On the Origin of R. M. Schindler’s Architectural Program
In recent decades, as R. M. Schindler has belatedly assumed a position of eminence in modernist architectural history, attention has fallen on “Modern Architecture: A Program,” a manifesto-like essay that Schindler wrote in Vienna during his apprentice years. The essay’s significance is obvious, but its origins have remained somewhat obscure. Researches in the Schindler Papers at the University of California, Santa Barbara have allowed me to pinpoint the document’s gestation with some precision. What follows is a report on that research, together with a new translation of the Program, based on the original manuscript. Schindler’s far-sighted ideas about modern residential design remain the same, but their context has shifted and expanded.
The publishing history of the Program is tangled. The most familiar version is one that Schindler made in English sometime before 1932, when he sent it to Masakazu Koyama, the editor of the Japanese architectural magazine Kokusai Kenchiku, and also appended an excerpt to his short critique of functionalism in the Southwest Review. This rendering was included in the dossier of writings that Schindler gave to the architectural historian Esther McCoy, and it was subsequently published in books by David Gebhard, Judith Sheine, and others.1 Two other drafts, in German, can be found in the Schindler Papers. One, a typescript with corrections and additions, appears to date from the 1920s; in 1995, it was published in the catalogue for the Kunsthalle Wien exhibition Visionäre und Vertriebene (Visionaries and Exiles).2 There is also a set of handwritten pages, some of which carry the date 1913. Barbara Giella transcribed these for her 1987 thesis on Schindler’s work of the thirties; a translation followed in Lionel March and Judith Sheine’s RM Schindler: Composition and Construction.3
Analysis of the Program has been complicated by the fact that its various drafts are scattered through the Schindler archive. Two sheets of the handwritten manuscript, with writing on both sides, surface in a folder marked “Letters not sent.”4 Two other sheets, again with writing on both sides, show up amid Schindler’s correspondence with Neutra.5 Only the typescript version is filed in a folder identified with “Modern Architecture: A Program.” Furthermore, the challenges of reading Schindler’s German handwriting have hindered comprehension. Giella’s transcription presented two of the pages in the wrong order, resulting in several garbled passages.6 No one appears to have taken notice of a few lines on one page that specify the jumping-off point of the entire exercise: a questionnaire sent out by the Darmstadt-based journal Innen-Dekoration in January 1912 (fig. 1). I have concluded that Schindler’s Program took shape in response to that questionnaire.
At the time that Schindler made the notes that evolved into the Program, he was studying under Otto Wagner at the Akademie der bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts), in Vienna. He was also attending private lectures by Adolf Loos, in the course of which he first encountered Richard Neutra. The use of the phrase “modern architecture” is, among other things, a nod in the direction of Wagner, who had published the first edition of his famous book of that title in 1896. Yet, as Harry Mallgrave has pointed out, the Program diverges in important respects from Wagner’s aesthetic, rejecting the older architect’s insistence of endowing constructive principles with expressive potential.7 Nor does it necessarily conform with Loos’s teachings circa 1912. It espouses something of a third way beyond Wagner’s beautified modernism and Loos’s reaction against the ornamented exterior.
Alexander Koch, the editor of Innen-Dekoration and of the even more widely read Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, was a vigorous promoter of interior-design reform, his aesthetics closely aligned with those of the Jugendstil movement (fig. 2). Innen-Dekoration is best remembered for having held a design competition in 1901 for a theoretical house to be called Haus eines Kunstfreundes, or House for an Art Lover. The winning designs, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret Macdonald, Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, and Leopold Bauer, offered pared-down, formally striking, internally fluid models for residential design, which gave inspiration to the rising generation of Austrian architects, Schindler included. Koch also drew notice for his role in and promotion of the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony. A Wagner student like Schindler would naturally have monitored Koch’s publications, even if, as Sigrid Randa-Campani observes in her study of the publisher, Koch had taken a somewhat conservative, backward-looking turn in the years after 1908.8
The January 1912 issue of Innen-Dekoration featured a questionnaire asking readers what they valued most in the concepts of “Wohnlichkeit” and “Behaglichkeit”—near-synonymous words that connote livability, comfortableness, coziness. The magazine addresses “three questions to all who have talent and sensitivity for Wohnlichkeit”:
- How do you imagine a comfortable home?
