Friday, September 7, 2012

Some notes on Schindler's Arcadia

Any mention of Arcadia has always been overshadowed in Modern architecture by discussion of its more extroverted cousin, Utopia; but, this has helped the concept avoid negative connotations of the political and ideological utopias of the 20th century, and their spectacular failures. In fact, simultaneous with Utopia’s rise and fall, Arcadia was finding its appropriate place in the sunshine of Southern California.The Southern California dream has been based on the pleusurable reality of a house on a well-sized lot, providing space for a swimming pool surrounded by a large garden.

Houses constructed by R.M. Schindler have provided a framework in which to trace a change of focus from the collective experience of a pleasant, domesticated nature to the formation of a contemplated, elegiac one: the Kings Road House, built in 1921-22 in West Hollywood was the embodiment of an activist pastoral setting, under the influence of his wife, the activist, writer, and editor Sophie Pauline Gibling; the 1949 Janson House, designed and constructed in a small hillside lot in Hollywood for the poet Ellen Margaret Janson, was another.

 Schindler House , King's Road, West Hollywood, 1921-22

On Kings Road, S.P.G.'s socialist ideals led Schindler to create a communal dwelling, with several simultaneous design influences and a gentle balance between every resident's privacy and their commitment to the publicness of life at the house. It equally reflected the rhetorics of a plethoric and enjoyable “Arcadian domesticity” in the frame of a modernized vernacular architecture. Twenty-six years later, a second rural bliss was realized in Schindler's design for the “skyhooks house” in the Hollywood Hills. The Janson House, an inverted pyramid of wood floating on a steep hillside operated with the same airy self-consciousness as Ellen Janson's modern poetry.

Janson’s residence represented calmness and stability, and  offered evidence for reevaluation of that old concept of Arcadia, usually misrecognized through lush scenes of an idyllic locale with the god Pan surrounded by dancing nymphs.

Schindler argued that his buildings should be perceived as being “as Californian as the Parthenon is Greek.” However, his clients could not afford the best sites – land on steep slopes was cheap, as it was thought unsuitable for building and “suited better to mountain goats than human beings.” This particularity has made Schindler more interesting in the context of one of modern architecture’s main idealizations: the confrontation between nature and architecture. Historically emphasized with the symbolic remnants of a classical temple within the natural landscape, this collision was replaced on the West Coast by the pure geometry of the modern building on the steep hills of Southern California.

Beyond the extensive use of stucco and plaster over wood frames, it was also the incorporation of colored fiberglass that made Schindler’s later buildings, like the Janson House, appear as heterogenous assemblage habitats, as well as starting points for the extended questioning of faith in the canonical experience of modern architecture. The Kings Road House displayed, at the symbolic level the authority of the architect's working space, the home of Schindler's family and the congregation of the avant-garde community. Janson's House, conversely, displayed its connotations in the imaginary level, prioritizing Schindler’s wishes for his architecture, through the frame of his loved one.

Janson Residence, Skyline Drive, Hollywood Hills, 1948-49

Schindler designed and contructed a house for Ellen Janson under the “delicate workmanship” of her poetry but also in the shadow of his illness, as he was diagnosed with cancer soon after construction. The architect then became a specific vulnerable subject in which human expectactions of a desired environment were confronted with the limitations of human life. The architect died in his most imaginary construction - death in his own Arcadia.
His theory of “Space Architecture” was fully realized on the ridges and slopes of Hollywood, particularly with the self-assured design of the house’s deck, with a view of the San Fernando Valley.

Kostis Velonis
Many thanks to Anthony Carfello for his useful observations.