Right now at Kings Road House in West Hollywood, there are three copies of one book: one tucked beside a fireplace, another on an otherwise empty shelf and the third alone on the kitchen counter. The book sets out to solve a mystery.
Written initially in blog form by a lay detective who calls himself "Crow," then turned into something authoritative-looking by artist Tucker Neel, it methodically traces how and why Rudolph Schindler, the midcentury architect who lived in and designed the house, might have murdered Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia. Short's carefully cleaned, dismembered body turned up in Leimert Park in 1946, and her killer has never been found, though plenty hazard guesses as to his identity.
The book is part of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture's newly opened exhibition, "Plan Your Visit," meant to highlight the house's role as tourist destination over architectural masterpiece. Like most other projects in the show, the book makes connections between Schindler, his work and the rest of the city.
"Schindler was emphatically aloof," writes Crow around page nine. The adjacent illustration shows Schindler posed outside his house with collaborator and then-housemate Richard Neutra, Neutra's wife and their son. Schindler faces away, looking disinterested. His figure is circled in red, like evidence in an investigation, and the next page begins to outline how the emphatically aloof architect might have gotten wrapped up with the Dahlia.
Because the rooms at Kings Road House, operated by the MAK Center and open to the public most days, are nearly always empty of normal, homelike things — chairs with cushions, shelves with books, tables with vases — the house feels perpetually mysterious. Nothing gives you an obvious sense of the personalities of the people who lived there.
Schindler, who came from Austria to the States to work with Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1910s, finished the house in 1922, just after he moved to L.A. to complete a project on Wright's behalf. The house incorporated outdoor gardens and courtyards into living spaces, was meant for communal living and was among the first "bracingly modern" homes built here or anywhere. There were hammocks to sleep in and no conventional living room — just a series of rectangular studios and a few corridors, all unconventionally sized. It's difficult — maybe impossible — to sense how the part of the house you're in relates to the rest.
Because of this mysteriousness, that book, The Black Dahlia and Rudolph Schindler, makes a weird sort of sense, especially since Neel designed it to look like one of Schindler's journals and illustrated it by hand, so that each photograph Crow included on his blog is now a pen-and-ink rendering.
Sometime in 2011, a MAK Center intern whose job was to comb through Google alerts found one she didn't know what to do with. It was Crow's Wordpress site, positing Schindler as the Black Dahlia killer. Anthony Carfello, the MAK's program manager, who co-curated "Plan Your Visit" with program coordinator Adam Peña, told a friend, Neel, about it over drinks last September. "I joked, 'You should just print that up and put it in the bathroom,' " Neel says.
Then, in November, when Carfello and Peña asked him if he had an idea for a show loosely themed around tourism, Neel decided to do more or less that: Print up the site's content. Crow, still anonymous and communicating via email, agreed to it, saying he just wanted to get the information out. "It's fascinating, incredibly well-researched," Neel says. "It's really a sort of story about Los Angeles."
"It will be left so that people can stumble upon it like we did," Carfello says of the clandestine placement of the copies of the book, which also is downloadable.
Carfello and Peña, who were classmates in Otis' MFA program before becoming colleagues at the MAK, began thinking specifically about "Plan Your Visit" last summer, although tourism has been a topic of conversation between them for a while. "Adam and I sit here every day," Carfello says. After the art-exhibition crowd and architecture insiders, "Our third and biggest audience is tourists. We hadn't seen any show here directed at them."
Exhibition viewing at the MAK is different from the way it is at other, more conventional art spaces. "When you go to LACMA, for instance," Carfello observes, "everyone ends up being an art viewer. [Here] there could be an art installation flashing lights and making noise, and someone will say, 'Is that a ficus that divides that courtyard?' "
But during the exhibition devoted to architecture writer Esther McCoy, which ran through January 2012, a map hanging in one of the galleries caught the attention of many, regardless of their reason for visiting. It showed other sites that had been on or around Kings Road at the time Schindler lived there, such as the homes of Aldous Huxley, Theodore Dreiser and Northrop Aircraft's founder. "One out of four people asked for a copy," Carfello recalls, though he had to break the news to some that most sites had since burned. "They wanted to know where to go next. ... We thought maybe we could make a show that does that over and over again." The MAK Center could become a kind of visitor center, sending people off to other destinations.
So for "Plan Your Visit," they commissioned artists and writers who already care about connecting the dots between different L.A. stories and centers — like John Sutherland, who maps skyscrapers in this city known for horizontal sprawl; Maryam Hosseinzadeh, who collaborated with landscape architect Sonia Brenner and often gives neighborhood tours; and former L.A. Weekly (now L.A. Times) food critic Jonathan Gold, whose restaurant reviews, hung around the show in place of wall texts, are known for neighborhood-specific details.
There are things to take as soon as you walk in the door. "We like the idea of people leaving with their arms full," Carfello says. A small pamphlet on the entryway table, colored in soft sunset pink with vintage pinup–style pictures of legs in pantyhose on the cover, invites you to two tea parties — one on March 14 and the other on April 3. The parties will take inspiration from the salons hosted there in the 1930s by Pauline, Schindler's wife. Composer John Cage, who attended when he was just past 20, said the salons effected "organic calm."
Then, in the first studio, there are postcards Andrew Berardini (an L.A. Weekly contributor) and Sarah Williams of Art Book Review made of iconic L.A. books, each with the supposedly most-quoted passage on the back, displayed on a narrow shelf leaning against the wall. The card for Charles Bukowski's Hollywood has a martini on the front and on the back says, "Are you becoming what you always hated?" In the next room, you can take a pamphlet on the only skyscraper Schindler designed and never built. Schindler called it Playmart, and it may have been meant for Wilshire Boulevard.
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Some works you can't take away with you, like the Untitled Collectives viewfinder slide shows of former MAK Center exhibitions layered one atop another to make minimalist dreamscapes. In Kathrin Burmester's installation in Pauline Schindler's former studio, footage of the exterior of the Kings Road house plays on a white slab while two speakers project Burmester's voice. To make this piece, she culled the archives of projects MAK residents have done since the 1990s, when the center started bringing mostly Central European artists to L.A. for six months to do Schindler-related projects. The German-born Burmester, who came to L.A. in the mid-2000s, describes certain projects — like one in which an artist superimposed the bios of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Schindler and then narrated a story of Schwarzenegger's visit to the house. Burmester took a few accent-reduction classes while making the piece, so if you listen, you can hear her own German accent subtly becoming more and then less "L.A." as she describes the art of past residents. There are no images of the art. "I like the idea that you have to imagine it," Burmester says. "I wanted the focus to be on the idea of traveling through."
The Black Dahlia book Neel assembled based on Crow's thesis is a traveling-through experience, too. It brings the "aloof" midcentury modern experience into contact with a noir-ish Hollywood one, full of LAPD intrigue, communist tendencies and film-star aspirations. There's a quote near the end of the book, from Schindler in 1953: "I built my house and unless I failed, it should be as Californian as the Parthenon is Greek and the Forum Roman."
In a funny way, this show, which uses Schindler's work as a starting point and then spins out into the world of L.A. at large, suggests that this quote is true, though it's maybe not the way Schindler imagined.
PLAN YOUR VISIT | MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House | 835 N. Kings Road, W. Hlywd. | Through April 7 | makcenter.org