July 14, 2024


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Celebrating the Centennial of (Arguably) the World’s First Modern House, in West Hollywood


A century ago, a strange edifice arose at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, on Kings Road. It was a single-story structure of gray concrete walls and redwood ceilings, shorn of ornament. Before landscaping, it had an austere appearance, resembling a low-lying fort. You can catch a glimpse of it in Buster Keaton’s 1924 comedy “Sherlock Jr.”: when the protagonist zips down Kings Road, perched on the handlebars of an errant motorcycle, the house at 835 glowers unamused in the background. Few moviegoers could have been aware that they were seeing an early marvel of modernist architecture—a house that acts, in the words of the critic Reyner Banham, “as if there had never been houses before.”

The architect was Rudolph Michael Schindler, who had come to America from Vienna in 1914, steeped in the influence of Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, and Frank Lloyd Wright. He designed 835 Kings Road as a communal residence for himself, his wife, and two married friends—“a cooperative dwelling for two young couples,” he called it. He lived there from 1922 until his death, in 1953. Pauline Gibling Schindler, his wife and later ex-wife, stayed until 1977. For decades, Schindler’s work received little critical attention, and, in the seventies, the house on Kings Road might easily have been razed to make room for a condominium. But Schindler’s heirs, passing up a financial windfall, sold the property to an organization called Friends of the Schindler House (FOSH), which owns it to this day. Tours and programming are operated by the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, an L.A. outpost of the Museum for Applied Arts, in Vienna.

The Schindler House has aged into a becalmed, almost rustic, refuge. Condos rise on either side of the lot, but once you reach the end of the path that runs from the street you have left the metropolis behind. Citrus trees, privet hedges, stands of bamboo, and vegetable gardens create a lush environment. The concrete walls, which tilt inward as they rise, possess an ancient aura. Tall, narrow gaps appear at forty-five-inch intervals, like arrow slits in medieval castles. Sliding patio doors suggest a Japanese influence. Schindler compared the house to a “camper’s shelter,” having had a transformative experience camping in Yosemite in 1921. Last summer, not long after the house had reopened in the wake of a pandemic shutdown, I spent a morning there. I was almost the only visitor, and I fell into a happy stupor, lost in time.

This summer, crowds have returned, as the house celebrates its centennial and raises funds for ongoing restoration projects. On a recent Saturday, FOSH held a day of talks and tours, with a familial atmosphere predominating. The scholar Todd Cronan donned a white, open-necked tunic—one of Schindler’s favored fashions—to read from the architect’s writings. “Modern architecture lies down flat on the ground like a kitten who suns itself,” Cronan proclaimed, reciting from a 1938 lecture. Guillaume Schindler, the architect’s great-grandson, also participated, with Mary Schindler, Guillaume’s ninety-nine-year-old grandmother, looking on. The architectural historians Judith Sheine and Robert Sweeney—the latter the president of FOSH—offered insights.

Most of the audience probably already knew the narrative that emerged from the readings: that of a proud, independent spirit who had been overlooked by the architectural heavyweights of his time. We shook our heads at dismissive remarks by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, who omitted Schindler from a pivotal 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. We laughed ruefully when the panel shared some of Schindler’s correspondence with the monstrously egotistical Wright. In 1929, Schindler was trying to get Wright to supply a letter of recommendation so that he could obtain a license from the Board of Architects of Southern California. Wright sent along several drafts of letters to the board, which ranged from the uselessly belligerent (“He is worth any ten of you”) to the uselessly perfunctory (“He has built quite a number of buildings in and around Los Angeles that seem to me admirable from the standpoint of design, and I have not heard of any of them falling down”). Although Schindler kept busy building houses around Southern California, he never won larger-scale contracts.

The Schindler renaissance took off in the sixties and seventies, when a more pluralistic architectural philosophy came into vogue. His buildings, for all their modernist features, had been too asymmetrical and freewheeling to fit the strictures of the International Style. Banham, a prophet of the new sensibility, wrote of Schindler’s early work: “What it means, historically, is this—that modern architecture would have happened in California even if de Stijl, Corb[usier], Mies, Gropius, and the Museum of Modern Art had never existed.” Kathryn Smith, in a 2001 book about Kings Road, called it “the first modern house to be built in the world.” This is arguable: Schindler had his own antecedents, taking inspiration not only from Wagner, Loos, and Wright but also from the innovative Southern California architect Irving Gill. Native traditions made their impact, too: on a trip to the Southwest in 1915, Schindler admired the massive, unadorned façades of Pueblo adobe construction.

In the monumental sprawl of modern-day Los Angeles, Schindler’s utopian ethos collides with realities of extreme inequality and environmental waste. At the same time, it offers a way forward.Photograph by Esteban Schimpf / Courtesy The MAK Center for Art & Architecture

Debates over priority will never end. A better way to celebrate the Schindler House is to see it not simply as an individual achievement but as a collective social experiment. Its floor plan is implicitly egalitarian. Three L-shaped wings are arranged in a pinwheel pattern, each wing containing studio spaces for the couples and for a guest. A kitchen or “utility room” serves as a common area, encouraging shared duties instead of creating, as Schindler wrote, “a disagreeable burden to one member of the family.” At the same time, the layout insures a degree of privacy for the couples: each “L” unit has sliding glass panels that open onto a secluded court.

The plan owes much to the philosophy of Pauline Gibling, who met Schindler in Chicago, in 1918, at a performance of Prokofiev’s “Scythian Suite.” Gibling, who studied music at Smith College before branching out into writing, criticism, education, and activism, had imagined a place like the Schindler House as early as 1916, writing of “a little joy of a bungalow, on the edge of woods and mountains and near a crowded city, which shall be open just as some people’s hearts are open, to friends of all classes and types.”

Gibling set the tone for life at 835 Kings Road, fostering a bohemia that rivalled any in Greenwich Village. The architect Richard Neutra, who had known Schindler in Vienna, moved in with his family when he arrived in Los Angeles, in 1925. Residents included the dancers Katherine Dunham and John Bovingdon, the modern-art maven Galka Scheyer, and, very briefly, the young composer John Cage. Upton Sinclair, Edward Weston, and Aldous Huxley were frequent guests. Salons and concerts were organized; at one, Cage and Henry Cowell presented an evening of Japanese gagaku, and, at another, the German-Japanese poet Sadakichi Hartmann, formerly a Village mainstay, impersonated Edgar Allan Poe. Extramarital affairs were conducted, including an unlikely one between Gibling and Cage.

Like many utopian enclaves, this one frayed over time. By 1927, the Schindler marriage had gone into crisis, and Gibling moved out; the couple divorced in 1940. Gibling returned to the house full time in the late forties, continuing to write perceptively about her ex-husband’s work even when the two were not on speaking terms. (Schindler sent her a note one day: “If you paint your part of the house . . . my struggle for expression and the resistance of the unsensitive would receive another monument.”) Schindler’s friendship with Neutra soured in the thirties. Still, gatherings on Kings Road remained vibrant and diverse. Mary Schindler told me that she once encountered Robert Oppenheimer there.


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