Marcel Breuer’s devotion to the lightweight, even the weightless, was heralded in his determined search for new and ever more minimized forms for furniture during his student years in the Weimar Bauhaus and even more once he became master of the furniture workshops at the Dessau Bauhaus. For the school’s auditorium, Breuer designed folding chairs as flexible as the space itself. For the school’s magazine, he designed a poster advertising a purely fictive “Bauhaus film,” one that would telescope five years of design exploration into an implied cinematic time lapse epitomizing a radical commitment to progress. In the film, humankind would advance from being ensconced in a massively heavy and symbolic wooden throne (the “African chair,” as it was later dubbed) to sitting on chairs ever lighter in their members and materials.
As a young man — he arrived at the Bauhaus in 1920, aged 18 — Breuer had moved rapidly from an interest in the folkloric to an uncompromising devotion to the present, even — with the film — to a projective futurism. In his famous chair design of 1926, he embraced the use of tubular steel, which he could bend rather than hammer into a form that resembled more the ease of a drawn line than the craft of carpentered assembly. The sitter was now cantilevered over a void on a stretched canvas or leather seat rather than firmly placed on four stolid legs. The chair enclosed a large space in its linear frame, yet was so lightweight it could be picked up with ease. An imminent reality (indicated in Breuer’s fanciful poster as “19??”) for this concept chair was projected — a future in which physical chairs would be supplanted by a supportive column of pressurized air summoned from the floor, the physical object replaced by an invisible force that made the sitter rather than maker in charge of height and posture. “Every year things are going better and better,” the poster announced.
Breuer’s devotion to the lightweight, even the weightless, was heralded in his search for ever more minimized forms for furniture during his Bauhaus years.
But the next step would not be as effortless as Breuer predicted. Not until the 1960s would the use of hydraulic pistons in chair design became common, but it was just months before Breuer was entangled in authorship disputes over this tubular steel invention and plagued by financial disagreements over the concept of the cantilevered chair and whether he personally or the Bauhaus collectively held the rights. The paradoxes of design ingenuity in serialized production were laid bare — but Breuer remained committed to the pursuit of lightness. After he moved to Berlin in 1928, he set out to translate his aesthetic from furniture to architecture. There his realized work was largely confined to interiors, including a radical proposal for a space of total transformability and openness in the installation House for a Sportsman, shown at the German Building Exhibition of 1931. In prototypes for prefabricated housing at the Bauhaus and in competition entries for large public buildings, he experimented with cantilevering seemingly weightless building volumes above the ground to create an architecture that might float as effortlessly as a woman seated on a column of air.
The Bauhaus tradition of making, of crafting radically new versions of familiar items, was well established. It arose from the exploration of the properties of materials and innovative training in visual perception. But now a third element was introduced: an interest in mathematical calculations from the realm of engineering, something Breuer encountered firsthand on visits to the Junkers aircraft factory in Dessau. Some have speculated the encounter with lightweight aluminum furniture might have been a decisive influence. But if we extrapolate into the future that Breuer so poignantly designated with question marks on his film poster, we might wonder what it would hold for this exile who was to wander between 1933 and 1937 from Zürich to Budapest to London and finally to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in search of a career, while Hitler’s rise in Germany was making Berlin an untenable home for the Jewish-born Hungarian. By 1938 he had settled in at Harvard and into a small joint practice — specializing in light-frame wood houses — with his Bauhaus teacher and fellow émigré Walter Gropius. A decade later his fledgling practice in New York would be given a huge boost by his decision to exhibit a model house at the Museum of Modern Art, and then a few years later there would be a whole new scale to his work realized at UNESCO in Paris and at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota.
How could an architect who had made the pursuit of lightness the essence of his design aspirations become one of the great form-givers of the aesthetics of weightiness?
By the 1960s, Breuer’s New York office was at the height of its invention of new architectural approaches. The images of his work that then circulated most widely were of monumental buildings clad in large blocks of stone or with exteriors of reinforced concrete. Perhaps none was more iconic than the Whitney Museum of American Art (1964–66), described repeatedly in the press as a kind of “fortress” for art. From “floating on air” to a “fortress” — how can one address this radical reversal, the seeming paradox of a career with such a profound change of heart? How could this architect who had made the pursuit of lightness the sine qua non both of his personal aspirations as a designer and also of the very nature of modernity become one of the greatest form-givers of the aesthetics of weightiness associated with poured-in-place and precast concrete, and with International Brutalism in the 1960s and ’70s? My title phrase, “heavy lightness” — an oxymoron lifted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet — is meant to suggest that what remained constant in Breuer’s long career, despite marked shifts between his early European and later American work, were the material and structural experiments and also, in transmogrified ways, the pursuit of lightness. It is worth backtracking to trace that evolution.
