Schindler had the good fortune to be exposed to some of the greatest architectural minds of his era, including Otto Wagner of Vienna and Frank Lloyd Wright. After immigrating to America and spending six years working for Wright, Schindler moved to Los Angeles to assist Wright in the construction of the Hollyhock House. As soon at the house was finished, he started his first solo project, the Kings Road House, also known as the Schindler House or Schindler Chace House.
Like many architects, Schindler’s mind was brimming with the ideas he had absorbed during his training, and he was eager to incorporate them into his first project. For lesser architects, this can result in a collision of conflicting ideas. But Schindler not only successfully incorporated the influence of his mentors into a coherent whole, he also broke new ground in developing his own ideas as he fell in love with the temperate California climate. The resulting Kings Road House is an ensemble of interlocking interior and exterior spaces that has become one of the most influential modern residences of the 20th century.
A Campsite in the City
After the Hollyhock House was completed, Schindler was out of a job. He and his wife, Pauline, took an extended camping trip to Yosemite in October 1921 to consider what to do next. They moved quickly. By the end of 1921, while still in the glow of his Yosemite experience, Schindler had completed the design of a new type of shared housing and had lined up a vacant parcel in West Hollywood on which to build it.
In designing the house, Schindler incorporated the simplicity of the camping structures and lifestyle he had experienced at Yosemite’s Curry Village, such as sliding canvas panels, fires for warmth, communal chore areas and an intimate relationship between the shelter and surrounding outdoor spaces. Perhaps the most important lesson he took from his stay in Yosemite was the modesty of the campsites in relation to the grandeur of nature.
Schindler abandoned the conventional single-family house design organized around a series of single-use indoor rooms such as dining room, bedroom and living room. Instead, he designed the house to be shared by two couples — him and his wife and Clyde and Marian Chace — and included a rental apartment for income.
Rather than separate kitchens for each family, he created a communal kitchen, laundry and workroom at the center of the house where meal preparation and other domestic chores could be shared.
The indoor living room idea was also abandoned. Schindler designed the building so each couple had two studios of their own, one for each person, that opened to a courtyard shared by the couple but private from the other couple. The courtyards served as alfresco living and dining rooms.
The bedroom idea was abandoned as well, replaced by outdoor “sleeping baskets” on the roof, with canvas flaps that could be rolled down on chilly winter nights.
Most of the iconic modern houses with which we are familiar — Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, Walter Gropius’ Lincoln House, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House — were designed as freestanding objects. Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, while beautifully integrated into its site, still visually stands apart from its surroundings.
In contrast, indoor and outdoor space is seamlessly woven together in the Kings Road House. In fact, the house is so well nested into the site that even after several visits, and even drawing the floor plan, I still get turned around and confused as to which of the four studios I’m in when there.
The house is placed in the center of a lot 100 feet wide by 200 feet deep. The building consists of three L-shaped wings arranged like a pinwheel around the central kitchen-workroom hub.
The interior concrete floor is at the same level as the exterior courtyards, allowing the inside to flow seamlessly to the outside.
Groundbreaking Construction Approach
Schindler experimented with a remarkable number of construction techniques and materials used in novel ways in building the house. The innovations anticipated many of the ideas we attribute to Frank Lloyd Wright.
Modular design. Schindler was intent on demonstrating that his ideas could be adopted by other architects and builders to make modern design affordable. He simplified the construction layout and minimized waste in the cutting of materials by basing the house on a strict 4-by-4-foot module.
My firm has tried out the 4-by-4-foot layout dimension in the design of one of our homes, and rather than making the design process rigid, we found the module to be a guiding principle for design and an idea every craftsman on the construction end can understand.
Schindler also made building heights modular: Ceiling heights were 8 feet in the taller areas and 6 feet 2 inches in the lower areas. These heights corresponded to stock lumber sizes. Schindler cleverly arranged the lower ceiling heights in the transitional spaces so that upon emerging into the studios, one finds the 8-foot height absolutely soaring.
Innovative use of concrete. Concrete slab-on-grade is widely used now, but it was rare when Schindler poured the concrete floor directly on the ground. Even more rare, instead of painting the floor or finishing it in any other way, he simply polished the raw concrete.
Clyde Chace, a structural engineer, was Schindler’s partner in the venture and served as the primary builder. He had recently worked for architect Irving Gill on a nearby house that used the tilt-slab technique. Chace and Schindler took the process a step further, first pouring a concrete slab to make the home’s floor. Formwork was placed on the finished floor to cast the concrete wall panels directly on top of it. Once that concrete had hardened, the panels were tilted up to make the back of the structure.
Truth in Materials
Schindler took the idea of expressing the nature of materials to a level Frank Lloyd Wright never considered. Every material is used in its raw form and has no covering layer or decorative finish — the only exceptions being that the concrete floors were polished and magnesite was used to finish the poured-in-place concrete counters, sinks and bathtubs.
The structural beams and roof decking, along with the doors and windows, are natural redwood, a material renowned for its resistance to decay amid the elements.
Even the materials used in the sliding doors were unfinished: Canvas panels during the summer were replaced in the winter with insulite, a thin, rigid board made of pressed cellulose. There is no paint, plaster, stucco or finish of any kind on these materials.
The walls were tapered toward the top to minimize the material used. The gaps between the concrete panels were infilled with a 3-inch piece of glass, giving clear expression to the 4-foot module. Where privacy was needed, such as in bathrooms, translucent privacy glass was used instead. In this bathroom photo, a translucent glass strip provides privacy. (The pattern of the burlap used in the formwork is still visible on the wall to the right of the sink.)
Turmoil on Kings Road
The Chaces lived at the Kings Road House only briefly before moving to Florida in 1924. In 1925, Richard Neutra and his wife, Dione, moved into the Chace wing. Neutra, also a Viennese émigré modernist architect, went into partnership with Schindler, but that arrangement fractured as the two icons of modern residential architecture argued over credit for their shared designs. The Neutras left in 1930, and Richard established his own practice.
Meanwhile, the Schindler marriage ended in divorce, and in 1927 Pauline moved out of the house. In the late 1930s, she returned to Kings Road, where she occupied the original Chace studio, with Schindler staying in his original studio. They maintained separate lives under this unusual arrangement until Schindler died in 1953.