Architect of California by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
"The Architecture of R.M. Schindler," Feb. 25-Jun. 23, 2001, at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, Ca.
In 1921, with the impact of California fresh on my mind, I built my own house, trying to meet the character of the locale... I introduced features which seemed to be necessary for life in California; an open plan, flat on the ground; living patios; glass walls; translucent walls; wide sliding doors; clerestory windows; shed roofs with wide shading overhangs. These features have now been accepted generally and form the basis of the contemporary California house.
Rudolph Michael Schindler wrote these remarks in 1952, the year before he died of cancer, and in reading them, it is tempting to think that he wanted to clarify his accomplishments as an architect.
Today, the dozens of houses that he built around Southern California are considered paradigmatic of a lifestyle that valorizes the open, the informal, the natural. The Philip Lovell Beach house, built between 1922 and 1926, is mounted on pillars in the sand, with sliding doors and windows that open to the ocean and the horizon.
If the integration of architectural geometry with the elements of nature seems less radical today, it is because aspects of his design have been incorporated into houses up and down the coastline. Architects Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne among others have acknowledged his influence and -- with Richard Neutra -- he is named as a preeminent modern architect.
Yet, this was not always the case. Members of the East Coast architectural establishment derided him for not adhering to their perception of modern architecture as a "machine for living." His perspicacity and originality were the very qualities demeaned by critics and historians dominated by the theories of Le Corbusier and Mies Van de Rohe.
To demonstrate exactly how thoughtful and consistent Schindler's work remained within all of its apparent variety, the Museum of Contemporary Art has organized a comprehensive exhibition of his work, including 15 scale models, 100 drawings, 12 pieces of furniture and a full-size recreation of a beach unit from his 1937 A.E. Rose Beach Colony project. The exhibition was organized by former MOCA curator Elizabeth A.T. Smith, now chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and Michael Darling, MoCA assistant curator.
Born in 1887 in Vienna, Schindler trained in art and engineering at the Technische Hochschule and the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, where he studied under Otto Wagner from 1910 to 1913. The following year, he moved to Chicago, joining Frank Lloyd Wright's studios in Taliesin in 1918. Like many Europeans, he considered Wright to be foremost among modern architects. Schindler came to Los Angeles in 1920 to supervise construction of the Hollyhock House Wright was building for Aline Barnsdall.
Schindler so thoroughly enjoyed the environment and building opportunities in Los Angeles that he stayed for the next 33 years. He held a regular salon for actors, musicians and intellectuals at 835 N. Kings Road, the house that he designed for himself, his wife Pauline and son Mark. Now home of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, L. A. branch of the Museum of Applied Art in Vienna, it is the most accessible example of Schindler's ideas about integrating nature and structure, the use of organic as well as industrial materials and, most important, the construction of space.
After coming to the United States, Schindler grew interested in the variety of vernacular American architecture, such as the adobe homes of New Mexico. He found inspiration in their exposed vigas that support the roof, their thick walls made of compacted mud, angled inward at the top to reduce the weight, and their corner, ground-level fireplaces serving as the focal point of the room.
Schindler designed a similar style of dwelling for a client in Taos, though it was never built, and reinterpreted many adobe house elements for his Kings Road house. The outdoor patios with fireplaces and indoor fireplaces on the floor level, the exposed beams and various ceiling and floor heights for individual rooms arranged in an open plan derive in part from his visits to adobe dwellings.
The Schindlers had built their own unconventional house with their friends, the architect Clyde Chase and his wife Marian, with separate bedrooms but shared kitchen and living space. After a few years, the Chases moved on to Florida. When architect Richard Neutra arrived with his wife Dionne, they took over their vacated rooms.
In 1926, Schindler and Neutra formed a partnership and built some extraordinary projects such as the Lovell houses, the Jardinette Apartments (1927), the Translucent House for Aline Barnsdall (1927-28) and the Charles H. Wolfe Residence (1928-31). Calling this period the "seedbed of California modernism," Robert Sweeney writes in the catalogue, "The bohemian and the technocrat coalesced in the rarest of synergistic partnerships."
Yet, they parted ways over the very issues that made them great. Schindler's spaces were inventive but crudely built. Neutra was more formulaic but technically proficient.
Plus, Neutra embraced the International Style and the use of steel framing, extensive glazing and prefabricated construction. His work was included the Museum of Modern Art's International Style exhibition organized by critic Henry Russell Hitchcock and architect Philip Johnson, with an accompanying and influential book. Although Schindler sought to be in this show and sent his portfolio to Johnson, he was not included. Johnson wrote that "he did not fit."
Indeed, he did not. Schindler was concerned with the architecture of space, which, for him, meant designing a unique program for each building and each site. Although he used poured concrete slabs in his construction, he framed his buildings in wood. Windows and doors were open to nature. Roofs shoot off at angles with odd-shaped clerestories. Rooms feature obliquely angled corners and staircases.
Schindler designed his own pre-fabricated furniture out of plywood that could be built by any carpenter. He also built seating and tables into the rooms. He advocated indirect lighting and considered light to be "an attribute of space."
In these, and so many other ways, Schindler influenced the development of domestic architecture in Southern California. He characterized his primary contribution in a manifesto. He insisted, "The architect has finally discovered the medium of his art: SPACE."
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.