California Calls You
In 1919, then unemployed Viennese architect Richard Neutra had not yet immigrated to the United States and was disillusioned from his military service in World War I. So the story goes, Neutra saw a bright travel poster in a gray Zurich train station whose text spelled, amidst palm trees and glistening blue water, “CALIFORNIA CALLS YOU.” It was then that Neutra, who would become one of the most influential twentieth century architects in Southern California designing dozens of private homes and public buildings throughout the Greater Los Angeles area, was first called west. Nearly ten years later Neutra, and countless others, ultimately heeded the call to California as a promised land of pure sunshine, curative climate and good health—a place that could cure all your ailments. Lyra Kilston’s Sun Seekers (Atelier Éditions) traces the often-intersecting characters who took up this call—architects, artists, designers, sanitorium operators—as well as those involved in the return to nature (Zurück zur Natur), utopian, and healthy body movements in the US and Germany, in order to try to figure out the origins of that quintessentially Californian relationship to health, body, nature and technology.
As a self-described fourth generation Angeleno, Kilson’s stake in the game often reads like a reconstruction of a personal history of “California-ness.” As she roots her own familial connection to a California lifestyle based around fitness, diet, celebrity, technology and industry, Kilston looks for the link between these disparate ideas in order to historicize a California whose identity is also seemingly premised on a perpetual quest for the contemporary, the new, the innovative—a certain subconscious refusal to be historicized. Kilston contextualizes Californian lifestyle as part of a larger simultaneous movement in Europe and the United States which found a foothold in California in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Due to its oft-mythologized Spanish colonial-era reputation as a space capable of healing through space and climate alone, people began to congregate in California in order to collectively devote their lives to healthy living. Somewhere between art book and academic text, Kilston’s robustly researched volume is conversational in tone, richly illustrated and accessible to wide audiences, and sheds new light on the inspirations and contexts for the already widely told tale of California modern architecture. Kilston forges a link between health seekers and modern architecture that articulates a construction of California-ness itself, which instead of functioning as merely a happy backdrop to movements around healthy living, demands its own story be told.
Early in her research for the book, Kilston discovered references to a ‘Highland Springs Resort’ just outside of Los Angeles, in Beaumont, CA in the pages of a one-hundred-year-old newspaper. The newspaper described a resort which claimed to be based on the austere principles of an obscure German dietician named Arnold Ehret. Dr. Ehret promoted a disciplined personal regimen of “no caffeine, alcohol, meat or processed foods, daily exercise, sun baths, and regular bouts of fasting to clear the body of toxic, disease-causing matter.” With followers claiming cures, Dr. Ehret amassed tremendous popularity and arguably influenced modern health and lifestyle movements. Kilston traveled to the still functioning resort (and one-time summer camp—my own former sixth grade camp!) to look for lingering traces of the early health movements or Dr. Ehret’s teachings, but found it instead transformed to a soon to be wellness center and working educational farm; disappointingly no one there had ever heard of Dr. Ehret. Kilston offers this anecdote to introduce the purpose for writing this text: California may be discursively hyper aware of its existence as a mecca for all things “healthy,” but it has a short, often revisionist, memory when it comes to its own history and formations. Kilston argues that this California story of healthy living begins with the tuberculosis epidemic which primarily affected residents of dense urban areas in continental Europe and the East Coast of the US in the late nineteenth century. She traces a fascinating history of the sanitorium movement in Europe and the northern United States in which doctors promoted healthy lifestyles, natural light, sunbathing, exposure to fresh air and restricted diets as cure for early stage tuberculosis (which, in reality, had mixed success). European architects responded in turn by articulating that buildings too, when placed and designed correctly, could aid in recovery and thus designed dozens of sanitoriums, notably Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium in Finland, the Klinik Clavadel in Davos, and Jan Duiker and Bernard Bijvoet’s Sanatorium Zonnestraal (whose name means ‘sunbeam’) in the early twentieth century. This was taken up in the Sanitorium Belt, an unofficial area of land stretching from San Diego to Los Angeles which showcased dozens of sanitoriums believed to have architecturally curative properties (sun roofs and skylights, large windows, local materials meant to connect to nature, planned vistas, and painted in calming colors).
