PRINT May 2001

Judith Sheine

As LA MoCA’s traveling survey “The Archltecture of R.M. Schindler” opens the eyes of museum-goers to the Vienna-born expatriate’s precedent-setting domestic designs, Artforum calls on architects and artists Michael Maltzan, Sam Durant, Roy McMakin, Michael Rotondi, and Wolf Prix to share their views on the California modernist’s legacy. Adding a firsthand reminiscence is Julius Shulman, whose vintage photographs appear here alongside contemporary shots by Grant Mudford. Schindler specialist Judith Sheine opens our roundup with an overview of the architect’s career and reputation, while Sotheby’s historical properties expert Barry Sloane guides us on a connoisseur’s house tour.

Who’s the hottest architect in Los Angeles? Judging by the usual signs of celebrity status, it might just be R.M. Schindler. The Austrian émigré’s work has lately been the focus of splashy spreads in the glossies (including a tribute in Vanity Fair) and the occasion for oversubscribed house tours; now it’s the subject of a retrospective at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art. What’s particularly noteworthy about Schindler’s star turn is its timing—he’s been dead nearly fifty years.

Born in Vienna in 1887, Schindler studied at the Academy of Fine Arts under Otto Wagner, who believed that modern materials and methods, not historical styles, should determine architectural form. Like other young Viennese architects, including his rival and sometime partner Richard Neutra, Schindler was also drawn to Adolf Loos’s forceful polemics against ornament and in favor of an architecture of complex interiors with highly articulated sections (the Raumplan). But perhaps his biggest influence was Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work was introduced to a European audience largely through the 1910–11 publication of the architect’s Wasmuth portfolio. Hoping to work for Wright, Schindler moved to Chicago in 1914 and was hired by the architect four years later. Wright sent him to Los Angeles in 1920 to supervise construction of his most important American commission at the time, the Hollyhock House for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. After he and his wife Pauline visited Yosemite in October 1921, Schindler decided to stay in LA and build his own house and studio at Kings Road; he moved into his new home in 1922, living and practicing there for the rest of his career.

For Schindler, theory and practice were intimately connected. In 1912, while still a student in Vienna, he first wrote about his ideas on modern architecture. Rejecting his Wagnerian tutelage, he declared the twentieth century the first to abandon construction as a source for architectural form. Because of advances in materials and methods, architects were now free to design space; in the future, the architect would control “space, climate, light, mood.” It was in Southern California that Schindler came to develop these ideas. Starting with the Kings Road House, a concrete and redwood structure that combined a site plan radically integrating interior and exterior spaces with an equally radical social program of four adults living together under one roof, Schindler designed some 500 projects, of which about 150 were built. These were largely single-family houses, though he was also responsible for some apartment complexes and small commercial buildings, as well as a church. If the clients weren’t quite as experimental as Schindler, they were generally progressive middle-class intellectuals, with more taste than money. After early works involving concrete, including the How House (1925) and the Lovell Beach House (1925–26; designs begun in 1923), proved too expensive, Schindler developed ways to make modern architecture out of inexpensive materials-stucco and plaster over wood frame, in what he called his “plaster skin” designs of the ’30s and early ’40s. Notable examples of these include the Oliver (1933–34), Walker (1935–36), and Wilson (1935–39) houses. He continued to experiment with materials and roof forms, using roofing as siding in the de Keyser House (1935) and trying out gable-roof forms in a number of projects. After the war, he further exploited the wood frame as a vehicle for his ideals of interior spatial continuity, employing his “Schindler Frame” in projects such as the Kallis House (1946), in which sloping roofs and walls are folded over the interior space; the Armon House (1946–49), in which angled geometries slip and slide past each other; and the Tischler House (1949–50), in which he used translucent colored fiberglass to achieve “color atmosphere.”

So why has architectural renown come to Schindler so belatedly? One explanation might be the dominance of the International Style, particularly after the 1932 exhibition at New York’s MoMA (curated by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson), from which Schindler, unlike Neutra, was excluded. After the war, the reductivism of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and the glass boxes known as the Case-Study houses contrasted sharply with Schindler’s complex sections and exuberant articulation in a wide range of materials. His projects were rejected as “eclectic”; it was difficult for critics to look beyond the variety of images in his work to see the perhaps subtler theoretical consistencies and groundbreaking spatial development.

With the exception of Esther McCoy, a former employee of Schindler’s who gave him his first really significant public notice in her study Five California Architects (1960), recognition of Schindler’s work came only with the advent of architectural postmodernism in the ’60s. Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) would lead to the reexamination of an architecture that was inclusive rather than reductivist. Europeans like Reyner Banham, Hans Hollein, and Herman Hertzberger were drawn to Schindler’s originality, theoretical discipline, specificity (as opposed to universality), and human scale. But it was in the late ’70s and ’80s, with the focus on Frank Gehry’s work and a younger generation that followed him in Los Angeles, that a new appreciation of Schindler began to emerge. The use of common materials, complex intersecting forms, folding planes, and contrasting geometries—the very characteristics that had led to Schindler’s earlier rejection by the architectural establishment—were all seen to embrace and represent the intricate urban structure particular to Los Angeles.

Fame can, of course, be fleeting, but let’s hope that Schindler has been permanently liberated from the footnotes of architectural history. He saw himself as a classicist and thought that the best architecture should be timeless. The fact that his work looks as fresh and contemporary today as it did fifty, even eighty years ago bodes well for his continued relevance in the future—when historians may well come to agree that his architecture lived up to that ideal.

Judith Sheine