Below the Bamboo

R. M. Schindler’s Kings Road House isn’t just an architectural masterpiece. The West Hollywood home that the Austrian-born architect built in 1922—as both a calling card for himself and an experiment in communal living—is also magnificently self-contained. The house’s revolutionary layout, exposing its interiors to the outdoors, features an external concrete shell to close it off from its surroundings—a template, arguably, for the California ranch house that would make Schindler’s little building one of the most influential architectural prototypes in modern history.

Given the Schindler House’s aloofness from its neighbors, it is somewhat ironic that the MAK Center for Art and Architecture—a satellite of MAK Vienna, the Austrian foundation that has occupied the house and bankrolled its restoration since 1994—has sponsored a competition labeled “A Tribute to Preserving Schindler’s Paradise” in response to a local developer’s plans for the lot next door. In February 2003 the MAK publicly warned that the neighboring project, dubbed Kings Road Gardens, would “literally dwarf” the residence, creating—alongside an existing condo to the north—“a canyon effect” and “seriously disturbing the already fragile balance between the house and its context.”

The MAK simultaneously announced that it had issued an invitation to some 20 well- and not-so-well-known international architects asking them to submit proposals for the adjoining property in a charrette of sorts (since the MAK itself had no control over the adjacent property) that would be juried by a blue-chip panel that included Frank O. Gehry. The competition, the MAK proclaimed, would proffer “alternative visions designed to preserve the integrity of the landmark home.”

All of this came as news to Richard Loring, Kings Road Gardens’ developer. An architectural graduate with a track record for building fine residential designs, Loring had already hired architect Lorcan O’Herlihy, a respected local practitioner with a string of sensitive Modernist residences and commercial properties to his credit. Loring describes O’Herlihy’s design as a concerted effort to defer to Schindler’s exquisitely scaled structure. The sleekly minimalist scheme visibly reduces the impact of the 18-unit development. Voluntarily stopping at three stories (zoning allows for four), the restrained layout consumes a mere 60 percent of the allowable building envelope, rising, in Loring’s words, just “below the bamboo,” a 20- to 30-foot planting that flanks the south side of the Schindler House’s property line.

Loring further maintains that he has discussed the project with MAK’s local office since he first contracted to purchase the neighboring property in August 2002. More provocatively, he claims that public statements made by Peter Noever, MAK Vienna’s hard-charging director, have placed the MAK’s Los Angeles staff in the uncomfortable position of having to appear to disapprove of what is, to all appearances, a carefully considered approach to the site. “They were not only blindsided [by Noever],” Loring insists. “They were forced to take a position they didn’t believe in.”

For his part, Noever is unrepentant. “The site is a part of the architecture,” he says. “We are losing this kind of relationship because architects more and more are doing objects that they call architecture, but they make the same project in Beijing and Los Angeles.” True enough, but his remarks are more a reflection on the competition entries—including winners Odile Decq + Benoît Cornette, Peter Eisenman, and Zaha Hadid—than on O’Herlihy’s modest proposal. Also-rans Coop Himmelb(lau), for example, proposed raising the Schindler House on a platform above the roofline of neighboring buildings, and Hadid’s scheme includes a 21-story tower.

In any event, it appears that the MAK has picked an inconvenient whipping boy in Kings Road Gardens’ neighborly design. Loring’s project looks assured of planning approval early next year, with construction permits due by fall 2004.

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