RM Schindler’s Kaun Beach House 1934-35, part 1 of 3

The Kaun Beach House (Figure 1) has always been a mystery to me-and I love a mystery. I knew it only from a small plan and a murky photo 1.

A few months ago, I came across a clear photo on the web. After some further digging around on the web, I got a scan of the original 1937 article with that photo, two more, the plan at a larger size and a description of the house (Figure 2). This new information inspired me to further research-which led to a 3D model and this series of articles.

What originally interested me about this house was the exterior material. It is completed covered in horizontal bands of green roll roofing (similar to a roll of green asphalt shingles), visible in the original black & white photos (Fig 2). This seemed such a strange choice. Once I started researching and modeling the building, however, I was fascinated by the wonderful design. I hope you will be too.

Special Thanks

This series “kindness of strangers” award goes to John Crosse and his excellent website “Southern California Architectural History – A blog for fans of the architectural and design history of Southern California and related published material”. He sent me the scan of the article from the May, 1937 issue of California Arts & Architecture. He also directed me to his article “Pauline Schindler: Vagabond Agent for Modernism, 1927-1936” which mentions the connection between the Schindlers and Kaun, and provided me with additional information. Take a look at his website, you will enjoy it.

Special thanks also to David Travers for permission to use the California Arts & Architecture article. His Arts & Architecture Magazine website is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in modern architecture.

A Little History and a Little Mystery

This house 2 was built in 1934-35 for Alexander and Valeria Kaun . He was a professor of Russian literature at UC Berkeley from 1918 until his death in 1944 . He was also an artist who drew and painted 3. The house is on San Francisco Bay in Richmond, California-just north of Berkeley. The construction budget was very small, $1,500 4.

How did Schindler get this project, so far from Los Angeles? Once he settled in Los Angeles and opened his own office, his other buildings were in Southern California. Through John Crosse I learned that Kaun knew the Schindlers before the house was designed. Kaun gave lectures in Los Angeles, stayed at the Schindler’s Kings Road house and attended their dinners where they hosted artists, bohemians and social and political progressives 5. That’s how he got the job.

The location, far from Los Angeles, presented some challenges for Schindler. His projects were usually close enough to his office for him to personally supervise their construction. This let him make design changes on the spot, and explains why his construction drawings (CD’s) are typically so sketchy. He didn’t need everything detailed and drawn-he would work it out at the site. The Kaun House, however, was too far away for this kind of supervision. The CD’s 6needed to be much more complete. I immediately noticed this-they are the most thorough and best drawn of any of his CD’s that I have seen. They even have notes explaining his intent, as if he was sitting across the table explaining his ideas to you. This gives the drawings a very personal touch that CD’s don’t usually have.

The Model

Because the CD’s are so complete, including drawings of most of the interior walls and cabinets, I was able to make the model interior very detailed. You will see this in the third post.

Schindler’s drawings include a fairly thorough landscape concept plan. Intrigued, I decided to include the site and landscaping in the model. I don’t think the design can be fully appreciated without it, but I might not have tackled it if I had known how much time it would take. The landscape concept is very “architectural”. Plants are described by their qualities instead of their names. Shrubs are shown as rectangular masses with specific heights or are labeled as “drooping shrubs”. The eucalyptus trees are run in lines to form walls-nothing is irregular or “natural”. Where Schindler’s notes are blurry and hard to read, particularly at the sheltered patio, I have made my best guess.

The Site

For such a small house, the site is very large (Fig 3 & 4) . It backs up to the beach, facing southwest to San Francisco Bay. Was it ever possible that someone with such a small budget could buy so much beachfront land?

The site slopes down about 20’ from the street to the beach, widening towards the Bay. The house is set parallel/perpendicular to the eastern side property line, at the top of the site and close to the street. The top of the site where the buildings are located is relatively flat. The site steps down to the beach in a series of terraces, some of them are parallel to the house and continue its orientation.

A wall of eucalyptus trees wraps around the front, eastern side and rear. This circle of trees is completed on the western side by trees on the neighboring property, visible in the original article.

The two buildings, the garage/studio and the house, are placed at right angles and create a sheltered patio away from the Bay. A “walk for beach guests” extends along the north side, behind the garage/studio and down a grand stairway to the beach.

The House

The house consists of two buildings (Figs 1 & 5). The garage/studio is closest to the entrance from the street, parallel to the southeast property line. The house is roughly parallel to the beach, reached by a curved walkway the follows the curved property line and wall of trees (Animation at bottom).

The house is very small and has the minimum spaces for any Schindler building: a large living/dining room, a tiny kitchen with breakfast nook and a bath. There are lots of closets, a dressing room and a long terrace facing the Bay.

Next article: the building’s exteriors

1 Judith Scheine, R.M. Schindler, Works and Projects, (Barcelona:Gustavo Gilli Editorial, 1998), 126.
2 The CD’s are titled “Cottage for Mr. & Mrs. A. Kaun”
3 University of California obituary for Alexander Kaun at http://texts.cdlib.org/view?docId=hb696nb2rz&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=div00029&toc.depth=1&toc.id
Copyright © 2010 The Regents of The University of California.
4 Judith Scheine, R.M. Schindler (London: Phaidon Press, 2001), 178.

From The People’s History at http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/1934.html

average house cost in 1934 (I assume this was house and land):$5,970.00
average wages per year $1,600.00

5 John Crosse, Pauline Gibling Schindler: Vagabond Agent for Modernism, 1927-1936 (Southern California Architectural History, July 14, 2010), at http://socalarchhistory.blogspot.com/2010/07/pauline-gibling-schindler-vagabond.html
6 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, 313-318

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