RM Schindler’s Oliver House and its Site, part 2 of 5

Taking advantage of the site-for drama

Architect language alert: Architects call the location or lot where a house is placed the “site”. A house is “sited” and we talk about where and how the house is placed on the site as its “siting”.

Like the fronts of so many of Schindler’s houses, the Oliver House is very dramatic (Figure 1). Much of that drama is created from the way the house is placed on its sloping lot.

The site of the Oliver House presents some challenges. The steep slope at the front starts right at the curb. The level part of the site is 20′ above the street. The simple solution might be to place the house on the level part, set back from the top of the slope. This would make the house easier to build-its always easier and cheaper to build on level rather than sloping ground. This solution, however, would hide the house from the street, behind the top of the slope and the garage (Figure 2).

Schindler took a different approach, he placed the house at the front, on the slope. This frees up the flat part for a large back yard. It also does something else, the house is now very visible from the street.

The house is raised up so the main living spaces are at the same level as the back yard. This makes functional sense and was a key feature of Schindler’s houses-the interior spaces are at the same level as the outdoor spaces 1. The space and the living flow from inside to outside. This also means the house is high above the street. When viewed from the street below, the perspective is forced and the edges become dynamic diagonals. Figure 3 shows how the house would look if we were above the street by 15′, as if it sat on a flat site. Note how the edges look flatter and less dynamic

The house is angled 45 degrees from street. Schindler explained that he did this to take advantage of angled views from the site. This angle does something else too. By turning the house, you see it more as a three dimensional form and less as a flat plane. Figure 4 shows what the house would look like 15′ above the street and not angled. The front corner would not be emphasized without the rotation.

Rotating the house also creates triangles of space on each side of the front corner. They give room for tree tops to create a frame around the corner (Figure 5). This frame emphasizes the way the corner projects out. It also creates a break between the conventional homes on either side and this dramatically different house. 2

Moving the house forward, raising it up and angling it work together to create the dramatic front image of the Oliver House (Figure 1). When they are removed, as shown in these figures, the house is much less dramatic.

Even when we remove all the site effects, its still a pretty interesting house-there is a lot going on in the form of the house. I will try to unravel that form a little bit in my next article.

1 Front corner viewed from street level
2 Front if house was moved back, off of slope
3 Front corner viewed from 15′ above street level
4 Front corner viewed straight on (not rotated 45 degrees) and 15′ above street
5 Plan showing trees framing front corner

 1 This was part of Schindler’s theory of  space architecture, as set out in his 1947 article “The Schindler Frame”.
Point 1. Large openings in walls
Point 6. Interior floor close to exterior ground
Together these created a flow of interior and exterior that we now take for granted. 
2 Avante garde houses often look a little strange when surrounded by typical houses, they look like they were beamed in from another planet. The trees create a space around the Oliver House that lessens this effect.

2 thoughts on “RM Schindler’s Oliver House and its Site, part 2 of 5”

  1. I am a second-year architecture student at the USC School of Architecture. This article was a tremendous help for a research project that I am doing on the Oliver House, and actually one of the most useful I’ve found thus far.

    Thanks again.
    I’ll let you know how it goes.
    Ian Nally

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