We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

“The Architecture of R.M. Schindler”

Rudolph Michael Schindler (1887-1953) would almost certainly want to thank Philip Johnson and the late Henry-Russell Hitchcock for having excluded him from the show they co-curated at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932. The now-historic “The International Style: Architecture Since 1922” was to introduce a new “modern” architecture, this one a totally synthetic proposition of industrial society. As Johnson and Hitchcock were assembling the show, which featured Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and, significantly, Richard J. Neutra, Schindler’s five-year houseguest, collaborator, and rival as a fellow Austrian expatriate living in Los Angeles, Schindler wrote to them to see if he could get his work included. But it wasn’t to happen: The curators told Schindler that his architecture did not match their conceits for the show.

That was putting it politely. Hitchcock had made his views of Schindler’s architecture known three years earlier in his landmark Modern Architecture: Romanticism and Reintegration. “He has paralleled with mediocre success the more extreme aesthetic researches of Le Corbusier and the men of de Stijl,” Hitchcock wrote. When it came time for MoMA’s blockbuster expo, he and Johnson dismissed Schindler as yet another disciple of the highly decorative Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom Schindler worked from 1917 to 1921 and whose aesthetic postures the younger architect often adopted better than Wright did himself. And though, by the early ’40s, Schindler had more than overcome his Wrightian impulses with several brilliant projects under his own stamp—such as the Guy C. Wilson and Ralph G. Walker residences in Los Angeles—Hitchcock’s opinion of Schindler’s work had not risen. In a survey of West Coast architecture he wrote in 1940 for Arts and Architecture magazine, Hitchcock derided Schindler’s work for its “arbitrary and brutal effects.”

There’s no point in readjudicating the case on Schindler’s behalf, for that failure was greater than success—especially because Hitchcock took it all back in 1971 in a foreword to David Gebhard’s monograph Schindler: “Thus I wrote in 1940 concerning the work of Schindler, which I did not know very well…” We also know now that Schindler’s ideas have survived better than those of the International Style gearheads.

Schindler’s main affront was his love of nature. To the East Coast crowd, he was kind of a chick that way. When Schindler designed buildings, he sought ecstasy in technology scarcely less than Le Corbusier and Mies and Gropius did, but, using their rationalism as an approximate starting point, he indulged his tendency toward romanticism. To a great extent, Schindler shared the Stylists’ interest in architecture as a problem of space rather than of mass. They called for “regularity” (as opposed to “symmetry”), and he was already composing spaces as multiples of his favored 4-foot module. But, whereas the Stylists would button up all their buildings’ joints in Platonic costumes, Schindler liked his materials raw—bare concrete, unpainted wood—and he nearly always let the landscape talk first. MoMA’s boys wanted to build machines in gardens; Schindler saw the garden as the machine.

“The Architecture of R.M. Schindler,” the newly opened show at the National Building Museum, widely outlines how the architect got from Austria to the West Coast. He left Vienna’s glorious Secession, where he trained as an engineer and architect at the knee of Otto Wagner and, later, Adolf Loos. He went to Chicago in search of Wright, whose Wasmuth portfolios of 1910 and 1911 he found intoxicating. One has to wonder whether Schindler came off as much like a pretentious tart as he looked, with that milky face, wet little mustache, and buffoonish toss of hair. Nonetheless, he talked his way into Wright’s office and supervised several important projects in California. Too much of the time, though, Schindler found himself striving for pertinence next to his colder counterpart Neutra as they both helped to create the look that is now called Southern California modernism.

Curators Elizabeth A.T. Smith and Michael Darling portray Schindler in all his folds. Of the show’s 226 artifacts, which include 14 models and 12 pieces of furniture, the pen- and pencil-and-ink drawings provide the clearest clues to Schindler’s sympathies. Among the more wonderful of them is a 1915 presentation drawing of a never-built adobe house for Thomas Paul Martin in Taos, N.M. With barely a dozen lines, the figure of the house’s elevation austerely slices across a rounded hillside with the color and curvature of a brown egg. As the drawing’s contained exuberance suggests, Schindler related spontaneously to the poetics of adobe buildings, which he saw up close on his earliest travels across the United States. Their forms, which grow lighter near the top, are direct products of their load distribution; their material, mud, comes right from the ground and never lies. And their Southwestern context he found enlightening, for he well recognized the xeric landscapes and light when he got to the California coast.

In his early drawings, Schindler betrays his inner Secessionist with abstract, erotic washes, allusions to nature, and a familiar Japonisme. He evokes Wright in his massing, channels Loos through his blank, reflective surfaces, and shows his de Stijl leanings in the cubist articulations of his wall planes. Schindler’s elder colleagues were all busy demarcating their ideologies while he was setting his own policies by piecing together compatible fragments of dogma that he gathered from the lot of them. The sum of those parts is something to behold: They all came together in three dimensions at the house he designed in 1921-1922 for himself, his wife, Pauline Gibling Schindler, and another couple, Clyde and Marian Chace, at 835 North Kings Road in West Hollywood.

