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Rescuing a Design Icon : Architecture: An Austrian museum provides funds to restore the Schindler House.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

World-renowned for its modernist design, the 1922 Schindler House in West Hollywood is about to be rescued from decay by a museum in Austria, the homeland of architect Rudolf Schindler.

A $250,000 grant from Vienna’s Museumangewandtekunst (MAK), or Museum of Applied Arts, will be used to restore the concrete-and-redwood landmark as a study center for experimental architecture, officials announced late Wednesday. The MAK also would provide an undisclosed amount for operating costs.

“The Schindler House on Kings Road is an icon of modern architecture,” said MAK Director Peter Noever.

Although California preservationists praised the gift, many also said it highlighted how difficult it is to raise funds locally to maintain architectural treasures here.

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“There isn’t as much of a sense of history and preservation here in Los Angeles as back East,” said Judith Sheine, a Schindler scholar and assistant professor of architecture at UCLA and Cal Poly Pomona. “In L.A., there is a pattern of build, burn, tear down and put in mini-malls.”

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For the past 14 years, the influential architect’s former home at 835 N. Kings Road has been operated as a museum by Friends of the Schindler House--mostly friends of the Schindler family. But the group and the house recently have fallen on hard times.

Over the years, the Schindler House received $200,000 for restoration from West Hollywood and state coffers, and $50,000 for operations from Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Environmental Design.

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But public funding dried up two years ago, and the group cannot afford a grant writer to apply for money from private foundations. Tourist dollars bring in only half of the $50,000 needed annually for proper maintenance, so the building has been falling into disrepair, said Robert Sweeney, Schindler House curator.

Architecture aficionados prize the house for its minimalist lines, its use of space, particularly in commandeering the outdoors for living quarters, and its bare “slab-tilt” concrete walls that are still considered radical. Schindler’s idea was that the double home--built for himself, his wife, Pauline, and friends Marian and Clyde Chace--would be tantamount to a permanent campsite that would exploit Southern California’s mild climate.

The agreement with MAK, Sweeney said, means that the museum can finally live up to the intentions of the Friends of the Schindler House.

“We never envisioned the Schindler House as a house museum where you look at the furniture and leave. It was to be an architectural activities center. We tried and we simply could not do it because of a lack of money,” he said.

The 10-year contract between MAK and the organization will provide $250,000 over five years for restoring the building and gardens and more funds--to be determined by need--to operate it.

Los Angeles has lagged behind the nation’s other cities in all areas of philanthropic support, as a recent study showed. Scheine said that is true in architectural circles: A recent fund-raising study by Cal Poly Pomona showed that residents are not willing to give money to support modern architecture, and the school has had trouble finding funds to support upkeep of a Silver Lake house by Richard Neutra.

Austrian-born Schindler was one of this country’s most important modernist architects. His designs focused on human needs and were influential in the development of California tract housing. An apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, Schindler came to Los Angeles from Chicago in 1920 to oversee construction of Wright’s Hollyhock House. Schindler’s home, his first independent work here, has been open to the public for weekend tours, architectural exhibitions and lecture series.

The house has no conventional living or dining rooms. Each person was assigned a studio marked in the plans with his or her initials, and everyone converged in a communal kitchen for domestic chores. The preservation group bought the house three years after Pauline Schindler died in 1977, 24 years after Rudolf’s death.

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The MAK agreement leaves the deed and full curatorial control in the hands of the local group; MAK receives unquestioned access for museum programming. The new MAK Center for Art and Architecture will cater to local design aficionados and Austrian exchange students.

“This is part of a strategy to put art, artists and architectural students together, which I think makes a lot of sense today,” Noever said.


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