Modern buildings still thrive in L.A.

From the early days of film to the most reckless days of punk, Los Angeles has always been a hub for creative innovation.

Our historical distance from European thought and our physical distance from older cities like New York has allowed Los Angeles to be used as a petri dish for all kinds of experimentation. The lure of scholastic freedom in a location with a constantly evolving identity has brought artists from around the world to play in our sunny year-round laboratory.

Though the results are not presentable in movie theaters, concert venues or white-walled galleries, Southern California is nonetheless the birthplace of the most prolific artistic movements of the 20th century: architectural modernism.

It might be missing from an L.A. tour of the high-modern houses from prominent architects such as Richard Neutra, Ray Eames or John Lautner, but the house that first brought minimalism into the domestic realm is still standing behind an ivy-laden fence just south of West Hollywood’s bustling main street.

Rudolph Schindler’s private residence on Kings Road — constructed from 1921-1922 — is believed to be the first house built in the straightforward modern style. Soon after its construction, Los Angeles’ foothill communities became testing grounds for Schindler’s contemporaries and other forward-thinking architects who brought prominence to his approach.

When the Industrial Revolution introduced steel and glass into the world of commercial production, the old ideas of structural form dissolved. Formerly confined by the limits of bricklaying and masonry, the new materials opened the blueprints to exploratory ideas of domestic living and brought art and design to the forefront of what was once a science-, math- and logic-dominated field.

What followed were turn-of-the-century architectural movements such as Craftsman and Art Nouveau, which focused on built-in decorative accents, putting houses by architects such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright on the map.

It was while Schindler was in town supervising the construction of one of these houses — the Hollyhock House, Wright’s first in Los Angeles — that the Austrian-born architect became inspired by the city’s then-rural landscape and built his own home nearby.

Set against a neighborhood that, at the time, was filling up with Spanish revival homes, Schindler’s communal live/work space designed for two families broke all convention in both concept and design.

By scaling back the organic ornamentation found in Wright’s houses of that period, Schindler was able to focus on functionality. The minimalist, open-floor plan that he implemented has since influenced an entire generation of Southern California architects.

The Schindler House — as it is internationally known — is most notable, however, for its seamless integration of indoor and outdoor space with multipurpose utility rooms that open up into the lush backyard, and bedrooms that are actually open-air, canopied spaces on the roof.

Today, the Schindler House remains a bastion of early modern architecture, uninhabited since Schindler’s wife Pauline died in 1977. Unlike other early-modern examples that dot the city’s sprawl — many of which are inhabited and can only be viewed in coffee-table books on the subject — it is open to the public as a mini-museum that is partly a homage and partly a center for avant-garde thought.

Through the Pauline Schindler-established advocacy group Friends of the Schindler House, the residence has undergone a complete renovation; since 1994, it has also served as the base for the Los Angeles satellite of Vienna, Austria’s Museum for Applied Arts/Contemporary Art.

L.A.’s MAK Center for Art and Architecture offers a healthy repertoire of fellowships, programming and exhibitions entirely structured around Schindler’s contributions to the two fields. Seeing the historical significance for both Los Angeles and Schindler’s homeland, the Austrian government invested in the center through both its upkeep of the Schindler House and its purchase of other local Schindler-designed residences.

Currently, MAK operates two other Schindler structures — the Pearl M. Mackey Apartments on Cochran Avenue in the Miracle Mile and the Fitzpatrick-Leland house atop Mulholland Drive in Lauren Canyon.

The Mackey Apartments are home to the center’s scholarship program, which since 1995 has offered six-month residencies to young artists and architects who work with the interdisciplinary possibilities of the two fields. Each is given a renovated apartment in the now five-unit complex and a monthly stipend to conduct their work. At the end of each stay — in March and September — the residents, many of whom have never been to Los Angeles before, present their work at an exhibition inside the Schindler House.

The Fitzpatrick-Leland house hosts MAK’s Urban Future Initiative, which centers on a biannual fellowship program reserved for cultural thinkers who are envisioning new and different urban spaces.

Thanks to the Republic of Austria’s L.A.-centric preservation and programming efforts, all three of the MAK Center’s Schindler residences continue to contribute to the academic disciplines that birthed them.

Unlike other local homes built in the modern style — many of which are private residences, unprotected from renovation or demolition — Schindler’s main designs are being preserved by governments and institutions that are making them culturally active again.

So while the owner of Lautner’s Shusett house recently got demolition approval from the city of Beverly Hills (no doubt to build another Spanish revival villa), the Schindler House continues to invite art and architecture fans into its uniquely expansive space for daytime tours, art exhibitions and stimulating interdisciplinary thought.

Sarah Bennett is a senior majoring in communication. Her column, “Fake Bad Taste,” runs Wednesdays.

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