- What in your view are the main points that must be fulfilled in the achievement of comfort and well-being in the home?
- What in your opinion are the most common home-furnishing mistakes and how are they to be avoided?9
A summary of responses to the survey was printed a year later, in the January 1913 issue, apparently with the participation of the distinguished art historian Paul Westheim. The headline was “Wie erzielt man Wohnlichkeit?”—“How does one achieve comfortableness?” (fig. 3). Among the replies, the contribution of a young Viennese architect named R. Schindler was singled out for praise and summarized as follows:
While the feeling of “coziness” [Gemütlichkeit] originally created for protection-seeking primitive man a sense of security in the narrow “living cave” [Wohnhöhle], providing protection against the elements, in the hut, in the narrow-walled city, for modern civilized man the concept of comfort [Behaglichkeit] is interpreted anew: it consists above all in the possibility of being able to freely control space, light, air and temperature within the enclosed area.
The editor praises Schindler’s ideas but adds a qualification: sensations of comfort and security are no less crucial for modern people who might have mastered the elements but still require a restful atmosphere as a respite from the stresses of daily existence.10 Anyone who knows Schindler’s Program will have recognized some familiar formulations. One quoted phrase—“formalen Anklänge, welche Erinnerungen an jenes Sicherheitsgefühl erwecken,” or “formal echoes which awaken memories of that feeling of security”—appears almost word for word in the various versions of the Program.
The two sheets that can be found among “Letters not sent” in the Schindler Papers would appear to be a rough draft of the reply that Schindler submitted to Innen-Dekoration. The first sheet is marked February 1912 at the top; Schindler had obviously set to work shortly after reading the previous month’s issue. Schindler writes, “Reply to the general survey by the magazine Innen-Dekoration,” and names Hofrat Alex Koch as the addressee. He then copies out the three questions. What follows corresponds roughly to the final section of the published versions of the Program.
For the Urmensch [primitive man], the value of his cave lay in its hiddenness and narrowness—in the feeling of security which it gave to the occupant—The medieval city supplied the same sense of security through its building principle of crowding as many defenders as possible into the smallest perimeter—
The farmer feels comfortable only in a hut that answers his need for protection from the elements by way of the strongest contrast with the outer world—
For the majority, “gemütlich,” “comfortable” means spaces which can awaken memories of those feelings of security through formal echoes—
Civilized man progresses from flight before the elements to their domination—For him the home is no cowering hideout—through his power he has found the way to nature. The words “gemütlich” “comfortable” have a different ring—The comfort of the dwelling lies no longer in formal shaping—but in the possibility of freely governing time, space, light, air and temperature within its limits.
The dwelling will not wish to have style, personality, expression— will no longer bellow — like an eternal gramophone for every passing mood of the architect and owner — it will be silent and will provide a peaceful setting for the owner.11
When Innen-Dekoration gave a brief summary of Schindler’s commentary in its January 1913 issue, the architect may have been prompted to develop his thinking further. In any case, two further pages with writing on both sides are marked “June 1913.” Here again there is a discrepancy in Giella’s transcription. On the back of the first page was a section on the topic of monumentality in architecture. In the transcription, this has been moved after the material on the following sheet. Giella presumably did this because Schindler himself changed the order when he made his typewritten transcription and English translation. She also followed Schindler in placing the 1912 material last. For the purpose of documenting the first version of the Program, the earlier order should be retained. Incidentally, none of these early documents bear a title; “Modern Architecture: A Program” came later. Here is a translation:
The first living space was the cave.
