dancing with architecture: not naked at the schindler-chace house

I've encouraged several architectural friends to visit the Schindler-Chace house while they were in Los Angeles, and they've reported back that they were not impressed. 


Well, OK: Maybe I get it. If you walk in 'naked', without context, the place is rather shabby, maybe a spot to work on the '57 Chevy rather than having the in-laws over for a long weekend. It doesn't have the wow factor of Fallingwater, Villa Savoye, or the Rietveld-Schroeder House or other Modern masterpieces in the area. It is, at first uneducated glance, wholly unimpressive.

It reminds me of when I sought to watch the 100 best movies of all time and started with the consensus #1, Orson Welles' Citizen Cane. OMG what a snoozer! I forced myself through that movie and, stunned by how 'bad' it was, googled why the hell it is considered the best movie of all time. After reading about it, it's brilliance became clear. Citizen Cane's radical and innovative use of cinematography and storytelling fundamentally changed movie-making thereafter. Yes, by today's standards, it's dull; but it's dull in large part because what made it radical at the time has been adopted by the world as a whole (and is still in use today).

The same is true of the Schindler-Chace House. Now I don't intend to amplify Schindler's influence beyond what it is; He sadly pales beside Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Richard Neutra as far as direct influence goes, but his contributions to Californian--and American--Modern and how shockingly early he arrived at his style can't be ignored.

The first thing to note about this house is the year it was conceived: 1921. Read that again, but slowly: Nineteen. Freakin'. Twenty-one. Construction finished in early 1922. Next, note what this house has (honesty in materials, expression of structure, seamless integration with the outdoors) and doesn't have (ornamentation).

At that time, there were precious few structures that so purely embraced the budding tenets of Modernism (Villa Sevensteyn in 1920-21 by W. Dudok, Daal en Berg Houses by Jan Wils, various structures by Irving Gill from 1907 to 1919 [although marred by sentimental mission-style details], Villa Allegonda in 1917 by J.J.P. Oud, and several near-misses by Adolf Loos [he of 'Ornament and Crime'] from 1910 to 1917, and Villa Ganier in 1911 by Tony Ganier [marred by arches]). The Schindler-Chace house is one of the first Modern houses built and the first Modern house in the Western hemisphere.

I know, I know: What about Frank Lloyd Wright? But Wright at that point in his career (and even throughout it) was at best a proto-Modernist: He still lathered his structures, by Modernist standards, with ornamentation. Wright unquestionably influenced the Modern movement, but he didn't create it and arguably didn't build his first fully-Modern structure until 1934's Fallingwater, itself an architectural response to Schindler, Neutra, and Corbusier and something of an anomaly in his oeuvre.

Speaking of Corbusier, he was just getting started as far as realized projects were concerned with Ozenfant's house and studio in 1922. Neutra was still an understudy to Erich Mendelsohn at the time and still 8 years from 1929's Lovell Health House, and Mies van der Rohe didn't hit the scene until 1923's concept for a concrete country house with his first realized Modern with 1925's Wolf House.

Schindler didn't work in a vacuum (no architect does). He studied at the heels of Loos, admired and worked for Wright, and kept up with architectural thought and advances in Europe. The Schindler-Chace House touches on all of those influences: the lack of ornamentation (Loos), the desire for a unique and organic North American architecture (Wright), and the theory of Modernism (Europe) that he fused into his own architectural manifesto. And what Schindler fused together from his influence and own thoughts and built in North Hollywood (now LA) is remarkable.

Unfortunately, being first isn't what it's all cracked up to be, so what he built didn't get much attention at the time. Also, building on the west coast meant that the east coast--a bit full of itself--ignored it. And furthermore, building in the New World meant that the Old World--even a bit fuller of itself--ignored it. Nonetheless, the house quietly revolutionized architecture in California and the United States. First, because Schindler and his wife Pauline were activists among the creative class in Hollywood and the house was great for socializing, many creatives, including potential clients and budding architects, experienced the house firsthand. Second, because Schindler hosted Neutra when Neutra first moved to the United States with his family, the house and Schindler influenced the young  Modernist architect who then went on to steal clients and borrow ideas and concepts (Schindler borrowed from Neutra as well). And third, believe it or not, Schindler influenced Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Wright saw the Schindler-Chace house (and others Schindler designed and built) and surely came away impressed. The last thing Wright's ego would ever allow him to do is claim influence from a contemporary let alone someone he considered hired help, but the similarities between Wright's later work (for example, the Usonians) and Schindler's is unmistakable. 

With the Schindler-Chace House, Schindler had out-Wrighted Wright by designing and building the ultimate in organic architecture. The house evokes a Modern interpretation of the original North American architectural voices with the slightly slanted concrete walls of Aztec temples and the flat roofs of New Mexican the pueblos. Unadorned window walls and transparent corners enhance the connection between indoors and outdoors, a relationship consummated with large, sliding canvass walls that reveal the outdoors as simply another room to enjoy. And this revelation is non-hierarchical: The inside of the house is at the same level as the outside--they are one and the same. Schindler had built the first Californian Modern.

Yes, it's been done better later, including by Schindler. But this was the first, and it was done without the technological advances and support (such as large panes of glass, manufactured sliding doors) that benefited subsequent designers and designs. The house is modest: Schindler was just starting his practice and didn't have much money. But he was also concerned with making the new architecture affordable to the masses (and to his modest-means artist and progressive friends).

So when you visit the Schindler-Chace House, consider the time and what had or had not been done by that time. You may find yourself whispering "Rosebud... Rosebud..." as you see this amazing place wrapped comfortably with context...


Whenever we are in LA, we stop in at the Schindler House to pay respects and see the house anew. Which is what we did on our last trip a couple months ago. We had an architect and builder with us, so I was able to regale (bore?) them with context before our visit.

A house on King's Road that we like.

On a previous visit, there were various proposals for the sympathetic design of an apartment building on the lot next door. Amazingly, the owners chose one of the designs! The original site plans are represented in bronze in the front.

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