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Fount of invention

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The Architecture of RM Schindler By Elizabeth A T Smith et al. Abrams, 2001. 288pp. £45 Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock delivered a crushing blow to Rudolph Schindler at a key point in his career, with his omission from 'The International Style' exhibition and its accompanying book in 1932.

Worse still, Richard Neutra, who Schindler had invited to Los Angeles and who lived for a time in the Kings Road studio - Schindler's home - nicked his best client, Philip Lovell.

It was Neutra's Hollywood Hills house for Lovell, not Schindler's Beach House for him, that Johnson included. But Johnson was bound to airbrush Schindler out - his face just didn't fit. He had been taught by Wagner, worked for Loos and then Wright, and retained a close relationship with them all.His roots were in the Viennese enlightenment of the early 20th century. (The paradox here is that Johnson, who like many of his generation had serious right-wing leanings, adopted a socialist architecture for a new corporate orthodoxy. ) Schindler was an amazingly inventive designer who has been unjustly overlooked.

Even in the brief period after the Johnson omission when he tried to make his buildings more 'white school', they reveal more imagination and experimentation than the white stuff. There is a great pair of car ads from this period - one featuring Neutra's VDL Research Home of 1931 and the other, Schindler's John J Buck House of 1934. The car is a 1936 Olds; Philip Marlowe always drove an Olds. And here is an enthralling subtext to Schindler: the match between his spaces and Chandler's brilliant descriptions.

Sardi's restaurant, Braxton's art gallery - they're straight out of Farewell My Lovely.

Schindler never built for movie moguls, or corporate America, but for a cultured middle class, largely from an immigrant, intellectual left-wing melting pot, in an era when they could all buy a plot of land and build a modest, low-budget house.

He was not a great finisher, or a smooth operator in the Neutra camp. Technology was less important to him than developing a new space syntax. Eventually all his projects were in easy driving distance of his Kings Road studio, so he dispensed with too many drawings and directed contractors on site.

Schindler reminds me of Paul Klee. Each ofhis buildings encapsulates a whole line of inquiry in its typological and spatial explorations. You can turn the pages of Klee's The Thinking Eye and find an artist's whole career predicated on one of his ideas.

Schindler's buildings are the same. His spatial strategies presaged what would come 50 years later. And then there are the experiments with materials, from the concrete panels of the early work to the later metal mesh and coloured corrugated plastic.

Take the stunning Howe residence. Replace the cedar boarding with pre-patinated copper and you can say Steven Holl and a doublepage gatefold in Domus. Or there is the spatial ingenuity of the Maryon E Toole House, and the romantic last house for Ellen Janson.

The essays in this book, which accompanies an exhibition mounted by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, are illuminating, moving, scholarly yet accessible, and illustrated with excellent photographs by Grant Mudford. This was Modernism underpinned by a new kind of humanism and hope, with people you wished you had met, such as Pauline Schindler, Maryon E Toole and Ellen Janson.

Johnson, the king-maker, later repented.

He lobbied for bringing the 1970s Schindler exhibition to MOMA in New York, but the museum's director, Arthur Drexler, thought it would not appeal to an East Coast audience. But by then, of course, Johnson was keeping his options open, taking each way bets on Eisenman and Hedjuk, Meier, Graves and Gehry.

Stephen Greenberg is director of Metaphor

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