The first house was the hollow heap of earth.
Building meant—gathering and piling up building material with room for air-living-spaces.
This viewpoint is the basis for understanding all architectural creations from the beginning of time up to the twentieth century A.D.
The goal of architectural striving was—formal subjugation of the mass of building material.
The idea came only from the sculpturally malleable mass of material.
The vaulted ceiling was not a spatial idea, instead it was a form for distributing material so that the mass was kept suspended.
Shaping the projection of the mass into space was the task of wall decoration.
The problem has been solved and is dead.
We—no longer have a sculpturally malleable mass of material.
The modern architect conceives the space and shapes it with wall and ceiling panels.
The idea comes only from the space and its elaboration.
Without the mass of building material, the negative of the space on the inner wall of the house appears unimpaired as a positive on the outside.
Hence the “box-shaped house” emerged as the primitive form of the new line of development.
A new problem has arisen—and, as ever, the concept of purpose guards its birth.
Monumentality is the expression of the memorial of a power.
The first ruler was the tyrant.
His power over the crowd found expression in the physical overcoming of static forces. In keeping with a primitive level of culture and sensitivity, the power-symbol was restricted to overcoming two of the simplest forces: heaviness and cohesion.
The monumental effect grew proportionally with the “work of material distribution” being brought to expression.
Man defers to the heft of the earth.
Today a different power of humanity demands its monument.
Spiritual creative power has broken the might of the physical tyrant.
Man has found a more mature symbol for the overcoming of physical forces—the machine.
The mathematical overcoming of the static renders it formally and artistically expressionless.
The new monumentality of space will adumbrate the infinite limits of the spirit. Man shudders in the vastness of the cosmos.
R June 1913
The first house had to give people protection.
The sense of security was heightened through every indication of the durability of the house.
To the architect, therefore, construction must have appeared to be the most effective means of expression.
All building styles up to the 20th century AD are “constructional.”
The quest to symbolize the constructional function of the mass of building material furnished ideas for form.
The last stage of this development is artistically conceived steel construction. In the steel frame, form is no longer a symbol of the constructional play of forces—construction has become form.
With the help of concrete building, the 20th century takes the first steps towards formally dispensing with construction.
The constructional problem has turned into a mathematical equation. The structural calculations filed with the city building authority render formal guarantees of safety superfluous. Construction has become devoid of interest.
Modern man no longer takes notice of the construction—the concrete pillar, the beam, the mass of the wall—because there is no longer a columnar form, architrave, wall plinth, crowning cornice—instead he sees the freedom of cantilever construction, the openness of the span, the space-defining surface of the 7-cm thick wall.
The house-building artist’s quest to use the form as a constructional symbol or to give the construction an artistically expressive form is dead.
There is no longer a constructional style.
The architect’s natural inclination to build constructionally has become a bogus buzzword in a day and age that wishes to give its artists the strangely necessary exhortation: Build with all spiritual and technical resources that your culture offers you.
R June 1913 12
What happens to our understanding of Schindler’s Program when its context is restored? First, it is all the more clear that, as Mallgrave argues, the young architect is distancing himself from—if not rejecting outright—prevailing values of the Jugendstil and Secession movements, not to mention central tenets of his teacher Otto Wagner. In Modern Architecture, the latter had written that “the architect must always develop the art-form out of construction.”13 Schindler, on the other hand, boldly announces that “there is no longer a constructional style.” Indeed, the very notion of construction-oriented building is a falsches Schlagwort.
