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A life in footnotes

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Breuer Houses By Joachim Driller. Phaidon, 2000. 272pp. £35

The footnotes of this monograph tell a story that is even more fascinating than the tour through the houses. They say more about Breuer, always in the right place at the right time with the right address book. They describe clients like Dr Harnischmacher, a manufacturer of shoe polish, who commissioned two Breuer houses. The first, from 1932, is pure Weimar; the other, from 1954, is Wirtschaftwunder (economic miracle). In the first you can see Klaus Maria von Brandauer in Mephisto; the second is straight out of Heimat.

And so it is with the American houses.

Connecticut in the 1950s: you wonder which John Updike novel you're in. Seeing architecture in this way, as woven into the structure of everyday life, is not what architects or their historians usually do. In Joachim Driller's study, Breuer's houses simply contribute to an evolving taxonomy of modern design, but the story in the footnotes is riveting and much more open-ended. Yet Driller does reveal an architect who went on exploring the private house as a building type when his grand contemporaries seemed to think it was beneath them.

Breuer is once again fashionable with the younger studio tutors.No surprise, then, that the interior of the Kniffin House looks so much like Helene Binet's monochrome images of Caruso St John's New Art Gallery, Walsall. Then there's Breuer dressed in designer-black fatigues, with a No 1 haircut, in a Wassily chair. (That chair, if launched in the 1980s, would have netted its designer more than a certain coffee pot. ) And, again in the footnotes, correspondence between Breuer and Ise Gropius is all in lower case helvetica: this Bauhaus affectation is all the rage again. The Modern Movement deluded itself that it was an engine of social reform, but it was only a fashion - a style accessory to consumerism whose moment has come round again.

More footnotes: we read how Breuer's assistants, Elliot Noyes and Harry Seidler, grappled with the balcony cantilever on the second Breuer House. Their structural naivety is illuminating: Modernism dropped more than upper case. Look at High-Tech buildings by UK architects in the last 25 years and you see umpteen solve this problem. It's because they tap into another tradition, the technological evolution from the Crystal Palace to the British Museum Great Court roof.

Breuer's former associate Herb Beckhart eventually extends his house and puts a stone wall under the balcony. This is all the more curious as Breuer emigrated to the USA with Konrad Wachsmann. You would have thought old Wachsmann, a structural genius if ever there was one, would have sorted out Breuer's cantilevers. As with structure, so it is with construction. What Breuer could only have done with silicone sealants and elastomeric roofing membranes, instead of those bargeboard details reminiscent of so many post-war houses by lesser lights.

The best houses, often in partnership with Gropius, Yorke, Roth, or Noyes, are fine - and modest by today's Long Island standards. But Breuer could be inconsistent and conjure up a hyperbolic parabola. There is no archetypal Jaoul, Eames or Farnsworth here: the corollary is that Breuer's clients came back time and again for more. And then the one nondomestic building illustrated in this volume is the Whitney Museum in New York, a big house. Essay question: Whitney and Walsall, compare and contrast.

Stephen Greenberg is director of Metaphor

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