MICHAEL ROTONDI / 26 FEBRUARY 2001
REVISED 28 FEBRUARY 2001 / 5 MARCH 2001
R.M. Schindler's American mentor F.L. Wright often said "when designing a building on a hillside, it should complete the line of the hill or be placed below the crest". Schindler remembered this throughout his life. The houses and apartments he designed in the foothills surrounding Hollywood were always carefully oriented for light and view and were set into the natural topography of their site, grounding them. The relationship of building and land appeared to be inevitably correct. I have always thought that the point being made by Wright and interpreted by Schindler was about this formal relationship. While living in one of Schindler's designs, I realized that Schindler's interpretation of this principle had to do primarily with the spatial relationship between the human body, moving and at rest, to other things in space. Where the buildings were placed and how spaces were configured, were carefully considered.
The body's sensuous engagement with its surroundings began within the room, unfolded beyond it continually extending the dimension and scale of the space the body occupied to the extent that the mind was engaged. It was a magical experience. It was an architectural sleight of hand.
Between 1990 and 1992, I lived in the Sach's Apartments, situated on a west-facing hillside in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles. The 10-unit complex was terraced on the hill with the building mass moving along the edges of its square site. The center was open and was filled with a terraced garden bisected by a staircase going from street to street connecting the large landings that served as front porches to the units. It was an American version of a Mediterranean hill town where private buildings form public spaces. These porches were the shared communal spaces where the residents spent time together.
The units were cleverly situated so from within they could be quite open with visual privacy from other units. We saw only treetops or the city below. I did not ever enter into anyone else's private space. I lived alone during a time of personal transition. Change and uncertainty are normally a part of the creative process at work. As conceptual propositions, they had become a real part of my life. I needed a place to retreat to, and this was it. In a way, it was my hermitage.
While living here I discovered what it meant to be in solitude, yet living within a community. At the time I found great comfort and peace of mind living this way.
I looked forward to spending time alone there. It was a place where experiences of the moment triggered my memory of events from long ago. How was this possible?Perhaps this quiet space silenced my mind enough to allow the deep cellular memory within me to unfold.
My first experience of this was probably during the first 3 months of my life, which I spent in an incubator. I was born prematurely. My transparent shelter made me an observer and participant in my new world. This awareness informed 2 monastery projects we worked on a few years later.
The apartment was a small 5 room flat of 600 S.F. Simply detailed, beautifully proportioned and filled with balanced light.
The two main rooms of equal size and rectangular in shape were adjacent to each other. Their end wall faced to the west and were entirely glass. The refracted orange sunlight at dusk filled both rooms almost everyday. The hillside position provided a long view over the city below to the horizon. Whenever I was deep in the space, I felt like I was in a cave nesting and when I was at the front edge of the glass wall, I was flying, in the middle zone, in between. Both places and sensations was where I would work, recording thoughts and images. The zone in- between is what the Lakota Sioux call the Horizon:
The line of creation is in between
one place and another
one thing and another
one event and another
where there is stillness and silence
where new life emerges
this is the zone where you cry for a vision
I spent many hours sitting at a low table reading, writing, and drawing. All of this work was preceded by sitting in silence doing and thinking nothing, just being in the space, and catching the light. There were times that the floor, walls and ceiling planes felt like a third skin, protecting me by metabolizing the streaming information moving into and out of my body.
Who we are, how we see the world and what we know are interdependent.
J. Krishnamurti described the process, as the observer is the observed. Physicists called this the uncertainty principle. As children, we are filled with wonder about all of life's mysteries and are enchanted by seeing aspects of the world around us for the first time.
Our innocence is our greatest asset because it keeps us open to a way of seeing, the almost infinite possibilities in every moment, with limited prior experience or knowledge to mediate or even pre-edit new experiences we can get closer seeing things as they truly are. We know what things are before we know what they truly mean. Whether we are moving or pausing, we are learning about the physical world and in turn ourselves. When we learn to walk, we experience balance and learn about gravity. When we see, we experience color and form and learn about light. Everything our body senses is stored in deep cellular memory. This becomes our own natural intelligence, which we eventually define as intuition.
The body language of Schindler's architecture was most likely that of Schindler himself. Who he was and what he made were one and the same.
I believe that while in his spaces, one's intuitive sense is heightened to the extent his was operating when he was designing the space.
The sensuous experience precedes the definition and meaning of the experiences. The body apprehends the world and the mind deciphers it. This understanding of the body-mind sequencing was something Schindler knew intuitively; after all he was Viennese.
Schindler was drawn to Los Angeles. Specifically to work with Frank Lloyd Wright, but I believe his real purpose was to find his creative freedom and in turn, invent a life. He wanted to be free of all of the conventions of the longstanding traditions of Central Europe. As my father told us, Los Angeles was America; an open and progressive place with no traditional limitations. This was so, because the European umbilical never made it over the Rocky Mountains. History was internalized like DNA. It would be a less than visible structure that would guide the quest for unconditional freedom.
This was evident to me in Schindler's work more than others. Schindler was a student of early modernism, which had established a clear and unyielding architectural program that defined architecture as formal art, with humanist under pinnings. This meant that the aesthetic explorations moved into the realms of abstraction with a high degree of focus on new concepts of space, order, form, structure and construction technique. It was a new age, which required new ways of living. Order had to do with the new interpretation of geometry as well as human interaction. Los Angeles attracted those with the personality of a free spirit. It was a place to explore new types of social relationships.
After he completed his academic training and professional internships in Vienna, he was filled with ideas, skill and extreme optimism about the promise of architecture. There were strong feelings about coming to America. Believing that architecture gives form to life, meant in turn, that he could invent an architecture that emerged from within the aesthetic ecosystem that included the place, the people and the culture. Albert Frey, another great mid-century architect, who practiced in the desert communities surrounding Palm Springs, came to America for its warmth, (literally and figuratively), open mindedness, and technological capabilities. In Western Europe at that time technological ingenuity applied to architecture was a central concept but the machine for living in was still constructed of concrete, bricks and plaster. America was the country where McGraw-Hill published the single book Sweets catalogue of building systems, that were predicated on building assembly emulating automobile assembly. Schindler's own house is a brilliant example of technology in the service of living on a specific site with unique qualities.
Universal principles were applied to unique situations. This was the way in America. We existed somewhere between the idiosyncratic behavior of anarchists and the standardized habits of communitarians. In Los Angeles, this was not a conflict; it was the hybrid outcome of a complex ecosystem with a benign climate. Schindler flourished in this place.
He built a lot. Mainly houses that were a testing ground for architecture. Each building recognized and accepted what was in orbit of the project. He was inclusive. They were not pre-determined by a signature style. The site and building organization's spatial relationships and the construction methods and materials all worked together usually with such success that the overall solution seemed inevitable yet still novel.
The ideas and experiences of architecture were merged. Historically, these two modes of knowing were separated into discreet realms. It seems that an objective of his was to search for a way through architecture to bridge the divide, to find a way to experience ideas. In reflection, I have learned that to merge idea and experience requires a reciprocal enhancement of both natural phenomena and an observing mind.
His motivation to search for ways to realize his insights and his skill as an architect produced works of profound beauty, where experiential phenomena became transparent to an ideal. Sitting in the spaces for a long time helped me learn that under certain conditions and through a disciplined practice, anyone can have their own epiphany into nature's ways, revealing some of life's mysteries. Through all of this, I now understand that doing architecture is a process of exploration and discovery, which ultimately serves as a medium of teaching and learning. R.M. Schindler must have known this. His completed works are a testament to the full promise that architecture holds.