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MARCEL BREUER
 
 
 
 
  Name   Marcel Lajos Breuer 
       
  Born   May 21, 1902
       
  Died   July 1, 1981
       
  Nationality   USA
       
  School   BAUHAUS
     
  Official website    
       
       
     
 
BIOGRAPHY        
   

Marcel Breuer was a master of scale. His designs ranged from the human anatomical scale of the chair to the domestic scale of his modern houses, the urban street scale of the museum, and the monumental scale of major international commissions. To observe these varied designs, Breuer’s Bauhaus steel tubular chair (1928); his own houses in Lincoln, Massachusetts (1939), and New Canaan, Connecticut (1947); the Whitney Museum of American Art (1966) in New York City; and the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Headquarters (1958) in Paris will serve as excellent examples selected from his long career.

Breuer’s tubular steel cantilevered chair is a primary legacy of the Bauhaus, recalled now in both its original and its ubiquitous copied forms. Breuer had come to the Bauhaus to follow Walter Gropius’s belief that good design for mass production through the machine would improve living conditions for the common man. It was here, in the highly charged, creative atmosphere of prewar Germany, that Breuer first exhibited his talent, advancing from student to Bauhaus master of the furniture design work-shop. The machine imagery of the Bauhaus is evident in two ways in the Breuer Bauhaus chair: first, it is a prototype for repetitive machine production, and, second, the materials of the tubular steel chair replicate the materials of another type of machine: the bicycle, a modernist icon.

Breuer further experimented with furniture, especially in bent plywood, producing his successful Isokon chair (1935) for an advanced London design firm. Isokon Furniture Company was really a rescue mission for Bauhaus refugees such as Breuer and Gropius, affording them employment and exit visas from Nazi Germany. Breuer was a very fortunate man to be helped early in his career by influential people such as Gropius and J.C. Pritchard, Isokon’s founder. Pritchard supported Bauhaus refugees while they got on their feet, offering design commissions as well as stipends and living quarters in Isokon Flats, Hampstead, London. In return for Pritchard’s largesse, Breuer produced some of the finest works to come out of the Isokon design line.

Gropius further aided Breuer when, after they both emigrated from Britain to the United States, Gropius brought Breuer to Harvard University to teach in the revamped design school and formed a working partnership with him as well. This led to their collaboration on an architectural compound of modern houses in rural Lincoln, Massachusetts: the Woods End Colony. Here, émigré Breuer built his first American house design for himself and began a major thread of his career in inventive forms of distinctly American domestic flavor. Domestic works of textural American wood and fieldstone, with clean lines and openness, became Breuer’s first big success, as he increasingly moved away from Gropius’s European white cubic architecture, eventually conceiving his signature two-wing house plan.

Breuer’s Lincoln house is transitional, employing echoes of his earlier European white-box roots together with his new American tactileness, and relates both to his British Ganes Pavilion (1936) in Bristol and to Gropius’s work. Breuer’s American style was fully developed by the time he built his later house for himself in New Canaan, a simple statement of lightweight cantilevered construction, a wooden “crate” within rolling landscape. It is interesting to note that the cantilever form, which would organize this house and so much of Breuer’s later architectural work, was first used by him in furniture design.

Breuer did not, however, confine himself to the domestic realm in which he had become so adept. Having left Harvard, teaching, and Gropius, he opened his own firm in New York City in 1946, winning important commissions for urban architecture, the most significant of which was his design for the Whitney Museum of American Art (1966) on Madison Avenue in New York City. This highly unusual design has remained controversial since its inception and was nearly effaced within a planned addition of a Postmodernist pastiche during the 1980s.

With this forceful building, Breuer broke with all expectations and sense of his former domesticity, yet he did not lose the sense of scale dictated by the urban pedestrian street. Breuer’s vision of the Whitney is very brave new world, very Brutalist. It is a rare modern interpretation of the beauty of the sublime, the aesthetic of beauty heightened by awe and fear; it hangs ominously over Madison Avenue, reversing the traditional solidvoid relationships of architecture, cantilevering its mass as a Breuer chair is structured Its rock-faced hardness and aesthetic contortions speak to the hardness of the urban place and to the socially hard times of the America of its conception, the 1960s. Breuer’s Whitney is a tough architecture—brutal but beautiful.

