R.M. Schindler was born in Vienna in 1887 and educated at the Bau-(Architektur) schule of the k.k. Technische Hochschule (Polytechnic Institute) in Vienna from 1906–11. Before he had finished his degree there, he enrolled in the k.k. Akademie der bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts) from 1910–13, studying with Otto Wagner, whose ideas about modern architecture permeated the school. Wagner believed that modern materials and methods, not historical styles, should be the source for architectural form.
Like other young architects in Vienna, including Richard Neutra, who later joined him in Los Angeles, Schindler was also drawn to Adolf Loos and his forceful lectures and writings arguing against ornament in architecture and for an architecture of complex interior space with highly articulated sections, later codified as the raumplan.
But perhaps the biggest influence on the young architect was the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, which he saw in 1911 in the Wasmuth portfolio. There he saw an architecture of space more advanced than even that of his teachers and he went to Chicago in 1914, hoping to work for Wright.
Move to Los Angeles
In 1918, Wright finally hired Schindler to work on the Imperial Hotel, leaving him in charge of his office during his travels to Japan; Wright sent Schindler to Los Angeles in 1920 to supervise construction of his most important American commission of the time, the Hollyhock house for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall.
Schindler had always meant to return to Vienna, but World War I and the unfavorable economic conditions that followed in Europe discouraged his return. Los Angeles, on the other hand, was at the beginning of an economic and population boom that coincided with his arrival there. After a visit with his wife Pauline to Yosemite in October 1921, Schindler decided to stay in Los Angeles and build his own house and studio at Kings Road. The house was essentially finished in 1922, and Schindler lived and practiced there for the rest of his career.
For Schindler, theory and practice were intimately connected. He first wrote about his ideas for modern architecture while still a student in Vienna in 1912. Rejecting his Wagnerian past he declared that “The twentieth century is the first to abandon construction as a source for architectural form.” Instead, because of the advances in materials and methods, architects were now free to design space and in the future the architect would control “space, climate, light, mood.”
Schindler called his own special form of modern architecture “Space architecture,” which focused on the design of interior space. He produced a body of work, built almost entirely in Southern California, that embodies his spatial ideas. Starting with his own Kings Road house, a concrete and redwood structure which combined a site plan showing a radical integration of interior and exterior spaces with an equally radical social program of four adults living as equals, Schindler designed around 500 projects of which about 150 were built. These were largely single-family houses, although there were some apartments, small commercial buildings and a single church.
Few clients were quite as radical in their tastes as Schindler was himself, but they were largely progressive middle-class intellectuals, with more taste than money. After early experiments with concrete, including the How house (1925) and the Lovell beach house (1923–26), proved too expensive, Schindler developed ways to make inexpensive modern architecture out of cheap materials—stucco and plaster over wood frame—in what he called his “plaster skin” designs of the 1930s and early 1940s; notable examples include the Oliver (1933–34), Walker (1935) and Wilson (1935–39) houses.
He continued to experiment with materials and roof forms, using roofing as siding in the de Keyser house (1935) and trying out gable roof forms in a number of projects. After World War II, he employed his “Schindler Frame” construction which further adapted the wood frame to accommodate his ideals of interior spatial continuity, in works such as the Kallis house (1946) with its sloping roofs and walls, and in several houses in which he used translucent colored fiberglass to achieve “color atmosphere,” including the Janson (1948–49), Tischler (1949–50) and Skolnick (1950–52) houses.
Schindler’s career was cut short by his early death in 1953.
Richard Neutra was born in Vienna in 1892, and emigrated to the US in 1929. The architecture of Vienna left a sense of richness and elegance that was to emerge in his mature work, but in entirely new forms. In southern California Neutra developed an especially appropriate regional architecture, adding a new dimension and direction to the several regional design systems in that area. His motifs, based on simple post and beam construction, were decidedly modern. In residential architecture, with its range of design demands, his design philosophy came into its full range.
Neutra’s house for Dr. P.M. Lovell, built in 1928, brought him international recognition. He called it the Health House because, beyond having a differentiated outdoor play and recreation areas, the structure is brought into a close relationship with the health factors of nature. Located on a landscaped, steeply-terraced hill, it has views of the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Monica mountains, and at night the city of Los Angeles illuminated in the foreground. Recently the house was featured in the film LA Confidential.
From Neutra’s many outstanding residences, two present themselves boldly in his adopted California: the Desert House designed in 1946 for Edgar Kaufmann, set in the hot arid desert surrounding Palm Springs, and two years later, the Tremaine House in the sweeping, tree-shaded, rock-strewn meadowland of Montecito. Both have pinwheel plans with the living-dining area at the hub; wings of one-room depth, designed to obtain natural light with views on at least two exposures, extend outwards and open to terraces and patios that in turn merge into the rich garden landscape. They respond quite lyrically to their natural surroundings, without ever compromising their architectonic integrity.
Neutra believed that the architect should strive for a response to space and time that may be only fleeting, yet in its intensity becomes truly memorable. Both houses have such: a chance reflection in the pool, or glass in shadow; the roof hovering above the sunset, or the rustle of leaves.
Trying to define modernism can be a frustrating exercise. As a style, it is less coherent, its boundaries looser, than, say, classicism. Many critics would argue that modernism is not even a singular style, that it incorporates a great variety of aesthetics and sensibilities. And just who were the modernists? Frank Lloyd Wright vehemently opposed being grouped with them, but modernist architecture would not have been the same without him.
Modernism roughly spans the time between World War I and the early 1970s. What we generally think of as the modernist ethic evolved first in Europe, among such architects as Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius, the latter two of the German Bauhaus school. The European modernists imbued their work with an inherent morality and social consciousness and were often associated with left-wing politics. Intrigued by the emerging technologies of the day, they embraced concrete, glass, and steel in their revolutionary creations. They eschewed ornament, rejecting what they saw as the frivolous strokes of Victorian and art nouveau styles. Their work was both spare (think of Mies’ famous dictum “Less is more”) and lyrical. Perhaps above all, they believed in function dictating form, though many architects, such as Le Corbusier, would eventually distance themselves from that tenet.
In 1932, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock curated a landmark exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in which they coined the term International Style. Aside from introducing the work of architects such as Mies to the American public, the exhibit consciously tried to define a movement. The ground was now broken for a distinctly American modernism to emerge, and the architects who subsequently worked in this country became less concerned with the moral and social aspects of building and more interested in appearance. Jonathan Glancey, the architecture editor of The Guardian, sums up the movement this way: “Modernism was not simply a style: but more of an attitude, a determination to break with the past and free the architect from the stifling rules of convention and etiquette.”