Sunday, March 31, 2013

March AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

Rudolf Schindler (1887-1953)
March 20 marked the spring equinox. Since then we’ve enjoyed a bounty of glorious weather. The 20th was also the occasion of AIA-Southwestern Oregon’s March chapter meeting at The Actors Cabaret. It featured an equally splendid presentation by Judith Sheine on the subject of the California modernist architect R.M. Schindler

I previously introduced Judith to readers of SW Oregon Architect as the new head of the Department of Architecture in the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts. Judith is regarded as the leading authority on Rudolf Schindler and his work, having spent much of her academic career researching and documenting his idiosyncratic brand of modernism. I found her presentation about Schindler to be a revelation, as my previous impressions about the architect were largely shaped by scant mentions of him in the staple architectural history texts of my college years.(1) 

Born in 1887 (and thus a direct contemporary of Le Corbusier, also born that year), Schindler had the good fortune to receive his education in what was perhaps the most artistically vibrant and stimulating city of the 20th century’s first decade: Vienna. He came to admire the work of Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, and their Secessionist and Modernist followers, respectively. In particular, Schindler appreciated the increased freedom to consider imaginative uses of new materials and methods. He developed a personal style incorporating new forms reflecting the fact that society itself was changing. His spatial conceptions were characterized by their focus upon complex development in section, as much, or more so than in plan. 

Judith contrasted Schindler’s perspective from that of Le Corbusier. Corbu was an advocate of the plan libre (“free plan”), wherein space and structure do not necessarily exist in support of one another. Schindler, on the other hand, more often shaped his spaces with structural elements such that they were coincident with one another. Schindler was not a doctrinaire modernist, and he would not be among those whose work would be featured in the highly influential International Style exhibit of 1932 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In this respect, Schindler found good company with another pioneering architect he long-admired: Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Schindler emigrated from Vienna to the United States in 1914, seeking employment with Wright after first being introduced to the master’s oeuvre through the Wasmuth Portfolio. Ultimately, he would work for Wright, moving to Los Angeles in 1920 to oversee the design of the Hollyhock House for Aline Barnsdall. During this period, Schindler was effectively left in charge of Wright’s office as Wright himself spent much of that time in Japan consumed by the demands of his design for the Imperial Hotel. 

It was also while working for Wright that Schindler would initiate or secure his own commissions, notably designing the Kings Road House and also the Lovell Beach House. Prior to Judith’s presentation, it was these two projects I was most familiar with. In particular, the Kings Road House has fascinated Judith, and with good reason. 

Kings Road House (photo via Wikipedia by Allan Ferguson, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.) 

The Kings Road House (also known as the Schindler House or the Schindler Chace House) must have appeared both radical and puzzling to observers at the time of its construction. First of all, it was comprised of two separate apartments, each containing two studios designed as live/work spaces for its residents (which included Schindler), while sharing kitchen and garage spaces. As Judith pointed out, its precedent-setting plan completely flipped the conventional figure-ground relationship, the outdoor spaces being as figurally and functionally significant as those enclosed by the building. The house also featured a ground-breaking use of tilt-up concrete panels in residential construction (Schindler was influenced by Irving Gill’s early use of tilt-slab techniques in non-residential projects). 

Kings Road House isometric view (image credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, CA-1939) 

Schindler’s career is often spoken of in the same breath as that of his life-long friend, Richard Neutra. Like Schindler, Neutra was born and raised in Vienna, and moved to the U.S. with the hope of working with Frank Lloyd Wright. Both would settle in Los Angeles, where their work would come to characterize a uniquely Californian strain of modern architecture. Both, along with their wives, would live and work together for a period at the Kings Road House. However, whereas Neutra would come to enjoy the patronage of wealthy industrialists and taste-makers, Schindler’s bohemian ways and attire consigned him to fewer high-profile commissions. 

Today, it’s Schindler’s distinctly personal approach to modernism that forms the basis of his legacy to architecture. His influence has been evident in the careers of those who followed him, including Frank Gehry and the late Frank Israel. We’re fortunate to have a scholar of Judith Sheine’s renown here in Eugene who can share with us that unique legacy and its contemporary lessons for all of us. 

Judith will present a more extensive talk on the subject of the Kings Road House on May 8 in support of her new book, Schindler, Kings Road, and Southern California Modernism (University of California Press), co-authored with Robert Sweeney. Look soon for details here about this upcoming presentation.  

(1)  This is particularly ironic since my Master’s thesis project during my mid-1980s studies at UCLA focused upon the life and architecture of a subsidized housing complex located directly across the street from Schindler’s Kings Road House, which many consider to be his finest building. At the time, I simply regarded the design to be underwhelming. I received my degree from UCLA in 1987, just as Judith began her nine-year tenure on the faculty there.

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