Master sitting pretty again

Marcel Breuer, Architect
October 4, 2002

In today's retro-culture world of 20th-century design, Marcel Breuer is a cult figure. He is worshipped for his chairs. An early production piece of one of his Wassily armchairs, designed in 1928, with its bent tubular-steel frame hung with strips of canvas or leather, sells at auction for the equivalent price of a new sports car. His B32 sidechair - B34 with arms - is now simply known as the Breuer chair. By the 1970s, 40 years after its design, it was a staple seller in Terence Conran's Habitat shops.

Breuer disliked being labelled a furniture designer. Early in his career, aged 33, he fled Nazi Germany and came to England. He emphasised his furniture designs and their industrial means of production when filling in his request form for the aliens department of the Home Office. The application was accepted, but it hurt his pride.

When he joined in architectural practice with the English architect F. R. S. Yorke in 1935, Breuer did not have a formal architect's education. His furniture designs had first begun to develop while a student at the Bauhaus in Weimar, where he had arrived in 1920 - only the second year after the school's foundation by its director Walter Gropius. There had been no architectural courses but Breuer had forced his personality and talent on Gropius and moved into studying building design. A series of interior design jobs followed, mainly for stark and modern flats, with the furniture designed by Breuer. However, in 1932, he made a startling architectural debut with the Harnischmacher House in Wiesbaden. This house, a modern movement classic, had a short but well-publicised life, before being destroyed in the final days of the second world war.

When he died in 1981, the Hungarian-born Breuer was an American citizen and had recently retired as head of one of the finest architectural firms in the world. But even by this date, his large opus of buildings was overshadowed by the popularity of his furniture designs. Also undermining his architectural position was his mistake of clashing with the emerging building conservation lobby when he took on the job of erecting a skyscraper over New York's Grand Central Station, which his second design completely destroyed. The ensuing legal case, which began in the late 1960s and dragged on until the scheme was rejected in 1978, put Breuer's architectural reputation in the shade. "He was a good guy," commented a fellow architect, "who made a terrible mistake."

New Yorkers had to be reminded that Breuer was a good guy, and thus in 1981 the city's Museum of Modern Art put on an exhibition, opening three weeks before he died, of his furniture and interiors. The maverick young curator was Christopher Wilk, who has gone on to oversee the creation of the new British galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Wilk's scholarly catalogue became the Breuer furniture bible.

A study of Breuer's complete body of architecture has languished, until the publication of this book by Isabelle Hyman. Hyman is professor of fine arts at New York University, a respected architectural historian. She creates a skilfully researched and well-written monograph concentrating on Breuer's work rather than on his influential place in the modern movement. Having had the benefit of the large Breuer archive of correspondence and drawings at Syracuse University and the archives of American art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, she delivers a detailed investigation of the architect's career and buildings.

The first half of the book is a chronological history of Breuer as he progressed through the Bauhaus in the 1920s, spent two years as an emigre in Britain, moved on to America to work alongside Walter Gropius at Harvard University, and finally cracked his larger architectural career in private practice in New York City. The second half is a list of works, built and unbuilt. This section is irritatingly divided by building type, such as "institutional", which is then sub-divided into museums, libraries, schools and so on. Thus, when reading the essay, every time a building is mentioned and you wish to see an illustration you are forced to go back to the index. Flip-flip-flip.

So, has Breuer's architecture been resurrected? Yes, especially in the appreciation of his aesthetic use of concrete. In New York, his Whitney Museum of American Art - that slanted one-eye windowed, cubic, cantilevering ziggurat - is rivalled only by Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum for sheer panache. And little known - but one of the 20th-century's masterpieces of ecclesiastical building - is his Saint John's Abbey, Minnesota. It stands high on a hill, approached across the flat of the American mid-west plain, and is dominated by a spectacular slab campanile and honeycombed stained glass front. This is resurrection indeed.

Neil Bingham is curator of architectural drawings, Royal Institute of British Architects.

Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings

Author - Isabelle Hyman
ISBN - 0 8109 4265 8
Publisher - Abrams
Price - £55.00
Pages - 396

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