Architecture of the sun as a solution to post-pandemic urban design

At the origins of modernism there was also the intention to promote a healthy lifestyle and bring man closer to nature, even through naturism. A lesson forgotten and to be recovered, if we want to put back health at the centre of design.

One kind of light-and-air bathing is the sunbath. You lie on the ground, preferably in the woods, without clothing. But if the sun is very warm, novices must protect themselves against burning by a covering of porous cloth, or still better, fresh leaves and branches.

The True Natural Method of Healing and Living and The True Salvation of the Soul.

Paradise Regained, Adolf Just, 1903

As the outbreaks of pandemics like the Spanish Flu and tuberculosis ravaged Europe and the Americas at the end of the first world war, architects presented an esthetic remedy in the form of modern architecture. A reasonable assumption for the general acceptance of the modernist style in architecture was its clean, stripped down, antiseptic aesthetic. It was an antibody to the ornamental, dusty and eclectic architecture that defined the pre-war period.

This new architecture aimed to maximize sun, air and cleanliness, leading to an antibacterial style that fostered health and connection to outside living. This was part of an early Modernism in architecture, with a stated mission to improve the health of its occupants. This concern was mostly downplayed and easily forgotten by the academics of architectural history who relied on an overly formal and technical analysis of architecture and its protagonists. Now, in the age of another pandemic, we might look  back for instruction at some of these moments where health trumped formalism.

We can clearly trace the earliest examples of modern architecture in California to these  notions. The architecture of Rudolf Schindler (the Lovell Beach house) and the architecture of Richard Neutra (the Lovell Health house), who both designed for the eccentric health guru Philip Lovell, manifested the concern for healthy living very directly. Lovell, a practitioner of alternative medicine assumed to a quack, was a transplant who had moved from New York to Los Angeles. He hosted a radio show on health and lifestyle, and authored the “Care of the Body” column that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in the early 1920’s espousing alternative medicine and health regimes. He also advocated sunbathing in the nude, natural food consumption, exercise and sleeping under the open sky.

Rudolf Schindler, Lovell Beach House, Newport Beach, Los Angeles, 1926. Image originally published on Domus 454. Photo Herman Hertzberger

Lovell invited his architect Rudolf Schindler to write several articles exploring the relationship between health, decor and architecture. The message was that the House and the Clothing of the Future would be more in unison with nature, to let the outdoors in and the nude body out. They would restore control of our environment, without interfering with our mental and physical nakedness. Our rooms would descend close to the ground and the garden would become an integral part of the house. The distinction between the indoors and the out-of-doors would disappear. The walls would be few, thin, and removable. All rooms would become part of an organic unit, instead of being small separate boxes with peep-holes.

These notions did not originate in 1920s California, rather, they came from turn of the century Germany, where health and lifestyle movements proliferated. Via the steady stream of European emigres, these movements nourished new roots under the sunny skies of California.

While Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau were early proponents of nude bathing and nature walks, naturism did not take off in the United States until these German reformers migrated to Southern California. The Lebensreform health movement was also a politically diverse movement: hundreds of groups across Germany dedicated  themselves to ideals of ecology and organic farming, vegetarianism, naturism (Freiekörperkultur or FKK), and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. The movement was not politically monolithic: devoted socialists and engaged freethinkers mingled with the apolitical, the rightwing, and the nationalistic. Dozens of magazines, books, and pamphlets were published on these topics. The theosophy teachings of Rudolf Steiner, gathered under the rubric of the Wandervögel (Wandering or Migrating Birds) movement, emerged from the rediscovery of Teutonic and old german legends promoting a renewed connection to nature, in stark opposition to the industrialized cities filled with smoke and density of living. Traveling Nature Apostles preaching vegetarianism, alternative lifestyles and pacifism roamed the lands after the devastating first world war.

