MAY 26, 2017
WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be “the greatest non-building architect of our time,” as Philip Johnson grandly pronounced Frederick Kiesler in 1960? Johnson’s statement is often invoked as a stamp of approval for Kiesler, an architect whose work is considered so bizarre that he has mostly been sidelined in the grand narrative of 20th-century architecture. Yet Kiesler, who pioneered a multimedia architecture in which environments speak to all human senses, was decades ahead of his time. Today, we live within a world dominated by multimedia. Kiesler, who in 1929 was already dreaming of “broadcasted decorations” — artworks displayed on TV screens — would hardly have been surprised by our current dependence on technology (or the incredible popularity of high-definition fireplace videos). But he would likely have noted that we haven’t yet gone far enough in transforming our environments — and worse, that we’ve done so in rather pedestrian ways.
Kiesler would have wanted us to live in a stranger, far more synesthetic world. His utopian writings imagined a free-flowing, dreamlike world in which “a table becomes architecture, a sculpture becomes painting, and architecture becomes color.” Full of creaturely buildings, cavelike rooms, modular furniture, and atmospheric lighting, Kiesler’s designs imagined ways to integrate humans into easeful relationships with nature and technology. Remarkably, he had already imagined this type of environment in the 1930s, while he was still an affiliate of De Stijl, a modernist movement focused on straight lines, rigid angles, and primary colors. He would consistently develop his ideas about organic forms until his death in 1965. Kiesler was an outsider architect in the true sense, but also an eerie prophet of ideas with a distinctly postmodern feel: he imaged integrated environments with energetic “flow,” and used scientific methods to design objects and buildings with multisensory experiences.
In Elastic Architecture, Stephen J. Phillips persuasively unites Kiesler’s diverse designs under one coherent philosophy: elasticity. This philosophy embraces “flexible environmental systems that […] modulate in response to everyday actions, human desires, and bodily needs.” In practice, elastic architecture means designing buildings and interiors that arrange space in immersive, integrated, and intuitive ways. Phillips notes that these are major concerns for architecture today and points to Kiesler as an important predecessor for architects and designers including Frank Gehry, Philippe Starck, Lebbeus Woods, and Thom Mayne. Elasticity recuperates Kiesler for contemporary design by recontextualizing his work as a lifelong exploration of the sensory qualities of space.
But Phillips’s job isn’t just the (already hefty) task of providing a coherent account of Kiesler’s fanciful and often wildly disparate design projects. On top of this, Elastic Architecture grapples with one of the big questions surrounding Kiesler: was he a visionary whose synthetic, multisensory designs were far ahead of his time, or a charlatan who made a living off of quixotic ideas? After all, this was the man whose 1940s design laboratory Buckminster Fuller labeled an “innocuous and unconscious racket.” When the design for Kiesler’s Universal Theater was exhibited in 1962, critics compared its shape to that of a “vast potato” or an “unborn moose.” In the wake of a 1996 Kiesler retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, the scholar Marc Dessauce wrote a monograph attributing most of Kiesler’s designs to artist friends such as Hans Richter and Marcel Duchamp. Practicing architects have scratched their heads at Kiesler’s architectural draftsmanship, which largely defies any attempt at practical construction. The architectural historian Beatriz Colomina has speculated that Kiesler deliberately thwarted attempts to realize his work, preferring that it remain in the realm of endless theoretical possibility.
It is hard to account for a man who made big claims about the impact of his work while leaving behind a highly disparate and impressionistic series of writings, drawings, designs, and projects — and who, as Phillips notes, frequently gave misleading or contradictory information about his life. In Kiesler’s case, the line between a visionary artist and a creative charlatan seems dangerously thin. Yet Kiesler is worth revisiting not just as an eccentric on the margins of modernism, but as a spur to remembering that the kinds of cities we live in are profoundly marked by midcentury ideas about segmenting space. Our truncated, divided urban landscape has produced impoverished zones, neglected areas, and environments that often feel unwieldy, if not downright hostile. What world would we have if Kiesler’s vision of elastic architecture had triumphed instead?
The artist has always rooted his work in a consciousness of duty to his own self […] He is beyond good and evil. He is impractical and dedicated to the unknown […] His manners are unreliable, his friendships often obscure. Politically, he might be a risk, and financially he is a liability in most cases.
— Frederick Kiesler, Inside the Endless House (1966)
Born in 1890 in Czernowitz, Austro-Hungarian Empire, young Friedrich Kiesler first moved to Vienna to study architecture under the auspices of Adolf Loos and Josef Hoffmann. He eventually broke off his studies and never completed his degree. Instead, he was conscripted as a stage designer for Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which premiered in Berlin in 1922. Kiesler’s set, which incorporated machinic elements and film projections, gained him the admiration of artists including Hans Richter, Theo van Doesburg, László Moholy-Nagy, and El Lissitzky, and first marked him out as an avant-garde thinker who was interested in integrating technology with design. Kiesler and his wife Stefanie immigrated to the United States in 1926 to install the European section of the International Theater Exposition in New York. Kiesler had no intentions of returning to Europe; in order to make ends meet, he found work as a window designer for Saks Fifth Avenue, creating displays that borrowed compositional techniques from modernist art. (One store window memorably featured a swan poking its head out of a circular frame, suspended above a children’s mannequin draped with a blazer.) Kiesler also remained active in the theater world: he co-founded the International Theatre Arts Institute in Brooklyn, and became a director of scenic design at Juilliard from 1934 to 1957, where he continued building imaginative theater sets that relied on modular, expressive stage elements rather than full-blown backdrops.
Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, Kiesler wrote texts on his design philosophy, unfolding his ideas on design most prominently as the founder and manager of the Laboratory for Design Correlation at the Columbia School of Architecture from 1937 to 1941. The Laboratory was an experimental space in which Kiesler investigated design alongside biology, sociology, and art with a small group of graduate students. It did not yield a great number of functional designs beyond an ergonomic Mobile Home Library, but was primarily a space for theoretical investigations. During this period, Kiesler and his students did research for one of the Laboratory’s most provocative designs: a “Vision Machine.” The machine was supposed to screen psychic visions, perhaps even give its viewers unmediated glimpses of a universal subconscious life. Needless to say, the Vision Machine remained a theoretical contraption, confined to a series of sketches and notes. (Columbia decided that its funds might be put to better use as World War II began, shutting down the lab in 1941.)
Kiesler also began to collaborate more closely with Surrealist artists, and in 1942, he designed the interior layout for Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of This Century” gallery. His design incurred the wrath of critics who were disturbed by the curved walls, flashing lights, and biomorphic furniture that set off the art. Kiesler would continue to collaborate with the Surrealists, publishing articles and drawings in David Hare’s VVV Almanac and designing interiors for Surrealist exhibitions throughout the 1940s.
It was around this time that Kiesler published a series of articles on a design theory that he called “Correalism,” a term that, in his eyes, expressed “the dynamics of continual interaction between man and his natural and technological environments.” He thought that humans lived in an environment governed by networks of dynamic forces. The world was traversed by forces of order and entropy in constant interaction with one another. Transforming the environment through technology would reconfigure these forces and thereby improve the health of humans and society. Correalism would proceed by means of “biotechnique,” a dynamic design practice that channeled relationships between different environmental forces to produce interactive sites rather than traditional buildings or objects. “Since the building designer deals with forces, not objects, design is therefore, in my definition, not the circumscription of a solid but a deliberate polarization of natural forces towards a specific human purpose,” Kiesler explained.
Kiesler’s architectural designs used biotechnique to capture and channel these natural forces for human benefit. He first gained attention as an architect with his 1933 design for a “Space House,” which he developed as a full-scale prototype for the New York showroom of the Modernage Furniture Company. The Space House was a two-story, futuristic-looking construction with rounded edges and large inset windows. In an unpublished “Metabolism Chart of the House,” Kiesler positioned the individual within a network of forces that spanned the inner and outside worlds in an energetic feedback loop. The protective, insulating form and tactile materials of the Space House would act as “a generator for the individual” to replenish its inhabitants’ forces. This was architecture for the harassed, overworked city dweller: the building, Phillips writes, was designed to be “a form of therapy in the libidinal world,” bringing “mind, body, and soul back into balance in continuity with surrounding architecture.” The Space House eventually birthed Kiesler’s Endless House, the design for which he is most well known today.
The Endless, which evolved through a series of designs from the late 1940s onward, would become what Kiesler considered his crowning architectural achievement. It looked like a cluster of eggs on stilts, and, as Phillips beautifully writes, “formed a virtual environment that became an effervescent halo surrounding the habitant.” In keeping with Kiesler’s most powerful ideas, the Endless was never built. His last design, for the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, was the only one of his buildings to see construction — arguably because Kiesler collaborated with the more pragmatically minded architect Armand Phillip Bartos. The Shrine of the Book is an arresting building, a partially submerged white dome shaped like the lid of a scroll jar that opens into a subterranean cave housing the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was completed in 1965; Kiesler attended its opening, and died on December 27 of that same year.
It becomes increasingly clear throughout Elastic Architecture that much of Kiesler’s thought, although excitingly suggestive, ultimately had to remain conceptual. Here was a man who thought of architectural form as theater, with different elements in constant motion and interaction. Kiesler’s endless forms are theatrical spaces that were intuitively designed and emotionally felt. “The house is the skin of the human body,” he writes in his 1949 Manifesto on Correalism. In Kiesler’s houses, the inhabitant is supposed to live in complete harmony with his built environment: the architecture mirrors and stimulates his psychic impulses, and he is free to be a less rational, routinized creature.
