In 1920 Austrian-born Rudolph M. Schindler was summoned from Chicago to Los Angeles by Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright needed Schindler’s help on various California commissions, including the Hollyhock House in Los Feliz. After completing Hollyhock Schindler began several projects of his own, including the house on Kings Road which would become his home until his death in 1953.
The Schindler House has functioned as the MAK Center for Art and Architecture since 1994. As the MAK Center is open to the public we were excited to take a look around the home of one of our favourite architects and explore one of LA’s most famous modernist homes.
Immediately one discerns that this is no ordinary home, in fact it is rather exceptional in several ways. Firstly, the layout is of two adjoining ‘L’s conceived to accommodate two artist couples and thus an early experiment in communal living. Each of the four artists were allocated their own studio, and each couple shared an outdoor ‘sleeping basket’ on the roof. Kitchen and bathroom facilities were shared but the design also incorporated a guest studio with its own separate kitchen and bathroom. Secondly, Schindler was keen to experiment with the ‘tilt-up’ concrete wall method and therefore the house’s construction is also fairly unique. In the tilt-up method concrete is first poured for both foundation and final floor surface (cold underfoot in winter but no doubt a blessing during the hot summers in Los Angeles). Separate sections are then poured horizontally abutting the slab and once set lifted-up to near vertical to form walls (by all accounts this was a more difficult process than anticipated). Between each wall section a gap of 3” was left and variously filled with either more concrete, or glass panels to form narrow windows. These slit like windows lend the house a rather impenetrable fortress-like appearance from the street, but stepping inside, Schindler took inspiration from traditional Japanese homes and the walls facing the private rear garden are instead comprised of delicately glazed panels. Unusually for a building of this period the window frames are of wood construction not steel.
Schindler’s personal relationships were no less unorthodox and after his friend (and project builder) Clyde Chace departed in 1924 the Chaces’ wing was occupied by a series of notables, including Schindler’s friend and rival Richard Neutra, who lived here from 1925 to 1930. During a long separation Schindler’s wife Pauline left the house but returned in the late 1930s to occupy the former Chace wing. From that date onwards husband and wife lived adjacent but separate lives until each passed away, Rudolph in 1953 and Pauline in 1977.
Pauline bequeathed the house to FOSH (Friends of the Schindler House) who began work on restoring the house in the mid-1980s. Interestingly, at this time some parties advocated for the removal of the house to the desert. This was because in the years since its construction several four storey apartment buildings had crowded around the house and thus the original low-rise context had been lost. Happily, the house remained where it was, but further controversy arose when some of the small changes Schindler had made over the years were removed. Since 1994 the house has been operated under an agreement between FOSH and the MAK (the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts) whereby FOSH retain ownership while programming is the responsibility of the MAK. The MAK also operate two other Schindler houses in Los Angeles: the Mackay Apartments and the Fitzpatrick-Leland House.
As an arts centre the building sees very heavy usage (there were dance events taking place when we visited) and although it is excellent to see a historic building full of life and activity, we would argue it is being forced to work a little too hard for its supper. The general appearance is one of a building in need of major repair, with large cracks in the slab, rotting or damaged window frames and evidence of damp penetration throughout. Hopefully the future will see a more forgiving balance between historic preservation, artistic expression and income generation.
© Modernist Tourists 2016