In his element
Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings By Isabelle Hyman. Abrams, 2001. 384pp. £55 'This America is a hard place, 'Marcel Breuer wrote to a London associate in 1937, 'but I prefer it to our shaky idealism in England.'
Lured to America by Walter and Ise Gropius, Museum of Modern Art director Alfred Barr and the president of Harvard, Breuer correctly realised he was a perfect fit for that hard place.
Born in Hungary in 1902, Breuer was nothing if not pragmatic. As a 25-year-old head of department at the Bauhaus, he successfully ran a company to manufacture his furniture; his only design manifesto or 'basic philosophy', written with Peter Blake, is barely two pages in length.
Sigfried Giedion, for whom he designed the Doldertal apartment houses in Zurich, claimed that Breuer personified the 'new modern spirit' and by the 1950s was 'the most illustrious architect in America. . . second only to Mies'. Yet Breuer is remembered better for his furniture than for his architecture.
Isabelle Hyman's meticulously researched and beautifully illustrated new book sets out to prove that, as an architect, Breuer was one of the major 'form givers' of the 20th century.
His architecture career is 'uneven in quality', she says, but his 'transgression was to have mastered two skills instead of one'. While claiming that his architecture was 'extraordinary in breadth and effect', she does stop short of placing it on the level of Gropius, his teacher and mentor.
Hyman points out that it was always Breuer's intention to design on the scale of buildings. While he had no formal architectural education, he believed that Modern architecture called for standardised types, which could easily be transferred from one medium to another.
In fact, Breuer designed a seven-storey, seven-bay terraced block of flats in 1923 - a year before the design for his famous Wassily chair.A German critic claimed that this vertical slab 'created an entirely new type of building which years later became communally accepted as an integral component of modern apartment architecture'. Hyman vacillates on how far Breuer's furniture influenced his architecture, but says this early slab design 'corresponded to a number of his contemporary pieces of wood furniture'.
'The Emigre Years', a chapter on Breuer's three-year stay in London, details one of the most interesting periods in his life. Encouraged to emigrate from Hitler's Germany by the Gropiuses, they secured him a flat in the Isokon building and a partnership with FRS Yorke. The new partners quickly found work, starting auspiciously with a job for furniture manufacture Crofton Gane where they renovated a dining room with 'white painted corrugated asbestos sheeting'.
Breuer was never happy in London but his years there were important in his development as an architect. Hyman points to the 'Garden City of the Future' he designed then, as 'the most significant formalist invention of [his] career, furnishing him with architectural capital for the rest of his life'. It consolidated his experiences with architecture since 1922, and - in terms of city planning, housing, structure, and materials - prepared him for large urban projects.
Hyman believes that Breuer's troubled experience in England was inevitable as he and more than Modernists were 'swimming against a tide of aesthetic conservatism'.
Perhaps, though, he was simply more attracted by career prospects in America as Britain was gearing up for war.
At any rate, his move to the US brought Breuer huge professional rewards. By the time he retired in 1976, his practice had more commissions than any other office there, with over 150 buildings constructed on four continents (and 100 designed but not built).
But, just as in his youth, Breuer participated in the creation of Modernism at the Bauhaus, so his final years hastened the demise of Sachlichkeit rationalism.
In 1986, Michael Graves proposed a PostModern addition to the Whitney Museum in New York. It would have subsumed Breuer's original concrete block into a melange of architectural styles, and he and many Modernists were outraged. However, to Hyman's credit, she highlights how Breuer's own design for the Whitney likewise overwhelmed the residential row-houses nearby, and finally, how his controversial 1967 skyscraper at 175 Park Avenue, New York, subsumed Grand Central Station.
Whatever one thinks of Breuer's architecture (and even Hyman believes his final years were marked by buildings that relied on tired formulas), he produced some landmark structures, including the House in a Museum Garden at MOMA and, above all, the Whitney. Moreover, he had a powerful influence on commercial, corporate, institutional and residential architecture in the cold-war period. Hyman's book gives us the full picture: it is a balanced record of a 'modern spirit'.
William Menking is an architectural historian Marcel Breuer designed 100 houses,68 of which were built - 10 in Europe and 58 in the US. Phaidon's book on them, spanning the whole of Breuer's career, relied on archive images and looked rather grey (AJ 26.4.01). Marcel Breuer:15 American Houses (Gustavo Gili,144pp, £19.50) shows a selection in colour as they are now, with an insightful essay by Antonio Armesto. Pictured is the Grieco House, Andover, MA, 1954-55.