PRINT May 2001

Michael Rotondi

“WHEN DESIGNING A BUILDING ON A hillside, it should complete the line of the hill or be placed below the crest.” The words were Frank Lloyd Wright’s, and R.M. Schindler carried this wisdom with him throughout his life. The houses and apartments he designed in the Hollywood hills were always carefully oriented for light and view and were set into, not against, the natural topography of their sites. I always thought this sense of “correctness” concerned formal relationships, until I moved into one of Schindler’s designs and realized that the Vienna-born architect had drawn broader lessons from Wright’s teaching: Indeed, this principle of siting extended to the body (in motion and at rest), in terms of its relationship to other objects in space. The body’s sensuous engagement with its surroundings began in the room but unfolded beyond it, continually extending the involvement with the architectural structure to the degree that the mind remained engaged. Schindler’s insight comprised a magical experience—an architectural sleight of hand.

Between 1990 and ’92, I lived in Schindler’s Sachs Apartments in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, a ten-unit complex terraced on a west-facing hill with the building mass moving along the edges of its square site. It was a time of personal transition. While change and uncertainty are normally a part of the creative process, now they had become a part of my life. I needed a place to retreat to, and this was it. In a way, it became my hermitage.

The center of the complex was an open court with a terraced garden bisected by a staircase extending from street to street, connecting the large landings that served as porches to the units. It was an American version of a Mediterranean hill town, where private buildings interlock to form public spaces. These porches were the communal spaces where residents spent time together. The units were cleverly situated so they could be open from within. While living here I discovered what it meant to be in solitude yet remain in a community.

The apartment itself, a five-room, 600-square-foot flat, was simply detailed and beautifully proportioned, filled with balanced light. The two main rooms, of equal size and rectangular in shape, were adjacent. Their end wall faced west and was made entirely of glass. Refracted orange sunlight flooded both rooms almost every day at dusk. The hillside position provided a long view over the city below to the horizon. When I was deep in the space, I felt I was nestled in a cave, and when I was at the front edge of the glass wall, I was flying. The middle zone, the in-between, was where I worked, recording thoughts and images.

I spent many hours at a low table reading, writing, and drawing. These activities would be preceded by a period spent sitting in silence doing and thinking nothing, just being in the space and catching the light. There were times that the floor, walls, and ceiling planes felt like a third skin, protecting me by metabolizing the streaming information moving into and out of my body.

Who we are, how we see the world, and what we know are interdependent. As children, we are filled with wonder about life’s mysteries and are enchanted by seeing aspects of the world around us for the first time. We know what things look like before we know what they truly mean. Whether we are moving or pausing, we are learning about the physical world and, in turn, ourselves. When we learn to walk, we experience balance and learn about gravity. When we see, we experience color and form and learn about light. Everything our body senses is stored in deep cellular memory. This becomes our own natural intelligence, which we eventually define as intuition.

The sensuous experience precedes the definition and meaning of the experiences. The body apprehends the world, and the mind deciphers it. This understanding of the body-mind sequencing was something Schindler knew intuitively; after all, he was Viennese.

Schindler was drawn to Los Angeles specifically to work on Wright’s Barnsdall House, but I believe his real purpose in moving there was to find his creative freedom and, in turn, invent a life. Los Angeles was America, an open and progressive place with no traditional limitations. The European umbilical never made it over the Rockies. History was internalized like DNA. It would be a less than visible structure that would guide the quest for unconditional freedom.

This is evident in Schindler’s work more than in that of many of his contemporaries. After he completed his training in Vienna, he was filled with ideas, skill, and optimism about the promise of architecture. There were strong feelings about coming to America: His belief that architecture gives form to life allowed him to invent an architecture which emerged from within an aesthetic ecosystem that included the place, the people, and the culture. Schindler’s own Kings Road House is a brilliant example of technology in the service of living on a one-of-a-kind site. Universal principles applied to unique situations: This was the way in America.

In this place Schindler flourished. He built a lot—mostly houses that were a testing ground for architectural ideas. He was inclusive. His designs were not predetermined by a signature style. The site and building organization’s spatial relationships and the construction methods and materials all worked together, usually with such success that the overall solution seemed as inevitable as it was novel.

The ideas and experiences of architecture were merged. Historically, these two modes of knowing were separate. It seems that an objective of Schindler’s was to search for a way through architecture to bridge the divide, to find a way to experience ideas. In reflection, I have learned that to merge idea and experience requires a reciprocal enhancement of both natural phenomena and observing mind.

Schindler’s motivation to realize his insights and his skill as an architect produced works of profound beauty in which experiential phenomena became transparent to an ideal. Sitting in his built spaces for long periods of time helped me to understand that, under certain conditions and through a disciplined practice, anyone can have an epiphany into nature’s ways, revealing some of life’s mysteries. Through all of this, I now see that doing architecture is a process of exploration and discovery, which ultimately serves as a medium of teaching and learning. R.M. Schindler must have known this. His completed works are a testament to the full promise that architecture holds.


LA-based architect and educator Michael Rotondi is a principal at RoTo Architects and a founding member of Morphosis. he recipient of some forty awards for cultural, commercial, and residential projects, Rotondi is on the faculty and board of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, which he cofounded in 1972.