Schindler comes closer in spirit to Loos, who had argued that architecture must transcend the expression of personality, of the mentality of a particular artist. Schindler also shows kinship to other radical trends in Viennese modernism. Although there is no sign that he paid heed in this period to Arnold Schoenberg—unlike Neutra, who knew the composer and attended his concerts—the idea of an architecture of space supplanting an architecture of form brings to mind Schoenberg’s desire for “complete liberation from all forms, from all symbols of cohesion and of logic,” his desire to dissolve musical architecture into a “vivid, uninterrupted succession of colors, rhythms, and moods.”14
At the same time, Schindler also declares a degree of independence from Loos. The question of ornament is not under consideration. Schindler’s ideal architecture does not have the air of being embattled against an establishment. The concept of a house that transcends the need to supply shelter and security does not exactly reflect the values of Loos, who, as Mallgrave notes, tends to make a sharp divide between exterior and interior. Loos said in his “Heimatkunst” lecture of 1912: “The house should be discreet on the outside, inside it reveals all of its richness.”15 In a certain sense, Schindler’s interest in transcending the relation between construction and form puts him in conflict with a classic modernist ideology that was still in the process of formation.16 As August Sarnitz comments, the idea of an interior connecting fluidly to the exterior harks back to the principles of the modern English house, which, we can add, had been celebrated in the pages of Innen-Dekoration.17
The new factor that has undoubtedly entered into Schindler’s thinking about construction and space is the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wasmuth portfolio, which had galvanized Schindler as it had so many other young modernists. In his “Space Architecture” essay of 1934, Schindler recalled his first reaction to the Wasmuth portfolio: “Here was ‘space architecture.’ It was not any more the questions of moldings, caps and finials—here was space forms in meaningful shapes und relations. Here was the first architect.”18 Although Wright goes unnamed in the Program, he hovers behind the essay as a guiding spirit.
Once Schindler came to America, the ideas of his Program continued circulating through his writing and notes, even if his close-up encounters with the American built landscape caused him to make some adjustments. His impressions of New York and Chicago tended toward the negative: he experienced little of the ecstasy that had swept over Loos during his American sojourn in the 1890s. Manhattan struck Schindler as a city “arising from mass demand,” its population crowded into spaces where little natural light can penetrate.19 When, in 1917, he attained his long-sought goal of finding a position with Wright, more disappointment set in. The great man was unable to see Schindler as anything but a peon. There was also a philosophical difference: the architect of open space whom Schindler had admired in the pages of Wasmuth portfolio was going into partial eclipse, as Wright turned toward the hulking masses of his neo-Mayan style. What Judith Sheine describes as a “vocabulary of heavy forms decorated in a stylized motif” struck Schindler as a regression.20 In “Space Architecture,” he complains that Wright “tries to weave his buildings into the character of the locality through sculptural forms.”21
The move West brought more positive perspectives. Schindler had already visited Southern California and the Southwest in 1915—a trip that Albert Narath discusses at length in his 2008 essay, “Modernism in Mud.”22 In the winter of 1920–21, Schindler wrote to Neutra: “If I am to speak of ‘American architecture’—I must say at once that no such thing really yet exists … The only buildings that show true feeling for the earth that bears them are the old adobe buildings of the first settlers and their successors—Spanish and Mexican—in the southwestern part of the country.”23 A blunter assessment appears in Schindler’s notebooks from 1916: “The country is empty—except in the Pueblo domain.”24 After his first Southwestern trip, he designed an unbuilt house for the Taos physician Thomas Paul Martin, which he described as a “low stretched mass of adobe walls, with a rather severe expression for the outside.”25 This was intended to blend into the vastness of the landscape, although, as Narath points out, it retains a monumental weight.
The Program resurfaces in notes for lectures that Schindler gave at the Church School of Art in Chicago in 1916. One page is given over to a translation of a passage from the essay. Schindler’s English was still a work in progress, but the language has a distinctive flavor:
Monumentality—is the expression of a lasting symbol of a power
The first power-possessor was the—tyrant
Mankind gave expression to its awe for his power thru structures, the value of which consisted in the amount of labor spent for theyr construction.
