When the architect and designer Josef Frank published his essay “Accidentism” in the Swedish journal Form, in 1958, he was 73 years old and living in semi-retirement in Stockholm. “Accidentism” was the ultimate statement of his long-standing disquiet with the tenets of mainstream European modernism. It was far from his first. Frank had emerged as a vocal critic of the new building style already in the late 1920s, even as its principles were first being fully articulated, and his attacks over the next three decades were unremitting. It was not that Frank rejected altogether the possibilities of a new architecture, or that he desired a return to past forms; rather, it was that he objected vigorously to the notion that modernism could or ever should be monolithic or narrowly defined. “Away with universal styles,” he wrote. “Away with the idea of equating art and industry, away with the whole system that has become popular under the name of functionalism.” He proposed that “we should design our surroundings as if they originated by chance.” That was true of the living room and of the city.
‘Modernism,’ Josef Frank was fond of saying, ‘is that which gives us complete freedom.’
Today, the essay reads as a bracing critique of modern architecture, all the more notable for having been written by a prominent modernist — indeed, by one of the original members of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). But Frank’s design philosophy was never aligned fully with the more orthodox modernists. “Modernism,” he was fond of saying, “is that which gives us complete freedom.” 1 It was this idea that became the mantra of his design philosophy; it rests at the center of all of his later writings and works. It is also the foundation on which “Accidentism” is conceptually erected, even if he does not make reference to it directly.
Reared and educated in Vienna in the heyday of the early modern movement, Frank completed his architectural studies in 1910, at a time when the Jugendstil was waning. Like many young Viennese architects of his generation, he was deeply skeptical about the efforts of Joseph Maria Olbrich, Josef Hoffmann, and others — Austria’s first generation of modernists — to contrive a new style. Frank was convinced, very much like Adolf Loos, that a distinctive new language of form would emerge only as a response to the realities of modern life, and that it would have to reflect all of the industrial age’s many and diverse conditions. Rather than pursuing a wholly novel style, he made use of a design language forged from an amalgam of old and contemporary forms. His aim was not a new aesthetic, but a new way of living.
Today, Frank is known, if he is known at all, for the spare and beautiful housing blocks he designed for the Vienna Socialist municipal government during the interwar years; for the extraordinary Villa Beer in Vienna, one of the great Raumplan houses of the 1920s; or for the vibrant and colorful furniture and textiles he produced for the Stockholm interior furnishings firm Svenskt Tenn starting in the early 1930s. But he was also a major theorist, who wrote continuously throughout a career that spanned nearly five decades. His one-time assistant Ernst Plischke told me in an interview that, in his view, Frank “wasn’t really an architect” at all, but — in his splendidly condensed and fitting phrase — “an intellectual, who built ideas.” 2 Plischke’s verdict may be an overstatement, but Frank surely passed far more of his time thinking and writing about architecture and design than he did in making it. The two-volume compendium of Frank’s writings I co-edited with Tano Bojankin and Iris Meder in 2012 runs to some 400 densely-printed pages in German, and that includes only those pieces he published in his lifetime. 3 (There are at least another 700 or 800 typewritten pages of yet unpublished manuscripts.)
Frank believed that the modern movement was going astray, that it was being commandeered by extremists determined to limit and define modernism in their own misguided terms.
At times, Frank wrote to explain his design decisions or to educate a skeptical public about the new architecture and design. More often than not, though, he wrote in effort to fend off what he viewed as pernicious trends in the texts and works of other modernists — especially those in Germany. As early as 1927, Frank expounded on his belief that the modern movement was going astray, that it was being commandeered by extremists determined to limit and define modernism in their own “misguided” terms. In his essay “Frippery for the Soul and Frippery as a Problem” (Der Gschnas furs G’müt und der Gschnas als Problem), written in response to what he had personally witnessed and experienced at the Stuttgart Weissenhofsiedlung housing exhibition, Frank pilloried the widely-shared faith in Sachlichkeit — simplicity, purity, and objectivity — which was then becoming the watchword of the new design.
Frank’s specific targets were not only the Bauhäusler — those architects and designers, from Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer to László Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer, who taught and practiced at the famed school in Weimar and, later, Dessau — but also those, mostly German again, such as Otto Haesler, Bruno and Max Taut, and Ludwig Hilbersheimer (to name only some), who promoted the new modernism as a unified and “completed” style. For Frank, too much of what these “radical functionalists” (in his formulation) were producing was a new form of artifice, detached from practical considerations. “Applied art,” he wrote, “has become a problem…. [I]t has destroyed the whole meaning of those objects with which it has become concerned, filled them with pathos, and hence rendered them useless.” 4
The key word here is “pathos.” Frank was alarmed by what he regarded as an unnecessary emotionality in the works of the radical modernists, which he believed were too often devoted to the creation of mere appearance and empty style. For Frank, it all smacked of metaphysics, of unfettered belief and willfulness rather than any sort of real functional imperative. He had a real-world sense of the designer’s mission, and he questioned whether it was functional to have a design aesthetic that was more about “principles” than practical use. “Imagine if one asked one of our designers to produce a modern shoe,” he wrote sardonically, in the same essay. “He will have at once grasped the functional shape for the machine, one vertical, the other horizontal, a single shoe for everyone. For the left foot, and for the right. If they do not fit, just add some padding!” In that spirit, he charged, “The chair with straight pieces can be justified if it has to be constructed in the cheapest way — even if it is to the detriment to comfort.” 5
Comfort was always his overriding concern. He believed ardently — as Loos did — that a chair above all else should be comfortable, and that appearances had little to do with the development of form. As long as an object was functional it was still viable. This is the meaning of one of Frank’s most penetrating sentences from “Frippery for the Soul”: “One can use everything that can be used” (Man kann alles verwenden, was man verwenden kann) [italics in the original]. He continued: “What has become useless will simply fade away. One cannot ride today in Achilles’s chariot any more than in Napoleon’s; but one can sit on their decorated chairs. And who thinks in more modern terms: the individual who accepts the thing as it is or he who conserves its transitory parts by means of its modernization?” 6
Why should modernism not be fun and accessible, he asked? Why should it all be deadly serious?
