Marcel Breuer – the last modernist

by NJ McGarrigle

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St. John’s Abbey and University, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1953-68; bell- banner and church. Picture credit: Peter Sieger

There is an arresting photograph of Marcel Breuer sitting in the upper-floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It is 1967, a year after his building has opened and Breuer, dressed in a smart suit, and in an armchair with his back to one of the museum’s signature trapezoid windows, looks as if he is explaining something – perhaps trying to justify something.

From the picture one gets a sense that this was something he had been used to throughout his long career; even here, in his most popular (eventually) and best-known building.

If Breuer was spelling something out, then he didn’t look troubled by it: his body language has vim, even with him slouching slightly to the right in the chair, which was probably to soften his imposing frame. What would have exasperated Breuer though, and is not easily explained away, is that in the 35 years since his death, he is primarily remembered for his furniture designs, while his architectural works have been largely overshadowed. But an impressive and weighty new monograph by Robert McCarter (published by Phaidon Press) should realign Breuer’s position in the canon of modern masters, however.

When he died, Breuer was hailed as “the last modernist”. McCarter bumps him up the VIP list in a club that includes Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe (a place that always had something of a rarefied air).

McCarter calls Breuer “the last of the first moderns and the first of the last moderns” thanks to a career spanning 50 years that saw him criss-crossing many bridges of the so-called International Style, before embarking on his own artistic course in a combination of iconic private houses and public buildings in Europe and the United States.

Breuer was among the first students in the Bauhaus at the birth of modernism and, towards the latter part of his career, he readily swam against the flood of steel and glass that was defining modernism’s dull death.

Once Breuer discovered the malleability of reinforced concrete, a beautiful relationship was formed, with béton brut (raw concrete) being used to memorable effect in the building of the Unesco headquarters in Paris (1952-58), with the collaboration of Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss.

Phaidon’s tome covers 100 buildings and 24 furniture designs, and is a joy to spend time over, with its beautiful array of photographs, and McCarter’s exhaustive – but never exhausting – text on the designs (for a useful measuring stick on the depth of detail, here is McCarter on Flainé, a ski resort by Breuer built in the 1960s: “the wood is doussié, similar to teak, imported from Cameroon in French West Africa”).

Breuer’s ideas on architecture were made manifest in his practice, not in polemics, so the written documentation McCarter has to work on by his subject is limited. The author does a satisfying excavation job nonetheless, and we learn a little more about what made Breuer tick: he was sceptical of dogma; he was to have been a much-loved teacher; and he managed to both build his commissions and run a successful practice at the same time – a rare feat. (He also employed an unusual number of women in those old-fashioned days).

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UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France, 1952-8; lobby and promenade of Secretariat. Picture credit: Fonds Zehrfuss.

Before writing this book McCarter was already an admirer of Breuer (as was I), and I’m happily in agreement with him on what he regards as Breuer’s greatest architectural work: St John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota (1953-68). That said, the tone is objective and the author does not spare the critical rod when it is warranted: many of Breuer’s houses went over budget, while some of the large public buildings had serious overheating problems inside, for example.

But, all things considered, it is time to rightfully rank Breuer alongside Mies, Wright and Le Corbusier, and this publication should aid that cause. Many believe his position of architectural greatness would have already been secured but for the remoteness of his best work (that fact that it is sited on the rolling plains of Minnesota means few people get to see St John’s). Breuer’s reticence to pronounce from upon high, or put forward jargonistic soundbites – unlike some others – did not help his case for future recognition either.

If Breuer were alive he would likely have been diffident at the thought of any fuss being made over his legacy. But that would only be true to form. Those who worked with him or knew him well said he was always both self-deprecating and self-effacing. As he once stated in a letter to a friend: “All my life I have been wondering how somebody can be a genius from morning to evening.”

Breuer by Robert McCarter is published by Phaidon Press.

  • Article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement

 

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Resort Town of Flaine, Haute-Savoie, France, 1960-9; view from below of Grand Hotel (Le Flaine). Picture credit: Yves Guillernaut

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