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ARCHITECTURE

A Liberator Finally Gets His Due

Rudolph Schindler built homes on a foundation of personal freedom and creativity, work that wasn't fully embraced. Now a revival holds out hope for young architects.

February 25, 2001|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

In the mythological landscape of Los Angeles, architecture still revolves around two opposing figures: Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler. Neutra was the publicity-seeking genius; Schindler the talented second fiddle, the underappreciated bon vivant.

The truth, of course, is more subtle. Judging by the work he produced in Los Angeles from 1922 to his death in 1953, Schindler was an undeniable success, a larger-than-life figure who created half a dozen or so genuine architectural masterpieces. But his raw, somewhat sculptural designs were out of step with the functional Modernism favored by the cultural establishment of the time, and he never received the adulation for a first-rate talent. Seen from our age of relentless self-promotion--where celebrity is the only measure of greatness--that makes him a flop.

Now, thanks to a number of books, seminars and exhibitions, including a retrospective opening today at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, Schindler is finally getting his due. But what makes Schindler's revival so compelling is not the supposed injustices of the past, but the relevance of his work to the present. No architect of his generation embodied a spirit of freedom like Schindler. As such, he has become a model for young architects afraid of being swallowed up by the new global culture.

Schindler was born in Vienna in 1887. Trained as an engineer, he studied at the Vienna Academy of Arts under Otto Wagner--a central figure in the birth of the Modern movement. Wagner--along with a younger generation that included Josef Hoffman and Adolf Loos--saw the neoclassical style that dominated the 19th century as the flotsam of a dying culture--one that had yet to come to grips with the advancing technological age.

But to Schindler, Wagner may have been most important as an advocate for artistic freedom. As an architect, Wagner could not completely shed himself of the past. Modern in spirit, the taut facades of his best-known works--and, to a lesser degree, of the works of Hoffman and Loos--concealed interiors that retained many of the trappings of bourgeois life.

Schindler's first glimpse of a more open future came some time after 1911, with the publication of Frank Lloyd Wright's Wasmuth Portfolio. A collection of his Oak Park designs, the portfolio depicted houses whose informal entries, free-flowing plans and low-slung roofs represented a radically new architectural language--one liberated from the crushing weight of history.

For Schindler, the portfolio was a revelation. In 1914, the young architect set out for Chicago. His timing could not have been worse. When he arrived, Wright was still reeling from the scandal of his affair with a client's wife, Mamie Cheney. Two months later, Mamie was dead, murdered by a family servant who then burned down Wright's Wisconsin workshop.

Schindler would have to wait four years before Wright would hire him--without pay--in 1918. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that the time he spent in Wright's office left a deep impression. Almost immediately, he was given tremendous responsibility, including work engineering the monumental Imperial Hotel in Tokyo--one of Wright's greatest achievements.

But equally important, Schindler displayed an intuitive knack for creative survival. Even as he sought to decipher Wright's genius, he was itching to make his own mark.

The break came with startling speed. In 1920, Wright sent Schindler to Los Angeles to oversee construction of Aline Barnsdall's Hollyhock House, the first of Wright's Mayan-inspired structures. Soon, Schindler was placed in charge of the design of other buildings on the site, including a small director's residence. Within a year, he had launched his own office. By 1922, at 34, he had completed his masterwork, his Kings Road house in West Hollywood.

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The house is a brilliant synthesis of Schindler's social and aesthetic beliefs. Set in an open field, it was conceived as an experiment in communal living. The pinwheel-like plan allowed two couples to live at opposite ends of the house, with a shared living room joining the two wings, which frame a series of garden courts. On warm nights, couples could sleep on the roof in wood-frame structures covered with light canvas tarps.

That sense of communal idealism was reinforced in the building's structural design. Schindler modeled the house's tilt-up concrete slabs on those used by Irving Gill in the design of the 1914 La Jolla Women's Club. But Schindler's structure is lighter, less monumental. Light streams through narrow gaps between the slabs or through clerestories above. Sliding canvas and glass partitions open up the house entirely to the gardens.

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