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Architecture and possibility
by Michael Obrist | 7/19/2016
The paintings were mounted on baseball bats and seemed to float freely in space: 1-to-3 reconstruction of Friedrich Kiesler’s room for the Surrealists in Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of This Century” gallery in New York. Photo © MAK/Georg Mayer

You could begin an essay about Frederick Kiesler with the beginning and end of his life and you would already have created a mental record of the explanations for what happened “in-between”. For example: Born in 1890 in Czernowitz in Bukovina, now Ukraine, even then a very multicultural small town at the interface of Jewish, German, Romanian, Ukrainian and Polish culture in the Habsburg Empire. Died in 1965 in New York; his burial became a happening. That great American poet e.e. cummings held the eulogy, artist Robert Rauschenberg gave a performance, and the Juilliard String Quartet played Mozart and Schoenberg. But what happened in between?

As for the Museum für angewandte Kunst in Vienna holding a major exhibition entitled “Frederick Kiesler. Life Visions”, it must be pointed out that Kiesler has long ceased to be an insider tip in Vienna. He became relevant also for the younger generation of architects active today at the latest following the first major Kiesler exhibition at Historisches Museum in 1997, curated – like this one – by Dieter Bogner. The news of this diverse outsider and wanderer between the worlds had already spread in Vienna much earlier, perhaps partly because of a particular legendary seminar given by Günther Feuerstein at Technische Universität Wien in the 1960s, or maybe it was the fact that many of the students attending the seminar later became professors themselves and continued their teacher’s narrative in a kind of academic snowball principle.

Friedrich Kiesler 1929-30 in front of the opening poster for the “Film Guild Cinema“ he had designed in Greenwich Village.
Photo © 2016 Österreichische Friedrich und Lillian Kiesler-Privatstiftung, Vienna

The first exhibition in Vienna took place in 1997, at a time when the discursive struggle between “box” and “blob” had reached a climax. Although the Yokohama Terminal by Foreign Office was not yet complete, the renderings of it had already been published worldwide. And solely in giving their endless loop of a building the name “Möbius House”, UN Studio had made a more or less direct reference to Kiesler. The advocates of the blob in Vienna soon had him categorized as the prophet of biomorphic architecture primarily because of his “Endless House”. But how is Kiesler read today?

So now we have the second major Kiesler exhibition entitled “Life Visions”, once again at MAK, and once again with Dieter Bogner as curator, this time in a team with Maria Lind and Bärbel Vischer. Kiesler’s work is shown through a comprehensive collection of sketches, texts, photos, plans and several large models. The exhibition culminates in the scale reconstruction of the Parisian “Raumstadt” (City in Space) of 1925 in the museum foyer. The architect’s other major topics are arranged before and after this highlight: the theater and exhibition design as a realistic field of experimentation. In a highly striking replica of Kiesler’s Correalistic space from the Art of this Century gallery, which he designed in 1942 for Peggy Guggenheim in New York, it becomes clear that a key intention of his work was also to directly involve spectators and have them immerse themselves in the Gesamtkunstwerk.

View of the exhibition hall: In “Lifeworlds”, MAK presents a comprehensive collection of Kiesler’s drawings, texts, models, photos and plans for his projects. Photo © MAK/Georg Mayer

Likewise, in Kiesler’s radical stage design “Raumbühne”, which he presented at an international exhibition of new theater technology in Vienna in 1924 and which will also be shown at MAK, everything quite literally revolves around this topic, namely removing the spectator from his customary position and placing him/her at the center of the space. It is a focal topic in Kiesler’s work, the starting point for his entire spatial and artistic body of work. This becomes particularly clear for the curators in a photograph in the exhibition showing Kiesler himself in his monumental wooden installation “Big Galaxy”, which Nelson Rockefeller later bought and renamed “Rockefeller Galaxy”. The photo was first published in the April issue of “Life” magazine under the heading “Meant To Be Lived In”. And as the exhibition text explains, this can also be read as the guiding principle of Kiesler’s “Life Visions”.

After the “Raumstadt” piece the exhibition sets out his theories for a “Correalistic design process”, which he developed and taught from 1937 to 1941 at Columbia University in New York. Alongside several furniture and store designs, we then come to key examples from his late work, including two structures charged with immense symbolism: the “Grotto of Meditation”, which only exists in models, and the “Shrine of the Book” in Jerusalem, the only larger edifice Kiesler would realize, and which was not completed until 1965, a few months before his death.

Vision of a floating city: The entrance to the exhibition boasts a faithful reconstruction of Kiesler’s 1925 “SpaceCity”. Photo © MAK/Georg Mayer

In this part of the exhibition, in which contemporary artists such as Leonor Antunes, Céline Condorelli, Apolonija Šušteršič and Rirkrit Tiravanija are juxtaposed with Kiesler’s positions, we also find the “Endless House”. Today, standing in front of this famous icon from Kiesler’s oeuvre, which became the starting point of so many different structures, we are struck largely by the raw quality and incomplete nature of the original. “The Endless House is called ‘endless’ because all ends meet, and meet continuously”, Kiesler wrote of it. That can be given a topological or mathematical interpretation. The model and photos might even tell us yet another story today.

