Schindler Ode to Modernism on the Mend
The West Hollywood house that Viennese expatriate architect Rudolf Michael Schindler built for himself in 1922 is more than an enduring icon of early modern architecture, more than the prototype of new ideas that have deeply influenced residential design throughout the United States and abroad: The Schindler House was the temple of bohemian exuberance in a young Los Angeles.
“Calling this structure a house is misleading,” wrote architectural historian Kathryn Smith on the centennial of Schindler’s birth in 1987. “Referring to it as a building also obscures its meaning; environment might be a more suitable term.”
Given a new lease on life by a $150,000 restoration program financed by the City of West Hollywood and the California Office of Historic Preservation, the once-decaying structure is on the road to full recovery, ready to take its rightful place as a monument to modernism.
“Los Angeles,” said Robert Sweeney, president of the Friends of the Schindler House, “is waking up to the richness of its architectural heritage and the need to preserve this vital history.”
Schindler’s reputation as the least understood and least appreciated of the American pioneers of modern architecture has turned around in the last decade. “Rudolf Schindler and Los Angeles are one and inseparable,” declared architectural historian David Gebhard. “Complexity, ambiguity, contradiction are the ingredients of Schindler’s architecture, just as they are the guts and substance of the city.”
Designed to be shared by Schindler and his wife, Pauline, with Pauline’s college friend, Marion Chase, and her engineer husband Clyde, the Schindler House was arranged as an interlocking pattern of three live-in studios each with its own private outdoor “room.” This total integration of exterior and interior spaces, flowing together through sliding glass walls, was only one of the design’s radical innovations.
The true originality of the Kings Road house lies in its design of the entire 100 by 200-foot lot as a total environment. Solid concrete walls sheltered the site from its neighbors on either side and divided the three studios one from another. Within each studio glass walls, canvas screens and redwood windows made light of the space with a Japanese simplicity of style.
The house’s architecture was a subtle fusion of a number of influences, seamlessly combined to conjure up what was then a radical way of life. There was the influence of Japanese domestic architecture with its low-key serenity, severe discipline of detail and ground-hugging roof lines. To this Schindler added the memory of such turn-of-the-century Austrian pre-modernist architects as Adolf Loos, Otto Wagner, Josef Olbrich and Josef Hermann. And there was the admiration Schindler felt for his master and sometime employer, Frank Lloyd Wright, who brought the young Viennese architect to Los Angeles in 1920 to supervise the construction of Aline Barnsdall’s Hollyhock House. Above all there was the impact that California’s open spaces, easy climate and natural grandeur had upon Schindler’s soul.
The story goes that the idea for the Kings Road house came to Schindler while he was camping in Yosemite. “The theme fulfills the basic requirements of a camper’s shelter,” Schindler explained. “(Each room has) a protected back, an open front, a fireplace and a roof.”
The construction of the house embodied Schindler’s ambition to achieve what Sweeney calls “a moral simplicity concealing art.” The basic structural system, consisting of precast, tilt-up concrete wall slabs left unplastered and linked by slots filled with opaque glass, was complemented by natural redwood treated with a solution of hot beeswax, turpentine and linseed oil. Moral simplicity extended to the elimination of eaves troughs and rainwater drainpipes and a refusal to modify the local climate with any heating or cooling system. The only opulence allowed appeared in the copper fireplace hoods and in the lushness of the screens of bamboo at the front and rear of the property.
After 1925, when Schindler’s fellow Austrian expatriate, Richard Neutra and his wife, Dione, moved in, the house became the epitome of 1920s bohemianism, West Coast variety. With its rooftop canvas-covered sleeping porches and bare cement floors, it resembled a roughshod cabin created to celebrate free love, fresh air and a solemn dedication to an anti-bourgeois libertarianism.
Experiences Hit Home
Modern dancer John Bovington pranced nude in the garden, before an audience of artists, architects and expatriate European intellectuals. Harwell Harris, one of the younger Los Angeles architects drawn to the Schindler circle, described an encounter with Dione Neutra in which the architect’s wife appeared without make-up and barelegged, “wearing something resembling a toga.” Her appearance suggested to the awe-struck Harris “that this mountain I was on was maybe Mount Olympus.”
The Kings Road house astonished and delighted emerging local modern designers such as Harris and Gregory Ain who described a visit to the house as entering “another world.” But it also strongly colored their thinking about the new architecture that was struggling to establish itself in Southern California in the 1930s and ‘40s. Many of the ideas Schindler tried out in 1922--including the fluid integration of outdoor and indoor spaces and the simplicity of construction--were manifested in the famous Case Study House program that began in 1945.
An old photo in the room that now serves as a bookstore captures a moment of bohemian harmony. Schindler and Neutra stand in typical poses--Schindler, with an open-necked shirt and hands in pockets, turns his face sideways to the camera to stretch his short neck and emphasize his wild mop and Roman profile; Neutra, wearing a tie even in the hot sunshine, looks straight into the lens’ eye. At their feet Dione Neutra holds her baby son Dion in her lap.
But utopias are notoriously unstable. After squabbling about everything from sharing the kitchen to the ethics of architecture, the Neutras moved out in 1930. Schindler and Pauline split up after heated temperamental clashes, and she departed with her young son Mark to live in Carmel. When she returned to Los Angeles in the mid-1930s, she took over the Neutras’ old studio and only communicated with Rudolf by letter, though they lived on either side of the same wall. She occupied her studio until 1977, 24 years after her husband’s death, running an artsy salon that attracted such luminaries as novelist Theodore Dreiser and photographer Edward Weston.
The Friends of the Schindler House (FOSH) was organized a year before Pauline’s death. In 1980 the group bought the Kings Road house from the Schindler family with the aid of a $160,000 state grant. Already FOSH has repaired the decaying roof, replaced the ancient plumbing and electrics and stripped the paint from the concrete walls. But Sweeney estimates that the house, now open weekends for public tours, will cost another $500,000 to fully restore inside and out, including the landscaping Schindler designed as part of the total environment.
“Our goal is not to make the house look new,” he said. “That would be false. What we must do is prevent further decay while restoring the house to some semblance of its original ambiance. In that way the history and the relevance of the design will be perpetuated for the future.”
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