No Visible Means of Support, part 1 of 4

Using conventional means in an unconventional way

How does he do it?

Schindler’s buildings do not look like ordinary houses (Figure 1). His houses (of his plaster skin phase 1) have thin, flat roof planes that project out over walls of glass. The roofs seem to be weightless. Most architects think these buildings are built entirely out of steel, which is stronger than wood but also much more expensive. Some Schindler houses do have some steel (the McAlmon, Oliver and Buck houses, for example) but his plaster skin houses are predominantly wood 3,4. Schindler used the same wood framing system your house is built with (if you are in a wood house in the US), he just used it in his own way to create his own designs.

To explain how Schindler built the structure of his roofs, I will explain how a typical flat roof is built and then make changes to it in steps, moving towards his method. I will try to give a non-architect’s explanation and not get too detailed. There will NOT be a test at the end of this article. If you would like more details, please click on “Add comment” at the bottom of the articles. You can always add a comment as “anonymous” if you don’t want to go to the trouble of logging on.

FLAT ROOFS A flat roof is similar to a bathtub, a very large bathtub with very low sides. The sides of the flat roof bathtub are called “parapets”. The bottom of the flat roof tub slopes gently towards a drain. A flat roof can have a drain to a pipe just like a tub, or it can drain through a hole or ” scupper” in the parapet. Since these articles are focused on the roof’s structure, I will not show the drains or roof slope.

I will use a simple structure, a 20′ x 20′ one room building with a door and a flat roof. To explain some of the basics of roofs and wood construction, I will start with no roof cantilever (no projection past the wall below).  Figure 2 shows our example building, with solid walls and ceiling.

Figures 3 and 4 show the same building, but now the wall and roof are transparent. You can see the structure that supports the roof. This system is called “wood frame” construction. This kind of building is “framed” and this kind of diagram shows the “framing”.

The roof is supported by roof rafters (gold) . The rafters sit on walls that are built from a system of horizontal and vertical 2×4’s (yellow) that carry the weight to the floor. The wall framing is cut at a door (or window), so a horizontal beam or “header” (red) carries the weight of the roof above the door. For simplicity, the yellow wall framing will not be shown in the following diagrams.

Figure 5 shows our simple building with a roof cantilever on one side. This is made by extending the rafters past the wall below. This doesn’t look like a Schindler cantilever though (see Figure 1). The wall and header over the door block the flow of the ceiling.

Figure 6 shows a slight improvement, by raising the header up to the bottom of the rafters. The door opening is taller and the interruption to the ceiling/roof is less, but it still isn’t right.

Next article: the Schindler cantilever 

1  Schindler described his 1930 and early 1940’s buildings as Plaster Skin Design 2.

2 From Judith Shiene’s excellent book “R.M. Schindler”.

3  In researching these articles, I have relied heavily on The Architectural Drawings of R.M. Schindler: the architectural drawing collection, University Art Museum, University of California at Santa Barbara, David Gebhard editor, 1993, volumes 1-3. These volumes reproduce, along with design sketches and renderings, the existing construction drawings for Schindler’s buildings. Schindler’s construction drawings were not always detailed, complete or entirely consistent. There are few framing details, for example. Also, the reproductions in the Drawings volumes are often dark and fuzzy, requiring interpretation.

4 Special thanks to Alexander J. Hauschild, Digital Project Archivist and the Architecture and Design Collection, University Art Museum, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA for generously giving me access to a high resolution image of the floor/framing plans for the McAlmon House and Apartment 5. This information allowed me to be much more accurate and cleared up many questions.

5 What I referred to in previous articles as the McAlmon “guest house” is titled “apartment” in the construction drawings, so think I should use the correct name.

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