It’s always a joy to revisit the MAK Center on Kings Road, for it offers the pleasure of quiet contemplation and the thrill of an experiment in living that seems as fresh today as it was in 1922. Over the next two months the ghosts of the Schindlers are joined by that of Esther McCoy, a brilliant writer and an impassioned champion of southern California modernism. Sympathetic Seeing: Esther McCoy and the Heart of American Modernist Architecture and Design, sounds more like the title of an academic thesis than a riveting show, but don’t be put off. MAK director Kimberli Meyer and writer Susan Morgan have risen to the challenge of curating a text-driven exhibition and integrating it with the fabric of a house that is a self-sufficient work of art. As you read McCoy’s pithy comments and hear her voice narrating a documentary on Schindler, you are transported back to an era when modernists were fighting for their principles, trying to win over an indifferent public, and combating reactionaries as benighted as today’s Republican right. Exhibits include a semi-literate letter informing the FBI that McCoy and her commie friends were listening to Paul Robeson and talking about workers’ rights. Letters and clippings document the effort she spearheaded to save Irving Gill’s Dodge House a block to the north, a masterpiece that was wantonly destroyed after a shameless speculation by the LA Board of Education.
But there is much to raise your spirits, starting with the Schindler House, which was preserved from destruction in 1970, the very year that the Dodge House fell. It’s a constant source of inspiration—on a quiet morning a spider was creating a miraculously light tensile structure in one corner—and it worked its magic on McCoy when she left Douglas Aircraft in 1944 to become Schindler’s sole draftsperson. She showed him the drawings of a house she had designed and admitted she had been turned down by the USC Architecture School. “Less to unlearn,” he remarked, and hired her on the spot for $1 an hour. She stayed three years, but soon became a full-time writer. Her brilliant analyses were matched by a gift for words: Arts + Architecture magazine was “as thin as a tortilla and sleek as a Bugatti, and it created a new audience from among the visually and intellectually initiated.” The exhibition catalogue is an exemplary production that quotes extensively from McCoy’s classic books and sketches in the context of her times. Her life spanned the heroic era of modernism, from 1904 to 1989, and she did more to explain and celebrate it than any other American critic. Coming soon is an Esther McCoy Reader, edited by Susan Morgan, making accessible a selection of essays that are currently out-of-print.