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Architecture: Breuer: The Compleat Designer

8 minute read
Philip Herrera

HIS life is a road map of modern architecture. The turns it took were his turns, the direction he pointed became the thruway. He is the compleat designer—of everything from kitchen cabinets to entire cities.

At 70, Marcel Lajos Breuer wears 50 years of achievement as easily as one of his old tweed jackets. Indeed, he seems almost cherubic, a stocky, gentle man with a merry twinkle in his blue eyes. The more celebrated Walter Gropius was a teacher; Ludwig Mies van der Rohe built crystalline monuments to a formula of his own devising. Unlike them, Breuer has touched and warmed contemporary American life by following a simple philosophy: “Architecture is a social art. It has an obligation to people.”

“How do you say thank you to such a man?” asks Arthur Rosenblatt, a director of architecture and planning at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met’s answer is visible this week. For the first time in its 102-year history, it is giving a one-man architectural show, devoting three central galleries to Breuer’s projects.

The usual models and photographs of architectural projects are there, but also huge replicas of columns and wall details that convey the magnitude and impact of buildings. Regrettably, the effect is to emphasize Breuer’s late work. While structurally forthright and beautifully executed—he considers every detail down to how his materials will weather over the years—these immense, sculptural buildings tend to lack the grace, originality and controlled exuberance of his earlier projects.

Breuer was born in 1902, a doctor’s son in the university town of Pecs in southern Hungary. Knowing precisely what he wanted, he turned up at the age of 18 at the most stimulating and revolutionary design school the world has ever seen—the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, founded by Walter Gropius. The Bauhaus recognized the force of industrialism, the beauty of the machine, the potential of designing a new man-made environment by cross-pollinating the arts.

From the first, Breuer showed an original spirit; he slept on top of a bathtub in an apartment he shared with two women. He quickly questioned the Bauhaus slogan of “Art and Technology—a new Unity.” It implies, he said, that “art is wonderful, technology is wonderful, so the two together must be twice as wonderful. That is not so.” As for the famous tag—”form follows function”—Breuer wryly added: “Not always.” What he aimed at was “something simpler, more elemental, more generous and more human than a machine.”

He had an unerring sense of material, texture, esthetics and practicality. These are all marks of good architecture, but they first surfaced in Breuer’s furniture: tables, kitchen cabinets and, above all, chairs. Inspired by his bicycle’s handlebars in 1925, he bent tubular steel into a frame, slung canvas in between and created the great “Wassily” chair. Handsome as it and later, cantilevered models were, Breuer was not concerned only with looks. “It has been argued that if a chair is beautiful, it is also comfortable,” he has said. “This is as questionable as to say: if it is comfortable, it is also beautiful. No beauty can make us forget that man needs something to sit on, and that he needs to sit comfortably.”

His second period, a sort of architect’s odyssey, began in 1928, when he left the Bauhaus to set up his own practice in Berlin. The school had pioneered in what is now known as the “international style” of building—lean, elegant structures whose interior steel skeletons allowed architects to create airy and light façades of glass. Breuer took this cold idiom and domesticated it in his first building, a house in Wiesbaden. Flat-topped, generously windowed and raised on stilts above the ground, it used contrasted materials to give a feeling of warmth and porches to extend interior space outward.

But there were few jobs to be had in Depression-worn Berlin, so Breuer moved on to Zurich and then to England. There, he joined a pioneer modernist, London Architect F.R.S. Yorke, and designed in 1936 a small completely innovative pavilion at an exhibition in Bristol. Its taut glass juxtaposed with romantically rough walls of stone, it enclosed a beautifully proportioned space, and architects everywhere began to talk about Breuer. Even more striking was a project for the “Civic Center of the Future” that contained a lively assortment of innovative building shapes—Y-shaped, stepped-back and cantilevered structures, slabs, buildings on stilts. It was, in effect, Breuer’s prediction of works that he would build more than 20 years later.

