RM Schindler’s Elmer House, 1952 (unbuilt), Space, part 3 of 5


NOTE: Schindler used floating planes as lights in many of his designs. Thin wood frames support translucent glass with lights above the glass. I call these “soffit lights” in this article. A soffit is the underside of a structural element.


The space is shaped by the dominating tilted roof. You are constantly aware of it. You are either under it, looking through it, or contrasting with it.(fig 1)

With the sloping front wall and the angled roof, the space in the carport is high, open and leans down the slope towards the house.(fig 2) The wall and roof structure are exposed, the structure is everyday, what is required to support the roof and nothing special. This gives the feeling that you are on the unfinished “backstage” side of the rotated box.

A ramp and stair leads from the driveway down to the terrace. (fig 3) The terrace is only 10’ to 12’ wide at this point. With the roof high overhead, the tall carport structure and the rear wall of the house, it feels very narrow and claustrophobic. (fig 4)

The space is further constricted by the fences around the laundry yard. (fig 5) The house was built before clothes dryers were common and affordable. Right next to the entry, the fence screens clothes hung in the service yard.

The roof is cut out above the garden and yard. High, narrow strips of roof cover and mark two circulation paths. One runs above the bottom of the outside entry stair, over the front door and into the entry. The second, a trellis of open, spaced beams, marks the connection from the living room over a bridge to the terrace. These strips are just wide enough to continue the sense of the roof as a large single plane.(fig 6)

The entry is a mixed space, the contrasting flat roof/ceiling is introduced here..(fig 7) Part of the entry, the connection to the living room, is under the sloped roof. Clerestory windows on the sides let in light and separate the tilted roof plane from the flat ceiling.  It covers the stair down to the playroom. Unusual for a Schindler design, this is the only space with more than one ceiling height. The roof/ceilings at different heights that slide over the walls of the Erlik and Harris houses are missing here. The narrowness of the entry directs your eye to the living room straight ahead.(fig 8 )

Space, constricted since starting down the stairs, finally opens up in the rear. (fig 9) This space is simultaneously open and sliding. The roof/ceiling forms one loft-like space that runs uninterrupted from wall to wall, over the bedroom and  living/dining areas. (fig 10) The bedroom is screened off by a ¾ height wall, just at eye height of 5’-4”. The feeling of one large space is further reinforced by the Schindler Frame roof/ceiling construction. Regularly spaced roof beams march over the living and bedroom spaces, not acknowledging, or lining up with, the ¾ height screen wall. A light soffit continues uninterrupted from

one end of the living/dining, through the screen wall, to the other end of the bedroom. (fig 11) The roof structure is more independent from the walls and spaces below than in previous Schindler Frame houses.

The angled roof/ceiling sits on the outward sloping clerestory and rear wall. They create a space that is open, but leaning out far above the slope.This tilted, out-of-balance space, perched precariously high above a steep hill, is unsettling and a little scary.  You feel like it may slide down the hill at any second.(fig 12)

The view and movement in the living room is on a diagonal to a large corner window.(fig 9) When you turn around at this corner, you see the long clerestory. (fig 13) It is at right angles to the ceiling and reads as part of the tilted box. It separates the sloped roof from the flat roof, like the entry side windows, clearly marking them as distinct elements. Looking out the clerestory you can trace your entry path back to the entry clerestory, the punched openings over the terrace, and the carport – all under the big sloping roof.

The contrasting element, the Plaster Skin building, has a different kind of space inside. The ceilings are flat, 8’ high. (fig 14) On the exterior, the Plaster Skin flat roofed volume slides under the tilted box and wraps around the  living/dining/bedroom. (fig 15) The difference between the high, sliding space of the rotated box and the static 8’ ceiling is a little jarring. The flat space of the kitchen/laundry, stair down to the lower floor, bathroom and second bath seems low and static.(fig 16)

Uniting these two spaces is the Schindler Frame construction, breaking the materials at 6’-8” high. Below that height the walls are painted plaster. Above that height is stained wood, the Schindler Frame clerestory framing that runs up to the ceiling/roof, the exposed roof beams and the 2x ceiling.(fig 17) The exposed wood above 6’-8” creates a surprisingly warm, cabin-y feeling in the Schindler Frame houses.

Connected by the stair, but not spacially connected to the upper level, the lower play room has an 8’ ceiling. As usual, Schindler saves the spacial gymnastics for the top floor.(fig 18)

The sequence of spaces goes from the open and moving carport, to the compressed terrace, then into the squeezed entry, ending in the tipped space of the living room. There is no calm, no relief from movement and tension.

Next: Form

2 thoughts on “RM Schindler’s Elmer House, 1952 (unbuilt), Space, part 3 of 5”

  1. Thanks, Steve, for another really interesting study. Looking at Fig.1 I can’t help but wonder if the structure would have needed some kind of counter-stablizing support against the downhill weight of the roof. The ‘gable’ ends of the livingroom/bedroom roof are open, so there’s nothing on the sides, and the end wall is tilting in rather than out. Thoughts?

    1. Steve:

      Good point. The sloping living room ceiling is almost completely separated from the rest of the house by glass. I can see two problems: horizontal and earthquake.

      As you point out, the roof would tend to push out the rear wall if it wasn’t tied back into the house horizontally. The horizontal top plates at either end of the sloped ceiling, at the living room and bedroom exterior side walls, connect the rear wall and roof back to the house.

      In wood, stiffening for earthquakes (which shake the building horizontally in any direction) is provided by shear walls that connect the roof to the floor and the surrounding structure. There is only one piece of wall connected to the sloping roof in the downhill direction. It is at at the northeast corner of the rear bedroom, visible in the upper middle of figure 12. In the other, cross slope direction, a piece of wall connects to the sloped roof on the high side, also visible in Fig 12, upper left corner, and the rear wall connects on the low side.

      The top plates (single 2×4’s per the Schindler Frame) are pretty thin, the one shear wall in the downhill direction is pretty small. The structural design here looks a little thin. It reminds me of the built Lechner House, where the sloping living room roof is also separated by glass on all sides but one.

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