Learning from Los Angeles

Michael Ned Holte

One can most properly begin by learning the local language; and the language of design, architecture, and urbanism in Los Angeles is the language of movement.
Reyner Banham11Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (London: Penguin, 1971), 23.

In 1920, Rudolph Michael Schindler arrived in Los Angeles to supervise the design and construction of a house for Aline Barnsdall under the distant direction of its master architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who already had his hands full with the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Schindler was an ambitious young immigrant from Vienna, and he worked in Wright’s office in the Oak Park suburb of Chicago and at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, before venturing farther west.

While working on Barnsdall’s Hollyhock House, Schindler purchased a plot of land on Kings Road, in what was then called Sherman and is now West Hollywood. The property was just south of Irving Gill’s Dodge House, itself a prophecy of a new architectural language, one that was emphatically Californian. Undoubtedly, Schindler chose his own site with a good measure of calculation: the massive Dodge House, built in 1916, had already brought civility—and modernity—to the neighborhood, and provided a new approach to living befitting its geographic and cultural context. Gill was an advocate for the structural possibilities of concrete, and the Schindler House would further explore the frontier of tilt-slab concrete construction.

Schindler was attracted to naturalist pursuits in the expansive landscapes of California, Yosemite in particular, and later described the house on Kings Road as a conflation of a cave and a tent, the former suggested by the concrete walls punctuated with long vertical slits of glass, the latter by the sliding canvas door panels. Beautiful as the Schindler House is inside, its low ceilings quickly condition inhabitants to venture outdoors, from the relative darkness of the interior to the relentless brilliance of the Los Angeles sun—to the house’s open but starkly articulated gardens, and to the sleeping baskets on the roof. the house is undeniably significant for its formal inventiveness—an early and extraordinary demonstration of Schindler’s philosophy of space architecture, a treatise he would develop in practice over the remainder of his life.

The West transformed Schindler, just as Schindler’s architecture transforms a person—changes their relationship to space, changes how they think about it and how they occupy it. If the Schindler House existed on a frontier of architectonic experimentation in the 1920s, it was also situated at a significant social frontier of radical lifestyle choices, avant-garde culture, and collectivist politics. The house was designed for two couples—Schindler and his wife, Pauline, along with engineer Clyde Chace and his wife, Marian—and beyond this radical arrangement, the four contiguous studios of the Schindler House obliterated clear boundaries between the categorical imperatives of “life” and “work.” The Chaces eventually moved out, and Richard Neutra and his wife, Dion, moved in. Schindler and Neutra, both Viennese immigrants—called “the Exiles” by Reyner Banham in his influential book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971)—would largely define modern architecture in Southern California, though the two quickly went from housemates to rivals, fighting over clients and projects and parting ways. By the end of the 1920s, Rudolph and Pauline split up, too, though they continued to coexist at Kings Road, off and on, in relative harmony.

Many of Schindler’s structures, including Kings Road and the How House, are essays on symmetry, on coupling, on one thing becoming two or two becoming one—essays that also frequently take up the idea of a symmetry as a dialectical consideration. Kings Road was designed for two couples, with each couple occupying two “studios,” each roughly equal in size and quality yet never alike. The How House, designed for James Eads How in 1925, provides another case study of symmetry and its opposite. Located on a hillside in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, the How House follows a wide, nearly symmetrical L-shaped plan and locates its axis on the diagonal of this right angle. The butterfly-like symmetry of the floor plan is perhaps not immediately apparent to a visitor; rather, it reveals itself gradually and with remarkable complexity. Throughout the house, right angles interlock, which is most clearly evident in the zigzagging redwood ceiling beams that reiterate the diagonal axis, extending outside to cover the terrace.

Schindler emphasizes the sheer relentlessness of the perpendicular scheme at the corners of the L, with glazed boxlike windows that pop into the house or outward to the terrace, reflecting themselves and the wooden structure that frames them, as well as the surrounding greenery, in a deliriously disorienting demonstration of space architecture.

“He designs and builds in terms of space forms rather than mass forms,” observed architecture critic Esther McCoy. “His houses are wrapped around space. You can quickly see in his space forms how he has created a new definition for space; a Schindler house is in movement; it is in becoming. Form emerges from form. It is like a bird that has just touched earth, its wings still spread but at once part of the earth.”22Esther McCoy, “Schindler, Space Architect” (1945), in Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader, ed. Susan Morgan (Los Angeles: East of Borneo, 2012), 73. McCoy, a sympathetic interlocutor who once worked as a draftswoman at Kings Road, could be describing the becoming of the How House, with its floor plan splayed out as if ready to take flight—but she is also describing the becoming of every design by this architect. “The vast spaces of the American West, so little known to its immigrants even now, have always invited travelers to lose their past like so much old luggage and reinvent themselves,” notes Rebecca Solnit in a Field Guide to Getting Lost.33Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (London: Penguin, 2005), 49. For those who have arrived from elsewhere—say, Vienna or Wisconsin—the American West practically demands transformation, whether practical, aesthetic, or spiritual. In short, it incites an embrace of the new.