Breuer had by now moved into the international realm, which few architects reach, with such commissions as the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, here sharing the design program with such international modern artists as Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Jean Arp, and Pablo Picasso. For this monumental multi-use edifice, Breuer employed his sweeping Y-shaped plan in a sculptural concrete configuration. He hearkened back to his early unbuilt design for a concrete civic center (1936) for London, setting his massive tripartite building on Le Corbusian stilts. Although this work at first looks very bureaucratic, especially in its setting within the La Militaire sector of Paris, its most creative, intriguing feature—that it actually responds to the nearby landmark Eiffel Tower—is not readily apparent. In plan UNESCO’s tripartite shape looks very like an Eiffel Tower laid on its side. Because this relationship, although undeniable, can be appreciated only in plan or by observation from the deck of the Eiffel Tower itself, one wonders whether the relationship was intentional or unconsciously created by Breuer in response to the Parisian site. In either case, it enriches the UNESCO design.

From the Bauhaus to New York to Paris, from the 1920s to the 1960s, Breuer created modern form. Chair to house to public monument, throughout the entire scale of the built environment, he responded to modern life. The aesthetics of Breuer have been endlessly influential in defining that place we call the modern world.

LESLIE HUMM CORMIER

 
 
 
 
 
 
TIMELINE        
   

21 May 1902 Born in Pécs, Hungary ;

1912–20 Attended the Allami Föreäiskola, Pécs ;

1920–24 studied at the Bauhaus, Weimar, Germany ;

1924 master of the Bauhaus, Weimar ;

1924–28 Professor, carpentry and furniture design programs, Bauhaus, Weimar ;

1925–28 master of the Bauhaus Dessau ;

1925–28 Independent architect and interior designer, Dessau ;

1926 Married (1) Martha Erps ;

1928–36 Independent architect and interior designer, Berlin ;

1936–37 partnership with F.R.S.Yorke, London ;

1937 emigrated to the United States ;

1937–41 collaborated with Walter Gropius, Cambridge ;

1937–46 professor, Harvard University School of Design, Cambridge, Massachusetts ;

1940 married (2) Constance Crocker : 2 children;

1941–46 private practice, Marcel Breuer and Associates, Cambridge ;

1944 naturalized in the United States;

1946–76 moved practice to New York ;

1947 member, National Council of Architectural Registration Boards ;

1947 fellow, American Institute of Architects; member, National Institute of Arts and Letters; honorary member, Association of Argentine Architects ;

1947 honorary member, Association of Architects of Columbia ;

1968 Gold Medal, American Institute of Architects;

1976 Gold Medal, French Academy of Architecture ;

1 July 1981 Died in New York, USA.

 
 
 
 
 
 
FURTHER READING        
   

Blake, Peter, Marcel Breuer: Architect and Designer, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1949

Gatje, Robert F., Marcel Breuer: A Memoir, New York: Monacelli Press, 2000

Jordy, William H., “The Domestication of Modern,” in The Impact of Eu ropean Modernism in the Mid— Twenti eth Century, by Jordy, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972

Wilk, Christopher, Marcel Breuer: Furniture and Interiors, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1981

Wingler, Hans Maria, Das Bauhaus, 1919–1933: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Bramsche: Gebr. Rasch, 1962; 2nd revised edition, as Das Bauhaus, 1919–1933: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, und die Nachfolge in Chicago seit 1937, Cologne: DuMont Schauberg, 1968; 2nd edition translated as The Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago, translated by Wolfgang Jabs and Basil Gilbert, edited by Joseph Stein, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, and London: Cambridge Press, 1969; 3rd revised edition, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1976

MORE BOOKS

 
 
 
 
 
 
RELATED        
    Bauhaus; BRICK; Brutalism; Gropius House, Lincoln, Massachusetts; Gropius, Walter (Germany)
 
 

 

 

 

       
 

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