On Art: Kiesler’s Endless House at MoMA

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Frederick Kiesler, exterior view of the Endless House model, 1958. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Architecture & Design Study Center, photograph by George Barrows.
Frederick Kiesler, exterior view of the Endless House model, 1958. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Architecture & Design Study Center, photograph by George Barrows.
Frederick Kiesler, exterior view of the Endless House model, 1958. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Architecture & Design Study Center, photograph by George Barrows.

By Helen A. Harrison

At his cottage on Old Stone Highway in Amagansett, the artist, architect and designer Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965) made sculptures and building models designed according to his principle of Correalism, which he defined as “the inter-relationships of natural and man-made organisms.” His most ambitious project in that vein, the Endless House, was never built, but its influence can be felt in the work of numerous architects at work during the 50 years since his death. To mark that anniversary, the Museum of Modern Art is presenting “Endless House: Intersections of Art and Architecture,” on view through March 6.

Born in Romania and educated in Vienna, Kiesler came to New York in 1926 and quickly established himself as an innovative designer for the stage. That year he exhibited his proposal for an Endless Theater, an egg-shaped structure with a ramped interior, designed three years earlier to illustrate his concept of “tensions in free space.” He later adapted this idea to a domestic building, the Endless House, which occupied him for more than a decade. A hybrid of architecture and sculpture, intended to be made of reinforced concrete over wire mesh, with frescoed walls, textured floors, bathing pools and colored lighting, it was conceived as a kind of multimedia experience in which all the senses would be engaged. A large scale model was included in the “Visionary Architecture” exhibition at MoMA in 1960. Its open-ended, biomorphic elements interlock like cellular growths, forming a structure that is, in Kiesler’s words, “endless like the human body—there is no beginning and no end to it.”

The current exhibition, drawn entirely from MoMA’s collection, includes Kiesler’s first Endless House model, a small ovoid ceramic sculpture made in 1950, and a series of freely drawn conceptual plans, elevations and sections that illustrate his structural and spatial variations. A large photograph shows the exterior and interior details of the famous 8-foot Endless House model, made in 1958-59, as it was displayed in “Visionary Architecture.” A scheme to build a full-scale version in the museum’s garden was never carried out, but a version of the model is in the collection of the Whitney Museum. The ideas it embodies — sculptural form, organic design, integrated interior spaces and the use of innovative materials, as well as an iconoclastic approach to the function of a domestic dwelling — are echoed in the work of the artists and architects represented in the current show.

In some cases, however, the designs are the very antitheses of Kiesler’s principles. Opposite the wall devoted to him is a model of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1945-51), a glass box that typifies the postwar style Kiesler rejected as sterile — “one box next to another . . . until they grow into tumors of skyscrapers.” Models of houses by Michael Graves, John Hejduk, Paul Rudolph and others are in the same camp. What the Endless House has in common with them, other than the fact that it’s a single-family home, is far from apparent. In his early career in Europe, Kiesler was the youngest member of the De Stijl group, which espoused a similar geometric formalism, but he later adopted the organic approach reflected in such projects as his design for Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, Art of This Century (1942) and the Universal Theater (1960-61, unbuilt), and of course the Endless House.

There is a far more plausible relationship between Kiesler’s thinking and the design of the Wing House, by Hani Rashid and Lise Ann Couture of Asymptote Architecture, for a site in Finland. Looking like a space ship that landed in Helsinki in 2011, the building shows how modern materials could enable the construction of the sort of sculptural structures Kiesler envisioned.

There’s also a direct connection to Kiesler’s precedent in Peter Eisenman’s Max Reinhardt Haus proposal from the early 1990s, a model for a colossal monument to the legendary German theater director that would have replaced his destroyed Expressionist playhouse in Berlin. Based on a Möbius strip, the design is indeed endless. More geometric than organic, it nevertheless uses the same kind of continuously evolving structure that Kiesler employed. And, like all but one of his buildings — the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, designed with Armand Bartos and completed the year of Kiesler’s death — it was never built.

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Gavin Menu is the sports editor, advertising director and co-publisher of The Sag Harbor Express and Express Magazine. Reach him at gmenu@sagharborexpress.com.

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