MoMA Spotlights Jewish Architect of the 'Endless House'

The 50th anniversary of the death of architect Frederick Kiesler is cause for celebrating his legacy, but the New York show contains no mention of the Israel Museum's enigmatic Shrine of the Book, which he designed.

Haim Tzach / BauBau

NEW YORK – The Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is the only architectural work of Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965), an American Jew of Austro-Hungarian origin, a designer, artist and theoretician. In the enigmatic and unusual structure Kiesler implemented, but only partially, the idea of the Endless House – a concept which he conceived and developed for decades by means of manifestos, sketches and models.

Kiesler's thought and his work have been enjoying a renewal in recent years, providing materials for studies and interpretations and quite a number of exhibitions. The latest as of now is “The Endless House: Between Art and Architecture,” a tribute at the Museum of Modern Art in New York to mark the 50th anniversary of Kiesler’s death on December 27.

Kiesler was born in Czernowitz, which was then part of Romania, but adopted Vienna as his hometown. In 1927 he emigrated and joined avant-garde circles in New York, where he also designed the Film Guild Cinema in Greenwich Village (now abandoned), which became a cult due to its Expressionist style and the bizarre performances it hosted, including “The Rocky Horror Movie Show.” Although he lived and worked at the height of the Modernist movement, Kiesler opposed the angular, harsh “ostensibly functionalist” International Style in architecture, which he said lacked an emotional dimension, countering it with the sensual and organic “architecture of the soul.”

The new exhibition in MoMA, which after its latest expansion is beginning to look more like a shopping mall than a museum, places Kiesler alongside that of dozens of architects and artists, who "consider the single-family home and archetypes of dwelling as themes" in their work, as per the museum website – with or without a direct connection to his legacy.

The Shrine of the Book, the only attempt to implement the impossible, is glaringly absent from the exhibition. Perhaps because it constitutes uncontestable proof that embodying the concept of Endless House would mark its finiteness.

The anniversary of Kiesler’s death, and the idea of the Endless House, serve only as a rather weak excuse for a beautiful and thought-provoking exhibition about where architecture is headed. The exhibition is attractively displayed in MoMA's architecture and design wing. Built in the 1930s, the wing played a central role in the dissemination of modern architectural developments and creation of an international movement. Today the wing rests on its laurels and on its priceless collection.

Based on that collection, the show is focusing on dozens of models of residential homes designed by famous architects from all over the world in the past 70 years, from the beginning of Modernism until today, including Mies van der Rohe, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi and many others. Each of them design is in effect a manifesto, via which the architect stretched or broke through a boundary, tried to promote a revolutionary idea, or simply toyed with ideas.

The items displayed in the exhibition, some of which were actually realized while others remained small but valuable models, do in fact challenge the concept of the home and sometimes reach the farthest limits of imagination, criticism and parody, even if not as far as Kiesler. At the same time, it is doubtful whether all this tremendous creative effort has any positive purpose, and whether it isn’t actually wasted on whims.

Courtesy of MoMA

In the final analysis even the more radical dwellings are no more than pampered projects by pampered architects for pampered clients. None of them is a “roof over one’s head”; none brings any new message for the global housing crisis. Not even Kiesler’s Endless House. All that remains is to enjoy the exhibition, down to the very last of the models on show. But that is also a message.

MoMA's exhibition (including a video installation entitled “Day Done,” by Israel's Sigalit Landau), was curated by Pedro Gadano, the retiring head curator of the architecture and design wing, and will close on March 6, 2016.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem

On the other side of the world, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is presently showing the mini-exhibition “The Architecture of the Shrine of the Book,” to mark the jubilee of the dedication of the museum and the construction of the shrine, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display. Kiesler designed the structure with Armand Bartos, a Jewish American architect of Hungarian origin who was born in 1910; December 29 will mark the 10th anniversary of Bartos' death.

In the architectural equation here, Kiesler was the avant-garde theoretician and Bartos was the pragmatist with his feet on the ground. Apparently only such a partnership enabled the construction of the shrine, which may not be endless, but is open to endless interpretations.

Perceptions of the structure range from those deeming it Disneyland-like kitsch to descriptions of it as “the only avant-garde architectural work ever built in Israel,” according to architect Sharon Rotbard in a seminal psycho-architectural article about Kiesler. The article, “The Shrine of the Book: Avant-garde,” was published in a local paper in 1996, in advance of a comprehensive exhibition about his work in the Pompidou Museum in Paris.

The reputation of the Shrine of the Book is based to no small extent on the saga behind its design and construction. Originally, the home of the Dead Sea Scrolls was supposed to be a small exhibition room in the National Library on Givat Ram, which Kiesler designed with flowing lines in the spirit of the present structure. “It was a breakthrough,” he wrote in his memoirs, “but the Jerusalem architects rejected it politely. The parabolic lines were perceived as guerrilla fighters who had raided the Bauhaus boxes.”

Those who didn’t want the small parabolic room got it in an enlarged version at the entrance to the modernist bastion of the Israel Museum.

Courtesy of MoMA

Bartos and Kiesler said at the time that they assumed that visitors would find it difficult to peruse the scrolls in a dark space, and as compensation chose an architectural effect that did the job. The shrine is the most popular wing in the museum, and was even named by legendary The New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp as one of the most important buildings of the 20th century.

However, as is typical of it, the architectural community in Israel received the building with reservations. They snickered at its cuplike shape that looked like half an onion, a woman’s breast, the lid of a jar. They complained about commissioning “foreign” architects for a national project of that kind.

They also objected to the circumstances dictating the choice of the architects: Bartos was married to the daughter of industrialist and philanthropist Samuel Gottesman, who donated to the construction of the project, helped to purchase the scrolls and also paid for installation of a rendering of Kiesler’s Endless House, originally displayed at an exhibition in New York in the 1950s. There is no question that the shrine's absence from the present exhibition is a missed opportunity.

As mentioned, these days Kiesler’s legacy is arousing renewed interest. His world view, which he described as “Correalism, a situation in which everything flows,” was warmly adopted by members of the computer architecture generation, to the point where it seems as though it spiraled out of control when transferred from the theoretical plane to the real world.

Jonathan Muzikar / MoMA