Especially as a model, the “Endless House” comes over as a structure that must be endless in a temporal context. It becomes the manifestation of a never-ending creative process – and it is this that distinguishes Kiesler’s work most clearly from those “final” structures and “Gesamtkunstwerken” in which people are not envisaged as actors, but as part of the furnishings. There is nothing oppressive about Kiesler’s evolving work; it is rather the case that it creates experimental options and openness. The indistinctness and not-clearly-defined in-between nature of his structures permit endless options for interpretation and use. The logical consequence of this is that the “Endless House” can never be completed, because there are always only endless possibilities of entirely different “Endless Houses”.

The diagram “Man = heredity + environment” suggests human beings are the product of our own inventions, nature, and heredity. It is part of Kiesler’s ideas on a new, “co-realist design”. Photo © Architectural Record, New York, 1939

On the major social issues Kiesler always remained an artist – and perhaps in doing so did not come up to his system-theory standards. Yet it is precisely in these vague, diffuse intermediate spaces that his potential lies to always remain contemporary, someone who can be interpreted afresh. Essentially, his “Endless House” is primarily a model of a detached house in which he seeks to explore this smallest social and architectural sphere in the entire complexity of its connections. It is such attempts by Kiesler to thoroughly explore the connections of individuals to each other, to the world, to space and to things that make his works still appear relevant today.

Michael Obrist is an architect and lives in Vienna. He is a founding member and partner of the studio feld72 and since 2014 guest professor for raum&designstrategien at the University of Art and Design in Linz.

Exhibition
Frederick Kiesler. Life Visions
Museum für angewandte Kunst, MAK, Vienna
through October 2, 2016
www.mak.at

Catalog
Friedrich Kiesler. Lebenswelten / Frederick Kiesler. Life Visions
ed. by Christoh Thun-Hohenstein, Dieter Bogner, Maria Lind and Bärbel Vischer
224 pages, hardcover, German/English
Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel, 2016
39.95 euros

Art can also be presented quite differently: A 1942 study on hanging and lighting images in the “Art of This Century” gallery.
Photo © Österreichische Friedrich und Lillian Kiesler-Privatstiftung, Vienna
In 1953 Friedrich Kiesler erected one of his impressive “Wooden Galaxies” directly in front of Philip Johnson’s “Glass House” in New Canaan.
Photo © Österreichische Friedrich und Lillian Kiesler-Privatstiftung, Vienna
Abstract sculptures on co-realist furniture in a large room at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery “Art of This Century”.
Photo K. W. Herrmann, © 2016 Österreichische Friedrich und Lillian Kiesler-Privatstiftung, Vienna
The curators feel it is one of the “most important icons of 20th-century architecture”: Kiesler’s vision of a floating “SpaceCity” doesn’t seem to be over 90 years old.
Photo K. W. Herrmann, © Österreichische Friedrich und Lillian Kiesler-Privatstiftung, Vienna
If you want, you can immerse yourself here in books and audio installations devoted to Kiesler’s theories of “corealist design”. Photo © MAK/Georg Mayer

You could begin an essay about Frederick Kiesler with the beginning and end of his life and you would already have created a mental record of the explanations for what happened “in-between”. For example: Born in 1890 in Czernowitz in Bukovina, now Ukraine, even then a very multicultural small town at the interface of Jewish, German, Romanian, Ukrainian and Polish culture in the Habsburg Empire. Died in 1965 in New York; his burial became a happening. That great American poet e.e. cummings held the eulogy, artist Robert Rauschenberg gave a performance, and the Juilliard String Quartet played Mozart and Schoenberg. But what happened in between?

As for the Museum für angewandte Kunst in Vienna holding a major exhibition entitled “Frederick Kiesler. Life Visions”, it must be pointed out that Kiesler has long ceased to be an insider tip in Vienna. He became relevant also for the younger generation of architects active today at the latest following the first major Kiesler exhibition at Historisches Museum in 1997, curated – like this one – by Dieter Bogner. The news of this diverse outsider and wanderer between the worlds had already spread in Vienna much earlier, perhaps partly because of a particular legendary seminar given by Günther Feuerstein at Technische Universität Wien in the 1960s, or maybe it was the fact that many of the students attending the seminar later became professors themselves and continued their teacher’s narrative in a kind of academic snowball principle.

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In a large glass display case: Alongside six contemporary artists, pupils from Viennese schools have concerned themselves with Kiesler’s “lifeworlds” as part of a MAK education project. Photo © MAK/Georg Mayer

You could begin an essay about Frederick Kiesler with the beginning and end of his life and you would already have created a mental record of the explanations for what happened “in-between”. For example: Born in 1890 in Czernowitz in Bukovina, now Ukraine, even then a very multicultural small town at the interface of Jewish, German, Romanian, Ukrainian and Polish culture in the Habsburg Empire. Died in 1965 in New York; his burial became a happening. That great American poet e.e. cummings held the eulogy, artist Robert Rauschenberg gave a performance, and the Juilliard String Quartet played Mozart and Schoenberg. But what happened in between?

As for the Museum für angewandte Kunst in Vienna holding a major exhibition entitled “Frederick Kiesler. Life Visions”, it must be pointed out that Kiesler has long ceased to be an insider tip in Vienna. He became relevant also for the younger generation of architects active today at the latest following the first major Kiesler exhibition at Historisches Museum in 1997, curated – like this one – by Dieter Bogner. The news of this diverse outsider and wanderer between the worlds had already spread in Vienna much earlier, perhaps partly because of a particular legendary seminar given by Günther Feuerstein at Technische Universität Wien in the 1960s, or maybe it was the fact that many of the students attending the seminar later became professors themselves and continued their teacher’s narrative in a kind of academic snowball principle.

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