It’s almost as if Schindler made ambiguity the thesis of the Kings Road house. Its removable canvas walls open up the interiors to create grottolike living and working areas surrounded by screens of foliage at the property’s edges. The plan of the house shows not a typical enclosure but a diagram of a few fixed walls floating in loose relation to each other—the rest is all mutable membranes. Schindler’s finest structures submit to their environments rather than control them—and without the sort of shrill ecological sermon mandatory in “green” architecture today. At Kings Road, he erased the lines between architecture and nature, public and private space, interiors and exteriors. The views outward from the inner precincts of the house are reminders that whatever the intellectuals of the International Style were trying to cultivate, it was often not beauty or pleasure.

The Kings Road house also embodies Schindler’s early tectonic resourcefulness. The wall panels were wrought by a method called tilt-up construction. Concrete was poured into forms on the ground and then raised upright and joined to create wall sections, between which were left thin vertical apertures that admit light to the interior. The walls are battered, like the walls that Gustav Klimt imagined for Joseph Maria Olbrich’s Secession building in Vienna. Schindler wasn’t the first to use tilt-up concrete, but it has hardly been deployed more interestingly before or since. A few years later, in 1925-1926, Schindler went one better at the James Eads How residence in Los Angeles, pouring concrete into redwood forms to build the foundation and then reusing the wood as a rhythmic element to clad the walls at the upper part of the house. Here, as at Kings Road, glass, wood, and concrete meet like the parts of a fugue.

In the 30 years since Gebhard’s monograph was published, Schindler’s champions have been trying to make reparations for his exclusion from the International Style show. Gebhard took pains to point out the ways in which Schindler’s beach house for Philip Lovell in Newport Beach, Calif., met and exceeded Stylist codes—namely, in the independence of the house’s interior volumes from its structure. Hitchcock, in his eager “redress” for having slighted Schindler’s work in 1940, cited an ambient “change in attitude” toward what modern architecture should be: “[T]he rigidity, the purism with which modern architecture was still being evaluated in the thirties has given way to a far more relaxed attitude towards it.” The curators of “The Architecture of R.M. Schindler” take up the same refrain; of Schindler’s Los Angeles house for John J. Buck, the wall text reads: “Schindler proved he could master the International Style as

well, creating a series of irregularly stepped boxes….”

If we’re going to congratulate ourselves for being so expansive in retrospect about this poor victim of International Style chauvinism, then why must he exist only in reference to the International Style in the first place? It’s true that, after his poetic, innocent works in the ’20s, Schindler’s better-known ’30s houses—the Wilson and the Walker, for instance—can be read as wounded reactions to finding himself on the outs with the in-crowd. Those houses do, as Smith and Darling indicate, bear the most orthodox International Style features—the abstraction, the disturbed grids, the floating planes and cantilevers. And though they show in spades Schindler’s mastery over the vertical axis, they are more cerebral and less soulful than his early projects.

But you won’t hear that criticism at this exhibition, which is equally breathless about all of Schindler’s periods and moods. The show is also too general to get into his ambivalence about the Stylists’ obsessions with machines and standards. Schindler toyed at times with wholly manufactured designs for trailers and cabins and beach shelters, but by the mid-’30s, his rhetoric was growing increasingly nervous about International Style’s dominance: “The factory must remain our servant,” he wrote in his essay “Space Architecture” in 1934. “And if a ‘Machine-Made House’ shall ever emerge from it, it will have to meet the requirements of our imagination and not be merely a result of present production methods.”

Schindler was not what you would call an urban architect, but he always had his eye on the street for new stimuli. Late in his life, he flirted more heavily—and more clumsily—than ever with mass-produced materials, roadside forms, and vernacular revivals, which bring a harsh, cartoonish profile to both his 1946-1948 Richard Lechner house in Studio City, Calif., and his 1948-1949 Ellen Janson house in the Hollywood Hills. A lack of resolution started to show up as far back as 1934-1936, however, with the Elizabeth Van Patten house and its chunky series of three red-tiled garages facing the street. The roof plane looks awfully reckless for a place—the hilly Silverlake section of Los Angeles—where you often see the top of a house before or in lieu of seeing the façade. But, even as sloppy as the Janson house looks today, it’s clear that Schindler never lost his light touch with the land.

It took Schindler’s contemporaries time to catch up to his realization that architecture is supposed to be a function not of styles or conventions, but of circumstances. The paradox too great and nuanced for this show to consider is that, in the decades after the International Style show, orthodox modernism moved more in Schindler’s early direction (name any aspect of Le Corbusier’s mid-’50s chapel at Ronchamp) as he moved on in his dotage toward something else that was never quite definable—and, frequently, not very good. CP