Sandra Peters arrived in the American West from Berlin in 1999, for the first of several extended stays. Whether the West transformed her is not for me to say, but undoubtedly lessons learned in the West have stayed with her and frequently formed the foundation of her subsequent work. During her first year in California, she encountered the desert and the architecture of Schindler, both of which have continued to inform her work, often in startling contradistinction to the location of a given exhibition site. She is an artist whose primary language is architecture.

She began her investigation with a photographic study of Schindler’s Kings Road House, which resulted in a two-channel slide show titled Flux Balance / Rotating Wings (2010), in which one image appears before the other; then they overlap in a brief but unrushed superimposition. Similar slide shows of other early, iconic Schindler houses followed: Within : Without (2011), featuring photographs of the How House, and Ahoy (2013), with images of the Lovell Beach House in Newport Beach. These three works are not simply documents of Schindler’s space architecture but extensions of its logic. The intersection or overlap of paired images articulates the architecture’s spatial complexity, even while flattened on a two-dimensional plane. The whirring engines of the mechanical projectors, and the insistent clicks between images, emphasize their contemplative rhythm.

In 2011, Peters was invited to create a work of art specifically for the Y8 yoga studio in Hamburg, fittingly titled Bilateral—Diagonal. The walls, ceiling, and floor of the studio are white, with an 8 x 8 grid marked out on the floor in black tape, emphasizing the orthogonal order of the space. Peters responded to the site by overlaying another grid in red tape, this one derived from the interlocking 9 x 9 grid she discovered on the ceiling of the How House, emphasizing the zigzag movement of Schindler’s structure. (She replaced the black tape of the existing grid with gray to subtly diminish the grid’s presence.) Neither order is negated, but in tandem these grids develop a new complexity. Furthermore, a small wooden version of the 9 x 9 grid, painted white, was appended to the wall like an emblem. as an object of study, the How grid reveals its asymmetrical logic: the square is formed by the intersection of two similar but unequal ziggurats, with two 1 x 1 squares abutting in the upper right corner. (The proportional relationship of the abutting units forming the zigzag—which Peters calls “struts”—are 8:7, 7:6, 6:5, 5:4, 4:3, 3:2, 2:1, and 1:0.) The pattern is one that perpetually seeks balance and symmetry, but remains slightly out of step. Its potential for disorientation is humorous, given that a yoga studio is a space where concepts of balance and centering are practiced in a group dynamic.

Schindler’s How House has proved to be a subject of continued “grappling,” as Peters puts it, and this pattern has informed numerous other works. Bilateral—Diagonal was followed by Interface No. 1 (2012), a work that deploys the How pattern on the six sides of a cube, further displacing the pattern from its architectural source and transferring it to an autonomous work of sculpture— one that could, in theory, be placed anywhere. Painted white and measuring 140 cm on each side, the cube inevitably recalls the boxes of Minimalism and, in particular, the work of Sol LeWitt. In 1973–74, LeWitt developed his Incomplete Open Cubes, a systematic and exhaustive demonstration of a cube in its becoming—or, really, its undoing. Starting with the idea of a cube as a three-dimensional frame comprising twelve equal lines, all meeting at right angles, LeWitt considered every variation of an incomplete cube comprising no more than eleven lines and no fewer than three (at the bare minimum activating the x-, y-, and z-axes), resulting in a complete set of 122 incompletions. This manifested in drawings, photography, and sculptures—a potentially endless body of work following a relatively simple premise. That is, after all, LeWitt’s paradigmatic definition of Conceptual art: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”44Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967): 79–83.

While Peters’s work and its systematic development resemble LeWitt’s—explicitly, with her own series of variations on the How cube—they also bring his “machine” into dialogue with Schindler and his idiosyncratic use of modularity. LeWitt’s understanding of Conceptual art emphasized a work’s ideation: he was, like many other artists who emerged in the 1960s, rejecting the subjective expression of abstract painting by a previous generation. His interest in Conceptual art was aimed at getting the engine started; remarkably, he has little to say about what the work does (for him or for us) once the machine finishes its “perfunctory” task.

