2023-12-21

Coming Back to Buildings

The Schindler House

Once upon a time, in a small village in rural France, I walked with two architectural history professors on a narrow road. Our shoes crunched on the gravel for a while until one professor stopped to look up at a small rustic building. You see that beam there? We turned to where he was pointing. Amazing to think that’s how they did that. The other professor agreed and they started to discuss the beam in great detail.

This was the summer after I had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architectural history. The two professors were there in France to photograph Gothic churches, and I was there as an assistant. It was an unforgettable three weeks; the cathedrals we visited were some of the most incredible spaces I’ve ever entered. But as I stood there on that road looking at that beam, I knew I could never muster that kind of passion for buildings, and made a mental note to cross “Architectural historian” off my list of possible careers.

•••

Over the next decade, my interest in architecture did slowly fade. As my girlfriend and I moved all over the place, leaving New York City first for San Francisco, then Boston, then Los Angeles (where we got married and have lived since 2015), I always kept an eye out for interesting structures: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center, Saarinen’s chapel at MIT, an Eagle Rock basketball court designed by Neutra. All made an impression, though never connected in my mind.

But then, in the late summer of 2021, we went to a college friend’s pool party in the Hollywood Hills and I found myself chatting poolside with another college friend. Just a few weeks prior, I came across a piece he co-authored for The New York Times about the 25 most significant works of postwar architecture. I told him that I’d read it and really enjoyed it. He said thanks, but that he didn’t really agree with all of the choices in the article.

Oh which ones would you have included? He listed some buildings I’d never heard of, and I pretended to recognize the names as he said them. Then I said, well I do want to see that one building down in, uh, La Jolla? He asked if I meant the Salk Institute. Yeah, yeah, the Salk Institute by, uh… He offered the architect’s name, which had escaped me (Louis Kahn). I tried to save face. Kahn did a government building in India right? Did I mean Bangladesh? Oh right, right. My stomach dropped.

Even though my interest had dimmed, I did still think of myself as someone who cared about buildings, or at least as someone who knew the basics. But there at the pool party — that has to be in the top five most embarrassing moments of my life. Mortifying.

I know it’s a silly thing to be embarrassed about, and that’s what I kept telling myself in the days that followed. Who cares? It’s not that embarrassing. But it was! Who cared?? I cared!

There was only one thing to do: I had to relearn everything I had forgotten in the intervening decade. So I dusted off some books, found some documentaries, located some nearby buildings to look at. I began correcting course, which felt incredible. The built environment was coming back to life, details on buildings started to catch my eye, and, after a while, I started to wish I could remember what those two professors were talking about when they pointed at that rustic little building. Maybe I did care about buildings as much as they did?

My wife noticed that I was only talking about buildings, so for my birthday that year (2022), she very kindly scheduled tours of the Neutra House in Silver Lake and the Schindler House in West Hollywood. Though I remembered Neutra’s name from a college survey and we both had a great time touring his VDL House that morning, I have to admit (again, embarrassing!) that I did not know the name Schindler or the importance of that strange little building.

When we arrived there in the afternoon and the house started to appear from behind a bamboo grove, the importance still wasn’t quite clear. My wife and I both thought: huh. Intriguing, yes, but it didn’t bowl us over. Of course, in retrospect, our underwhelmed reaction does make some sense. When a building’s influence so thoroughly transforms the architecture of an entire region, it can be difficult to distinguish the inspired from the inspiration.

It’s important to note that, in the summer of 2022, we were also on a house hunt, our first house hunt. To start the process, our agent asked us what our budget was, then said, ok, what’s your dream house? We both knew the answer and so my wife said: a midcentury modern in South Pasadena. Our realtor smiled. Well that’s not going to happen. What was the plan then? Two choices appeared:

  • A — a house of any style near where we lived in Highland Park, or

  • B — a midcentury modern house somewhere a little further out.

For months, it seemed like option A was the only viable path forward. So we put in an offer on a tiny 1940 traditional. No luck — outbid by at least 10 other parties. How about this slightly larger 1927 Spanish style? Outbid by just one.

But then, just a week after our visit to Neutra and Schindler, option B suddenly became a reality. On a quiet street in Monrovia, a town twenty minutes east of us, a midcentury house came on the market, complete with the modernist hallmarks: a flat roof, a courtyard, a slab, a clerestory. An open plan full of light. The year was 1962.

What was wrong with it? The details were mostly gone, and many odd choices had been made over the years: a dark wood front door better suited to a craftsman revival; a picture window punched through the front; rough brown stucco blown over the whole thing. The house won’t ever be a historic landmark (I asked a firm that specialize in landmarking), but — as I’ve found from reading the permit history — it does have an architect, a fascinating history, and three modernist neighbors.

But that’s a story for a future post.

The takeaway is simpler: after living in the house for a few weeks, my interest in architecture turned completely to an interest in the story of modernism in Southern California. And not just the houses. Churches, city halls, dentists’ offices — modernism was everywhere around me, something I’d known but never really appreciated.

But Southern California’s low-slung built environment doesn’t speak loudly. Its most important buildings are houses hidden behind hedges. Hard to see from the street — that’s a reality I keep confronting when driving past some Ellwood or Koenig. You can see the Eames House marked on Google Maps, but when you drive through Pacific Palisades hoping to catch a glimpse from the road that runs above it, all you see is eucalyptus canopy.1

Many less important buildings, though — often less-loved ones — are not so hard to see. They’re often right there out in the open, situated on the thoroughfares, standing in full sun, casting long crisp shadows on the sidewalk.

And that’s a big part of what this site will be about: minor, marginal, midcentury, modernist buildings.

Why minor? The major ones all seem to have mailing lists and fundraisers, while minor ones often don’t even have a historic designation. In fact, my new home of Monrovia doesn’t have a single modernist building on its historic registry. Hopefully that’ll change at some point, though that’s not really the point here.

The point here is, again, simpler: when I see a cool building and spend a little time researching its history online and in public permits, it’d be nice to have somewhere to write that little tidbit down. Somewhere where a future searcher can find a little information. Or somewhere where you can go to find a minor modern in your part of Southern California.

Thanks for reading. •


  1. I do strongly recommend you book a tour of the Eames House, it’s incredible.