A Life Devoted to Merging Art and Architecture


For someone who has flown thousands of miles to accept an award, Peter Noever is a most reluctant honoree. Bring up his recent recognition by the Southern California Institute of Architecture for decades of work in art and architecture and he squirms uncomfortably in his chair. “I spoke with [architect] Eric Owen Moss yesterday, and he told me, ‘Don’t be scared, I’ll manage it.’ So I’m even more scared now.”

Scared? This 60-year-old Austrian who renovated the declining MAK, the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art in Vienna, establishing it as a much-talked-about arts center? Who acquired the close-to-ruins West Hollywood Rudolf Schindler House as an extension of the MAK, pumping money into it and reviving a long-dormant link between Vienna and Los Angeles? The man whom Dennis Hopper describes as having “a little bit of pit bull in him”?

“What time are we supposed to be there?” he asks his assistant, nervously rubbing his hands together. “5:30? How about later?”


It is the dichotomy that is Peter Noever, artistic and executive director of the MAK since 1986. This artist, designer, author and educator is at once confident and unsure, brashly opinionated and keenly interested in others’ ideas, at home in Vienna and in love with Los Angeles. Sitting in the gardens of the Chateau Marmont on a recent morning, he could easily pass for a Hollywood producer, sipping a cappuccino, clad in chic black-on-black-on-black, gray hair in a quarter-inch buzz cut, sockless feet in black loafers. In town for a few days for the SCI-Arc award and to see friends and business associates, he dissects the incongruous bond between Vienna and L.A. that brought here such creative forces as composer Arnold Schoenberg, director Billy Wilder, and architects Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler. The Austrian city’s deeply rooted traditions and rules, believes Noever, made the open skies and anything-goes attitude of the American West so appealing.

“The link is the difference,” explains Noever, an intense man in constant motion, hands moving, body shifting, legs crossing and uncrossing. “It’s absolutely a contradiction--L.A. is the opposite of Vienna. This may have been the reason why they came here. In Austria, everything is so totalitarian Catholic, what you believe, how you act. It also means you have this kind of endless consequence, which is senseless, but you do it because.

“Schindler had this idea when he arrived that this is a kind of paradise--the climate is different, everything is different. This was a very strong inspiration. He tried things he would never try in Austria, like the sleeping porches [on the Schindler House]. Here is a completely different culture which makes something possible which would not be possible in Europe. And I think for certain human beings, at a certain time, it’s more than a refreshment, it’s a challenge.”

Noever’s credits include designing a terrace for Vienna’s MAK; he founded the architecture magazine Umriss in 1982 and served as its editor for 12 years. He was editor of the book “Architecture in Transition: Between Deconstruction and New Modernism” (Prestel USA, 1997) and lectured at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna from 1975 to 1993.

He finds his hometown both comfortable and oppressive. “It’s a very small city, but it’s even smaller in scale because everybody knows everything. In a certain way I still don’t understand everything that’s going on in L.A., like the mentality, because it’s so easygoing. In Vienna I don’t think there’s anything that’s easy. Even to eat meat, they don’t serve naked meat; it’s always dressed meat. To eat it, it takes awhile, no?”

A Masterpiece of California Modernism

The Schindler House, built in 1922, served as a collective residence and studio for Schindler, his wife, Pauline, and friends Marian and Clyde Chace. It’s considered a masterpiece of California Modernism, with its slab-tilt construction walls, flat roofs, proto-Minimalist aesthetic and integration of the inside and outside spaces, with rooftop sleeping porches and wall-sized sliding doors.

Acquiring the Schindler House in 1994 and establishing the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, L.A., says Noever, represented more than just rescuing a historical landmark: “I think that this is more than a piece of architecture,” he says. “I have the feeling that this house is even more [relevant] than it was at the time it was built. One of its principles was to question the living space, the society, asking how people live. I think there is a certain spirit there that comes from dealing with the definition of space, space in the context of modern living.”

Through the MAK Center, European artists and architects have come here to work on a variety of projects, from hosting salons to videotaping architects talking about their work. (A few have followed the lead of Schindler and end up calling America home, marrying and settling here.) The Schindler House serves as gallery space for many of the projects, providing an ongoing dialogue between cultures and introducing new talent to Americans. This communication, says Noever, “can’t be done if you just bring one exhibition from one city to another.”

The exchange works both ways. Noever organized an exhibition of artwork by actor Dennis Hopper in Vienna, a retrospective that began in May and ends Sunday (he hopes to bring the show to Moscow and L.A. as well). About Hopper he says, “He’s for sure an artist, and if he had a boring time, he made a movie.”

Hopper laughs at the description, saying, “He may be exaggerating. But the show was really a godsend and something that I always dreamed maybe would happen someday. The fact that it did was overwhelming. Peter is very aggressive, and he grabs hold of your leg and doesn’t let go. Doing these shows are not quite as simple as everyone likes to think. A couple of times I said, ‘I’m not going to do the show,’ and he said, ‘No, we’re going to do this.’ He made up his mind it was going to happen.”

Noever makes four to six trips to L.A. each year. He admits he feels the compelling tug of L.A.’s free spirit: “I also go to New York, but I don’t have the close relationship I have here. There is a lot of energy [in L.A.], and things aren’t so specified, like this is art, this is design, this is the movies, this is stage design. Things are happening here, and you can have a lot of inspiration I think. From the outside, it looks like a big party.”

It just so happens he was here for a big L.A. party last weekend, the SCI-Arc annual fund-raiser, with the award to Noever as its centerpiece. Part of the evening was devoted to a silent auction of sketches by famous artists, architects and designers. Noever wouldn’t even glance at bids on his contribution, but he was pleasantly surprised to hear that by mid-evening it had risen to about $300 (the final price was $800).

“He’s very shy, very self-effacing,” says L.A. architect Eric Owen Moss, who has known Noever for about a decade. “What allowed him to make the hookup in L.A. was the tradition of Schindler and Neutra, but what he really wanted to do was associate with the new work that was coming out of L.A. and bring it to Vienna. I’m not sure this guy is sufficiently acknowledged by the city, and the fact that the MAK is here. But I think to come halfway around the world and try to cement a tradition of design and art and bring in young people is really remarkable.”

For SCI-Arc director Neil Denari, honoring Noever seemed natural: “His main goal and challenge has been to bring the worlds of art and architecture together in a way that doesn’t trivialize either one--art as a sort of speculation on culture and architecture as sort of a service to culture. He brings them together in a way that makes both of their ambitions merge in a very powerful way.”