frederickkieslerwillemdekooning

Career Case Study #1: Frederick Kiesler

There aren’t that many misfits. Last century, we had Irving Gill, Hannes Meyer, Eileen Gray, Superstudio, and The Futurists. The first three are true misfits with Hannes Meyer being Architectural Misfit #1. Superstudio and The Futurists are more like accidental misfits in that they had a useful idea or two.

I think that’s basically going to be it. From now on, there will only be accidental misfits, or conditionally a misfit pending further information. There will also people who are probably just a bit odd, like Frederick Kiesler who is the subject of this post.

Frederick Kiesler was always on the sidelines of people and events that are remembered although, to be fair, in 1920s Vienna it was probably impossible to be an artist and not to know Adolf Loos or not to be a member of De Stijl. Kiesler was always on location but not really in the frame – much like this Irving Penn portrait of Willem de Kooning.

Or here. In the back row we have, left to right, Max Ernst’s son Jimmy, Peggy Guggenheim, John Ferren, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian. In the middle row we have Max Ernst, Amedee Ozenfant, Andre Breton, Fernand Leger, Berenice Abbott , and in the front row we have Stanley William Hayter, Leonora Carrington, Frederick Kiesler, Kurt Seligmann. That’s one wiki-rich photograph!

Apart from Peggy Guggenheim who is an “American art collector, bohemian, philanthropist and socialite” (don’t you just love America!?) everyone in this photograph is an artist. Obviously, the photo was taken in if–you–can–make–it–there–you–can–make–it–anywhere New York. There’s no way a bunch of artists would have a normal photo taken … but notice how it’s only our man in the front who doesn’t seem to know which direction he should be looking?

LESSON #1: PAY ATTENTION TO THE CAMERA! 

* * *

Frederick Kiesler is mostly remembered for one coffee table and one house. This is the coffee table.

“In 1935/36, Kiesler designs his famous Biomorphic Aluminum Nesting Table. A table that expresses some of Kiesler’s architectural ideas at a new scale; a scale shift that enriches Kiesler’s ideas on the correlations of our environment (big and small) and its relationship to the body.” (go here if you like reading stuff like this)

This is the house. It’s called Endless House, from 1958-1959 (ish).

“Kiesler dissolved the rigid hierarchy of the privileged corners and created a continuous surface that has no beginning and no end. An organic surface that he argues fits more comfortable as the environment for the urgent and eternal need of the human body. Kiesler said that “the ‘Endless House’ is called ‘Endless’ because all ends meet, and meet continuously.” Oh dear. 

(same place)

photo: artnet, amongst others

The image above is probably the one I saw reproduced in the Sunday paper of my home province. As a kid, I remember liking the idea but finding the plan didn’t really convey what it might be like inside. I wasn’t the only one, it turned out.

“A main criticism of Kiesler is the discordance between the ambitious and unique potential of his models and the very static architectural drawings. His sketches work well to maintain the visions he discusses, but as soon as he begins to make “rigid” the un-rigid lines and surfaces he loses sight of what he is after. The models show flowing transitions through spaces, with internal stairs, interiority and exteriority, and continuous surfaces. (ArchDaily) … Bathing pools would replace conventional bath tubs and would be found scattered throughout the house.”

So removed was this house from the reality of my family’s house that, apart from the plumbing, at the time I didn’t fully consider the implications of the scattered bathing pools. Perhaps Kiesler’s somewhat “European” attitudes towards family nakedness, did nothing to improve public reaction to his design, in much the same way as people disapproved of The McNulty House circa the same time and place.

“nice to see some dimension lines!! heights?? where is the section???”

LESSON #2: KEEP IT REAL!  

* * *

It’s always about the curves but no-one, least of all Keisler himself, has had much to say about why it needs to be supported on columns. I suspect he was just trying to show how modern he was back then in the only way they knew how. What really worried me even then was how pseudo-classic the columns were. I imagine he was just trying to make us think it was sculpture – which shows how sweet simple the world once was. A decade later, we’d praise him for being Post Modern and four decades later damn him for it!

