A new exhibition Friedrich Kiesler: Life Visions at Vienna’s Museum of Applied Art (MAK) sets out to make the case that the Austrian-American architect is one of the most important and influential designers of the 20th century. It claims that “since the beginning of the 21st century,” the perception of Kielser has changed from a “primarily architectonic” one to an artistic one; this is the view it wants to correct.
It is true that, as an architect, Kiesler does not often get his due. He created, for example, his futuristic urban composition City in Space (recreated in full scale for the exhibit) as a stage set for the 1925 Paris ‘Art Deco’ exposition which also featured Le Corbusier, Konstantin Melnikov, and Alexander Rodchenko, but he is not often placed on the same level as these architects.
Philip Johnson called him “the best non building architect in the world” to which Kiesler apparently responded that Johnson was “one of the best building non-architects of our time.” But Hani Rashid, President of the Kiesler Foundation (and co-organizer of this exhibit), claims that Kiesler is the single early modernist figure that pushed design forward into the 21st century.
Kiesler immigrated to New York in 1926 but was educated at the Vienna Technical University in the early 1920s. The Secession and Weiner Werkstatte were largely played out by the time but the emphasis they gave to the synthesis of high and low arts and the German idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (arts at the center of daily life) were still influential in Vienna and to the young designer. Kiesler Foundation director Peter Bogner claims Kiesler synthesized the ideas of the European avant-garde from early Viennese modernism, Constructivism to Surrealism and through “transformation via American society to translate them into new cultural contexts.” In the 1930s he created a design theory he called Correalism that was meant to focus on the relationship between artwork, humanity, and the environment, and define his practice as an architect and exhibition designer. He spent a lifetime trying to merge or fuse the arts through the idea of the ‘endless.’ It all came together famously in his 1959 Endless House project.
The exhibit covers Kiesler’s category-spanning career from the 1920s through the 1960s and emphasizes his “theoretical deliberations and innovative inventiveness.” It features hand drawings, architectural renderings, models, private letters, and archival photos, many of which are displayed for the first time.
Despite Kiesler’s life long passion for the worlds of art, city planning, and even exhibition curation, he had a practice that was unique by the standards of today’s architecture world. Now most architects who have an interest in experimental form-making or even theoretical urban critique leave building practice and move full time into the world of art installations, writing, or drawings for the gallery. But Kiesler never gave up his desire to build: it was important to his concept of synthetic practice and he even became a registered architect in New York.
In fact, while the Austrian is said to have only built only a single structure—the 1965 Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem—he actually realized a great many projects, including stage sets, gallery designs, furniture, and exhibition designs. He designed Peggy Guggenheim’s 1942 Art of the Century Gallery, New York department store showrooms and window displays, gallery shows, and large trade show exhibitions. He taught at Columbia University and created a Mobile Home Library of rotating shelves, and in 1929, The Film Guild Cinema on 8th Street in Manhattan.
The 8th Street cinema grew out of a life long connection of designing for the theater; his designs constitute a major section of the MAK exhibit. He worked on different scales and levels: for example, his electro-mechanical stage set experimented with optical mechanisms to manipulate vision for Karel Capek’s drama R.U.R. in 1923. The MAK has a model of a stage he created for the 1924 International Exhibition of New Theater, which had spiral ramps and top-level proscenium theater that demonstrated he was familiar with the Russian Constructivist avant-garde. It was advanced as anything coming out of the Soviet Union. His stage set for the Julliard performance of Cocteau/Milhaud opera in 1948 had a surrealist-inspired post and column sculpture that ended up as site-specific installation in Philip Johnson’s glass house in 1947. Finally, he designed sets for Julliard and actual theater buildings for Woodstock (1931) and Brooklyn Heights (1926) that, if realized, would have been major landmarks in stage and theater design.
Kiesler’s radically inventive designs were often visionary in concepts but clearly unrealizable by definition. Yet his work was always what one would expect from an architect appropriate to the program at hand. Correalism may have evolved out of a 19th century utopian belief in the designer’s ability to control the world, but Kiesler’s consistent vision for a new way of life, un-encumbered by the practicalities and certainties of the market place, are more relevant than ever in today’s world of architecture practice. This show is not to be missed if you find yourself in Vienna.
The exhibition at the MAK in Vienna is on through October 2, 2016.