By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photos by Gerald Zugmann
The bulldozing and defacing of landmark 20th-century modernist homes in Los Angeles has recently become a sadistic art form. First, a well-heeled buyer puts up hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars to buy a legendary R.M. Schindler, Richard Neutra or Gregory Ain. Next, usually with the casual cruelty of an idle investor, though occasionally with the heavy head of a cash-strapped caretaker, the owner engages a wrecking crew. Sometimes the destruction begins and ends before anyone takes notice. That’s how Neutra’s Maslon House, built in 1962 in Rancho Mirage, disappeared in March 2002 — after a Minnesota couple paid $2.45 million to acquire the property, flattening it less than a month later. Schindler’s 1928 Wolfe House, perched vertiginously on a cliff on Catalina Island, was yanked down a few months before — following years of neglect — when new owners declared it too much of a fixer-upper and decreed they’d build a new home “in the spirit of Schindler.” One of Ain’s innovative homes in a postwar Mar Vista development, intended as inexpensive yet livable spaces, was irreparably defaced by an unscrupulous owner intent on evading the April 2002 deadline for a city-declared prohibition on making changes to any of the 52 houses.
Then last August the owners of R.M. Schindler’s seminal Kings Road house, which the architect built for himself in 1922, learned that the property to the south — a large, two-story colonial — had been sold to developers with plans to build as many as 23 townhouses. Suddenly, it seemed, the Schindler House, placed on the World Monument Fund’s 2002 “Most Endangered” list, would be surrounded. It was feared that the house would be sandwiched between the existing condo complex to the north (a circa-1981 concrete-and-stucco crate) and a new, imposing structure to the south. Schindler’s splendid vision of indoor and outdoor spaces being transparent and very nearly interchangeable had already been diminished by the obstruction of vistas and by the heft of neighboring apartment buildings and condos. Razing 825 N. Kings Road, which sits unobtrusively toward the front of its double-deep lot, and replacing it with a structure that went lot-line to lot-line might confine the spirit of Schindler’s great experiment to a dark crevasse.Images of paradise
That prospect — real or imagined — led the MAK Center, the Viennese art-and-architecture foundation that runs the Schindler House, to launch “Preserving Schindler’s Paradise,” what it called an “invitational” to architects to envision alternatives to developing the parcel. Kimberli Meyer, MAK’s Los Angeles director, wrote that they were “seeking strategic as well as practical solutions to find a cultivated way out of this forbidding situation.” Frank Gehry agreed to help judge the entries; and this month the submissions from 22 architectural teams, including Zaha Hadid in London, known for her deconstructionist buildings; Michael Rotondi, who headed the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) for 10 years; and Eric Owen Moss, whose form-bending buildings dot the industrial Hayden Tract in Culver City, came in. In August, 10 of the jury’s favorites will be exhibited.
There are some intriguing ideas among the entries — ranging from a convertible membrane roof that mimics the foothills’ topography once readily visible from Kings Road to a parkland composed of tilted landscapes that are a riff on Schindler’s changing roof heights and striated concrete-and-redwood walls — but the exercise seems to be operating almost exclusively in the hopeful sphere of unabashed prodding, not least because it was never within the realm of possibility that the MAK would come up with the $3 million to buy out the developers’ stake in the 100-by-200-foot parcel next door. What was delivered on paper, or CD-ROM, will remain there. “We can’t do very much about it — the developer has every lawful right,” Meyer says. “But as a center for art and architecture we have a right to ask architects, ‘What would you do?’”
But the MAK invitational, as those at the center on Kings Road readily admit, has run up against another reality: The developers have hired Lorcan O’Herlihy, an architect who began his career in New York with I.M. Pei and Steven Holl, and has since established himself as one of L.A.’s best practitioners following in the modernist tradition of Schindler and Neutra. O’Herlihy, 43, uses crisp geometry, glass and wood to produce homes whose design consists of a play of simple forms and airy materials — allowing light in at every available opportunity, an homage to Schindler’s mastery of the ineffable quality of L.A. sunshine.
And so, with O’Herlihy drawing the new project, the question arises: Is the Schindler House being threatened by the proposed development, or will its deeper cultural resonance be broadened with the addition, next door, of a respectful, modernist-inspired piece of architecture?
One thing is clear. “Preserving Schindler’s Paradise” and Lorcan O’Herlihy are working on two parallel, non-intersecting sets of plans — although as Judith Sheine, a member of the board of Friends of the Schindler House, puts it, both projects raise similar questions about “what our attitudes should be toward architectural monuments.” This is as much a question for O’Herlihy as it is for MAK. “What’s so difficult for some of us is we understand reality, and we don’t want to upset the developer and O’Herlihy because they are trying to make a good-faith effort,” says Sheine, who is on the panel of judges. “But the competition is trying to make a bigger point. If the competition causes us to think about the way we do historical preservation in L.A. — not just the buildings, but the context — we will have accomplished a lot.”