CELAN HOUSE: MARCEL BREUER
PART 1: REM KOOLHAAS
Celan House is an unusual experiment. It is a unique encounter with symbolic construction. A prototype of performance and composition predicating modernism. It is an anticipation, and therefore an inauguration. Marcel Breuer knew that the strategy of winners is repetition, but nothing in this house alludes to the previous or even the next one. The only similarity with other constructions by this architect is the division of the plan into multiple zones of light and shade, as he used in his UNESCO project and later in the church of St. John’s Abbey with its prefabricated concrete elements.
Breuer had lost control over his contradictions and was living a romance with construction which, in a way, was the driving force of modernism from Carlyle and Marx toTatlin or Le Corbusier. The story of this house is confused, but we do know that Breuer was sealed off at all times, buried alive in the three houses he built for himself.
When he found an east-west-oriented valley in Wellfleet Massachusetts, with a river in one corner that growled like a muffled engine, a dry slope surrounded by ancient oak and ash trees and horizons delimited between a precipice that insinuated the sea in the background, he recalled his encounter, alongside Pier Luigi Nervi, with poet Paul Celan, in Paris in1954. He – the poet – confessed to him that all poetic construction is no more than the search for a home, for a place to live in and that ultimately, every poem can be mechanised as a strategy of inhabiting, which is possessing. As long as you do not possess that mythical place, as long as you do not inhabit, in the fashion of Thoreau, the Adamic cabin, you are not capable of loving or of being loved, because every house/poem is no more than that interjection, that acceptance of people with whom you wish to inhabit. Our entire life is the preparation for that encounter, which encompasses a location and a building. Therefore, a warning of oneself based on the situation, on the positioning of a “presence” on the location. The metrics in architecture are no different from those of poetry; it is a scale, a measurement for continuation.
Like Adolf Loos with the Tristan Tzara House or the project for the house that was never built for Josephine Baker, Breuer immediately thought of the way to create the house/poem Paul Celan had spoken of to him and in Wellfleet he had found the crotch in which to execute it. An execution designed through the poet, in short, of the sublimity of poetic language but based on the architectural language of brutalism. Bearing in mind that Celan had no economic means to defray the costs of the house on the outskirts of Paris, in Passy, for which it was originally intended, it would be designed in Massachusetts for Breuer himself and his family as a reiteration, that is, as a repetition of what had been said and assimilated.
In 1958, four years after its completion, when Celan visited Breuer in Wellfleet at the house that bore his name, he exclaimed that the association of those expelled from the world should be founded there.
Curiously enough, the Celan House was demolished on 18th April 1970; two days later Paul Celan threw himself off of the Mirabeau bridge into the cold waters of the Seine.
PART 2: PHILIP JOHNSON
Celan House, without a doubt, is Breuer’s most singular house and one of the most paradoxical constructions of the modern movement in architecture. If we remember that over those same years - 1954/58 - Mies van der Roheand I built the Seagram Building in Park Avenue, we realise that Breuer was moving away from that quasi-“Mies-sianic” direction, as I liked to express and define it then, because everyone built using steel and glass from that moment on. And yet Breuer established shapes through concrete, based on textures, actually. He combined stone, wood, the motifs of formwork and the grains of the concrete. This was undoubtedly a legacy from his years at Bauhaus. But in the Celan House, he elaborated on that principle of contrast and accentuated it with yellow perimeter lines that traced the shapes and highlighted their spatiality. This house is fascinating because it is ex-central, he was ahead of his time, he initiated principals of brutalism and in Cape Cod, in Wellfleet, he established a rarity which, if it had not been located in the middle of nowhere, would have been a place of worship. All architects wish, at least once in their career, to establish that principle of freedom without being conditioned by the age and the rules that spontaneously emerge from it. The fact that it was subsequently destroyed, demolished, that this order succumbed to absence, as Harry Seidler said, to annihilation, makes that house something inapprehensible and outlawed. I do not know if that is the reason for its ostracism, for its exclusion; Paul Celan had written because words must not have a cemetery. That was a wonderful exercise in redemption.
I remember that Mies would not forgive me, although he never showed it to me openly, for having studied at Harvard and having had Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius as my professors.
