News
01.17.2014
Review> Radical Domesticity
T. A. Horton digs into Schindler, Kings Road and Southern California Modernism by Robert Sweeney and Judith Sheine.
The exterior of Schindler's house on Kings Road.
Timothy Sakamoto

Schindler, Kings Road, and Southern California Modernism
By Robert Sweeney and Judith Sheine
University of California Press, $40

“Architecturally I am satisfied—it is a thoroughbred—and will either attract people—or repulse them—my fate is settled—one way or other.”
R.M. Schindler in letter to Pauline G. Schindler, 1922

Written by Robert Sweeney, president of Friends of the Schindler House, and Judith Sheine, head of the department of architecture at the University of Oregon, Schindler, Kings Road, and Southern California Modernism makes for a simple, elegant, and sociologically stimulating account of Schindler’s first independent project. While the house itself is wonderfully documented in a compact arrangement of essays, photographs (by Timothy Sakamoto), drawings and letters, it is the unfolding of Schindler’s complex evolution as an activist engaged in Space Architecture that suggests that the home itself can be conceived as a vessel of collaboration and social change. The somewhat complicated reception of the Kings Road house speaks to a fundamental difficulty in identifying the project’s aesthetic allegiances and its placement in history, suggesting that it may not only be an original work, but also the frontrunner of what has become a contemporary architectural paradigm indicative of intellectual life in Southern California.

Mark Mack, co-founder and former editor of Archetype Magazine, provides a very brief introduction that sets up the profile of Kings Road as an experiment in “Bolshevik humanism” and “spatial looseness” that is as interesting as its occupancy by “extraordinary people floating through and residing within.” Mack goes on to further characterize the house as a “classless and liberated social arrangement of rooms in a natural landscape, where rooms have no labels, like ‘bedroom’ or ‘living room,’ instead only noting the occupant, the human, and his or her relationship of goodwill with others sharing the world.” Though its many innovations may be reduced to primal functionality and the seamless integration of nature and shelter, the cultural implication of the house at Kings Road anticipates the “optimistic societal drift” of the 1960s. Mack goes on to establish Schindler’s aesthetic affinity with Archigram and Superstudio. His most important point, however, involves the “negotiated collaboration” between Schindler and his wife Pauline, who he describes as a “socially conscious community activist.” It was their shared goal to create an environment of “serious intellectual exchange” that was free from “exploitative and capitalistic reality.” The home itself and its genesis was, in so much, a labor of love that grew out of a collaborative, romantic condition and a political position that could be considered Left Wing or radical. A brief text by Sweeney and Sheine touches on this radical quality in terms of the project’s early reception, publication challenges and the home’s “incomprehensible” appearance, which ultimately grew out of Schindler’s spin on the ideas of Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Inside Schindler's Kings Road House.
 

Sweeney follows with an essay that illuminates Schindler’s background in Vienna, describes his early apprenticeship with Hans Mayr and Theodor Mayer, discloses the influence of Loos, and highlights the impact Wright’s Wasmuth Portfolios (a two-volume folio of 100 lithographs published in 1910) had on him. This nexus of influences inspired Schindler to make a move to Chicago, where he began working with Ottenheimer, Stern, and Reichert. We learn from Sweeney that Schindler’s correspondence with Frank Lloyd Wright during this time proved strategic. In 1917, Schindler went to work for Wright in a senior capacity—he ran the office in Wright’s absence and doubled for him “with clients who wanted Wright.” Sweeney does a thorough job at clarifying Schindler’s relationship with Wright and charting his professional transitions that led up to his marriage. Wright, it appears, made as much an impression on R.M. as he did on Pauline. There appears to be an inherent contradiction in her indulgence in Taliesin and her quest to lead a “simple and primitive life.” Nevertheless, the Schindlers were deemed Socialist and claimed to be Communists.

