Letter from an Unknown Woman is an oblique feminist interrogation of R.M. Schindler’s Kings Road House of 1922. The central question is simple: What happens when we examine this important architectural construction through the lens of “the woman behind the man”? How is our reception of the space altered when we experience it armed with some knowledge of the influence that R.M. Schindler’s wife, Pauline, had on its creation?
While R.M. Schindler was deeply invested in plans and forms, Pauline Schindler was engaged with the revolutionary politics that were the intellectual underpinnings of the home’s construction. In Letter from an Unknown Woman, I seek to mirror both sides of this equation by utilizing his forms and her words.
Letter from an Unknown Woman makes use of the two rooms in which Pauline spent the most time—the Clyde Chace Wing—where she eventually lived until her death in 1977.
In the first room, images culled from Max Ophuls’s 1948 film Letter from an Unknown Woman are rear-projected on a freestanding screen that mimics the home’s original architecture. Across from the screen, an enclosed pedestal houses the projector.
The second room contains an interpretation of an R.M.S.-designed couch that appears in photographs of the home. In front of the couch is a rug with visual motifs drawn from R.M.S.’s architectural design.
In both rooms, a fictionalized letter based on those of Pauline Schindler provides the soundtrack for the installation. In her letters, Pauline describes her life both in and out of the house. She offers us a picture of her political and social endeavors and allows us a glimpse of her relationship with R.M. Schindler. Her passionate and politically engaged words have the effect of both domesticating and politicizing the space, transforming it from a place most often admired for its formal elements into a space in which lives were lived with all of their messy ambiguity.
I was also interested in examining the impact of the passage of time on our perception of space. How does the Schindler House change as time and context move and shift beneath it like so many tectonic plates? An anthropologist is separated from the culture s/he studies by geographical distance. The historian is separated from her/his subject by chronological distance. How then does the millennial visitor, separated from the initial vision and construction of this house by historical time, understand this space? And how does historical transformation, in this particular instance, the radical changes wrought by the women’s movement, alter the meaning of this revolutionary piece of architecture?
Whatever my initial and superficial response was to the house, after spending time in the space and reading the letters of Pauline Schindler, my project and in turn my relationship with the home became less about the static nature of the architecture and more about the bodies (ever so fluid) that had once inhabited the space. My objective then was to create a way to embody Pauline within the architecture, to allow her to re-enter the space and assume her significant place in its history.