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Inside/Outside

Photos by Grant Mudford

WHEN I CAME TO SCHOOL IN L.A. 10 YEARS AGO, I HAD never heard of R.M. Schindler, but everyone seemed to be talking about this long-dead architect with a sort of conspiratorial urgency. I assumed this was just one of those local-hero phenomena that happen everywhere but New York, whose heroes belong to everyone. This was a pretty fair assessment as it turned out, but an incomplete one -- what I was witnessing was the gathering momentum of a movement to rehabilitate the reputation of an important Modernist innovator whose work had been snubbed because of its humanism, idiosyncrasy and Southern California site-specificity. This campaign had started shortly after Schindler's death in 1953, and culminates in the exhibition "The Architecture of R.M. Schindler," curated by Elizabeth Smith and Michael Darling and on view at MOCA through June 3. Aside from the inherent problems of any architecture show -- trying to communicate a profound kinesthetic experience of sculpted space through cramped drawings and fussy balsa-wood models, for instance -- it is a convincing argument for Schindler's place in the forefront of Modernist architecture, and a rare chance to survey the scope of his contribution.

What elevates this exhibition to a much higher plateau, however, is the coincidental mounting of a far more encompassing architecture show across town at the Getty. "Shaping the Great City: Modern Architecture in Central Europe, 1890­1937" is a complex, engaging and dazzlingly installed summary of the early 20th century's desperate struggle to define a form for modern urban life, as played out in the seething microcosm of the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire. Beginning with the Ausgleich of 1867, which granted Hungary substantial independence, the beleaguered Hapsburg dynasty was gradually splintered by the constant unrest of its dozen or so nationalist constituent groups, until its collapse at the end of World War I into Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia. Each of these nations needed a world-class city to assert its independence from the old empire, and to display its ability to accommodate the burgeoning urban populations and industrial logistics of the modern era. City planning, which had only really existed since Baron Hausmann's 1850s redesign of Paris, became a major concern for politicians, architects and engineers, though one fraught with much practical and philosophical contention.

R.M. Schindler, Kings Road House, West Hollywood, 1921-22
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The various tensions in this drama -- the imperialist appropriation of Renaissance architecture vs. the nationalist recovery (or invention) of traditional ethnic motifs; the utilitarian concerns of the civic bean counters vs. the quality-of-life utopian visions of the architects; the revolutionary fervor of socialism and the International Style of modern architecture vs. the inertia of tradition and the bureaucracy attending any large-scale undertaking -- play themselves out at the Getty through a wealth of exquisite plans, sketchbooks, presentation drawings, period-film loops and ephemera, deployed over an enormous, gleaming three-dimensional stainless-steel grid designed by the contemporary Viennese architectural firm Coop Himmelb(l)au. The choice of a grid for the exhibit's structure is apt, as it mimics the Modernists' new way of looking at architectural space. The radical paradigm shift in seeing buildings, cities, even whole landscapes as mere occupants of a hypothetically infinite three-dimensional grid transcended the various disagreements over the application of this new understanding. Nevertheless, "Shaping the Great City" opens by posing a dichotomy between two turn-of-the-century Viennese architectural theorists: Camillo Sitte, who applied the grid in service of the existing features of the landscape, and Otto Wagner, who thought any deviation from rectilinear exactitude to be "false" and "sentimental." It's no coincidence that these same two themes also came to define the career of Rudolph Schindler, who emerged from this very milieu, studying under Wagner at the Akademie der bildenden Künste before immigrating in 1914 to America, where he hoped to land a job with Frank Lloyd Wright.

After an endearingly inexplicable gallery-size installation featuring a looped time-lapse view of the slit-windows of the Kings Road House projected sideways (?!), the MOCA show settles into a well-paced cycle of meticulously assembled drawings, plans and scale models, and newly commissioned, literally luminous photographic documentation by Grant Mudford. Examples of Schindler's furniture, custom-designed for his buildings, and one full-scale reproduction of a beach-colony cottage are also included, imparting at least a hint of the real-life volumetric presence of the architect's work. The always intriguing models are deployed particularly well, increasing in frequency and extravagance like a buttoned-down fireworks display. Beginning with a model of an unrealized log-house project from 1916, the series finally reaches a crescendo with four of Schindler's most innovative later works, including the Gehryesque Ellen Janson residence and the corrugated blue-fiberglass-clad house for Adolph Tischler.

István Medgyaszay,
Project for a
Department Store, 1902

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Presented in this way, Schindler's story seems that of an artist finding his voice over the first half of his career, then happily expanding and experimenting over the remainder, and while this is certainly a valid reading of Schindler's oeuvre, it glosses over the troubled history behind the work. It took several years for the architect to finally land a gig with Wright, and it landed him in L.A. supervising the Hollyhock house for Aline Barnsdall, a notoriously difficult client. After splitting with Wright, Schindler coaxed his friend Richard Neutra to come to L.A. with his family, join him in business and move into the recently built experiment in communal building design now known as the Kings Road House. Kings Road, one of Schindler's masterworks, blends Wright's obvious but unacknowledged debt to Japanese architecture (particularly with its dissolution of clear boundaries between indoor and outdoor) with a Wagnerian Modernist concern for inexpensive and up-to-the-minute materials and a socialist utopian desire for an architecture that would encourage social experimentation at the domestic level. This latter aspect, though certainly an ongoing concern of both Schindler and the Modernist architects in general, is nevertheless attributable in large part to Schindler's wife, Pauline, an apparently lithium-deprived bon vivant whose wealthy parents footed nearly half the construction costs. The building was a success -- both as a prolegomenon to the site-sensitive and intuitive version of the International Style that would constitute Schindler's lifework, and as a focal point for Los Angeles' burgeoning intellectual expatriate and progressive arts communities.

