Welcome to the Valley

Welcome to the Valley

As the movie and aerospace industries spread to the San Fernando Valley, Rudolph M. Schindler broke new ground in its craggy hills and lowlands.

by Judith Sheine

With its suburban grids and commercial sprawl, Studio City, California may not seem like the most likely place to find innovative modern twentieth-century works of architecture. But after Austrian architect Rudolph M. Schindler came to America from Vienna in 1914, it was a natural progression for him to wind up building there, as he and compatriot Richard Neutra pioneered modern architecture in Southern California.

Though Schindler had intended to return to his homeland after World War I, opportunities in Europe were scarce. In 1918 he started working for Frank Lloyd Wright who sent him from Chicago to Southern California two years later, when the region was at the beginning of an economic—and population—boom, stimulated by the oil and film industries. So, in 1921, Schindler decided to stay in L.A. and build his own house and studio. Settling in what is now West Hollywood, he worked out of the house and studio he designed and built for himself on Kings Road. This very original structure, an experiment in communal living, with a studio for each adult and a shared kitchen and outdoor sleeping porches, was the first expression of the ideas Schindler had written about in his 1912 manifesto, Modern Architecture: A Program, while he was still a student in Vienna. In it, he declared that “the twentieth century is the first to abandon construction as a source for architectural form.” For Schindler, unlike many of his mentors and contemporaries, new materials and methods of construction didn’t dictate a new vocabulary. Instead, with the development of reinforced concrete and steel freeing the architect from having to depend on load-bearing walls to dictate form, the architect could now design with “space, climate, light, mood…”

Influenced by Wright and two seminal Viennese architects under whom he had studied, Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, Schindler was able to synthesize their ideas and create something new and original in his Kings Road house. Taking advantage of the mild and sunny climate, he integrated the interior spaces directly into external living spaces, with varied ceiling heights allowing clerestory windows to bring light inside at all times of the day and directly exposed the concrete and redwood construction materials. Although he experimented with many forms of concrete construction in the twenties, during the Great Depression of the following decade, Schindler found that he had to build with the least expensive residential construction system—plaster over wood frame, which he called “plaster-skin” design. However, he realized that he could build his radical “Space Architecture,” which focused on the development of complex interior space, out of any material at hand, and that the specific materials and external appearance were not critical.

Over the course of his career, Schindler designed over 500 projects, of which more than 150 were built in Southern California. His biggest cluster of commissions was in the Silver Lake neighborhood northwest of downtown Los Angeles, which was home to many progressive artists and professionals. Designed to meet the challenges of their landscapes, these hillside houses were radical departures from the bungalows and Spanish Revival styles prevalent when Schindler arrived in Los Angeles and included the radical How house (1925) and the Sachs apartments (1926) along with seven houses and two apartment complexes in the 1930s.

With its suburban grids and commercial sprawl, Studio City, California may not seem like the most likely place to find innovative modern twentieth-century works of architecture. But after Austrian architect Rudolph M. Schindler came to America from Vienna in 1914, it was a natural progression for him to wind up building there, as he and compatriot Richard Neutra pioneered modern architecture in Southern California.

Though Schindler had intended to return to his homeland after World War I, opportunities in Europe were scarce. In 1918 he started working for Frank Lloyd Wright who sent him from Chicago to Southern California two years later, when the region was at the beginning of an economic—and population—boom, stimulated by the oil and film industries. So, in 1921, Schindler decided to stay in L.A. and build his own house and studio. Settling in what is now West Hollywood, he worked out of the house and studio he designed and built for himself on Kings Road. This very original structure, an experiment in communal living, with a studio for each adult and a shared kitchen and outdoor sleeping porches, was the first expression of the ideas Schindler had written about in his 1912 manifesto, Modern Architecture: A Program, while he was still a student in Vienna. In it, he declared that “the twentieth century is the first to abandon construction as a source for architectural form.” For Schindler, unlike many of his mentors and contemporaries, new materials and methods of construction didn’t dictate a new vocabulary. Instead, with the development of reinforced concrete and steel freeing the architect from having to depend on load-bearing walls to dictate form, the architect could now design with “space, climate, light, mood…”

Influenced by Wright and two seminal Viennese architects under whom he had studied, Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, Schindler was able to synthesize their ideas and create something new and original in his Kings Road house. Taking advantage of the mild and sunny climate, he integrated the interior spaces directly into external living spaces, with varied ceiling heights allowing clerestory windows to bring light inside at all times of the day and directly exposed the concrete and redwood construction materials. Although he experimented with many forms of concrete construction in the twenties, during the Great Depression of the following decade, Schindler found that he had to build with the least expensive residential construction system—plaster over wood frame, which he called “plaster-skin” design. However, he realized that he could build his radical “Space Architecture,” which focused on the development of complex interior space, out of any material at hand, and that the specific materials and external appearance were not critical.

Over the course of his career, Schindler designed over 500 projects, of which more than 150 were built in Southern California. His biggest cluster of commissions was in the Silver Lake neighborhood northwest of downtown Los Angeles, which was home to many progressive artists and professionals. Designed to meet the challenges of their landscapes, these hillside houses were radical departures from the bungalows and Spanish Revival styles prevalent when Schindler arrived in Los Angeles and included the radical How house (1925) and the Sachs apartments (1926) along with seven houses and two apartment complexes in the 1930s.

