Celebrating the centennial of (arguably) the world’s first modern home in West Hollywood

A century ago, a strange building stood at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, on Kings Road. It was a one-story structure with gray concrete walls and redwood ceilings, devoid of ornaments. Before the landscaping, it had an austere appearance, resembling a low fort. You can catch a glimpse of him in the comedy “Sherlock Jr.” by Buster Keaton in 1924: when the protagonist speeds down Kings Road, perched on the handlebars of a wandering motorbike, the house glows with no amusement in the background. Few moviegoers could have known they were seeing one of the first marvels of modernist architecture – a house that acts, in the words of critic Reyner Banham, “as if there had never been houses before”.

The architect was Rudolph Michael Schindler, who came to America from Vienna in 1914, imbued with the influence of Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos and Frank Lloyd Wright. He designed 835 Kings Road as a joint residence for himself, his wife and two married friends – “a cooperative dwelling for two young couples”, he called it. He lived there from 1922 until his death in 1953. Pauline Gibling Schindler, his wife and later ex-wife, remained there until 1977. For decades Schindler’s work received little critical attention and, in the 1970s, the Kings Road house could easily be razed to make way for a condominium. But Schindler’s heirs, missing out on a financial windfall, sold the property to an organization called Friends of the Schindler House (FOS), who currently owns it. Visits and programming are managed by the Mac Center for Art and Architecture, an LA outpost of the Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna.

The Schindler house has become a calm, almost rustic refuge. Condos rise on either side of the lot, but once you reach the end of the path from the street, you’ve left the metropolis behind. Citrus trees, privet hedges, bamboo groves and vegetable gardens create a lush environment. The concrete walls, which slope inward as they rise, possess an ancient aura. Tall, narrow spaces appear at forty-five inch intervals, like loopholes in medieval castles. The sliding patio doors suggest a Japanese influence. Schindler compared the house to a “camper’s shelter,” having had a transformative experience camping in Yosemite in 1921. Last summer, shortly after the house reopened following a pandemic shutdown, I I spent a morning there. I was almost the only visitor, and fell into a blissful stupor, lost in time.

This summer, the crowds are back, as the house celebrates its centenary and raises funds for ongoing restoration projects. On a recent Saturday, FOS organized a day of conferences and visits, in a predominantly family atmosphere. Schindler Todd Cronan donned an open-necked white tunic – one of Schindler’s favorite fashions – to read the architect’s writings. “Modern architecture lies flat on the ground like a kitten taking the sun,” Cronan proclaimed, reciting a 1938 lecture. William Schindler, the architect’s great-grandson, also participated, under the eyes of Mary Schindler, Guillaume’s ninety-nine-year-old grandmother. Architectural historians Judith Sheine and Robert Sweeney, the latter president of FOS— offered ideas.

Most viewers were probably already familiar with the narrative that emerged from the readings: that of a proud, independent spirit who had been forgotten by the architectural heavyweights of his time. We shook our heads at the dismissive remarks of Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, who omitted Schindler from a landmark 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. We laughed sadly when the panel shared some of Schindler’s correspondence with the monstrously selfish Wright. In 1929 Schindler was trying to get Wright to provide a letter of recommendation so he could be licensed by the Board of Architects of Southern California. Wright sent several drafts of letters to the board, ranging from the unhelpfully belligerent (“He’s worth any of you”) to the unhelpfully superficial (“He’s built a number of buildings in and around Los Angeles which seem to me admirable from a design point of view, and I haven’t heard of any of them falling”). Although Schindler was busy building houses in the south of the California, he never won any larger-scale contracts.

The Schindler revival took off in the 1960s and 1970s, when a more pluralistic architectural philosophy came into fashion. Its buildings, for all their modernist features, had been too asymmetrical and freewheeling to fit within the restrictions of the International Style. Banham, a prophet of the new sensibility, wrote of Schindler’s early work: “What this means, historically, is that modern architecture would have come to California even if de Stijl, Corb[usier], Mies, Gropius and the Museum of Modern Art had never existed. Kathryn Smith, in a 2001 book on Kings Road, called it “the world’s first modern house to be built”. It’s debatable: Schindler had his own background, drawing inspiration not only from Wagner, Loos, and Wright, but also from the innovative Southern California architect, Irving Gill. Native traditions also had their impact: on a trip to the southwest in 1915, Schindler admired the massive, unadorned facades of Pueblo adobe construction.

In the monumental sprawl of today’s Los Angeles, Schindler’s utopian ethos collides with the realities of extreme inequality and environmental waste. At the same time, it offers a way forward.Photograph by Esteban Schimpf / Courtesy of MAK Center for Art & Architecture

Debates over priority will never end. A better way to celebrate Schindler’s House is to see it not just as an individual achievement, but as a collective social experience. Its floor plan is implicitly egalitarian. Three L-shaped wings are arranged like a pinwheel, with each wing containing studio spaces for couples and for one guest. A kitchen or “laundry room” serves as a common space, encouraging shared chores instead of creating, as Schindler wrote, “an unpleasant burden on a family member.” At the same time, the layout provides some privacy for couples: each “L” shaped unit features sliding glass panels that open onto a secluded courtyard.

The plan owes much to the philosophy of Pauline Gibling, who met Schindler in Chicago in 1918 during a performance of Prokofiev’s “Scythian Suite”. Gibling, who studied music at Smith College before embarking on writing, criticism, education and activism, had envisioned a place like Schindler’s House as early as 1916, writing “a little bungalow bliss, the edge of woods and mountains and near a crowded city, which will be open, as some people’s hearts are open, to friends of all classes and types.

Gibling set the tone for life at 835 Kings Road, fostering a bohemianism that rivaled any in Greenwich Village. Architect Richard Neutra, who had known Schindler in Vienna, moved in with his family when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1925. Residents included dancers Katherine Dunham and John Bovingdon, modern art maven Galka Scheyer and, very briefly, the young composer John Cage. Upton Sinclair, Edward Weston and Aldous Huxley were frequent guests. Salons and concerts were organized; at one point Cage and Henry Cowell hosted an evening of Japanese gagaku, and at another German-Japanese poet Sadakichi Hartmann, once a village stalwart, impersonated Edgar Allan Poe. Extramarital affairs have occurred, including an unlikely one between Gibling and Cage.

Like many utopian enclaves, this one has frayed over time. By 1927 the Schindler marriage had entered into crisis and Gibling moved out; the couple divorced in 1940. Gibling returned home full-time in the late forties, continuing to write insightfully about her ex-husband’s work even when the two were not speaking. (Schindler once sent him a note: “If you paint your part of the house…my struggle for expression and the resistance of the insensitive would receive another monument.”) Schindler’s friendship with Neutra soured in the thirties. Yet the rallies on Kings Road remained vibrant and diverse. Mary Schindler told me that she once met Robert Oppenheimer there.

About Imogene T. Bishop

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