PART 3: WALTER GROPIUS
I went twice to the construction of the Alworth/Starkey House that Breuer designed between 1954 and 1955 in Duluth, Minnesota. This enthusiastic house on the slope with a distinctive view over Lake Superior was formidable. On my last visit Marcel spoke nostalgically to me of the first Breuer house which we built together in Lincoln in 1938, and he reflected to me on what he defined as the house/poem that had never heard him up to that moment. In that year, 1954,we both had more jobs than we could handle, almost, so I was surprised that he was planning another personal house in Wellfleet, which he distinguished as Celan-style, in the supposition that the latter had different metrics, a space free of tendency designed in accordance with what Simmel called the Stimmung or spiritual tonality of the landscape; based on the psychic and reflexive state of the observer or on the actual subconscious of the things that establish the order of the landscape. It was madness to work in these terms, but Breuer was literally fascinated by his new dwelling, by the Celan House and the concept of the landscape as a kind of extension of the land that acquires unity and independence thanks to the attention somebody pays it, and which acts as an automatic reflex of a canon that is established immediately but which shows signs of multiple transformations. When I visited him at the Celan House a year later with Harry Seidler, he took out a book by Paul Celan and read us a text that was halfway between architecture and poetry.
PART 4: PAUL CELAN
Building houses above desperation because he who has words is denied language. He who submits to language… he is found by words, too. There are eyes that reach the bottom of things. That glimpse the bottom. And there are others that go deep into things. They do not see the bottom. But they go deeper.
On the way to God, the saints beat you to death; every architecture is always that restitution, that reinstatement. Anyone who does not give architecture the force of resistance of the immediate has never built anything.
You do not know it, and you do not know why you do not know it, in every place where thoughts gather, that not knowing is revealed to you in its unrecognisable origin, in a different figure every time, although it is a figure of vague profiles, in a moment you have directed your gaze, you make it wander left and right, here and there, in all the directions you know you are present, you believe you are present, to all the places where you have existed, where your spirit took you, blew you, laid you out.
In the parts of that not knowing, of that not being recognisable, where you find vague forms of yourself, build. Flood the rooms with light and then dwell. Dwelling scales architecture up or down, and to a large extent it consolidates it.
PART 5: LE CORBUSIER
In 1954, Breuer accompanied me, along with a young I.M.Pei, on a work visit to the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp. They were both fascinated by the use of exposed concrete. But as Pei admired the sculptural formation of the chapel, I was surprised that Breuer asked all his questions about the detection he had noted between the holy relationship of the hill and the area surrounding it: the Jura mountains in the distance and the hill with a horizon visible on all four sides dominating the landscape. He humbly expressed to me that anyone who walks in the pleasure of contemplating the surroundings emerges as the protagonist in the theatre of nature. At the time Marcel Breuer was designing St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, and through the good offices of the Abbey, already had the Convent of the Annunciation project in Bismarck approved. But he did not appear to be thinking about the Benedictine abbey, or the university attached to it, or of the convent he planned to build on an arid tableland above the Missouri Valley. He spoke to me of the landscape in Wellfleet, and of the Celan House, but not in a descriptive way - in a moment he was developing an abstract concept intended to reconcile the experience of the modification of shapes and the demand for the continuity of life. Here in Ronchamp, he told me, one does not know where to situate oneself because any position validates itself. In a panorama you cannot describe the position because you are at the original centre. I was flattered that Breuer should feel so “impressed” by the chapel’s location. Actually, on a previous meeting in 1950, he had already expressed to me his interest in my concept of the machine for living in, he was fascinated by the functional component of the house and how functionality must be used for the purpose of living from a metaphysical point of view. At the time Breuer had already been very successful with his binuclear houses: the Geller House was the first to use this concept, as it had the public and private areas of the house in two wings separated and divided by the entrance hall. When I visited the Celan House in 1956 this concept had been diluted, as the landscape signified absence of plan and programme; in the landscape there are no unitary images.
THE MADELEINE HOUSE: ERICH MENDELSOHN
PART 1: KENNETH FRAMPTON
The Madeleine House was completed in April of 1953 and would be the last finished work Erich Mendelsohn left during his lifetime. “If I am permitted to do so, he said back then, I would like to start over precisely at the point I reached through my first sketches, considering all that took place since then as the preparatory phase for a new, final creative stage”. He died of cancer five months later, on 15th September. And with him, so did the Emanu-El Community Centre in Dallas and the monument to the six million dead under Nazism he was to build in Riverside Park, New York as a testament.