 

The concept of a “communal lifestyle” would feed into the ideology of Kings Road, where there is clearly a governing economic determinant at work as early as the project’s siting in the flatlands, between Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Sweeney gracefully handles Schindler’s history with Wright, the marriage to Pauline, their move to California, project planning schemes, innovative technologies employed during construction, project completion, and shortcomings. The Sweeney essay is visually supported by a delicate watercolor perspective produced by Schindler (very much in the style of Jugendstil), construction photos that document the “tilt-up” cast concrete wall construction, drawings (plans, elevations, typical details), and archival photos of the house taken upon its completion in 1922. According to Sweeney, from the beginning, “the house served as a salon.” Based on shortcomings, it would seem that while Kings Road remains significant in its treatment of “space, climate, light, and mood,” its performance was questionable from the beginning. As a result, as representative of the tenets of a presumably distinctive, Southern California architecture, one must closely evaluate the terms of the vernacular Schindler’s house proposes.

 

The book evolves into a prose-photographic interlude in which Sakamoto’s images provide the greatest insight into the original intention of the Schindlers’ home, and what it has become: set within ever-maturing flora and fauna, carefully manicured to some higher specification, a grown-in masterpiece with soaring, cantilevered roof lines. These photographs, in color and taken from early morning to dusk, describe the vernacular succinctly. From them one deduces the house’s asymmetrical planning and an integral fluidity in which clerestory windows, sliding doors and walls, full-height glass partitions, ample overhangs, and a juxtaposition of materials (redwood, mahogany, concrete, insulate) produce an overarching sense of horizontality and flatness. Slit windows in R.M.’s studio articulate a practical response to solar position as well as a certain monasticism that is pervasive throughout. Wright’s preoccupation with Japanese works left an unmistakable impression on Schindler.

Sheine’s essay, titled “Pre-Everybody,” fights to establish Kings Road as a trendsetter that influenced Wright, Neutra, Gregory Ain, Harwell Hamilton Harris and Raphael Soriano, in spite of the fact that it remains, to a degree, a mystic provocation. Sheine emphasizes Schindler’s conscious attempts to integrate theory and practice in his work. Where Sweeney’s essay provides general background, it is clear that Sheine’s agenda involves the demystification of Kings Road. It is from Sheine that we begin to see the house in a broader perspective, and we gain a breakdown of the theoretical underpinnings that suggest that Kings Road was in fact a physical manifestation of Schindler’s 1912 manifesto entitled, Modern Architecture: A Program. Sheine implies that while materiality and structure are overly expressed in Kings Road, it is their ability to define space that is of higher value, and combined with “the design of interior space and its connection of outside spaces and views,” there is formed a signature of sorts for the vernacular. Sectional complexity in Schindler’s work and a tendency to develop the site plan along a diagonal axis would also form the basis of the architect’s subsequent designs. As Sheine unpacks the theory, she inhabits other projects and their spatial patterns.

Still, upon completion of Sheine’s essay, one is left to contemplate those aspects of Kings Road that correlate Modernism, as well as those that qualify a distinctive Southern Californian tendency. If we place the discussion in the context of character, we could say that there are identifiable traits: a fundamental indoor-outdoor design strategy based on climate response, the incorporation of cross-ventilation, the use of overhangs to produce shade, extensive use of natural light by way of sectional complexity and clerestory windows, three-dimensional modularity, prefabricated structural elements, use of local materials, expansive areas of glass, movable partitions, flat roofs, the integration of architecture and landscape, a horizontal datum, and single-storied, dynamic plans, oriented to views. Beyond formality, it is the political position of Kings Road that holds together its syncretism. Its streams of logic and unresolved ending, in the end more like Modernist poetry, clearly register leaps in time. Sweeney and Sheine, in their respective essays, mirror the Schindlers’ enthusiasm in this highly recommended, collaborative romance.

T.A. Horton

T.A. Horton is a regular contributor to AN and a project architect at Davis Brody Bond.