By Francesca Panseri
On October 20, 1942, Peggy Guggenheim inaugurated her New York museum-gallery, Art of This Century, designed by Frederick Kiesler (1890–1965).
[He] was the most advanced architect of the century [...]. He was a little man about five feet tall with a Napoleon complex. He was an unrecognized genius, and I gave him a chance, after he had been in America fifteen years, to create something really sensational. He told me that I would not be known to posterity for my collection of paintings, but for the way he presented them to the world in his revolutionary setting.
Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century (London: Andre Deutsch, 1979), p. 270.
Art of This Century was an enchanted forest, where visitors could get close to the works, be hypnotized by intermittent or fluorescent lighting and by curved and soft walls, and further stunned by the metamorphosis of multi-use furniture. Despite the successful opening, Guggenheim and Kiesler could not share the stage together for long and their relationship deteriorated. They would reconcile later, thanks to a party and Guggenheim’s disguise as a mauvais garçon. In her memoirs, Peggy wrote that if she had ever settled permanently in the United States, Kiesler would have designed her home.
Who is Frederick John Kiesler?
Frederick Kiesler was a multifaceted artist, architect, set designer, and sculptor who was best known for his utopian projects, exhibition installations, and the theory of Correalism.
He was born in 1890 in Czernowitz, in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, and trained as an architect in Vienna in the early 1900s. He was welcomed into avant-garde circles and had the opportunity to collaborate with Adolf Loos, El Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy and Theo van Doesburg. He began to work in theater and in 1924 he designed the Internationale Ausstellung neuer Theatertechnik (International Exhibition of New Theatre Technique) for the Vienna Music and Theater Festival, developing the concept of space stage. Two years later he was invited to New York to participate in the design of the International Theater Exposition at Steinway Hall and decided to establish his home in the city. While pursuing his holistic reflection on architecture, together with the students of the Columbia University School of Architecture he began a partnership with the Surrealists. In 1949 he published the “Manifesto of Correalism” and designed the installation of the “Salle Superstition” for the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, organized by Marcel Duchamp and André Breton at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. In 1950 he completed and exhibited the first model of the Endless House at the Kootz Gallery in New York. During the last years of his life and together with his friend Armand Phillip Bartos, he was engaged in the conception and construction of the second architectural work he ever built, the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. The building was inaugurated in April 1965, a few months before his death.
Kiesler’s masterpiece was his forty years long theoretical work on the concept of the home. He envisioned the house as a womb, in that it was a protected space, free from external noise, and a space where one could recalibrate and collect oneself. The house could not remain the functional and sterile construction extolled by modernists. Instead it needed to be a circular and fluid entity which easily integrated with the surrounding natural environment and the physiological and psychological needs of its inhabitants. The house evolves just as plant and animal species do. He first applied these reflections in the Space House (1933) by utilizing an eggshell shape with no rigid vertical elements but irregular divisions between the rooms creating environments in which the automatic regulation of temperature, light, color and the combination of materials were designed to enhance human performance. His design criteria gave more importance to the nature of the space rather than the structure that encompasses it. In order to develop this project, Kiesler studied several central European theories on the effect of architecture on human metabolic energy. These were psychological, physiological, and thermodynamic studies. In the 1940s he elaborated the philosophical concept of Correalism, based on the dynamics of continual interaction between the forces governing organic and inorganic matter in this world. The architect-scientist had to capture and use these forces to convey positive charges towards man and reject negative ones. Functionality, so dear to modernists, became a shifting concept which adapted to the continuous rearrangement of the man-nature-objects balance. This theory should have favored the development of new standards for architecture and design which were no longer static but in perpetual evolution, and no longer based on aesthetics but on well-being. The Endless House embodies the concepts of Correalism: a curvilinear structure with an oval perimeter and a layout which resembles the cross section of a heart with atria and ventricles. The interior is organized in such a way that human life can, literally, flow through it. There are no walls, only movable partitions; the light expands and contracts according to the movements of people; and the infiltration of the external environment is carefully controlled. While the visionary Endless House was never constructed and remained at its design level, “it was not just a building, it was an organism subjected to the continuous evolutionary pressures of Kiesler’s creative consciousness.” (Endless Kiesler, edited by K. Bollinger and F. Medicus, 2015, p. 83.)