A primitiv state of cultur is satisfied to express in its monuments the overcoming of two elementary forces only: gravity & cohasion
The monumental effect grows in proportion to the expressive: “transposition of matter”
Man worships the might of the earth
Different powers claim other symbols
The creative mentallity breaks the power of the tyrant
Mankind found its ripest symbol for the mastering of physical forces “the machine”
The mathematical solution of the problems of the statics destrois theyr artistic formal expressivenes
The new monumentality of the space will disclose the spiritual freedom of man
Mankind bows facing the unlimited firmament26
In German, the final line is “Der Mensch erschauert in der Weite des Weltalls”—almost Wagnerian in its alliteration. Schindler’s first English rendition has a different ring. It conveys the idea of a house open to the sky, the inhabitant bowing before it—a more quietly blissful scene. An excursion to Yosemite National Park seemed to transform Schindler into an echt-Californian. He wrote to Neutra in October 1921: “I camp on the bank of the Tenaya—sleep on a spruce-needle bed under the open sky and bathe in the ice-cold waterfall.”27
In all, the experience of the Western landscape encouraged Schindler to think more deeply about opening the interior to nature—a concept that is not explicitly articulated in the Program. The architect’s celebrated residence on Kings Road, which was completed in 1922, gives evidence of that shift. From certain vantage points, it presents a cement façade nearly as massive as the ones sketched for T. P. Martin. Yet, as the studios open onto the interior courtyards, they afford a seamless transition from inside to outside, with walls dematerializing into sliding partitions. The structure no longer provides a feeling of total security, as in the past architecture analyzed in the Program; adobe walls are more intimated than imitated. Monumentality has been left behind. The design plainly registers the impact of the proto-modernist Irving Gill, whom Schindler got to know on moving to Los Angeles. Gill’s increasingly abstract take on Spanish revival styles also entailed a lightening of masses, as white-walled buildings dissolve into surrounding foliage and ambient light.
The distance that Schindler has traveled from his Wagnerschule/Loosschule beginnings is manifest in his vituperative reaction to Loos’s 1919 compendium, Richtlinien für ein Kunstamt, or Guidelines for a Ministry of Art, a copy of which was apparently sent to him by Neutra. Against the background of the Social Democratic advance in the early postwar era, Loos and his collaborators called for close government supervision for the arts, equitable pay for artists, and a suppression of arbitrary individual artistic invention. Schindler, in a letter to Neutra, professed disbelief that his old mentor was responsible for the document. He was aghast at what he called a bailiff’s vocabulary—dürfen, müssen, sollen, verbieten (be allowed, must, should, forbid). He was particularly incensed by a section written by Schoenberg, in which the composer demanded measures to “ensure the German nation’s superiority in the field of music, a superiority rooted in the endowment of the Volk.” For Schindler, such nationalist sloganeering demonstrated an obliviousness to the actual wishes of the public. He declared the Richtlinien “tot und modern”—“modern” here connoting rot and decay, not progress and innovation.28
A fascinating note from 1925 shows Schindler searching out another kind of third way, this time in an international context. He distances himself both from the doctrinaire modernism that was taking hold in Europe and from the mass-produced real-estate industry of Southern California: “The European and the American way of reaching the top: the first has one—only one—idea —makes it a religion and becomes its god. The other imports an idea, becomes its sales manager and fortifies his position at the source with gold.”29 Such independence of spirit would be the hallmark of Schindler’s subsequent career, which spurned the strictures of the International Style while making no concessions to the marketplace.
To an astonishing degree, Schindler remained loyal to the principles he had set forth in the Program of his early years. To walk through the most remarkable instances of Space Architecture—the Kings Road house, the Lovell Beach House, the cluster of houses above Silver Lake Reservoir, and the Kallis House, to name a few—is to feel the aptness of Alexander Koch’s summary of the then unknown architect’s ideas: “The concept of comfort is interpreted anew: it consists above all in the possibility of being able to freely control space, light, air and temperature within the enclosed area.”