Marcel Breuer: Building Global Institutions
Edited by Barry Bergdoll and Jonathan Massey
While Marcel Breuer’s reputation suffered a decline after his death in 1981, it has picked up in recent years. In this collection of essays, Columbia University architecture historian Barry Bergdoll, and Jonathan Massey, dean of the University of Michigan’s architecture school, argue that the revival started in 1985 with the Whitney Museum’s commission of Michael Graves to design a major expansion of Breuer’s 1966 New York building, which proved to be extremely controversial. Twenty years later, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art took over and restored the Whitney as the Met Breuer, his reputation was further elevated.
Two recent events spurred this publication: first, Syracuse University’s digitization of its Breuer archive and, second, a Breuer seminar that Bergdoll conducted at Syracuse’s architecture school in 2010, when Massey was teaching there.
In their book, Bergdoll and Massey argue that Breuer’s seminal commissions for UNESCO House in Paris (1958) and for Saint John’s Abbey, in Collegeville, Minnesota (1961), turned him into the designer par excellence for high-profile buildings during the following decade and a half. In his essay on Saint John’s Abbey, Bergdoll cites a formal characteristic he calls “heavy lightness,” which differs from the generic lightness typifying Breuer’s previous work, such as the Bauhaus furniture he designed in the 1920s.
A contributor, Timothy M. Rohan, an architecture historian, examines a motif he calls Breuer’s “ancillary strategy.” This phrase refers to freestanding elements adjacent to the designer’s major buildings, such as the entry canopy of UNESCO House. Rohan compares this approach to Venturi and Scott Brown’s “signs” appended to “sheds” in their projects.
Three additional essays are surprising in the way they stretch the definition of what we think of as architectural historiography, typically reliant on biography and building analysis. Architecture historian Lucia Allais, an adventurous researcher, attempts not so much to dissect the design of UNESCO House as to reveal the complex and protracted bureaucratic process by which it came into being. There Breuer was part of a design troika with Pier Luigi Nervi (structural engineer) and Bernard Zehrfuss (project manager) reporting to an assertive “advisory committee” of prominent international architects.
Elsewhere in the book, structural engineer Guy Nordenson provides an account of how Breuer learned about structure from Nervi—and the subsequent problems stemming from Breuer’s only partial understanding of the principles at stake. Massey addresses the series of projects Breuer’s firm undertook for New York University at its Bronx campus, focusing on how demographic changes affected its economics. The institution, designed to serve the largely middle-class Jewish population inhabiting the area, saw its exodus to the suburbs during the upheavals of the late ’60s. The private campus closed and in 1973 was sold to the publicly owned City University of New York.
Bergdoll and Massey sidestep the issue of the ultimate cultural significance of Breuer’s work, a question that deeply preoccupied the authors of two previous monographs on the pioneer architect: Isabelle Hyman’s Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings (2001) and Robert McCarter’s Breuer (2016). I find myself thinking that, despite the strengths of Breuer’s late work—for example, the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building in Washington, D.C. (1968)—it’s a little formalist and formulaic. Indeed, one of the purposes of Breuer’s ubiquitous pilotis seems to be to turn the building masses above into objects to be contemplated as art, and leaves their relationship to the ground plane often unresolved.
Bergdoll and Massey do acknowledge that they have raised as many questions as they’ve answered. In spite of this, the handsome collection of essays, extensively illustrated with photographs and drawings, bolsters their thesis regarding the important political and professional role Breuer assumed late in his career, as architect to an emerging global power structure. The cultural significance of his design, however, remains up in the air.