Homes: Schindler House
The L.A. designer Pamela Shamshiri recently brought her own historic R. M. Schindler house back to its original glory.
The architect, the most bohemian of Frank Lloyd Wright’s acolytes, known for his cresting wave of dark hair and poet’s white middy blouse, built the place for a client named Richard Lechner and his wife in 1947. The house — at 3,500 square feet one of Schindler’s largest — hugs the land’s contours like a giant V, the angle nestled into rock. With long treetop views through walls of glass, seemingly endless sources of natural light from clerestory windows and a warm, human scale emphasized by humble plywood interiors, it is a classic example of the architect’s postwar “space” oeuvre, an Expressionist cliff dwelling for the modern era.
Pamela Shamshiri knew the house would complicate her life, almost unbearably, when the realtor first took her there in 2008. She was raising two children and was buried in projects for Commune, the design firm behind the Ace Hotels in Palm Springs and L.A., as well as boutiques for Irene Neuwirth and Opening Ceremony. As a result of her work with that in-demand collective (co-founded by Shamshiri and her brother, Ramin, along with Roman Alonso and Steven Johanknecht), she was well positioned to understand the challenges inherent in bringing the house back to its original glory.
Lechner eventually lost the place in a divorce in the ’50s, and eight owners later, it had gone from majestic to mundane, a fate common to many works by Schindler, as well as his two great Los Angeles-based midcentury peers — fellow Viennese émigré Richard Neutra and John Lautner. The walls and the bold, angular, stainless-steel fireplace were covered in Sheetrock (the brick columns that flanked the hearth had been sheathed in black granite), and Schindler’s purposefully plain, hardware-free windows had been replaced with big-box-store-grade metal ones. The architect’s understated mirror-top bar and built-in pullout table were gone from the great room, and there were incongruously cheery mosaic tiles in the kitchen. Some of the outdoor spaces on the two levels had been enclosed — not necessarily a bad idea, but the work had been done shabbily. “It was heartbreaking,” Shamshiri says. “The spirit was gone.”
And yet, it haunted her. At the time, Shamshiri and her then-husband were living in another significant structure, a radically deconstructed ’80s Frank Gehry in Venice Beach. But the idea of “saving something that was really worth it, that you know means something to history,” was too tempting to resist.
Eight years later, the house is not merely a Schindler brought back from the near-dead, but a reflection of Shamshiri’s own unique aesthetic, streamlined late-20th-century California cool studded with primitive, organic touches and high-low wit, showcased now in her work with Studio Shamshiri, co-founded with Ramin this year. The renovation also represents an ongoing dialectic with Schindler, whose unconventionality and purity of vision are inescapable in Southern California, not only in his houses for clients, but in the Kings Road house. Now a museum in West Hollywood, it was originally built in 1922 as a studio-cum-commune for himself, his wife, Pauline, and another couple. (Neutra and his wife lived there with the Schindlers for a time, until they had a falling out.)
For Shamshiri, the key to turning the Lechner house into a contemporary residence was to avoid slavish devotion to Schindler’s original design, while reconstructing his most brilliant touches. She had a few things going for her. Schindler had acted as contractor as well as architect, and all of the plans and details, along with black-and-white photographs, were meticulously archived at the University of California Santa Barbara. Once the Sheetrock was removed, Shamshiri found the original plywood, with Schindler’s own numbers scrawled in pencil in the corners. She replaced the metal windows that so violated the home’s ethos; many of them now push out simply, with minimal hardware, as the architect intended.
From there, Shamshiri strove to improve on the original. To make the flow more organic, and because food culture is now such a part of California living, she broke through the far end of the galley kitchen to connect it to the den behind, adding a Paul McCobb wine rack that looks as though it has always been there. The changes aren’t major, but they’re symbolically significant, proving that the work of great Modernist architects can be made contemporary without diluting their éclat.
Having come from a close, globe-trotting clan — her Iranian father and Roman mother split their time between Iran and Italy — Shamshiri regards family life as a cacophonous work in progress; she had no intention of living in a museum. “I would often say to myself, What would Schindler do if he were alive?” she says. “He updated houses all the time. He didn’t think it was set in stone.”