LESSON #3: DON’T MESS WITH HISTORY
– IT WILL COME BACK TO BITE YOU.  

* * *

The ideas contained in the Endless House are said to have had their first expression in the Space House for a store window display for the Modernage Furniture Company in New York in 1933. The Endless House appeared in 1959.

LESSON #4: DON’T TAKE TOO LONG TO BE AHEAD OF YOUR TIME!

* * *

This next point is not entirely unrelated to the last one.

During the period of 1937 to 1943, Kiesler was a member of the faculty in the Department of Architecture at Columbia University, where the program was geared towards teaching more pragmatic and commercially oriented architecture. This was very different from the areas of design he grounded his ideas in; theoretical concepts and ideas concerning the relationship among space, people, objects and concepts, known as “correalism” or “continuity.”

(Ouch!)

LESSON #5: HAVE ALTERNATE MEANS OF SUPPORT!

* * *

The ArchDaily link has some good information but some of it only leads to more questions.

An exhibit on the “Endless House” was featured at The Museum of Modern Art from 1958-1959. This featured models and photographs of the modeling process, as well as the unorthodox architectural drawings that he called “polydimensional,” often compared to Surrealist atomatic drawings. The MOMA commissioned Kiesler to create a full scale prototype of his Endless House for the museum garden, where it would stay for two years. Unfortunately this was never completed, so the study models, drawings and photographs were the only items presented.

The MOMA garden in 1949 with a house where Kiesler’s Endless House was to not have been in 1960.

Normally, architects are keen to sell out as soon as possible but nobody can accuse Kiesler of this since the process of designing the Endless House was … err, rather lengthy. Kiesler died in 1965 so, unless it turns out he was really sick or something …

LESSON #6: IF MOMA OFFERS YOU EXHIBITION SPACE
FOR TWO YEARS, JUST DELIVER THE WORK, OK?   

* * *

LESSON #7: DON’T TRY TOO HARD TO BE A MISFIT.

* * *

FURTHER READING 1: Here’s a taster of a fun article for Friday afternoon.

“What are you my colleague architects and engineers doing? How do you use your super power given to you by the universe? Why do you remain routine draftsmen, cocktail sippers, coffee gulpers and making routine love? Wake up, there’s a new world to be created within our world.”

FURTHER READING 2: A fellow blogger, blogging about the Endless House.  This bit caught my eye.

There are many contemporary architects like Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos from UNStudioAsymptote, researcher and writer Dieter Bogner and engineers like Cecil Balmond that have studied Kiesler’s work and especially the Endless House as an example to change the face of architecture.

I don’t doubt that these people have mentioned Kiesler’s name. It’s just that Kiesler is a prime candidate for use and abuse as a theoretical or inspirational namecheck in someone else’s promotional material. He may or may not have been misguided, but he never associated himself with other people’s work in order to justify his own and I respect him for that.

5 thoughts on “Career Case Study #1: Frederick Kiesler

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks for that David. I admire the guy even more now I see he has an entire career of unbuilt projects. I wonder what kept him going, how he survived. I’d love to know what he was thinking so if ever you come across anything he wrote, please let me know. You’re right about surrealism being generally unpalatable but the way Kiesler’s been so actively forgotten makes me think he might have been doing something right but that was anathema to where everyone else was going. His total lack of interest in being commercially viable would place him well outside the flow of architecture in the US, especially in the years immediate post WW2. While other architects were trying to second-guess where the market was headed, Kiesler was mucking around with Hall of Superstitions and Tooth House. Genius! I think it’s time MOMA had a retrospective, along with a big monograph. Cheers David.

  1. Pingback: The Butterfly House: East Hampton, New York | CIRCA Old Houses | Old Houses For Sale and Historic Real Estate Listings

  2. Pingback: arquitecturas inadaptadas | jesarqit

Comments are closed.