Although Schindler lists his client for the Goodwin house as Sam Goodwin, it’s more likely that his connection was with Mrs. Goodwin. Yolanda Beslity Goodwin Schmoll was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1908 and came to America when she was young. She studied cosmetology with Helena Rubinstein and then set up her own successful cosmetology business in Beverly Hills. Schindler designed a beauty salon for Rubinstein in Hollywood in 1922, as well as additions and remodels to her house in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1923, so it seems probable that Yolanda Goodwin met Schindler through that association. Not long into their marriage, the Goodwins divorced and Yolanda Goodwin kept the house. She later married Nikolaus Schmoll, a German immigrant with a colorful background who worked as a photographer in the nearby aerospace industry. She passed away in 2004, though her husband stayed in the house until his death in 2011. Still in near-original condition, it was sold for the first time in 2012 to an owner who oversaw a very sensitive restoration.

The Goodwin house has all the characteristics of Schindler’s “plaster-skin” designs, deployed to create dramatic, light-filled spaces that seem to be part of the view and landscape. These projects contrasted with the simpler white stucco boxes of the so-called International Stylists. Schindler’s buildings displayed a series of interlocking volumes designed to maximize connections to the exterior, bringing daylight into the interiors. Corner windows were ubiquitous to orient spaces towards a view and to let in light from two directions. The interior spaces were articulated with varying ceiling heights, clerestory windows and built-in furniture made of stained Douglas fir plywood, contrasting with the plaster walls; a horizontal datum line at door-height connected the varied spaces.

Like many other Schindler residences, the Goodwin house is built on a steeply sloping site. At the street level, the garage and house frame a patio, privatized with hedges and walls. As he did on other similar lots, Schindler sited the living spaces in the Goodwin House on the upper street level with the bedrooms below, creating views to the exterior and adding balconies on the downhill side of the house.

From the street, the house is closed for privacy and is designed as a series of volumes. The two-car garage steps back in two blocks with the entrance to the house set back between the garage and the walled patio. A trellis projecting from the garage extends over the entrance walk, interconnecting these spaces. Facing downhill towards the view of trees and hills, the house is also articulated as a group of interlocked volumes. The main block, which contains the living space on the upper level and the master bedroom below, has a large overhang that embraces the smaller volumes on either side. The volume containing the kitchen and dining room upstairs and the second bedroom downstairs has cutouts for balconies at both levels. Corner glazing was created in the living and dining spaces and both bedrooms, with solid corners at the sides next to the neighbors, maximizing both views and privacy.

This articulation stands in contrast to other L.A. homes built on steeply sloping sites, such as Neutra’s Kun (1936) and Koblick (1938) houses. Those dwellings look like they were carved from one solid white block, with similar horizontal bands of windows facing a long balcony at all levels. Along with his volumetric expression, Schindler’s color choices were also not conventional. As he described them: “Stucco exterior and interior in a soft graygreen. Woodwork is Douglas fir stained bluegreen. Rug of Livingroom bluegreen frizee. Kitchen white and green.”

The interior spaces fully demonstrate Schindler’s “Space Architecture” principles. The entrance opens to the dramatic living room and the spectacular view of the Valley. Schindler arranged the built-in furniture so that the living room sofa next to the fireplace blocks a direct path into the room; it allows a pause to admire both the space and the view. Walking around it, one is on a diagonal axis leading to the corner window. Several plywood volumes are inserted into this space. Schindler wrote: “To give the livingroom a more spacious feeling it interlocks with the garage, den and hall.” The large corner window brings in light from two directions, while the clerestory windows between the living spaces and the kitchen bring in daylight from a third. The result is a dynamic, light-filled space with clearly defined areas for lounging by the fireplace and dining while enjoying the view.

The den is also articulated with plywood built-in furniture and has a double exposure, with windows overlooking the downhill view and glazed doors opening to the walled patio. The kitchen has a small eating nook with windows facing the view. The entrance to the stair to the lower level is defined by a plywood volume and leads to a vestibule that opens to both bedrooms and is illuminated by a glazed door. Both bedrooms have Schindler’s built-in plywood furniture. The smaller bedroom has a corner window and glazed door opening to a balcony. The master bedroom also has a corner window and a door that originally led to a screened porch, another volume with a corner opening. That porch has since been converted to a master bath, and the other bathrooms and the kitchen have been modernized; otherwise, the house is in remarkably original condition.

As the war neared its end, and a building boom arose in the Valley, Schindler designed the Roth house for Roxy Roth, a musician, writer and actor who played in a number of popular Latin and Hawaiian bands and managed his own combo at L.A.’s Clover Club. In the late 1940s, he began writing for radio and worked on several episodes of the early TV show, Life With Elizabeth, starring Bette White in her first series; he also appeared briefly in The Cara Williams Show in 1964. By the time Roth passed away in 2005, he had sold the house to its second owner, a director, in 1999. At that time, the house was restored by architect Jeff Fink, who had skillfully refurbished several Schindler houses; it was sold again in 2007 to a prominent New York couple who hired architect Barbara Bestor to convert the carport—an original defining feature of the house—into a writer’s studio (see sidebar).

