RM Schindler’s How House, 1925, part 2 of 4, a change in orientation

But first, a discovery

Thanks to Jocelyn Gibbs and the Architecture & Design Collection at the University of California at Santa Barbara for permission to use Schindler’s original design plan for the How House 1, and confirming the direction of the north arrow on that plan.

Where’s the Sun?

The relationship of a building to the sun is fundamental. The orientation of the walls, windows and spaces to the sun affects the play of light and shadow throughout the day. In architectural drawings all this is summarized by the north arrow. The sun’s movement (in the northern hemisphere) is symmetrical around the south, the sun’s axis. It’s path in the morning is mirrored on that axis in the afternoon. If you know the building’s location and how it sits in relation to north, you can predict the sun’s position throughout the day and the seasons – where the sun rises, where it sets,and the variations of light on, and in, the building.

One of the first things I do when I start a model is make sure that it is oriented correctly, that north in the model points the same way as north on the site. This is usually straightforward, but not for the How House.

I used Schindler’s design plans for the How to set north. (figure 1) But the shadows I was getting didn’t look right – they were different than I remembered from my visit. To be sure I had the proper orientation in the model, I looked again at Schindler’s design plans and project description. In his description he wrote “the Los Angeles River Valley to the south and Silver Lake towards the north..”. 2 That matched the plans, which showed the Valley to the south and Silver Lake to the north. But the Valley wasn’t north in my visit, it was east! I  looked at the house on web mapping sites. On them, the Valley is to the east, Silver Lake to the west. Schindler’s design plans and project description don’t match the house as it was built.

I then looked at the Architecture & Design Collection’s scans of Schindler’s How House drawings.  The How survey doesn’t have a north arrow at all. The design drawings show the Valley to the south. But by the time the construction drawings were prepared, the mistake had been corrected. The Valley is to the east, Silver Lake is to the west. Their orientation matches the house as built.

What happened? My conclusion is that Schindler designed the house using the wrong orientation. He was off by about 90 degrees, what he thought was north is actually west, what he thought was south is east. He discovered the mistake after the building was designed, but before the construction drawings were finished.

When designed, the sun rose facing the entry wing, shone on the terrace at mid-day and set facing the kitchen. But as built, the sun rises facing the terrace, shines on the kitchen wing at mid-day and sets facing the living room corner.  When the sun’s path was corrected, the light falling on the building was completely changed.

Schindler is justifiably famous for his sensitivity to a building’s site and the play of light.  It is significant, and puzzling, that when the sun’s path was corrected the design wasn’t changed to respond to the completely different light. I don’t know why.

What difference does this make? A lot, actually. One of the famous features of the How House is it’s symmetry.The house appears to be mirrored side-to-side, with the plane of symmetry (the mirror) running diagonally from the living room through the terrace. (figure 2) Why the symmetry, and why is the “mirror” set in this particular direction? I can think of two reasons. One reason is that the views are in opposite directions, in line with the plane of symmetry.

A second reason for the symmetry was the sun. Its position and light are symmetrical when you face south. As originally designed, the light on one side of the house in the morning would have been the same as the light on the other side in the afternoon. (figure 3) But this changed when the sun’s path was corrected. One of the justifications for the symmetry was lost.

When I visited the How, the light puzzled me. In the afternoon, the sun light coming in from the living room corner at the front yard was very bright (figure 4), the terrace was shaded (figure 5). The house seemed to be designed backwards. The bright living room corner has no roof overhang, but the shady terrace has a deep roof over it. When I found the changed orientation, I understood why. The living room corner was designed to face the soft north light, but was built facing the bright and hot west. The shaded terrace was designed to face the sunny south, but was built facing the mostly shadowed east. (figure 6) When the sun’s path was corrected the play of light was affected.

Finding this a little hard to follow? Which way is north and where’s that plane of symmetry? Perhaps this gives you some insight into how easy it can be to lose track of the orientation, particularly when your survey doesn’t have a north arrow.

None the less, it is a beautiful building.

Next: Some of the things I noticed

Footnotes

1 David Gebhard editor The Architectural Drawings of RM Schindler, (The Architectural Drawing Collection, University Art Museum, University of California at Santa Barbara, 1993) vol. 2, 204-213

2 James Steele, How House, (London: Academy Editions, 1996) pg 28

2 thoughts on “RM Schindler’s How House, 1925, part 2 of 4, a change in orientation”

  1. I believe it’s possible that Schindler convinced himself that his high degree of sensitivity to orientation was beyond the reasonable standard of care and allowed the house to be built regardless of orientation. In a busy office with a steady stream of commissions it is plausible anyway that Schindler let it go. Presumably and even today the client probably figured into it if disinterested or clueless as one might say. I wonder how many of these types of compromises were or are made with every commission.

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