Rudolf Schindler, Kings Road House, West Hollywood, Los Angeles, 1921-22. Image originally published on Domus 746. Photo Julius Shulman

Philip Lovell certainly was part of this legacy. He promoted clean living and nudism in his lectures and columns. He demanded that air- and sun-bathing, sleeping in well-ventilated rooms with lots of natural light be priorities of the new Californian Modernist architecture. He was a frequent patron of the Eutropheon, founded by John and Vera Richter in 1917, the first live-food restaurant in Los Angeles that spread the Naturmensch (Natureman) and Lebensreform philosophies that eventually fed into the hippie and counterculture movement of the 1960s. Lovell was definitely aware of Adolf Just’s book Return to Nature, who proclaimed as early as 1903 that “…we shall soon see farther on how sleeping on the bare ground is a most natural and healthy practice. I must observe also that light frame dwelling houses are more healthful than those built more massively. More small houses ought to be built again, surrounded by gardens and trees, if possible. Our present large, barrack-like houses with thick stone walls in narrow, stuffy streets are obviously not conducive to health.”

Schindler went further in his explorations of natural living with his experimental house on Kings Road, built in 1921. Before embarking on the design, he spent several weeks in the Yosemite woods where he camped in tents and walked naked, bathing in the river. He created open air sleeping nests in lieu of regular bedrooms and wore relaxed clothing like natural cotton collar-less shirts and tunics. Pauline Schindler, his socialist and activist wife, dreamed “to have, someday, a little joy of a bungalow, on the edge of the woods and mountains near a crowded city, which shall be open just as some people’s hearts are open, to friends of all classes and types” prior to their residential building experiment. In the house, she organized salons promoting social justice, experimental music and Balinese dancing in the nude, to the chagrin of her conservative neighbors and even Richard Neutra who then was living with them.

Aalvar and Aino Aalto, Paimio Sanatorium, Paimo, Finland, 1929-1933

One can trace a lineage from Schindler to later modernists weaving health and clean living into their architecture, expressing it through a new white-washed and sanitized aesthetic. Le Corbusier, a known heliophile and avid sunbather referred to the House as “the daughter of the sun.”  Johannes Duiker’s Open Air school in Amsterdam
and the Zonnestraal ‘Sunbeam’ Sanatorium in Hilversum paved the way for Alvar Aalto’s Paimio tubercolosis sanatorium which he designed with his wife Aino. It featured a large roof terrace with extensive views of the forest, allowing sick patients to be taken in their beds out for fresh air as part of their daily routine. They planned winding paths on the hospital grounds and incorporated water features, which encouraged patients to take walks. A sun balcony was added at the end of each patient floor and oriented directly southward, intending for bedridden patients on the balconies to get as much natural sun light as possible. Sunboxes — heliotropic designs in rotated sheds — gained popularity  among the health-conscious in the northern hemisphere, most notably George Bernard Shaw.

Later on in the 1960s, Bernhard Rudofsky, the author of Architecture without Architects, re-introduced architectural practices that prioritized environmental awareness in indigenous architecture, an awareness forgotten by a formally-focused generation of architects. The Nivola house combined principles of exterior living that Rudofsky researched during his travels. Designed for nude sunbathing at any time of the year, the solarium takes advantage of the reflection of the sun’s rays on the walls.

Maybe now, during another pandemic, we can return to these principles that put sunshine, natural living and body culture in the foreground, in order to build an architecture that does not make us sick. Air-conditioning, high-rise living and density will have to be reconsidered in the planning of a post-pandemic architecture. The pandemic  will also reinvigorate an architecture that takes cues from the environment, rather than art or extreme aesthetic principles. Cities are forecast to experience a grand exodus, and the imminent explosion of the world population has now been scaled way back. We should refocus our attention on lower-density and low-rise town planning that is neither suburban nor urban, on nature, and of course on nudity.

Mark Mack, Professor emeritus at UCLA, Former Architect at MACK Architect(s) Resident of Venice Beach and aspiring DJOrangela

For more information on the subject of Sun Architecture, health and natural living, consult the book Sun Seekers by Lyra Kilston (Atelier Editions), and Children of the Sun by Gordon Kennedy (Nivaria Press).
Nudism directly influence my own life in the form of a german gymnastic club,Turn Verein, which practiced  nudity whenever it was practical. Sauna visits, river and lake swimming, and air-sunbathing were all performed in the nude and never segregated by gender. Throughout my life, my understanding of appropriate dressing was thus somewhat tilted toward freedom of clothing, sometimes to the chagrin of my immediate family. Nudism and architecture has accompanied me throughout my architectural career as contributor to WET, the Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, and as designer of a Solar Nudist Colony in the late 70s.

Latest on Architecture

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram