of these new mood-inducing environments. In a series of engaging essays weaving through the designs and writings of this Vienna-born, California-based architect, Lavin discovers in Neutra a sustained and poignant psychoanalytic reflection set in the context of a burgeoning psychoanalytic culture in America.
Lavin shows that Neutra's redirection of modernism constituted not a lyrical regression to sentimentality but a deliberate advance of architectural theory and technique to engage the unconscious mind, fueled by the ideas of psychoanalysis that were being rapidly disseminated at the time. In Neutra's responses to a vivid range of issues, from psychoanalysis proper to the popular psychology of tele-evangelical prayer, Lavin uncovers a radical reconstitution of the architectural discipline.
Arguing persuasively that the received historical views of both psychoanalysis and architecture have led to a suppression of their compelling coincidences and unorthodoxies, Lavin sets out to unleash midcentury architecture's hidden libido. Neither Neutra nor psychoanalysis emerges unscathed from her investigation of how architecture came to be saturated by the intrigues of affect, often against its will. If Reyner Banham sought to put architecture "on the couch," then Lavin, through Neutra, leaps beyond Banham's ameliorative aim to lure contemporary architecture into the lush and dangerous liaisons of environmental design.
With a sensibility conditioned by current design culture and an erudition leavened by wit and style, sylvia Lavin's account of Neutra will convince a broad audience that architecture history really does matter. Like a skillful remix of an already good song, Form Follows Libido gives us Richard Neutra again for the first time. In Lavin's compelling story, the formerly minor modernist is rejuvenated as a psychospatial therapist who fills environments with psychic energies, affective atmospheres, and shifting moods. And her history of his work becomes a genealogy for much of what is interesting about current design practice.
K. Michael Hays, Eliot Noyes Professor of Architecture Theory, Harvard University
What a great teacher Sylvia Lavin is! She follows Richard Neutra from his beginnings in fin-de-siecle Vienna—caught between Freud's unconscious drives and the puritanical order of Loss's rationalism—to the sprawling (formless) plains of the American West and the revelation of Wright's buildings, which turn his focus to the libidinal drives that open a transference love between architect and client and raise the problems of speration adumbrated by Otto Rank's 'birth trauma.' To mark separations between inside and outside, even while overcoming them, Neutra pioneers the mitered glass corner, the spider-leg support system, the reflecting pools, and the deep overhanging eaves that make his work the acme of libidinal design. Lavin's argument is as lucid as it is persuasive, a great achievement in architectural history and theory.
Rosalind E. Krauss, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory, Columbia University
In 1982, when I published my own book on Neutra and co-curated the Neutra retrospective at MOMA, I eagerly looked forward to subsequent works that would take Neutra studies in new and different directions. Sylvia Lavin's Form Follows Libido is such a book and will be richly controversial—in the best sense of the term—in both architectural and psychological circles. Imaginatively theorized, provocatively argued, and drolly written, this polemical yet open-minded work is a stimulating journey into a complex web of intertwined strands in the cultural history of the twentieth century.
Thomas S. Hines, author of Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture
Form Follows Libido is a singular achievement in architectural history, remarkable for its seductive and adventurous prose as much as the revelatory force of its arguments. It provides the clearest, and most stimulating, recent example I know of architectural history as intellectual and cultural history, and should provide scholars in all areas of the discipline with an exemplary model of how to write the history of architecture today.
Provocative and readable, her study offers a fresh approach to architectural criticism...
As alluring in its conjectural syncopations as it is impressive its intellectual focus, Form Follows Libido heats up the straitlaced rhythms of foursquare architectural scholarship. Lavin's account of the shaping of Neutra's architectural modernism by psychoanalytic pop culture is an invaluable study, to be sure. But even better, it's a scintillating read. If, until now, picking up a book of architectural history meant bracing oneself for yet another minuet or dirge, get ready to read a tango.
Jeffrey Kipnis, Knowlton School of Architecture, The Ohio State University