Peters, like Schindler before her, is invested in the viewer’s relationship to her work in space, to its complexity and its movement, to its constant reorientation: “In my art, I have always positioned things in parallel in the awareness that they do not per se form parallels: natural and artistic forms, architectural and sculptural elements, sculptural and musical structures. This parallel configuration highlights the boundaries that normally exist in our thought here; in my work, things are positioned parallel to one another that belong to different categories, so that the parallel configuration takes the form of a transgression of boundaries, and this makes it possible to bring things and thought into flux, opens up new alignments and currents.”55Sandra Peters, “Interfaces and Interstices” (Artist’s talk, New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York, February 4, 2014).

There are eleven ways to unfold a cube. Peters’s ongoing project Zabriskie Point (started in 2013, unrealized), takes the two-dimensional unfolded cube as its basic unit, along with a title borrowed from a film by Michelangelo Antonioni. Each unfolded cube is paired with another (with at least two sides of each individual shape touching the other), resulting in 132 combinations. The coupling is based on a scene in Antonioni’s film, set in the desert beyond Los Angeles, where a slope is littered with the entwined bodies of young lovers in various states of undress. A single framed black-and-white still accompanies the sculptures situated on the ground. The image is appropriately hallucinatory, following the countercultural setting of the film: the field of entwined lovers is a sign of individual subjectivity—ego—disintegrating into collective revelry, if not a unified consciousness.

Filmed in the last two years of the 1960s and released in 1970, Antonioni’s film was a commercial failure—unable to attract or capitalize on the American youth movement its narrative is built around. The couple at the center of the film, Mark (Mark Frechette) and Daria (Daria Halprin), intersect in Death Valley. We follow their parallel trajectories leading to and from their merger at Zabriskie Point, where they make love, but the union is fleeting. In the end, Mark is shot to death in the Cessna airplane he stole earlier in the film; Daria arrives at the modernist desert compound of her slick real estate executive boss, who is also (we are led to presume) her lover. Daria wanders through the house, then suddenly departs. She stares at the house from a distance and imagines it exploding—Antonioni’s gloriously indulgent cinematic finale, with a series of slow-motion images and the psychedelic accompaniment of Pink Floyd.

Antonioni’s film is an allegory of order and disorder in which the former is achieved only momentarily and tends to give way to the latter. Here, and perhaps unexpectedly, the city represents disorder: clotted with capitalist advertising and traffic, seemingly at the brink of chaos with political protest and social unrest. The desert, then, symbolizes order, with its vast open space and relative calm. It’s a space of natural freedom, unfettered by the compromises of a social contract, which is also to say it is an idealized space—and Antonioni is hardly alone in idealizing the desert of the American West. The film’s subject is the counterculture, personified by a young man and young woman whose brief merger represents the smallest possible unit of social organization: two. While it’s likely Peters was moved by her visits to the desert of the American West, as was Antonioni, her interest in the film seems to focus almost entirely on the pair-unit of coupling—on the sheer force of bringing two things together.

There is also the matter of the modernist house, blown to particles: it’s Daria’s fantasy, but it’s also a real explosion performed for the multiple cameras Antonioni arranged for the occasion. We watch as a refrigerator and all its contents drift across the frame in sleepy slow motion, and as the assumed order of architecture gives way to entropy. The promise of modernist architecture—a lineage that connects directly to Schindler and a distinctly Californian architecture—had, by the late 1960s, become a caricature, now signaling patriarchal authority, capital accumulation, and social control: in other words, oppressive architecture to be dismantled, blown up. (The most evil movie villains tend to live in the most modern houses, not just in Zabriskie Point.)

For Schindler, who arrived in California and embraced its wilderness, architecture could and did embrace disorder—or at least instability, flux—and he consistently reinserted its possibility into the very structure of his designs. This is space architecture, this is the local language: an architecture of movement, becoming. It’s a language Sandra Peters learned in Los Angeles.


  • 1Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (London: Penguin, 1971), 23.
  • 2Esther McCoy, “Schindler, Space Architect” (1945), in Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader, ed. Susan Morgan (Los Angeles: East of Borneo, 2012), 73.
  • 3Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (London: Penguin, 2005), 49.
  • 4Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967): 79–83.
  • 5Sandra Peters, “Interfaces and Interstices” (Artist’s talk, New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York, February 4, 2014).

PER/TRANS: Performing the Cube, Transforming the Cube. Works by Sandra Peters, 1998–2017

Vienna: VfmK Verlag für moderne Kunst


pp. 92–97