I say “he” because there is an issue of transference in Kiesler’s thought: ultimately, his designs were explorations of his own psychic architecture, just as they were artistic experiments in form. In his Manifesto, Kiesler writes: “To inhabit is an urgent and eternal need. The architect is his house. The house is the architect.” As Beatriz Colomina points out, the contiguity between Kiesler’s own psyche and his work was so great that he wasn’t able to let go of his projects. Correspondingly, we could argue that the Space House and the Endless might simply not work for people other than Kiesler. “Odd,” we’d think after visiting the concrete cave-rooms of the Endless, had it ever been built. “Glad we don’t live here.”
This problem stands in counterpoint to another major criticism of Kiesler’s work: that he wanted to develop total artworks that would lull their inhabitants into subconscious, automatically responsive states. This is a serious accusation in the wake of World War II, a time in which many studies showed how propaganda could appeal to people’s unconscious instincts through aestheticized politics and immersive environments. In The Democratic Surround, Fred Turner describes Kiesler’s interior designs for “Art of This Century” as aggressive, arguing that they overwhelmed viewers rather than allowing them to exercise their own agency. But this interpretation doesn’t hold when you consider Kiesler’s commitments to dream-visions and the surreal: whatever subconscious drives his buildings were supposed to activate were not directed toward a particular political goal.
These are the issues that Phillips must battle in recuperating Kiesler for contemporary design, and it explains why “elasticity” is the term he chooses: it can powerfully address major concerns in architecture as it is practiced under global capitalism today. “If admittedly somewhat specious in its overall ambition, elastic architecture performs an ideological condition. It sets a trajectory of hope, idealism, and fantasy beyond normativity,” Phillips writes. Phillips wants to claim Kiesler as a liberal progressive who was profoundly utopian about what architecture could accomplish. He also is aware that there is no getting around the fact that Kiesler was an opportunist. Kiesler couched his Correalist ideas in the language of productivity and efficiency, implying that his designs would allow people to live happier, more integrated lives under liberal capitalism. But his underlying obsession with dreams and magic doesn’t quite square with this claim. Kiesler didn’t imagine a surrealist architecture that would make its inhabitants into better worker-bees, but this was his way of justifying his design practice in a country where that ideology held great sway — and perhaps, at times, he did believe in an efficient utopia of easeful work and play.
Kiesler sought to make spaces beyond politics and economics, spaces of unbounded and expansive experience. Yet this kind of remove is perhaps better suited to the crystalline beauty of theory. Who knows what kinds of social configurations Kiesler’s buildings would have produced had they been built. It’s possible that they would have been lucid, immersive environments that testified to greater harmony, heralding a politics for a world to come. But the project of completely integrating humans with their environments — so that they can live resolutely unalienated lives — remains a fantasy as long as Kiesler’s architecture cannot be separated from his own mind and drives. Elastic Architecture flirts with this dilemma, caught between the desire to wholeheartedly champion Kiesler’s work and the knowledge that his conceptual architecture, provocative as it may be, does not add up to a coherent design strategy that can be carried forward. Reclaiming Kiesler’s speculative architecture means reading it as a constellation of thoughts about how we might live in a world that is alive with the possibilities of space, in which our environments surprise and spur us on to new thought and sensation.
There’s a surprising note in the back of David Hare’s 1943 issue of VVV Almanac. The reader is confronted with a bold headline: “Twin-Touch-Test.” A picture features a blurred photograph of a woman, head thrust back, with a focused, inscrutable gaze, running her hands down the sides of a ghostly wire-mesh fence, its boundaries dissolving precisely where the contour of her cheek begins. The bordering text reads, in choppy Anglo-Austrian syntax,
Place your hands on top of either side of the wire screen; run both hands simultaneously gently down, fingers and palms remaining in close contact. Repeat and repeat until you can answer the following question: Is it an unusual feeling of touch? If so, can you write an analysis of your experience in no more than one hundred words? Give also your explanation of the phenomenon.
The facing page is made of stiff cardboard grasping a small piece of chicken wire. The curious reader can now begin the experiment.
The sensation is shocking. The stiff chicken wire grates, catching on slightly moist skin. It is rough, yet its odd, filigree pattern gives it playfulness, geometrical delicacy. Every time the fingers rejoin, there is a sudden thrill of skin meeting skin as each finger pad presses gently on the other, sensing its elastic grace. The experiment is a perfect sensory miniature: industrial materials produce new feeling once they come into contact with the human. We become acutely aware of our bodies, discover new ways in which our senses are absolutely immediate and profoundly strange.
The author is Kiesler. The prize for the five “best solutions” is a yearlong subscription to VVV. It’s a spatial prism in two pages, an opening of internal feeling through movement and contact. And perhaps it’s one of the most effective architectures Kiesler ever conceived.
Sophie Duvernoy is a PhD student in German Literature at Yale University, where she focuses on literature and aesthetic theory of the Weimar and midcentury periods. She is the winner of the 2015 Gutekunst Prize for young translators, and will be publishing a translation of Gabriele Tergit’s 1931 satire Käsebier Takes Berlin with NYRB Classics.