Meantime Walter Gropius had moved to the U.S. to head Harvard University’s design school. In 1937 he asked Breuer to teach and practice with him in Cambridge, Mass. He was adored by his students, fine architects including I.M. Pei, John Johansen, Paul Rudolph, Ulrich Franzen. “Gropius was the establishment figure, stern and rational,” recalls Franzen. “Breuer was the artist. He opened our minds to everything.” Adds Johansen: “He was always accessible. We had lots of parties at his place. But in class, he goaded us. ‘Why not do it?’ he asked in his Hungarian accent. He made us find our own solutions.”

Honest and Earthy. Breuer himself was finding new solutions in the intimate, beautiful houses he was designing with Gropius around Boston. His inspiration, he told TIME Reporter Leah Gordon, was the simple American frame house. “I liked the fact that anyone could construct these houses simply by nailing boards together. They are earthy, honest and dignified, like Huckleberry Finn and Abraham Lincoln.”

Breuer kept those qualities—and brought them up to date. His glass walls brought the outdoors in and made views a part of ownership. His sure mastery of native materials—fieldstone and wood—gives the houses a feeling of security and protection. Architectural students still marvel at the details, studying how Breuer made the houses grow so naturally out of the sod, how he cantilevered staircases and, above all, how he met the needs of occupants. In some H-shaped houses, he separated the daytime areas—kitchen, dining and living rooms—from bedrooms by a central hall. In his rectangular “long” houses, a central kitchen and bathrooms divide living from sleeping quarters. Hardly a small modern house now exists in the U.S. that does not owe some debt to Breuer’s sensitivity to human habit.

Architecture has been called an old man’s profession because the big jobs come only after hard structural and spatial lessons have been learned. For Breuer, his most commercially successful period began in 1953, when he was barely into his 50s. Though he was practicing on his own in New York by that time, his breakthrough came with a major commission in France: the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. With it, he burst out of the Bauhaus box and turned to concrete, becoming more adventurous in its use than any other U.S. architect except perhaps I.M. Pei. He faceted façades with angled, deep-set windows, niches and geometrical shapes—all enlivened by the play of sunlight against shadow. At his IBM research center in La Gaude, near the Côte d’Azur, he elevated the entire building on Y-shaped sculptural columns that a less bold designer would have let stand straight. Indeed, the dominant theme in his design of other big buildings has been to create sculpture with a structural function.

Strength and Spirit. Sometimes the results smite the eye and exalt the spirit. Majesty and strength shine in St. John’s Abbey and University of Collegeville, Minn. The project’s bell tower, a mighty raised slab of raw concrete, is among the best pieces of sculptural architecture this side of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp church. Manhattan’s Whitney Museum, with upper gallery floors expressed in three cantilevers that extend further and further out from the building, has heft, urbanity and presence. But sometimes the effect is of too much strength, as in a muscle-bound cantilevered lecture hall at New York University. The Housing and Urban Development Department Building in Washington, despite its excellent detailing, looks ponderous. One problem, perhaps, is that such buildings are monumental in an age that is beginning to distrust monuments.

Not that Breuer minds; he has always been his own man. He lives in houses of his own design in New Canaan, Conn., and Wellfleet, Mass., with his wife and daughter, 18 (he also has a son, 29), and is known as a bon vivant, chess player and bawdy raconteur. As busy as ever, Breuer is constantly on the go. One project is a recreational town of 48,000 units along the dune-dotted Aquitaine coast in southwestern France. Another is the Koerfer House in Switzerland that just won a top architectural award. Back in the U.S. is a new hydropower plant at Grand Coulee Dam that he describes as “Egyptian in its dimensions and cathedral in its feeling of emptiness, immensity and silence.”

One always senses the old master’s struggle for perfection, no matter what the problem. “Architecture is not the materialization of a mood,” he says. “It should not be a mere self-portrait of the architect or the client, though it must contain personal elements of both. It should serve generations, and while man comes and goes, buildings and ideas endure.” His varied work is thus unified by his humanism—an insistence that his buildings make life more pleasant for their users. It is a mark of greatness.

•Philip Herrera

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