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Where Schindler Slept

As a Sstudent, She Got to Live in The Architect's Home. Now She's Its Protector.

February 18, 2001|CARLA HALL | Carla Hall last wrote for the magazine about restaurateur Michael Chow

Architectural historian Kathryn Smith was a UCLA graduate student in 1975 when she moved into an enclosed sleeping porch in the 3,110-square-foot Schindler House, the visionary 1922 West Hollywood home designed by Vienna-born architect R.M. Schindler. His former wife, Pauline Schindler, was living in the house and invited Smith to join her and two architects who had set up offices there. Since then Smith has been the house's renter, chronicler and protector. She even had her wedding reception there. Although Schindler, who died in 1953, never attained the celebrity of Frank Lloyd Wright, the home on Kings Road stands as "the first modern house to be built in the world," Smith writes in her new book, "Schindler House."

The structure, which the public can tour, is now owned by a nonprofit organization called Friends of the Schindler House, of which Smith is a founding board member. As the Museum of Contemporary Art prepares for the Feb. 25 opening of "The Architecture of R.M. Schindler," an exhibit of drawings, photographs, scale models and furniture, Smith, 55, talked about the innovative architect at her own sleek and airy home in Rustic Canyon, where she lives with her husband, attorney Randall Kennon, and their fox terrier, Rusty.

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Q. Rudolph and Pauline Schindler shared the house with their contractor, Clyde Chace, and his wife Marian. Was it risque for two couples to be living together in the 1920s?

A.[Laughing] That's kind of an interesting interpretation . . . . Schindler was interested in trying to build a high-density living unit where people could [live] together with the utmost privacy but at the same time be economical. I don't think it was a swinging lifestyle.

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Q. But in America, wasn't it unusual to have two couples living in the same house?

A. Oh, yes, that was very radical. Marian and Pauline had gone to college together and they were very idealistic young women. There was a tremendous revolution in social and political attitudes at the turn of the century. They saw themselves at the leading edge of that.

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Q. Why is Schindler's house considered more modern than Frank Lloyd Wright's houses?

A. Throughout history, buildings were made of components--walls, windows, doors. What Schindler did, basically, was to erase those distinctions. In Frank Lloyd Wright, there were still recognizable doors, windows and walls. But Schindler made that next step. If you look at Picasso, he is very clearly the first modern painter. But in his paintings you can still recognize figures. When you get to Kandinsky or Mondrian, [the paintings] lose that reference to something recognizable. It goes into pure abstraction. This is basically what Schindler did. His house is a work of pure abstraction.

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Q. What was it like to live there?

A. It was a dream--the concept of space, the relationship between the rooms and the garden. We used to have lunch in the garden every day. It's a wonderful house for parties.

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Q. The house is not one big, open box. You write that it is a "pinwheel of three L-shaped arms that pivot around a double fireplace." So people lived in wings of the house. Are there any doors within the house?

A. There is a door that closes one L-shaped living wing from another. All the bathrooms have doors. The plan is arranged so there is perfect privacy between these wings.

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Q. Couldn't someone just walk into your studio?

A. Actually, I used to have all kinds of tourists and architects and students all the time.

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Q. And that didn't drive you crazy?

A. No. People were coming from all over the world to see the house and you needed to share it.

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Q. Did you pay rent?

A. I think it was $125.

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Q. A month?

A. Well, it was 1975. And I didn't have a private bathroom. And I didn't have a kitchen.

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