Had it been finished but a few months earlier, the 30-year-old Breuer’s earliest freestanding building, the Harnischmacher House of 1932, would no doubt have gained a place as a masterwork of the International Style, then being defined by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in their canon-making Museum of Modern Art exhibition. Here was a lightweight volumetric box on a frame of steel and reinforced concrete raised on pilotis above a sloping site in the villa district of Wiesbaden overlooking the ponderously neoclassical spa buildings in the valley below.
Even more striking in the design’s cultivation of sharp contrasts is the legacy of the Bauhaus Vorkurs — the influential preliminary course — in which students were sensitized to contrasting textures, materials, forms, and even gestalt theory of perception in order to encourage an approach to making that was freed of composition and relied instead on the physicality of the process. Breuer’s marked taste for strong contrasts — between open and closed, grounded and projected or even levitating, between parallel and perpendicular, glazed and open — are all prominent in this early work, even if the material diversity he would later cultivate had yet to triumph over the purity of white, if one judges by the handful of surviving black-and-white photographs of this house, which was lost to World War II bombs.
By 1934, Breuer had developed an intellectual position to sustain his artistic explorations; now his interest in contrasts was extended from the autonomous art work to the stakes of modernizing life. This was no doubt propelled by his own rootlessness as the threat of the Nazi regime led him to depart Germany for an extended tour through Morocco, Spain, and Greece, where he focused on traditional architecture and villages. I have previously written about Breuer’s embracing of the freestone structural wall, which was limited to the landscaping of the Harnischmacher House but developed with a whole new appreciation of hybrid materials, construction, and textures in a temporary pavilion in England for the Bristol Agricultural Fair of 1936. To turn to such an explicit display of traditional masonry reflected more than interest in the vernacular. It was also a direct political response to the challenges of the 1930s.
By the ’30s, Breuer had developed an intellectual position to sustain his explorations; his interest in contrasts extended from art to the stakes of modernizing life.
Decades later, in a 1972 interview with Istvan Kardos for Hungarian television, Breuer would say he was primarily interested in “farmhouse architectures,” notably “the old traditional farm buildings of the Arabs and Berbers.” But this was no position of nostalgia, as he explained in one of his rare theoretical statements — a 1934 speech before the Swiss Werkbund that made it clear much more was at stake. Modern architects, he argued, have a natural affinity with authentic native traditions in “places where the daily activity of the population has remained unchanged.” At the same time Breuer acknowledged that such places are fewer and farther between than in the past and that imitation is thus not only impossible but also ethically and politically untenable:
The modern world has no tradition for its eight-hour day, its electric light, its central heating, its water supply, its liners, or for any of its technical methods. One can roundly damn the whole of our age; one can commiserate with, or dissociate oneself from, or hope to transform the men and women who have lost their mental equilibrium in the vortex of modern life — but I do not believe that to decorate homes with traditional gables and dormers helps them in the least. On the contrary, this only widens the gulf between appearance and reality and removes them still further from that ideal equilibrium which is, or should be, the ultimate object of all thought and action
All neotraditionalisms firmly rejected, Breuer’s fascination with new technologies and new materials was aimed at reconciling progress and tradition, or at the very least bringing them into dialogue.
From 1937, when he arrived in the United States, until 1946, when he left New England for New York City, Breuer was based at Harvard, teaching and practicing in collaboration with Gropius. There, Breuer’s interest in developing that dialogue between modern expression — materials such as steel and glass, new techniques such as steel-frame construction and cantilevered spaces, new experiences such as transparency and changing views — and vernacular tradition — notably fieldstone walls and the timber balloon frame — took on a new intensity. Soon his attention was focused on aluminum — until it became expensive and rare during the war — then concrete, and finally plywood. Breuer sought to complicate and enrich not only the modernist vocabulary but the modernist project as a whole.
But as noted above, it was during his earlier exile in England, a country where modernism was viewed with enormous suspicion, that Breuer had first embraced the heavy stone wall as an element of a new collage of materials and structural techniques. This was the first opening of his architecture to more ponderous sculptural effects played off against the quest for light volumetric floating solids, and it was to remain a lifelong interest. Indeed, this interest in the vernacular formed the key to his quest for an architecture that could embrace an authenticity of identity and region and also a frank acceptance of the facts of modern life — a position of realism through the juxtaposition of opposites especially apparent in his early American works, such as his own house in Lincoln or the Hagerty House at Cohasset, Massachusetts, both coauthored with Gropius in 1938–39. In these houses, heavy, self-supporting walls of fieldstone — in his own house slightly curved — were juxtaposed with the balloon frame, to great effect. Following a line of inquiry developed by Sigfried Giedion in his influential Space, Time, and Architecture (1941), Breuer saw wood-frame construction (particularly the balloon frame, which had made the United States the master of both machines and westward expansion) as evidence of American no-nonsense engagement with everyday life.