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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Marcel Breuer

St. John's Abbey Church, 1954-61, Marcel Breuer

Marcel Breuer, 1969
Seldom has an architect been better known for what goes inside his buildings than the buildings themselves. Perhaps the only architect to ever be saddled with this distinction is the Hungarian-born modernist, Marcel Breuer. Born in 1902 of Jewish parentage, Breuer (pronounced BROY-er) decided he wanted to be an architect as a young child. At the age of eighteen he headed to Weimar, Germany, to become the youngest student in Walter Gropius' revolutionary Bauhaus Industrial Design School. There, with Gropius as his mentor, Breuer attended classes primarily in wood and metal fabrication. When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, Germany in 1925, Breuer joined the faculty as head of the carpentry shop. He was 22.

Breuer chairs--strikingly modern even by today's standards,
most were designed between 1920 and 1940.
Though continuing his studies in architecture, during the 1920s and 30s, Breuer was able to live off his design fees. As an architect, he was completely overshadowed by his seniors, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Gropius himself, who, nonetheless funneled interior design commissions in his own projects to Breuer. However, with the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, Breuer renounced his Jewish heritage and fled to London. Then in 1937, he followed Gropius to the U.S. and a faculty seat at Harvard where Gropius had become the chairman of the graduate school of design. Shortly before the war, Breuer left the relative comfort and security of Harvard to partner with Australian-born architect, Harry Seidler, in New York. Once the war ended, Breuer started his own firm and received his first major commission as an architect, the design of the Bertram Geller House (the first of two) on Long Island.
Geller I (Bertram Geller House), 1945, Lawrence, New York, Marcel Breuer
The 1945 Geller House (above) is a relatively pure example of Bauhaus International style--two long, low, rectilinear modules of wood, glass, and stone ideally adapted to its environment. Today it appears fairly commonplace. Virtually every city in America had hundreds quite similar. In 1945, its radical "binuclear" design with its lengthy, horizontal, ribbons of windows was not at all popular with Geller's conservative Lawrence, New York, neighbors. Breuer divided the layout into two section, the living area, and the sleeping area, connected by a glass entry foyer. Inside, he furnished the house with his own furniture designs. Some fourteen years later, it was no longer deemed radical, so in 1959, Geller commissioned Breuer to build him another new home nearby. The Geller II (below), constructed mostly of glass and reinforced concrete, was daring for its time and still today quite unusual, combining the traditional Bauhaus rectangle with a broad, sweeping, arched concrete roofline.

Geller II, 1959-69, Lawrence, New York, Marcel Breuer.
UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, 1958, Marcel Breuer
Whitney Museum of American Art, 1966,
Marcel Breuer
By the 1960s Marcel Breuer's reputation had grown apace with the importance of the buildings he designed. His 1958 UNESCO Headquarters in Paris (above) with its daring "Y" configuration and cluster of low-lying subsidiary offices, cemented his reputation as one of less than a half-dozen outstanding modernists, a leader in the second generation of Bauhaus architects. The UNESCO building was followed soon after by a similar office complex in 1963 housing the brand new Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Washington, D.C. (completed in 1968). About the same time, Breuer landed the commission for the new Whitney Museum of American Art on New York's Upper East Side. Though panned by critics at its completion in 1966, amid the glass and steel towers passing for Modernism at the time, today the inverted ziggurat has become an iconic city landmark while its rivals seem stale and dated.

Breuer's own home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, dating from 1949, says a lot about the migration from the architect's Bauhaus origins to the Modernism of his later works.
Marcel Breuer's most striking architectural commission came relatively early in his career, 1954, when he was hired to design an abbey church for St. John's College in Collegeville, Minnesota (top). It evolved into being the most strikingly modern (even radical) religious structure in the U.S. Instead of a bell tower, Breuer designed a bell banner,  a towering wall, punctuated by a central, rectangular window framing a cross while just below, a broad, low opening displays a row of five bells. The "banner" is mounted upon a cast reinforced-concrete "easel" fronting a honeycomb fa├žade of glass. A simple, Bauhaus "box" beneath the "easel" provides entry into the column-free sanctuary arranged in such a way that seating surrounds the altar on three sides, drawing worshippers into an intimate association with those celebrating mass. It was fortunate he was no longer Jewish.

The Wolfson House, 1949-60, may represent the most unusual assignment
Breuer ever received, the design of a house to be built around a travel trailer
(the opposite side of this photo).


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