Propelled by a dream of creating a new kind of architecture based on modern aesthetics and utopian ideals, Rudolf M. Schindler in 1914 packed his bags and left Vienna. He realized his vision in Los Angeles, where 56 of his buildings erected between 1921 and 1952 are still standing. Most notable among them is his longtime West Hollywood residence, which served as an experiment in communal living, a gathering place for avant-garde intellectuals and the cradle of Southern California’s modern architecture.
By any logical account, Schindler, who died in 1953, should be renowned both in Los Angeles and Vienna, and the best of his work should be preserved as historic treasures. That has not been the case. Locally, most of his buildings have been remodeled beyond recognition and efforts to preserve his house have been chronically underfunded. Meanwhile in Vienna, the city he left forever at the age of 26, his work has been virtually unknown outside architecture circles.
But the tide has turned for Schindler and his Los Angeles legacy--thanks to a Vienna museum funded by the government of the architect’s native country. The Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, generally known as MAK (an acronym for Osterreichisches Museum fur Angewandte Kunst), presented the nation’s first comprehensive exhibition of his work in 1986. During the same year, the venerable institution appointed a progressive new director, Peter Noever, who began breaking down barriers between applied and fine arts while enlisting artists to reinstall the collections in a contemporary context.
The Schindler show was not only a revelation to the MAK’s audience, it served as a catalyst for the museum to establish a Los Angeles outpost while promoting appreciation for a native son. The result is an ambitious, multifaceted project that has been funded for five years in two of Schindler’s Los Angeles buildings.
At the Schindler House, Vienna’s MAK has provided a $250,000 grant to restore the historic residence and launched the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, L.A., a satellite exhibition and programming space. A few miles away in the mid-Wilshire district, the Austrian museum has purchased the Schindler-designed Pearl M. Mackey Apartment House for about $450,000 and established a residency program for young artists and architects. A five-unit garage behind the building will serve as an exhibition space.
The total cost of the project has not been revealed, but the Austrians are said to be spending several hundred thousand dollars a year on building maintenance, programs, salaries, consultants’ fees and residents’ stipends. Mary Jane O’Donnell, program director of the MAK Center, L.A., characterizes the budget as “very generous” but not limitless.
The $250,000 restoration grant alone is “a godsend,” says Robert L. Sweeney, president of Friends of the Schindler House, a nonprofit organization that owns and operates the building. The group purchased the house in 1980 with a $160,000 grant from the California Office of Historic Preservation, but it has never been able to raise enough private funds to do much more than keep up with problems. “It’s been crazy to try to do this privately,” Sweeney says. “We have always needed institutional support, and now we have that.”
About $300,000--including $80,000 of Austrian money--has been spent on preservation since 1980, he said. The grant has already provided funds for a dozen small jobs and extensive renovation of the house’s carpentry and its two bathrooms. The kitchen is on next year’s agenda.
“The $250,000 will go a long way,” Sweeney says. But it won’t solve all the problems of a fragile structure with cardboard walls between rooms, and concrete exterior walls and floors that behave like sponges when it rains. “This is a very self-destructive building,” he sighs. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful house, but it requires high maintenance.”
The modernist landmark is revered for its interlocking forms and interchange of indoor and outdoor spaces, its use of unadorned concrete, redwood and glass and its incorporation of natural light through sliding glass doors, clerestory windows and vertical glass strips between wall panels.
Built in 1921-22 for $8,000, the house was designed as a living space for two couples, Rudolf and Pauline Schindler and their friends, building contractor Clyde Chace and his wife Marian, who had been Pauline Schindler’s roommate at Smith College. The plan resembles a pinwheel, composed of two L-shaped forms, each opening onto a patio that served as an outdoor living room. Each couple lived in its own wing, but shared a kitchen and a guest apartment. In the early years, all the occupants slept year-round in redwood porches erected on the flat roof. Their beds were body-size, down-filled pillows.
The building was conceived as a sort of “permanent tent” or “campsite,” Sweeney says. “The lack of amenities reflects a deliberate choice not to have them.” Indeed, Schindler’s architectural innovations were the setting for a social program that was formulated by Pauline before she met the architect, he says. Over the years, the house attracted many notable visitors and residents, including architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, artists Edward Weston and John Cage, writer Theodore Dreiser and art collector Galka Scheyer.
The Schindlers’ marriage fell apart and Pauline moved out in 1927, but she returned in the late 1930s, occupying a separate part of the house from her former husband. She outlived him by 24 years, and drastically changed the once-austere modern building by painting it pink and green and installing asphalt tile, shag carpets and overstuffed furniture.
Her decorative alterations have long since been removed, and the Austrian infusion is breathing new life into the historic house. Along with more obvious benefits, the new support provides a solid base for fund-raising. “We can raise money for glamorous stuff now that the prosaic part is taken care of,” O’Donnell says.
Visitors already can see evidence of change. The Schindler House, formerly open to the public only on weekends, is now open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. A new guidebook on Schindler’s architecture and the MAK Center, L.A., is available for $15. A CD-ROM, “Architecture in Exile: Austrian Contributions to Modern American Architecture,” featuring 20 modernist architects who emigrated to the United States before World War II, is available for viewing and for purchase at $85.
An exhibition program will begin at the Schindler House on March 18 with a show of projects by the Mackey Apartments residents, all of whom have either studied or lived in Austria. An installation by the team of Swetlana Heger and Plamen Dejanov will be on view, along with works by Flora Neuwirth, Andrea Kocevar and Jochen Traar. Whether the residents describe themselves as artists or architects, all their work blurs the boundaries between the two areas. “The whole point is to marry art and architecture or to explore the differences and similarities between them,” O’Donnell says.
The next show at the Schindler House is “The Havana Project: Architecture Again,” opening April 12 and featuring architectural proposals for the Cuban capital. Meanwhile at the Mackey Apartments, at 1137 S. Cochran Ave., “The Garage Project,” opening April 13, will offer works by Los Angeles artists Paul McCarthy and Liz Larner, Vienna-based artists Peter Kogler and Heimo Zobering and the resident team of Heger and Dejanov.
The renovation and related programs focus overdue attention on the Schindler House, which is where L.A.'s modern architecture began, Sweeney says. The international venture also pairs a history-laden European city with a relatively new American metropolis.
“Compared with the Austrians, who are always trying to shake free of their history, we don’t have much history in Los Angeles,” O’Donnell says. “This gives us a chance to grab on to the little history we have.”
MAK CENTER FOR ART AND ARCHITECTURE, L.A., Schindler House, 835 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood. Hours: Wednesdays to Sundays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Docent tours available on weekends and by appointment. Price: $5 adults; free for members and children 18 and under. Phone: (213) 651-1510.