Schindler’s Translucent Tischler House

 

By Judith Sheine

Photographs by Grand Mudford

 

The Tischler house (1949-50) is a late development of R.M. Schindler’s “space architecture” and the project in which the architect most fully explored his vision of a “translucent house.” While other architects were designing flat-roofed glass-walled houses, Schindler, having done that in his own house and studio on Kings Road in 1921-22, had moved on to increasingly radical designs that challenged the boundaries of modern architecture. The Tischler house is the result of Schindler’s experimentations in space, materials and color, in a project for an artist who could appreciate the architect’s work.

Adolph Tischler (1917-2015) was an artist and a silversmith who worked as a painter and designer of modern flatware; he later became head of the graphics department at the Aerospace Corporation. In 1949, Tischler and his wife Beatrice were looking for an architect to design a house for their family on a hillside lot in Los Angeles, just west of the University of California, Los Angeles campus. They interviewed several architects, including Richard Neutra and Craig Ellwood, along with Schindler. Tischler said that Schindler gave him a list of some houses and apartments he had designed; after he visited the Falk apartment penthouse (1939-40) in the Silver Lake neighborhood he knew that Schindler was the architect for his house.

The Falk penthouse was a complex and dramatic space, opening to a deck and a spectacular view of Los Angeles to the west and to a private garden to the east. Within the space, two bedrooms, a few steps down from the main living area, were expressed as solid volumes with clerestory windows opening to the larger space and a view of the unusual patterned plywood ceiling that wrapped down the walls to door-height. The Tischler house would have many of those spatial characteristics, but would carry Schindler’s ideas about “space” architecture even further.

How did Schindler come to design such a radical house – so radical that a neighbor started a petition (unsuccessful!) to try to stop its completion? Schindler made radical designs from the beginning of his independent career in Southern California in 1921. While clearly learning from his mentors, Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos and Frank Lloyd Wright, Schindler synthesized their influences and ideas, as well as those of other architects and vernacular traditions, to come up with his own highly original form of modern architecture.

R.M. Schindler was born in Vienna in 1887. He entered the Vienna Polytechnic University to study architecture in 1906, graduating in 1911. However, in 1910 he enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts, which was then so closely associated with the architect Otto Wagner that it was known as the Wagenerschule. There, Schindler was exposed to a design education that combined architectural theory with design, a path he followed throughout his career, writing short theoretical articles while practicing. Wagner had published a book in 1896 called Modern Architecture, that called for architects to reject the use of historicist styles and, instead, to develop a language using new materials and construction methods and a design vocabulary for each building based on its purpose. Schindler was also influenced by the architect Adolf Loos’s even more radical ideas. Along with Loos’ rejection of all applied ornament, which he likened to criminal activity in his 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime,” Loos believed that architecture should focus on the design of interior space; he developed projects, starting around 1910, that exhibited changes in floor and ceiling levels to articulate complex, interlocking spaces. However, perhaps the biggest influence on Schindler’s career was the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Schindler saw Wright’s Wasmuth Portfolio (1910), which was widely influential in Europe, in 1911. While Wagner’s and Loos’s designs were among the most radical in Europe, Schindler saw in Wright’s work, an architecture of horizontal planes and flowing spaces that, as Wright described them, “broke out of the box.” Already encouraged to go to America by Loos, who had spent several years there and much admired American technology, Schindler answered an advertisement for work in Chicago by the architecture firm Ottenheimer, Stern and Reichert, and arrived in Chicago in March 1914. Schindler hoped to work for Wright, but Wright did not yet have work for him. After the outbreak of the first World War, thinking he was soon to be deported back to Austria, Schindler took a train trip out West in 1915, visiting San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, where he saw the work of Irving Gill, which had significant similarities to that of Loos in Vienna. On the way back to Chicago, he stopped in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico and was much taken with the adobes of the Spanish Mission style buildings and the Native American pueblos, with their thick walls and exposed timber roof structures.

Schindler meant his time in America to be temporary, but after World War I, the economic outlook in Europe was not encouraging. In February 1918, Schindler finally began working for Wright, essentially running his office out of the Oak Park house and studio while Wright was in Japan working on the Imperial Hotel. Wright’s most significant American client at this time was the oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, for whom Wright was designing a house and theatre complex in Los Angeles. Barnsdall was not happy with its progress, so in December 1920, Wright sent Schindler, who was by then married to an American, Pauline Gibling, to Los Angeles to work on the Barnsdall project.

