Gentry in LA: At the Schindler House, West Hollywood

One of the great pleasures of LA life is driving around looking at the fabulous houses which were part of the Case Study House programme, after World War II. A far cry from the hideous McMansions that are a plague upon canyons from east to west, many of these sleek, elegant, modest homes are modernist masterpieces.

While the house-lover’s scene here tends to be dominated (for good reason) by fetishizing Richard Neutra, whose California-meets-International-Style beauties line the reservoir in Silverlake, we are a fan of the less heralded Schindler House (where, interestingly, Neutra once lived!). A student of the father of Austrian modernism, Adolf Loos, and an apprentice under the father of American modernism, Frank Lloyd Wright (whom he assisted on Hollyhock House, Wright’s first LA project), Schindler’s modernist vision echoes both but is completely his own. The indoor and outdoor are seamlessly interlocked through the merging of ‘room’ and ‘garden’, more austere than Wright and Loos, but with a similar passion for materials. The Schindler House combines concrete, wood, canvas, chipboard and not a lot else, while natural light – the seductive, warm light of southern California – moves continually around the spaces, slipping through walls of glass or narrow slits cut through concrete. The great achievement here is understated humility, and a humane expression of modernity.

Like all good modernists, Schindler wrote his own manifesto – less famous than Le Corbusier’s many proclamations, but equally effecting. We give it to you here, in full.

Schindler’s Manifesto (Vienna, 1912)

The cave was the original dwelling. A hollow adobe pile was the first permanent house. To build meant to gather and mass material, allowing it to form empty cells for human shelter.

This conception provides the basis for understanding all styles of architecture up to the twentieth century. The aim of all architectural effort was the conquest of structural bulk by man’s will for expressive form.

All architectural ideas were conditioned by the use of a plastic structural mass material. The technique of architect and sculptor were similar. The vault was not the result of a room conception, but of a structural system of piling masonry to support the mass enclosure. The decoration of the walls was intended to give the mass a plastic face.

These old problems have been solved and the styles are dead.

Our efficient way of using materials eliminate the plastic sculptural mass. The contemporary architect conceives the “room” and forms it with ceiling and wall slabs.

The architectural design concerns itself with “space” as its raw material and with the articulated room as its product.

Because of the lack of a plastic mass the shape of the inner room defines the exterior of the building. Therefore the early primitive product of this new development is the “box-shaped” house.

The architect has finally discovered the medium of his art: SPACE.

The new architectural problem has been born. Its infancy is being shielded as always by emphasizing functional advantages.

The first house was a shelter. Its primary attribute was stability. Therefore its structural features were paramount. All architectural styles up to the twentieth century were functional.

Architectural forms symbolized the structural functions of the building material. The final step in this development was the architectural solution of the street skeleton: Its framework is no longer a symbol, it had become a form itself.

The twentieth century is the first to abandon construction as a source for architectural form through the introduction of reinforced concrete.

The structural problem has been reduced to an equation. The approved stress diagram eliminates the need to emphasize the stability of the concrete.

Modern man pays no attention to structural members. There are no more columns with base, shaft and cap, no more wall masses with foundation course and cornice. He sees the daring of the cantilever, the freedom of the wide span, the space forming surfaces of thin wall screens.

Structural styles are obsolete. Functionalism is a hollow slogan used to lead the conservative stylist to exploit contemporary techniques.

Monumentality is the mark of power. The first master was the tyrant. He symbolized his power over the human mass by his control over matter. The power symbol of primitive culture was confined to the defeat of two simple resistances of matter: gravity and cohesion.

Monumentality became apparent in proportion to the human mass displacement effort. Man cowers before an early might.

Today a different power is asking for its monument. The mind destroyed the power of the tyrant. The machine has become the ripe symbol for man’s control over nature’s forces. Our mathematical victory over structural stresses eliminates them as a source of art forms. The new monumentality of space will symbolize the limitless power of the human mind. Man trembles facing the universe.

The feeling of security of our ancestor came in the seclusion and confinement of his cave.

The same feeling of security was the aim of the medieval city plan which crowded the largest possible number of defenders inside the smallest ring of walls and bastions. The peasant’s hut comforts him by an atmosphere in violent contrast to his enemy: the out of doors.

Rooms that are designed to recall such feelings of security out of our past are acclaimed as “comfortable and cozy”.

The man of the future does not try to escape the elements. He will rule them.

His home is no more a timid retreat: The earth has become his home.

The concepts “comfortable” and “homey” change their meaning. Atavistic security feelings fail to recommend conventional designs.

The comfort of a dwelling lies in its complete control of: space, climate, light, mood, within its confines.

The modern dwelling will not freeze temporary whims of owner or designer into permanent tiresome features.

It will be a quiet, flexible background for a harmonious life.

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2 responses to “Gentry in LA: At the Schindler House, West Hollywood

  1. Interesting piece — here’s a good quote from FL Wright about him:
    “He has built quite a number of buildings in and around Los Angeles that seem to be admirable from the standpoint of design, and I have not heard of any of them falling down”. – Wright

  2. You describe it so beautifully, but be careful because David Beckham will be up for buying it now!

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