Marcel Breuer an appreciation
Marcel Breuer, as close to a founding father of contemporary design as any architect, leaves a legacy not unlike modern architecture itself: replete with early successes, yet riddled with a saddening failure of humane if not technical excellence.
While not strictly of the first generation, Breuer was the last of the Bauhaus heroes who tried to take the social goals of the Weimar school and transform architecture into an "international style" to remake the world.
Breuer was not of the first tier as a designer. Le corbusier and Mies van der Rohe held fast to that crest. Nor was he chief among teacher-influencers of younger architects. That place went to Walter Gropius. Yet he belonged to their phalanx and fashioned some of the major works of the last century, from modern homes slotted into the New England vernacular to the strikingly assertive Whitney Museum of American Art.
A Bauhaus student and then master in the 1920s, Breuer created the Wassily and Cesca chairs, classics of contemporary form (to be shown with other Breuer furniture at the Museum of Modern Art this summer).
Their lightness and clarity of style found an architectural manifesto in his houses surrounding Boston; that these boxy, but earth-based structures soon gave way to more lumbering, less-palatable sculptural forms in concrete, symbolizes the diminution of the early Bauhaus ideals in the corporate climate of America.
Nonetheless, for a half century Breuer "formed a link between the turbulent days of the early 1920s, when many of the aesthetic and technical ideas that have produced the new architecture were first formulated, and the present day with its increasingly widespread acceptance of those ideas in this country," critic Peter Blake put it when introducing a Breuer show three decades ago at the Museum of Modern Art. So it remains.
Born in 1902 in Pecs, hungary, the young Breuer left home at 18 and, after a disenchanting five weeks with the conventional system of art education in Vienna , sought out Walter Gropius's Bauhaus, first a student, then as head of carpentry and furniture until 1928.
Allied with Gropius in wishing to rationalize design -- to tool the machine to distribute decently shaped objects for the worker -- Breuer experimented with the bent tubular steel and sling of his first chair.
Other modes followed and soon the sleek furniture with its chrome-plated surface gained entrance to the Bauhaus and then, wonder of wonders, to the home.
Before Breuer left the tumult of Germany and Europe for the United States, he had become enamored of America's invention, the assembly line. That method of manufacturing would make these chairs his chief legacy.
Carrying with him a sense of what he called the "parallel between certain aspects of vernacular architecture, or national art, and the modern movement," he tried to fuse them in New England houses. The clarity of their line was the gift of the modern movement -- the framing, the unpainted wood, the stone ("the juice of stone," Breuer once wrote) -- and the concern with craftsmanly detail, showed his debt to his adopted home.
It was the ponderousness of the stone and the aloof stance of, say, his Wayland, Mass., cottage that Breuer carried over into the next phase of his career in New York from 1946. Leaving his teaching post at Harvard, Breuer took up practice on the superscale there and engaged in the massive and monumental international projects which can become synonymous with his firm in the last generation.
His play with the three-form as column and his passion for prefabrication produced dominating, almost brutal buildings, across the globe. From the facade of St. John's abbey and University in Minnesota to the Torin factory in Belgium, his hallmark became the deeply carved window wall and the giant building poised on pilotis, the free-standing columns that raised the structure above ground level.
This work attested to his abiding conviction that the goods of the machine age were or would be dispersed.
"Still," he said in 1961, "I believe in progress. I am convinced that a factory worker of today with his five-day week and seven-hour day, with his automobile or bicycle or bus, or even subway, with his children in schools, and with his bathroom, has better tools for happiness than may yet have to learn how to balance and coordinate the achievements of progress. But in any case, the availability of the components is a positive factor."
Although other users failed, or fail now, to warm to some of Breuer's components" -- to the cantilevered constructions with their ground-level caves and rough-edged concrete -- the Whitney Museum of 1966 found favor.
Its granite-clad, arrestingly sculptural stance accorded him a place in the pantheon even as his labors to create a structure to go atop the landmark Grand Central Terminal lost him the support of most of his peers.
Most of these would now give him accolades for his "less major" works.
Casting a dubious eye at the huge muscular forms that help up a headquarters structure for the Department of Housing and Urban Development or sought to seek sculptural reverence through weighty planes at a St. Francis de Sales Church in Michigan, they recall the early houses, sylvan yet elegant; they relish those chairs -- fixtures now and for the foreseeable future.
Whatever the final reckoning of Breuer's "bequest," however, the architect is assuredly offered his own best eulogy.
"Man comes and goes," wrote Breuer. "The building, the street, the town remain. To build, in final appraisal, is not to play a role, not to take a vote , not to give an opinion; it is a passion, basis . . . the bread we eat . . . .
"The final significance of architecture is surely beyond pure form, beyond pure use, beyond just a roof over our head, beyond just human sentiment, beyond just the product of the marketplace." In that he summed up what was most true of the man and the movement which his death so clearly terminates.
It is those aspirations, so slim a part of today's more cynical castings about in architecture for meaning, that might well be remembered along with the work of Marcel Breuer.