Fluid approach to architecture is hallmark of modernist

by Ann Jarmusch | May 3, 2001
Fluid approach to architecture is hallmark of modernist LOS ANGELES - At last! An inspiring, sensitive, sustained-release antidote to the frazzling complexities of high-tech, wireless living and the 24/7 rush to achieve bottom-line prosperity and communicate instantaneously in a global village that`s getting way too crowded, homogenous and impersonal.

If you care about how people can live in harmony with each other and in touch with nature, don`t miss "The Architecture of R.M. Schindler" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles.

A Viennese immigrant who settled in Los Angeles after working in Chicago and, before that, a mere two-week visit to New York, Schindler died in 1953. His influence remains strong among architects. Even today, they admire his fluid, indoor-outdoor approach to designing domestic and work areas, sensitivity to a building`s site and economical use of materials and space-saving built-in furniture.

Now, this lively, accessible exhibition of a leading modernist`s work and innovative experiments is spreading the Schindler spirit to a broader audience, one ripe for livable, affordable homes and more humane treatment by the housing industry. Schindler also devoted himself to improving the design of low-income and prefabricated housing and trailers, but, like most of his attempts at commercial design, the idea did not catch on.

Widespread awareness of Schindler`s poetic legacy is overdue. Overshadowed in life and death by Richard Neutra, his internationally renowned colleague and fellow Austrian-turned-Angeleno, Schindler should now be celebrated and his people-first principles emulated.

In addition to this exhibition, the most comprehensive Schindler show to date, resurgent public interest in Mid-century Modern architecture and design (which Schindler`s work anticipated) has Neutra sharing the spotlight. The light is again smiling on Schindler, Neutra`s sometime collaborator; other pioneering designers, such as Charles and Ray Eames, who came to prominence after World War II; even Julius Shulman, the legendary architectural photographer who captured the essence of California modernism as it evolved.

The Schindler show includes drawings from Schindler`s hand, a plywood model he built when designing a beach house and others made for this show, and a dozen pieces of furniture he designed for specific houses and Sardi`s, the legendary restaurant in Los Angeles.

Also included are large, colored renderings of houses, drawings so expressive they approach the impact of easel painting. Photographs - some taken by the architect when his buildings were under construction and recent ones shot in honeyed light by architectural photographer Grant Mudford - take on a role greater than mere documents.

The exhibition traces Schindler`s work from his student days in Vienna, where he studied architecture and engineering at different schools, to his last designs, several structurally and aesthetically daring homes built in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. These late works come thrillingly to life in scale models made for this exhibition, which will travel to museums in Washington, D.C., and Vienna.

Like a good book that`s hard to put down, the show rolls along so smoothly that a visitor can virtually experience Schindler`s evolution toward design confidence and maturation. His ability to design and draw architecture as envisioned by his legendary teachers, Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos in Vienna 1910-13, and his employer, Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago 1917-21, is solid and confident, far better than earnest mimicry. Still, the show, like Schindler`s design development, doesn`t really take flight until he goes out on his own.

Schindler`s roots in then-bold, new Vienna Secessionist architecture, including Loos` crisply cubist, unadorned buildings (which parallel in time and appearance Irving Gill`s progressive designs in San Diego) and his Prairie-style work for Wright are recognized, enduring building blocks. They laid a foundation for his 33-year, essentially solo practice in Los Angeles.

But five years before his move to L.A. in 1920, Schindler encountered an entirely different approach to architecture for the region, one that later nourished his revolutionary residential designs of the 1920s, including a complex of beach cottages in La Jolla.

In 1915, Schindler traveled to Santa Fe and Taos, N.M., an alluring part of the West that attracted many artists and writers of his generation. There he photographed and sketched old adobe buildings, reveling, to judge from the pictures on exhibit, in their timeless earthiness.

Taos Pueblo, still a marvel of multifamily housing in harmony with its surroundings, became something of a model for Schindler when he designed his own house on King`s Road in what is now West Hollywood and the La Jolla complex called El Pueblo Ribera.

Even today, both dwellings strike visitors as stunningly innovative in their casual, communal approach to domestic life and resources and their spare, rustic forms made of concrete (in two experimental techniques), redwood and glass. The Schindler house is open to visitors. Pueblo Ribera, a historic landmark, has been divided into condominiums interlaced with private landscaped courtyards, but can be seen from the streets and sidewalks that surround it.

Certainly, Southern California`s unusually varied and dramatic terrain, wealth of natural beauty and sunny, mild climate brought out the best in Schindler. There`s also no doubt that his architectural and social insights and lasting innovations in construction and design are transferable to other places and applications in this populous new century.

There`s more. This exhibition, more than most architecture surveys, resonates with the ideals and passion of a man who treasured his opportunity to live and work in Southern California. He wanted others to benefit from the experience, too, and used architecture to craft a luminous and sheltering framework for life and nature. To spend time in this exhibition and the Schindler house, about a half-hour`s drive from the museum, is to be transformed and grateful to call this place home.

(c)News Service

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Author: Ann Jarmusch

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