The Madeleine House was constructed in Indian Tree near Stafford Lake Park in Novato, close to San Francisco. It was an exceptional work, in its dual sense, in that of immission and inspiration and in that of irregularity, abnormality or being out of context. It was an experimental whim, a stroke of genius on which its creator managed to bestow form, exteriority. Mendelsohn himself was so aware of this that he thought this work would lead him to occupy the place in history that Sigfried Giedion had denied him in his architectural bible: Space, Time and Architecture, and which, at the time, had led the architect to angrily rip out the pages that linked cubism and the theory of relativity and send them to Albert Einstein, for whom he had made an observatory tower in Potsdam in 1924 to validate the theory of relativity and house a solar refractor telescope and a spectrograph. From that moment on this work became the most famous icon of expressionist architecture.
The Madeleine House is partly linked to the Russell House Erich Mendelsohn built in 1951, in Pacific Heights at 3778 Washington Street in San Francisco. A formidable house commissioned by Madeleine Haas Russell and Leon B. Russell which even today is still one of the great residential jewels of the city of San Francisco. Back then Madeleine Haas Russell, (the grand-niece of Levi Strauss, the Jewish entrepreneur from Buttenheimin Bavaria who settled in San Francisco in 1853, the founder of Levi Strauss & Co, and heir to the Haas family fortune) spoke to Mendelsohn of her wish to build a sanctuary in Indian Tree.
The idea was to make a house integrated into nature for losing oneself. Losing oneself means living space and time differently, with no presupposition or aim. In this diasporic sense of wandering, of losing oneself, Mendelsohn knew that there was no possible landscape other than in exile. Madeleine Haas Russell, who would lend her name to the house, however, wished to establish a house from which one would be able to relate to the landscape and organise a discourse with regard to it; what Eric Dardel defined as “cultural geography” in L´Homme et la Terre, published 1952 in Parisand which Mendelsohn spoke to her of in relation to the evidence that the only habitat is the geographical one.
Mendelsohn had barely finished the Russell House when he started designing the freest house he had undertaken until then, and one of the most sensual and heterodox ones architecture has ever conceived. Etimologizing, he said, is the task of those who come later with a nominalist spirit.
PART 2: FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
In 1953, when Mendelsohn completed his Madeleine project, I was completing the J. Boomer house in Phoenix, Arizona, which I believe had the same objective of distancing from the city as human enrichment. I first met Erich Mendelsohn in 1924, and then we would meet again in 1941; we saw each other on his seventieth birthday in Taliesin West in 1947, and again in 1948… he visited me whenever he could, I admired his nomadic disposition.
His expressivity in lines and lack of interest for the prototypes developed and mass production excluded him from some manuals and some circles of exegetes, although it is true that the Madeleine House would have put him on the altar had it not been for his sudden death. Here nature met modular repeatability, and the lightest materials, organic forms. But also the use of the wall as a membrane from which to incorporate oneself into the impressions from the outside using light, which is an abstract concept that inundates good architecture. Mendelsohn was fascinated by my Usonian homes conceived in the late ‘twenties and early ‘thirties, in the times of the economic recession, when I began establishing an architecture of cheaper, simpler materials and therefore an architecture capable of contributing to social transformation. They were houses for the Usonians, the typical American inhabitant. For Victor Hugo, architecture was the grand residue of the great buildings that wrote the record of a theocratic, feudalistic, theological, philosophical, aristocratic mankind. Victor Hugo did not foresee the architect who would work in genuine liberty depending on different employers and different needs. The Madeleine House makes me respect Mendelsohn in the way I respected Sullivan or I respect the young Lautner.
PART 3: BUCKMINSTER FULLER
To fulfil our ultimate cosmic functioning we needed the telescope and microscope, having only within the present century discovered that almost all the Universe is invisible. We are here as local-Universe information-gatherers. We note that exploring with the spectroscope, photo-telescope and radio telescope, humans only recently have travelled informationally to discover about two billion galaxies with an average of 100 billion stars each, all existing within astronomy’s present 11.5 billion-light-years’ radial reach in all directions of the vastness around us.
Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower is a fascinating building as an observatory of this cosmos. Through it, in Potsdam, we have access to the design principles of the Universe. Architecture is an achievement of innovation, and as such must be at the service of local data gathering, of scientific nature and of the knowledge that helps regenerate nature. I produced Dymaxion House in 1944-46, on normal scale, and it weighed the three tonnes I had calculated and published it would weigh when I designed it from 1927-29, which would demonstrate both its structural and its economic effectiveness. All contemporary architecture moves away from the parameters of calculation according, or in this case disaccording, to its ornament or beauty. The residential house has never had parameters of constructive reliability because it alienates itself from plausibility in relation to these aesthetic standards typical of the epochal circularity. Mendelsohn’s Madeleine House is one of the exceptions, it is a house that establishes synergies with the integrity or the totality of the surrounding space, its weight is appropriate, the use of materials explores the aerospace industry. It is a residential dwelling, but also a prototype that makes mass production possible. It is the basis of ephemeralization as technologically, in this house the maximum is achieved with the minimum.
PART 4: BERNARD TSHUMI
Erich Mendelsohn is an incontestable architect who, paradoxically, was suppressed or obviated by Sigfried Giedion in Space, Time and Architecture, questioned by Manfredo Tafuriin Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology, where he indicates that his projects are self-publicizing architecture and the creation of persuasive monuments in the service of commercial capital, and recovered by Bruno Zevi who found in him affinities with Arnold Schönberg and Frank Lloyd Wright. Valued, too, by historian Renato de Fusco; Mendelsohn ultimately appears to demonstrate that expressionism is a component of modern architecture that disappears and re-emerges continuously in historical evolution and in the life of every architect and that Wright, Gropius, Le Corbusier or Mies Van der Rohe suffered expressionist experiences. Expressionism emerges whenever its death is decreed.
The minority vanguard, indicates Zevi, seeks to become the vanguard of the masses; its unusual “words” have the pretension of belonging to the “language” of all. However, it is symptomatic that the more communicative words that expressionism and the organic coined are, during the rationalisation process, censored and forgotten.
When I think of the later presence of Mendelsohn and specifically, of his Madeleine House from 1953, I see his imaginary sketches made on the Russian front, drawn during the night, in 1917. In short, I see architecture freed from all critical questioning. Genuine architecture, although in the Madeleine House we observe the economics and organic knowledge so often dialectically explored with Frank Lloyd Wright, where the landscape is connected to the presence of a horizon in the framework of a mute, wild presence that precedes all institutions and all meaning. The landscape in this formidable house acts as an approach of things. Nothing is frustrated, elided, the experience of the house is not compressive but tectonic, it is shaped around the relief of the terrain. It is not difficult to imagine that, from the platforms and sunny spots of the Madeleine House one could have a near-cultic experience encircled by 230 acres of conserved space west of Novato.
When the state of California ordered the demolition of the Madeleine House, many things failed to occur, many architectural resolves were halted. After the brightness…flight.
PART 5: PETER EISENMAN
When I think of Erich Mendelsohn’s Madeleine House I immediately think of destruction. Because one of his three emblematic buildings, along with the Einstein Tower and the Schocken Department Store, and the last of his career, was demolished with such alacrity that it did not have time or space to gain a foothold in the historical memory. When I was preparing the publication of Ten Canonical Buildings, 1950-2000 I always thought of including Mendelsohn’s Madeleine House in the book. In the end I inclined towards Mies’ Farnsworth House. I did not include the house, which the architect had designed for Madeleine Haas Russell in Indian Tree, as I understood that its demolition and its folly had minimised its historical scope. In a way, architecture is measured by its destructivity, but there must always be a period of ruination. Immediate suppression creates an anomaly, a historical imbalance, as it is denied precept and illustration, that is, its apostolate or instruction. Without disciples, architecture becomes tentative but not tropological.
This construction, which could not be legalised because it was planned on a plot of land in a park, which was later protected, paradoxically – given its eco-environmental planning – ended up being an attack on the environment.
The attack was attacked, for many it was iconoclasm, for others the recovery of unspoiled land. For some it was terrorism against the symbolisation and the generic of art and architecture, for others it was the establishment of a natural order. Was the model of “idolatry of ownership” attacked and mutilated, or was it an attack on cultural property? Given the conservation of historical monuments, was there not a better solution than “legal vandalism”? Is justice, as an institution, exempt from categorising excellence if it is not appropriate or not planned in a valid place? Was it not artistic heritage and therefore, was there political illegitimacy? Could its conservation, expropriation and public use not be considered? The fact is that the Madeleine House is now no more than the fresh stench of the earth, the destruction and restitution of plants with rounded foliage, with woody stumps on eroded soil.