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I have long had a theory that the truest test of an architect’s talent can be found in the smallest of his commissions, rather than the largest. Where budgetary and spatial constraints present themselves as challenges, the architect is asked to distill his or her ideas into their purest forms. There are few better examples of this than R.M. Schindler’s Presburger Residence (1945-7), site of a recent SAH/SCC event.

Schindler’s brilliance at design and engineering has long been recognized in his numerous works on “unbuildable” hillside lots in and around Los Angeles. The Presburgers, however, presented their architect with a conventional unconventional challenge: build on a small, flat infill lot in the San Fernando Valley. Schindler balked and tried to convince the family to purchase a hillside lot instead. The Presburgers stood firm. And Schindler, who ran in the same progressive political circles as his clients, was moved to build a postwar home on the existing lot.

The home’s appearance is conservative from the outside—save for an expressive modern beam detail that appears to be coming out of nowhere on the front façade. Stepping through the front door, however, into the 1,400-square-foot house, the visitor is transfixed by a dynamic display of space and light. The open plan and outdoor rooms make the house feel far larger than its meager square footage would suggest, and the clerestory windows above the datum line bring light and shadow into the space from a variety of angles. As an infill lot, the site afforded no views except upward—and Schindler took full advantage of it.

During the SAH/SCC program, the current owners, who have done a remarkable job of restoration with a sensitive group of craftsmen, remarked at how they are able to lie in bed and have a view of the stars. Schindler gave his clients the gift of architecture—a dialogue between the person, the space, and the landscape (not to mention, the cosmos). Unlike thousands of other San Fernando Valley families who parked their station wagons in the driveways of their modest ranch houses with conveniences from Kelvinators to Can-O-Lectrics, the Presburgers engaged with their house on a daily basis in a way that naturally enhanced their quality of life.

Schindler’s larger postwar designs, including the Janson Residence (1948-9) and the Tischler Residence (1949-50), reflect his interest in creating a transparent house on a hillside slope and a multi-functional house on a gently undulating parcel, respectively. It is the little Presburger Residence where the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

In the coming year, SAH/SCC is committed to bringing you more wonders—small and large—of architecture in Southern California.

Sian Winship

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