Health seekers from mostly Germany and the US, often doctors or naturopaths who had contracted tuberculosis themselves and believed that California’s climate itself when harnessed through a building could cure the disease, built and operated dozens of these sanitoriums in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the primarily agricultural Los Angeles area. Kilston notes that Richard Neutra’s later 1929 Lovell Health House was built in the spirit of these European and California sanitoriums for health and also indicated a Le Corbusier-ian desire to design the home as a “machine for living”–the implication for both Le Corbusier and Neutra being healthy and correct living. She marks a rupture in modern architecture when “healthy lifestyles” became linked to daily life and spaces for daily activity, and were no longer just something to think of in the context of disease; healthy, disease-free lifestyles could now be for everyone through means of prevention (like diet and exercise) and through homes, schools and other buildings which would harness the healing powers of the natural landscape and climate. It was in this moment that a healthy lifestyle became foremost preventative as opposed to curative, and therefore accessible to all who sought it. Kilston spends a fair bit of time describing the concurrent trends in modern architecture in both Europe and California and suggests that architect Neutra himself was the link between nearly identical health-related movements within architecture in both Europe and California. The second half of the book is dedicated to a cast of characters crucial in defining the sun seeker movement in California: the hermit in Palm Springs, the Nature Boys, the raw vegetarian cafeteria owners and cookbook authors in downtown Los Angeles, the German Zurück zur Natur movement, eugenics scientists, exercise regimen developers, those with beards and a certain idealized cooptation of indigenous lifestyles as manifest in both German and Californian social organizations. She knits together otherwise disparate characters and groups in Germany and California and suggests their reciprocal relationship is an often unremarked upon component of the California identity of health and the “natural.”
Sun Seekers offers a relatively comprehensive narrative of the construction of the mythologies around “healthy and natural lifestyles” and offers hints at the psychological motives of health seekers flocking to California while proffering a specific reflexive relationship between Southern California and Germany. Kilston acknowledges the grotesque, the obscene, the weird, and the cult-like within the construction of the healthy lifestyle narrative with neither reverence nor disdain. Instead, Kilston suggests that a false dichotomy between nature and civilization creates something special for those who struggle to reconcile it and suggests that this is perhaps essentially Californian; this concurrent search for the “machine in the garden” and the purely “natural” is the paradoxical Californian trope that inspires and repels, and its quite complex lineage and European roots suggest there is actually more to the story, which this text just only begins to scratch the surface of.
As Sun Seekers toes the line between art book and academic text, some might suggest its audience could be more clearly formed were it to more clearly identify as one or the other. On the contrary, though Kilston’s limited framing can feel sparse, it does allow the text to fill a niche in writing about architectural history. That is, it is neither pedantic in tone nor does it assume a cultivated relationship to design itself, but instead offers a reading of architectural spaces which argues for their integral role in social history and in constructing collective mythologies/discourses, while inviting readers to take up the relationship between the built environment and the construction of Californian identity in a clear and joyful tone. Possible extensions of the text might consider a more explicitly political lens through which to consider this relationship between German and American health seeking and architecture movements, particularly their mutually shared relationships with colonial and territorial expansion and racism which are arguably integral to foundations of the respective movements themselves. Likewise, the definitions of “nature” and “the natural” are wholly untroubled and suggest a universalized understanding of how these various actors involved with the narrative interpreted conceptions of “the natural,” which I suspect, is not the case. Kilston does briefly allude to both the roles of race and colonialism and the arbitrary construction of nature in the construction of Californian identity, but her analysis ends there. Instead, Kilston frames and names the ways in which the persistence of a certain kind of California exceptionalism is discursively insisted upon and Sun Seekers offers some clear pathways to unpacking that exceptionalism through making clear the limitations of a supposed a-historicalness of healthy living and relationship to nature. That Californian aesthetic of a sunkissed natural world of innovation, ingenuity and healthy living is a construction much older, and much more complicated than it seems.
 Lyra Kilson, Sun Seekers, pg 6.
 The Lovell Health House was designed by Neutra for physician and naturopath Dr. Phillip Lovell as a house whose spaces themselves would contribute to physical health of inhabitants.
 Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. London: Oxford University Press, 1964. The “machine in the garden” refers to the tension between the pastoral ideal of the natural American landscape with industrialization and its need for land, constant expansion and natural resources.
Leslie Lodwick is an educator, historian and doctoral student in the History of Art and Visual Culture Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research is concerned with issues of race, gender and education in histories of 19th and 20th-century architecture, planning and design. Her work also explores the visual culture of childhood, school, and play. She is assistant managing editor of Refract: An Open Access Visual Studies Journal.