By early fall 1921, work on the Barnsdall house was nearing completion and the Schindlers decided to stay in Southern California and build their own house and studio, modeled on the ideal of integrated working and living that they had both experienced at Wright’s Taliesin. Schindler’s Kings Road house (1921-22) was even more radical than anything Wright had produced to date and was the first built example of Schindler’s own “space” architecture. While still a student in Vienna, Schindler wrote a manifesto called Modern Architecture: A Program (1912), in which he declared that due to new developments in reinforced concrete and steel construction, “The twentieth century is the first to abandon construction as a source for architectural form…” Instead, the architect should now design with “space, climate, light, mood…”

In the mild climate of Southern California, Schindler developed his “space” architecture, which emphasized the development of interior space to let in natural light from as many directions as possible and to flow seamlessly into outdoor spaces. The Kings Road house synthesized Wagner’s expression of the materials of construction, Loos’s rejection of ornament and a focus on interior space, Wright’s use of horizontal space extending into the landscape, the thick walls and exposed timbers of the adobes and pueblos and the geometric gridding and translucent screens of the Japanese architecture he had seen in the prints and books in Wright’s studios into something wholly original. This radical way of designing continued throughout Schindler’s career, with developments in his “space architecture” culminating in the translucent houses of 1948-52.

In the 1920s Schindler experimented with reinforced concrete, trying to find ways to build with it economically. Despite the development of several new techniques, with the Depression in the 1930s, Schindler found that he had to build with the least expensive construction system available: plaster or stucco over lightweight wood frame. He developed a vocabulary for this system that allowed him to manipulate the wood frame walls and ceilings to create complex spaces that let in light and opened to outdoor rooms. Schindler wrote a number of articles further elaborating the ideas expressed in his manifesto, including “Space Architecture,” published in the journal Dune Forum in 1934, in which he distinguished his work from that of the International Style architects, with their concerns about the exterior appearance of buildings, and a series of articles called “Furniture and the Modern House: A Theory of Interior Design,” published in the journal Architect and Engineer in 1935-36. In the later articles, Schindler wrote about ways in which architects would use light, rather than solid materials, to design space: “And his power will be complete when the present primitive glass wall develops into the translucent light screen. The character and color of the light issuing from it will permeate space, give it body and make it as palpably plastic as is the clay of the sculptor. Only after the space architect has mastered the translucent house will his work achieve its ripe form.” The Tischler house was the fullest realization of Schindler’s ideal of creating a translucent house, sculpted by light and color.

Schindler continued to experiment with building forms and materials throughout his career. After World War II, Schindler began to use a modified form of wood frame construction, which he called “The Schindler Frame,“ and published in an article in Architectural Record in 1947.

In a standard wood frame system load-bearing walls were built out of 8-foot-high wood studs; Schindler’s system cut all studs to door-height, or 6’-8”, which allowed him to run a structural wood plate at that height, above which he could vary ceiling heights and allow for large clerestory windows, and under which he could create large windows and glazed doors. Schindler made use of the Schindler Frame to design post-war houses with floating roofs, some flat, some sloped, that allowed light into the houses from all directions and also allowed spaces inside the houses to connect through clerestories. In the Tischler house he took advantage of these developments in a unique way.

Adolph Tischler noted that Schindler typically did not start the design of a house until he had visited the site, and that he would not take any fees from the client until they had approved the preliminary design, and Schindler felt assured that he and the client could work well together. In the Tischler house, Schindler took an unusual approach to the site. While other houses on the street sat on a flat pad cut out of the steep slope, Schindler rotated this house, so that it had a narrow three-story façade on the street, with the main house at the top level. The house is at the north side of the site, angled with respect to the street, to extend the views, to allow for an entry stair on the north side, and to open the interior to private outdoor spaces to the south. While this approach minimized excavation, the house still required more excavation than Schindler realized and the cost of construction was higher than expected. This meant that the fireplace, designed by Schindler and built by Tischler, went in a year after the main construction was finished and that the house lacked Schindler’s usual wealth of built-in furniture.

However, even without the furniture, the house exhibited many of Schindler’s characteristic features as well as some new ones. The main house was covered with a single gable roof running from the façade facing the street to the back of the house. While the preliminary design might have shown the basic concept, it did not reveal that Schindler would make the roof out of a blue translucent corrugated fiberglass material called Alsynite. In fact, the Tischlers didn’t know about this roof until it had actually been built, with Schindler, as he did typically, acting as the contractor. Schindler had previously experimented with this material for some of the walls of the Janson house (1948-49), using them to screen spaces from the road while allowing light to come in. There, he used the light blue color that came from the manufacturer. At the Tischler house, Schindler had the translucent blue roof material dyed a darker blue, to help to modulate the effect of the sun. At ground level Schindler placed a carport with a semi-circular concrete block retaining wall. Above that is a studio with a sloping glass wall facing another circular retaining wall. The studio is entered from a bridge on either side, and the main house is entered at the top level from curving stairs to the north. Typically for Schindler, the entry is a small, compressed space. It is squeezed between the kitchen and the convex curve of the pink concrete blocks at the back of the fireplace, and has a door-height textured wood ceiling. The entry allows a dramatic view of the main space with its blue roof, which can only be glimpsed from the street, and the previously hidden garden that opens off the living space.

