The First Modernist Home’s Fascinating Backstory

As the storied Schindler House celebrates its 100th birthday, the MAK Center for Art and Architecture has organized a summer’s worth of programming that delves into the Modernist classic’s fascinating backstory and enigmatic designer.

Schindler House in Los Angeles. Photography by Joshua White, courtesy of The MAK Center for Art & Architecture

Rudolph Schindler is widely considered one of California’s most influential Modernists, but was excluded from the canon of great 20th-century architects throughout his life. Not only was the Austrian expat omitted from the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark modern architecture exhibition in 1932 and shrugged off by former mentor Frank Lloyd Wright, but he also wasn’t invited to design one of the famous Case Study Houses in his adopted hometown in the 1940s. Despite this, he designed one of the greatest examples of California Modernism: the Schindler House in West Hollywood, which he finished in 1922. 

A century later, the story is much different. Schindler is widely revered, and his namesake residence is celebrating its centennial with a major exhibition and series of programming organized throughout the summer by the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. “Schindler House: 100 Years in the Making” traces the home’s humble origins as a then-rural retreat for him and his wife, Pauline, who turned the residence into a bohemian oasis—salons, poetry recitals, and nude dances attracted freethinking creators like John Cage, Richard Neutra, Galka Scheyer, Aldous Huxley, and Upton Sinclair.

“Schindler House: 100 Years in the Making.” Image courtesy of the MAK Center for Art & Architecture

The pinwheel-shaped house, clad in redwood, was the perfect place to host social gatherings thanks to private studio spaces and glass sliding doors that granted unimpeded access to sprawling courtyards. (It was one of the earliest arbiters of the “indoor-outdoor” lifestyle that soon defined California Modernism.) There wasn’t a single house like it in L.A.—a bold fusion of traditional Japanese design, Wright’s geometric shapes, and Viennese Modernism’s rhythmic facades. “From a distance, it looks like a cross between a Southwestern pueblo and a house by Frank Lloyd Wright,” the architecture critic Paul Goldberger once wrote about the house in The New Yorker. “It isn’t particularly beautiful, but it has a raw power.” 

The show traces the history of Schindler House and delves into its perpetual state of flux. The house has undergone drastic transformations over the years—painted, carpeted, curtained, excavated—at the uncaring hands of some of its inhabitants. An installation by artist Stephen Prina nods to how Pauline once painted part of the house radiant pink after she and Schindler divorced, much to his chagrin. The exhibition also uncovers the fraught history of early-20th-century Southern California real estate. Schindler acquired the land from a developer who served in the Confederate cavalry during the Civil War and stipulated that the property couldn’t be leased, sold, or inherited by “any person other than of the Caucasian race.” For the show, the artist Kathi Hofer recreated the deed and framed it, along with other historical documents, throughout the house.

Photograph by Esteban Schimpf, courtesy of The MAK Center for Art & Architecture

In 1980, Friends of the Schindler House acquired the property and has made strides to both preserve its original appearance and transform it into a vitalizing force within L.A.’s design community. (The agency recently launched a million-dollar campaign to repair its cracked floors and decaying woodwork.) In the past decade, the house has played host to exhibitions by Carmen Argote, Atelier de Troupe, Brendan Ravenhill, and Pamela Shamshiri, all of whom cite Schindler as a key influence. 

“I came to live and work in California,” Schindler wrote in 1952, the year before his death. “I camped under the open sky, in the redwoods, on the beach, the foothills, and the desert. I tested its adobe, its granite, and its sky. Out of a carefully built-up conception of how [we] could grow roots in the soil—unique and delightful—I built my house. Unless I failed, it should be as Californian as the Parthenon is Greek and the Forum Roman.” L.A. may look different today—condos surround the Schindler House on both sides—but the home’s “creative camp” ethos remains fully intact.

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