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Reassembling Schwitters

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Kurt Schwitters’ lifetime architectural /sculptural project, the Merzbau, exerts immense synergies and influences in the field of architecture, say osaoffice for subversive architecture

‘Merz is sensing without knowing’ Kurt Schwitters, 1920.

The forthcoming exhibition about Kurt Schwitters at Tate Britain gives us a great opportunity to consider the artist’s work and, in particular, how the Merzbau, his lifetime architectural and sculptural project, has influenced architecture.

Merzbau is a strange name. It suggests a building, but in fact it is an internal transformation of an existing building or envelope.

In Hanover, transforming the interior between 1923 and 1936, Schwitters created his first Merzbau in his parents’ house. It became a collage of art and architecture, which grew over time into a space full of stalagmites and stalactites, a grotto-like space which he filled with various personal objects – sometimes found and sometimes even stolen from friends and family.

The image we have of the Merzbau today is a static snapshot

Several rooms were transformed in an on-going process which was not meant to finish. The process only came to a drastic end when the Merzbau was destroyed by Allied bombing raid during World War II, by which time Schwitters was already exiled in Norway. Distraught by the news, the artist continued to create further Merzbauten – one in Norway and later the Merzbarn in Elterwater in the Lake District. The image we have of the Merzbau today is a static snapshot, its formal expression a reflection of an emotional intuition fuelled by the longing for an otherness and absence of a fixed image.

‘Merz’ is a method of rearranging collected objects such as papers, timber, wire, text snippets and paint

In order to understand the complexity of the Merzbau, one has to look into the technique of ‘Merz’ – a method of rearranging collected objects such as papers, timber, wire, text snippets and paint. Schwitters used to create 2D collages as well as the three-dimensional Merzbauten. In fact he went further, extending his urge to dissolve the common perception of space and its limits by creating a hybrid of a child-like language (Urlaut) and sounds, which were arranged in the so-called Ursonate (‘rakete rinnzekete fö /rakete rinnzekete böwö’).

When osa had the opportunity to work on the Merzen project at the CUBE Gallery in Manchester (AJ 26.01.12), we realised just how powerful the idea of rearranging collected objects or waste can be. By recomposing these materials, new spatial relations and configurations were created, giving the materials an unexpected new meaning. Schwitters talks in this context about the ‘detoxification of material’: a beautiful description of how the essence of things changes as soon as they are taken out of context and are used in different ways. This leads to infinite possibilities of playful and experimental ways of reconfiguring materials and, as a consequence, the space itself.

As with city development, the Merz technique deals with the transformation of materials

As with city development, the Merz technique deals with the transformation of materials through their application and installation, as well as the transformation of the overall system as a reaction to addition and overwriting.

Merz could therefore also be seen as an organisational strategy, a process-driven method which could potentially be implemented into modern urban planning. It is already common practice to make space for change within master planning strategies. Within the contemporary pluralistic city, for example, existing relationships are shifting through continuous surprising and unexpected interrelations of single elements, while new relationships are continuously being uncovered. All this happens without a descriptive manual. One could argue that the principle of Merz was ahead of its time, even leapfrogging many aspects of Modernism. 

The Merzbau has immense synergies and influences in the field of architecture

The Merzbau has immense synergies and influences in the field of architecture. Maybe it has not influenced architecture directly, but we can see the method of Merz within architecture.

It is evident in the work of Schwitters’ contemporaries such as his friend El Lissitzky, as well as Bruno Taut, Hans Scharoun and Antoni Gaudí, where Expressionistic and Constructivist ideas were reflected. After the war, collectives such as Archigram or Coop Himmelb(l)au took on the experimental aspects of Merz. More recently, architects such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Peter Eisenman have often been linked to Schwitters as they look to overcome fixed and traditional approaches. And in her book Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau: The Cathedral of Erotic Misery, Elizabeth Burns Gamard writes: ‘It has been suggested that Rem Koolhaas’ architectural research and practice contains traces of both the method and content of Schwitters’ unique approach to assemblage.’

Most recently, practices such as Superbüro (Kaltwasser and Koeberling), KARO Architekten and Superuse Studios are part of a new generation of architects which embrace the Merz method of re-use, rearranging materials in a dialogue with social issues. Meanwhile Peter Zumthor and 6A are known for works in which the layering of psychology and history of space is evident – and which could be linked to the emotional and intuitive aspect of Merz. As Schwitters said: ‘I demand the Merzarchitecture: 1. The Merzconcept for the architecture 2. The Merzlike use of architecture for a new Gestaltung.’

The Merz method has not even fulfilled its holistic idea. It is timeless.

Anja Ohliger, Karsten Huneck and Bernd Truempler, osa – office for subversive architecture


Exhibition: Schwitters in Britain, Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1, 30 January until 12 May, £10

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