An open-house salon prevailed for most of the building's first two decades, with poetry readings, art exhibits, film screenings, lectures and musical and modern-dance performances regularly punctuating the flow of daily household activities and Schindler's studio practice. And it took its toll. Even before the Neutras arrived, Pauline had attempted suicide, and was to leave the house and marriage in 1927 to lead a free-range boho existence in and around a variety of more official socialist communal endeavors, returning years later to stay in one half of the Kings Road House. It was difficult to keep the spaces occupied; the Neutras lasted until 1930. Neutra -- ambitious, egotistical and devoted to a rational, absolutist modern architecture that Schindler refused to embrace -- soon outstripped his sponsor in professional standing. Scooping a residential commission from Schindler's main patron, Philip Lovell (for whom Schindler had designed and built the landmark Newport Beach house), Neutra responded with a bravura statement: the first steel-frame house built in America, an orthodox Modernist showcase that made the architect famous overnight. Neutra began getting more and grander commissions, and was recognized as the leading modern architect in L.A., to the point of being the only West Coast representative in MOMA's epoch-defining (and career-making) 1932 "International Style" exhibit, a slight which crystallized Schindler's role as outsider.

Otto Wagner, Die Großstadt (The Great City), 1911
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ULTIMATELY, SCHINDLER'S ARTISTIC SUCCESS MAY HAVE hinged on the very fact that he was snubbed by the East Coast arbiters of Important Culture and outpaced by the more technology- and capital-friendly Neutra. Although involved in occasional larger projects, Schindler's bread and butter was to remain residential. This constraint nurtured both the idiosyncratic Expressionist tendencies in his designs and his genius for accommodating specific (frequently hillside) locations and human spatial needs. It was the successfully industrialized International Style's disregard for the latter that was the heart of that movement's ultimate failure, and the rehabilitation of Schindler's individual reputation contains within it a revival of that lost strain of Modernism, as envisioned by Camillo Sitte, that allows room in the grid for the existing landscape, responsive humanist architecture, and an impure and irrational hybrid of the two.

By bailing on Vienna in 1914, Schindler managed to avoid World War I, but also missed out on subsequent attempts at European reconstruction during the brief hiatus before the rise of fascism. After a transitional middle section documenting utopian manifestoes produced during the construction freeze that accompanied World War I, the Getty's "Shaping the Great City" plunges into an examination of the wide-sweeping practical applications that ensued. While most of the major cities in Central and Eastern Europe underwent some transformation, it was "Red Vienna," under the Austrian Social Democratic Party, that went furthest in its attempts to reorganize itself according to the needs of the urban proletariat. The Gemeindebauten, 400 new communal buildings that combined housing for 64,000 workers, as well as incorporating a wide range of social services from the medical to the recreational, were designed primarily by former students of Otto Wagner -- contemporaries of Schindler who had stayed behind. In contrast to the pluralism of the prewar era, the reformers who followed tended toward an ideologically driven homogeneity, although this was more pronounced in the Bauhaus neck of the woods. Through a rich array of period graphics, "Shaping the Great City" portrays this attempt to forge a radical restructuring of the urban environment, on par with Le Corbusier's more famous "Ville Contemporaine," but with a regionalism and sensitivity to human needs and extant environments that eluded the devotees of the Machine Age.

 

Sound familiar? Whether the vision that kept R.M. Schindler on the periphery of the American cultural mainstream would have translated to the gargantuan proportions his former Viennese schoolmates were allowed to explore remains hypothetical. Just as the Central and Eastern European countries were consolidating their visions in opposition to the less humanistic Western version of Modernism, the rise of Stalinism and Hitler's Anschluss -- the annexation of Austria in 1938 -- pulled the rug out from all but the most Volkish and social-realist forms of expression. Ensconced in Southern California, Schindler, by sticking to a modest domestic scale and sub-bureaucratic level of organization, was able to realize far more of Modernism's potential to improve human lives than any of those who imagined they were the master architects of a new world.

NOTE: Schindler's beautifully restored Kings Road House, located at 835 N. Kings Road (duh) in West Hollywood, now houses the Austrian MAK Center for Art and Architecture, and is open to the public Wed.­Sun., 11 a.m.­6 p.m. Part 2 of the MAK's "In Between: Art and Architecture" exhibit opened this week, with artists including Sam Durant, Stephen Prina and Hiroshi Sugimoto offering works in response to the architectural significance of the building. Part 3, featuring Jorge Pardo, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle and Steve Roden, opens in July. Call (323) 651-1510 for details.

THE ARCHITECTURE OF R.M. SCHINDLER Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave. Through June 3

SHAPING THE GREAT CITY: MODERN ARCHITECTURE IN CENTRAL EUROPE, 1890­1937 Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive | Through May 6

R.M. Schindler, Kings Road House, West Hollywood, 1921-22


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