PRINT May 2001


NOT EVERYONE IN HOLLYWOOD becomes a superstar overnight—sometimes appreciation comes from a whole new generation. For all his talent, Rudolph Schindler never achieved tremendous acclaim in his lifetime. Maybe he was too scruffy in his trademark open-neck shirt and sandals; perhaps his perfectionism kept him from taking on the predictable, repetitive projects that would lead to a successful “look”—or was he just too easily pinned down as a hard-to-pin-down dreamer? Finally, he committed the ultimate Tinseltown sin: His artistry outweighed his schmoozing.

Unlike fellow émigré Richard Neutra, Schindler never knew how to translate brilliance into sweet talk and guru-like pontification. Neutra was always ready for the spotlight. His stylish, clean-lined buildings made him LA modernism’s leading man. His chic elevations and glistening walls of glass were instantly seductive.

If Neutra is the big-budget master, Schindler would be the indie innovator, creating cutting-edge quality on a shoestring. They are usually thought of as a pair—similarly educated Austrians whose friendship ended in a bitter rivalry. But a closer look shows them to be two very different architects responsible for two very different, if equally distinguished, bodies of work.

Schindler’s output stands in marked contrast to that of today’s architectural globe-trotters with building sites from Bangladesh to Brazil. Of his 500 projects, around 150 were realized, almost all of them located in the Greater Los Angeles area. “I came to live and work in California,” Schindler once stated. “Out of a carefully built-up conception of how the human being could grow roots in this soil, I built my house.” Eventually becoming a naturalized American citizen, he died in LA in 1953. He felt his work should be “as Californian as the Parthenon is Greek.”

A significant number of Schindler’s buildings have been demolished or severely compromised. The most noteworthy of those that remain are highlighted in this Artforum driving tour. Bringing home the uniqueness of Schindler’s career, it traverses hills, hills, and more steep hills. Unlike Neutra’s clients, Schindler’s could rarely afford the best lots. But what the latter was able to do with land better suited to mountain goats than human beings continues to amaze. Turning to relatively cheap and commonplace materials, Schindler worked wonders.

Ever down to earth, Schindler preached against the cold categorization of the International Style. “I am not a stylist, not a functionalist, nor any other sloganist,” he asserted. “Each of my buildings deals with a different architectural problem, the existence of which has been entirely forgotten in this period of rational mechanization.” His crusade was to invent a new kind of interior and to get away from the old tenets of structure. He felt that modern engineering had freed contemporary architects to mold living spaces. Materials and methods would no longer rule how people enjoyed their lives. Instead, he advocated and achieved a new concept of “space architecture”—the interaction of space, climate, light, and mood.

After the ebb and flow of theoretical doctrines over the last 100 years, followers of architecture have embraced synthesized modernism on a mass level. The crisp, clean white box has become the purest symbol, the flag bearer of pure design. But after the symbolic white box, then what? In the absence of an architectural messiah, the public is driven to become more discerning in its appreciation of the century past—returning to classic modernism to find its unsung heroes. The focus has narrowed to the pivotal city of Los Angeles, with its history of architectural adventure and freedom. Figures like the late Franklin D. Israel and Michael Rotondi acknowledge Schindler’s influence, and the Gehry school’s use of basic readymade materials is considered to have a precedent in his work. It’s thus no accident that Schindler’s time has come. Nearly fifty years after his death, public groundswell has at last afforded him the superstardom he deserves.

Barry Sloane