The Roth house, with its dramatic form, both inside and out, initiated a new postwar phase in Schindler’s work. The architect referred to it as the first of his “Schindler Frame” houses, a construction system that allowed further development of his Space Architecture. As he wrote in “The Schindler Frame,” an article he published in Architectural Record in 1947 (illustrated with the Roth house, as well as the Gold and Presburger houses), the Schindler frame made significant changes to the standard system: all wall studs (typically eight feet high) were cut to door height (six feet, eight inches) and the walls were tied together with a structural wood plate at that height, allowing large glazed openings both below and above this datum. Schindler also substituted two-inch wood decking for deep wood joists, allowing thin floors and roofs to be closer to the ground and sky. This system allowed light to come inside from all directions and to further connect the interior spaces to the exterior and to each other.

The Roth house’s unusual siting was designed to maximize the connections between the interior spaces, the dramatic views, and the patio and terraces. The lot slopes up steeply from the street and Schindler sited the living space and bedrooms at the upper level. A carport curves around with the street and a stair leads up to the lower level of the house with a den, maid’s room and bathroom. In order for the living room to both face the view and a patio, Schindler covered the carport with a grassy terrace that connects to the living room and to the garden terraces at the back of the site. The master bedroom faces the downhill view and the second bedroom is rotated 45 degrees to face the terrace at the rear, with the octagonal eating nook between the living room and the kitchen, setting up this rotation. While Schindler had used 45- and 60-degree shifts in previous houses to adapt his designs to their sites and to maximize the connection to views and usable outdoor space, the grass patio over the carport was one of the Roth House’s many unique features.

The front façade has a stucco-covered form that snakes up from the street to the upper level, recalling the complex stucco shapes of Schindler’s “plaster-skin” designs. However, here it is layered over a wood-and-glass structure that defines the major volume of the house, with a balcony between these layers. At the rear, facing the patio and terrace, the house is articulated with the stucco volumes of fireplace, nook, kitchen and bedroom and the glazed volume of the living space, tied together with a door height datum. From the back, what is also visible is a large sloped roof with clearstory glazing. While in his plaster-skin designs, Schindler generally did not express sloped roofs on the exteriors, in his later “Schindler Frame” work, these roofs were expressed both inside and out, letting in light in a variety of ways.

As always in a Schindler house, the interior is the real expression of the Space Architecture. From the entrance, a stair leads to the upper level, with its spaces united under the dramatic glazed sloped roof running the length of the house. With views up to the sky, out to the valley over the carport, and to the back terrace, the space feels like it is floating in the landscape. The stair divides the living and sleeping spaces and opens to the living room, bounded only by a low piece of Schindler’s built-in furniture. From that space, looking back at the bedroom wing, the master bedroom is open through glazing. While the bedroom can be closed for privacy with wood shutters, its clearstory glazing still allows it to be part of the main space and provides long views through the entire upper floor.

In his later designs, Schindler included a wider variety of materials and textures, as can be seen in the large living-room fireplace covered in thin, horizontal stone veneer. The ceiling has the exposed decking of the Schindler Frame, which he had custom-milled into a unique pattern for each house. Opposite the fireplace, the space expands outside the sloped roof and is further articulated with built-in storage and a desk.

The bedrooms open at the end of a hall which is under the glazed roof and, unusually, ramps gently up from the living room. The master bedroom opens to the front balcony and has a variety of built-in furniture, including a headboard and a dresser, with each drawer stepping out to create a handhold. The second bedroom, rotated at 45 degrees to the main house, is entered through a small vestibule, off which are a pentagonal bathroom and what was originally a laundry room (now part of the kitchen), reconciling the geometry of the rotated spaces. That bedroom opens to the rear patio, from which steps lead up to a roof-level outdoor space that allows a view of the complex landscape.

Compared to the much simpler designs of the well-known Case Study houses built in Southern California between 1945 and 1962, the spatial richness of the Roth house seems even more remarkable. Apart from updates to the kitchen and bathrooms, and the changes to the carport, the house remains in near-original condition. With its glazed, sloped roof, interior clerestory windows, and extensive views, the Roth house takes maximum advantage of the light and space in Southern California. Along with the equally light-filled Goodwin house, it allows its inhabitants to feel part of the surrounding landscape while enjoying its interior space. Even as Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley urbanized, these two houses show how Schindler’s Space Architecture takes advantage of Southern California’s singular environment, blurring the boundaries between interior and exterior spaces with truly ambitious and innovative style.

 

 

Contact us about this property:

Related posts

Editor’s Note: Room with a View

Editor's Note: A Room with a View by Crosby Doe As summer approaches, and this latest issue of...

Continue reading

The California Hacienda

The California Hacienda Cliff May’s childhood spent on an early Golden State ranch developed...

Continue reading

Casa de Pajaros

Casa de Pajaros ArchitectureforSale, Quarterly presents an archival interview by a noted...

Continue reading