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Kaufmann Desert House by Richard Neutra

This month, as with any, I am working on several projects that intend to effortlessly relate interior and exterior space in a fashion that reflect my clients’ ideas, tastes, and intentions, whilst embodying the best of design principles. These three factors of a strong inside/outside interconnection, a client-centric design process, and the intention to achieve the highest possible standard seem such obvious, common elements of the design process that it’s quite hard to imagine that they aren’t always, and haven’t always been at play together in the design of residential architecture.

Yet the integration of house and garden certainly wasn’t always at the heart of residential design. Indeed, until the advent of Modernism in the early 20th century residential architecture rarely placed any great emphasis on the relationship between the house and garden at all except to deliver an aesthetically pleasing composition of built form and green elements to the streetscape.

Thank goodness for Modernism! For someone like me (let alone the population in general) living in anything less than a house flooded with natural light and ventilation borders on unimaginable. The search for an uninhibited flow between inside and out comes so naturally to contemporary architects and their clients that this fundamental Modernist principle has undoubtedly had enormous influence on the development of contemporary architecture and the way in which contemporary life unfolds and unravels within our homes.

The other seemingly evident element which has had questionable influence on the design process over the past century is that of the desires and needs of the client. To me, the role of the architect is in many ways a simple one made up of several interrelated influences that come together to form the final design outcome. These influences include site and context, precedent works, architectural or design intent, and finally, though oft forgotten, client wants and requirements! Again, it seems unfathomable to me that this final and yet crucial element could ever fail to be an integral part of the design process but throughout the years many clients of architects have expressed their disappointment in the process due to a lack of design consideration in this area. It’s a shame, and a poor reflection on the industry as a whole that this could ever be the case.

The final element is that of architectural quality, and in many ways this rests to be judged and critiqued by others.


In the late 1940s Richard Neutra proposed an architecture in the Kaufmann House that delivered on all three above elements. His process centered on client requirements and he spent time researching their real needs and wants in order to ensure a design outcome that was functionally and aesthetically suited to these requirements. The design explores the interconnectedness between house and landscape in an undeniably thorough manner, and delivers a dwelling inherently tied to its site. The house stands as a testament to the expertise, clarity, and success of Neutra’s approach and the timelessly successful nature of the architecture that it created.

The house is located in Palm Springs, California, and was completed in 1947. So much of its architectural style is familiar to me in contemporary Australian architecture that at this point in time at least, I feel confident in labeling it timeless. The house has a wonderful and open relationship with its site, each room enveloped by or overlooking some particular aspect of garden or distant landscape. The plan is a revelation and a far cry from residential building arrangements pre-International Style and pre-Modernism.

The plan centers around the living room which acts as the house’s central axis. This space benefits from dual aspect both to the south and east and connects to wings in all four directions, the location of each space designed with the intention of providing ample light and ventilation as well as protection from the harsh desert heat at different times of the day and year. The lounge room links to other parts of the house via variously outside and inside spaces including outdoor rooms, corridors, galleries, and porticoes. This layering of interior and exterior space and the elegantly maneuvered thresholds between inside and out lead to an overall complexity and intelligence in design that encourages one to meander through the site before settling in somewhere with just the right amount of light, breeze, and outlook as suited to that particular moment in time.

The Desert House is a dwelling truly suited to both its clients and landscape and is an exemplary example of when these influences come together under the care of an architect to develop an effortlessly well resolved piece of architecture to span the test of time.


The Kaufmann Desert House was built in 1946-47 as a desert retreat for Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr.

Kaufmann Desert House

Source: Richard Neutra Complete Works, Barbara Mac Lamprecht, Taschen, Koln, 2000.

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The Author:

Our principle designer Poppy is a Masters of Architecture graduate from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She graduated in 2013 with First Class Honours, received the Dean's Medal and was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects NSW Chapter Masters of Architecture Graduate of the Year prize. In 2010, Poppy received the Eric Parker Travelling Scholarship encouraging the research and drawing of architecture.

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