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Light and Open

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.”

 

What makes the Schindler House an international landmark is its groundbreaking integration of interior and exterior. “Schindler made a series of ‘L’ shapes to make the building a background for the garden. The three L’s come together to form a pinwheel, which itself makes a figural space within the garden, and that forms an outside figure too. The balance between the ‘L’ shape and the exterior space allows the building to be part of the garden and be completely open to it. That idea is pretty amazing, and it was the first time in the Western world that it was done,” Sheine says.

SoCal identity: Front view of proposed condo project

The MAK’s purely idealistic competition hopes to force a rethinking of the way in which the Schindler House now occupies its spot on Kings Road and, by extension, in the city at large. As Peter Noever, MAK Vienna’s director, says, “It is very ignorant to say, just by law, that this is your property and you can do what you want. Our idea is to take possession of the site by ideas — ideas from all the architects who joined this competition. Which is, of course, a competition without the real issue of a competition, which is to build. But we have to raise this question, because in 10 or 15 years they’ll say these idiots from Vienna were very careless. You can speak about beautiful architecture, and put it in a magazine and it’s beautiful again, but the main task for architecture is, even as the dynamics of a city are changing, you still must consider the site. You can’t say it doesn’t matter — and just build a building. So we want to let the public know there is a border you cannot cross. Of course, if I knew where that border was, we wouldn’t be having this competition.”

Lorcan O’Herlihy has his own answers to Noever’s inquiry (which he has been invited to display, alongside the MAK winners, in August). Hired three months ago by Richard Loring, a builder who holds a degree in architecture and has built some of L.A.’s most significant architectural homes, O’Herlihy says that “the biggest challenge is to create architecture about light and materiality and not about spectacle. On this project it is inappropriate to do a building based on a complex form. I didn’t take this on thinking, ‘Let it roll.’ It is a question of simplicity next to the Schindler House. I want to do something important architecturally, but I do not want to create a conflict formally. I want something peaceful next to the house.”

Based on early drawings, the building O’Herlihy has designed presents Kings Road with a restful composition of voids and volumes, squares and rectangles, skinned in glass and two-toned horizontal cedar cladding. The effect is a cross between the iconic steel and glass of Craig Ellwood and the resonant warmth of Raymond Kappe, ä the founder of SCI-Arc. Near the critical property line separating the proposed 18 townhouses and the Schindler House, Loring’s partners, Scott Oshry and Sean Brosmith (both in their mid-30s and both automotive-design graduates of Art Center in Pasadena), have agreed to step the building down from four stories to two. This will prevent shadows from changing the quality of light at the Kings Road residence — answering, Brosmith says, “Peter Noever’s fear of a bowling-alley effect. It will be invisible from that side of the property, and certainly not any worse than what’s there now.”

O’Herlihy also created a courtyard layout without corridors between units, in another nod to Schindler, allowing a piece of the outdoors to filter, unmediated, indoors. “The courtyard housing is all about trying to bring light, and not a box, next to the Schindler House,” O’Herlihy says. He believes that with another large void opening the long façade facing its famous neighbor, “You won’t get the feeling of density.”

 

“MAK is viewing this as an invasion of their space,” Brosmith says. “Schindler was at the birthplace of a specific modern architecture. They should embrace that. Eighty years later we are looking at and studying what he invented. They should be thrilled by that. What he was part of inventing we are still using and still influenced by.”

 

What up to now has been a relatively quiet tug of war between a developer and its prominent neighbor may soon emerge as a bristling political snafu. Kings Road is one of the most densely populated streets in West Hollywood, which itself is the third most densely populated city in California. It was once the premier street in West Hollywood, with Irving Gill’s Dodge House at one end, the Schindler at the other and a number of other modern homes in between. The rest were 1920s and 1930s mansions — of which six are still standing on the stretch between Melrose and Santa Monica. Bruce Kaye, who lives across the street from the Schindler House, has started the Committee for the Preservation of Historic Kings Road, and hopes to convince the city to grant cultural-resource status to the remaining single-family homes. Early next month he plans to lodge his nominations with the city.

Kaye believes tearing down the American Colonial next to the Schindler will only fuel “the unstoppable cancer of development. Soon there will be only the Schindler House, a lone oddity lacking architectural companionship,” he says. Although he would like to save the 1936 structure, he believes that another Richard Loring development nearby on Havenhurst Drive should be the template for what happens at 825 N. Kings Road. With the city’s intervention, that other project was limited to 12 condominiums, leaving room for a pocket park to cover half of the lot. Something similar, Kaye says, should be done at 825.

Kaye might have an ally in West Hollywood Mayor Jeffrey Prang. “The standard L.A. approach of lot-line to lot-line density may not wash in this location, and I would not support any proposal that negatively impacts the cultural and historical significance of the Schindler House. I am aware that there is a scaling back from 23 units. But 18 is still a lot,” he says.

For now, Lorcan O’Herlihy’s drawings and models are as conceptual as the presentations in “Preserving Schindler’s Paradise.” The debate that both have spawned is certain to flourish, if for no other reason than the plain fact that, cramped and enclosed and immured as it is, Rudolf Schindler’s house continues to inspire and challenge our ideas about how we live. “It is not just about the Schindler House,” Peter Noever concludes, “but about how our society behaves towards all buildings with such strong cultural identity. It is the same if it happens in Japan, or Vienna, or the United States.”


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