The blue roof creates the translucent space Schindler wrote of in 1935. It covers the living and dining spaces, while a short hallway leading to the bedrooms has a dropped ceiling, making the entrances into the other rooms more dramatic. The master bedroom is the only space that reaches outside the gable, with half the space extending into the garden. The gable roof here is opaque, but a clerestory window connects it to the blue roof of the living space. The two bedrooms in the back, for the Tischlers’ two daughters, have a folding wall between them that opens to make one larger room, with a ladder up to a small play space over the master bath. The kitchen is opposite the master bedroom and opens to the blue roof directly and through a clearstory to the living space. Schindler made use of the Schindler Frame in this house, although along with wood frame and plaster, he also used pink concrete block and a couple of steel beams. Exposed steel tie rods in the main house connect the two sides of the gable roof, which rests on the door-height wood plate typical of the Schindler Frame. Schindler designed a semi-circular steel fireplace hood that reflects the blue roof and some textured wood door-height ceilings to define lower spaces within the bigger volume. In an article Schindler wrote in 1952 (unpublished in his lifetime), the architect described his techniques for the use of color, materials and textures in interior space, all of which he employed in the Tischler house.

While Schindler had been experimenting with designs in which he used geometric shifts in plan of 30, 45 and 60 degrees, later adding 15 degree shifts, the geometry of the Tischler house is relatively simple: a long bar, with the corners cut off at 45 degree angles and a circular overlay that appears in the retaining walls, the studio, the fireplace and in door-height ceilings in the house. It seems that the power of the translucent roof was enough to achieve the dramatic spatial effect Schindler wanted for this house.

The house appears even more radical when contrasted with concurrent developments in modern architecture such as Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house (1946-51) and Philip Johnson’s Glass house (1949); both are flat-roofed steel-framed glass houses. In Southern California, the Case Study House program sponsored by John Entenza and his magazine Art and Architecture promoted flat-roofed glass houses, starting in 1945 and continuing through the mid-1960s, with designs by architects including Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano, Craig Ellwood and Pierre Koenig. Schindler had pioneered that form in 1921-22 in his own Kings Road house and studio and had since moved on to more complex spatial experiments. No wonder the house looked so odd to the neighbors and likely even to most modern architects and their clients. It wasn’t until Robert Venturi turned Mies van der Rohe’s famous statement “Less is more” on its head by declaring that “Less is a bore” in the mid-1960s that the architecture world began to understand and appreciate Schindler’s spatially complex and very original work. With the rise to prominence of work by Los Angeles architects including Frank Gehry, Frank Israel and Morphosis in the 1980s, with their use of complex forms and common materials combined in new ways, Schindler’s later work in particular, began to be recognized for its diversity and inventiveness.

Over the years, Tischler made a few changes to the house. Apparently due to Tischler’s work as a silversmith, Schindler made the very unusual choice to have the plaster walls painted black with silver strips. Tischler found the black walls too dark and painted them a neutral grey color. Schindler thought that when the trees grew up around the house that the blue translucent roof would be sufficiently shaded to control heat gain and Tischler hung some large circular shading screens temporarily. However, even after the trees had grown, Tischler found that the house was still too hot and covered about half of the blue Alsynite with plywood, which still allowed the blue color to permeate the house. He also added some built-in furniture and converted the studio into a guest room, installing fiberglass panels to enclose the carport for use as his studio; he also added the panels to the street façade, where the size of the original blue panels made them difficult to seal.

The Tischler house was designed towards the end of Schindler’s life. The architect completed one more house with a significant section of translucent roof, the Skolnick house (1950-52), but passed away after a long bout with cancer in 1953, so was not able to explore the idea of the translucent house much further. Fortunately, Tischler carefully preserved his house. He performed all of the maintenance on the house himself until very recently and had it listed as a Historic Cultural Monument by the City of Los Angeles in 1991. He worked as a docent at the Schindler House after his retirement and opened his own house to numerous visitors from around the world – to students, architects and other fans of modern architecture – and shared his experiences working with Schindler and living in the house for many years. The neighbors seem to have adjusted to the house and it is hoped that it will have a long and much appreciated life with a new owner.

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