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ARCHITECTURE : Experimentation Was the Moving Spirit Behind Schindler House

February 07, 1991|AARON BETSKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Aaron Betsky, a Venice resident, teaches and writes extensively about architecture. He is the author of "Violated Perfection: Architecture and the Fragmentation of the Modern" (Rizzoli Books)

In the 1920s, when West Hollywood was an expanse of bean fields stretching between oil derricks to the south and the hills to the north, the area became a haven to an eclectic group of artists, poets and architects. Among them was Viennese expatriate architect Rudolf Schindler, who built a revolutionary house for himself and another couple on Kings Road.

In that rambling cottage of redwood, canvas and concrete, now owned by the nonprofit Friends of the Schindler House, you can still see the spirit of experimentation that once marked the best Los Angeles architecture.

Almost everything about the Schindler House was an experiment, from the method of construction to absence of separate bedrooms. The house was constructed out of tilt-up concrete, a then-rare method of pouring concrete on the ground and then tilting it into place once the concrete had set, thus saving on form work and the construction schedule.

The concrete panels, which make up only a few walls and corners of the house, are held together with a membrane of redwood beams that cross and recross at right angles so they resemble webs more than sturdy structure.

The rest of the roughly Z-shaped assemblage of spaces is defined by sliding canvas panels and walls of glass, so you keep moving from indoors to outdoors, from shade to sunlight, as you move through the wings of the house.

The house, in fact, makes little distinction between inside and outside. Schindler, after camping in Yosemite, conceived the house, calling it a "permanent tent." The gardens that flank the front and back rooms are sunken and designed around outdoor fireplaces, so they can be used as campsites or "outdoor living rooms."

Even sleeping was to be done outdoors, instead of in bedrooms. Schindler designed second-story sleeping porches, reached by built-in ladders and sheltered by canvas. In this balmy climate, the health-conscious modernist argued, there was no need for stuffy spaces and unhealthful enclosures.

Instead of bedrooms and living rooms, you'll find four spaces of roughly equal size. They were originally allocated to each of the four people who first moved into the house--Schindler and his wife, Pauline, and their friends Clyde and Marian Chase.

These open spaces could be used for working, studying or whatever their inhabitant chose; this was "personal space" before its time. The only communal area was the kitchen.

The harmony--with nature and with fellow humans--was short-lived. The sleeping porches were soon enclosed, and over the years, little pieces were added to the house to provide private spaces. The Chases soon left, and were replaced by fellow Viennese architect Richard Neutra and his wife, Dione, who turned the house into a battleground. They too went their own way, and first Schindler and then his wife (divorced, but still at the same address) lived there until their respective deaths in 1953 and 1977.

When the house was bought by the Friends of the Schindler House in 1980, it was almost unrecognizable beneath five decades of additions, alterations and decay. Under the direction of architectural historian Robert Sweeney, the structure has been repaired, and the house is being taken back to its 1923 condition.

If you look carefully, you can see influences of Japanese tea pavilions, Indian bungalows, Mexican haciendas and Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie School houses blended into a proto-Pacific Rim Eclecticism. What gives the design its strength, though, is not just its architectural inventiveness, but also its willingness to strip down the barriers we usually erect between ourselves and others or between ourselves and nature.

* Schindler House, 835 N. Kings Road,West Hollywood

* Year completed: 1923

* Architect: Rudolf Schindler

* Open Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m., and by appointment

* Information: (213) 651-1510

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