What Frank was after here was the notion that modernism at its heart should be evolutionary rather than revolutionary — that objects and ideas from the past could still have meaning in the present, and thus need not always be discarded. He saw in the best buildings and objects of the past not only how well they were suited to their purpose, but how they had provided us with — and still could yield — genuine pleasure. When Frank wrote about comfort, what he meant is that objects and buildings should provide solace not only physically, but also emotionally. They should convey a sense of delight.
Frank penned “Frippery for the Soul” in part as a response to the criticisms of his interiors in the double house he had designed for the Weissenhofsiedlung. His living room for one of the units featured — among other things — an upholstered sofa, multi-hued and patterned cushions, floral drapes, and a colorful abstract carpet. (In a letter, Paul Meller, J. J. P. Oud’s assistant, acidly dismissed the space as “Frank’s bordello.”) But for Frank, the bright colors and soft textures were nothing more than a striving to introduce joyfulness. The exuberant furnishings were an effort to provide relief from the stresses of everyday life — and, especially, the workaday world. Why should modernism not be fun and accessible, he asked? Why should it all be deadly serious?
Frank had engaged these questions through the firm he founded in Vienna in 1925 with Oskar Wlach and Walter Sobotka, his former classmates from the Technical University. They called it “Haus & Garten” (House and Garden), an homage to the earlier British Arts and Crafts “comfy cottage.” (Specifically, the name harkens back to the title of M. H. Baillie Scott’s book Houses and Gardens, published in 1906.) Their shop, which mostly featured Frank’s designs, offered an array of furnishings that were soft to the touch, brightly colored, and boldly patterned. At the center of its “program” was a collection of his floral textiles, inspired by those of William Morris. Clients were urged to acquire contrasting patterns and color ways, and to mix and match them at will. When Frank eventually moved to Sweden (where he sought exile after the brief civil war in Austria in 1934), he took this concept with him. 7 It became the driving idea behind Svenskt Tenn, the company for which he served as chief designer from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s. Frank’s plea for a popular and mitigated modernism was soon also taken up by many other Nordic designers, who collectively fashioned what came to be known as Swedish or, more broadly, Scandinavian Modernism.
Frank spent the war years and just after, from 1942 to 1946, in New York, teaching for a time at the New School for Social Research. He also lectured publicly and mounted an exhibition of his work at the school. But his impact in the United States was barely felt; Americans at that time were blind to the sort of popular modernism he advocated. It was, in fact, the German émigrés — Gropius, Breuer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, precisely those Frank had most loudly attacked — whose call for a new rigor and reductivism had the most immediate impact at design schools and art institutions. Frank, unable to gain a foothold, returned to Sweden and took up his work again for Svenskt Tenn. He continued to write, from time to time reissuing his critique of modernist purism. “Accidentism” was his last effort to shift the course of modernist design, to provide for modernist designers and consumers greater freedom, and it issued from his great frustration about what modernism had become.
In “Accidentism” we hear a marked undertone of Frankian impishness and acerbity (he was well known and feared among his fellow designers in Austria and Sweden for his sharp-tongued commentaries), and also a certain resignation, a sense that he was swimming against an overpowering tide. He was convinced, indeed, that he had failed. He lived on until 1967, but, in the isolation of his last years, he missed the two events that might have gladdened him and given him hope: Ingvar Kamprad’s founding, in 1965, of IKEA, which sought to take Frank’s vision of a moderated design and make it popular and affordable; and the 1966 publication of Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which laid out a surprisingly analogous vision of the possibilities for modern architecture.
Frank almost had the last word, but few at the time took notice. Shortly after his return to Europe, in 1947, he made a series of drawings of houses for his wife’s cousin, Dagmar Grill. There were thirteen houses in all, sketched out on three sheets of ordinary tracing paper. Each design was an essay on the possibilities of a new kind of architectonic form — seemingly arbitrary, at times strangely curvilinear, and always complex and peculiar. In later years, Frank made watercolor elevations and large-scale plans for the houses, and he added a number of related designs for clients real and imagined in Sweden and in southern France, where Frank was then spending much of his time. These later efforts were even more “unregulated” and “free.” Some were quite brilliant explorations of form; others were seemingly intentionally “perverse.”
‘Accidentism’ is a kind of whimsical send-up of early modernist manifestos.
“Accidentism” is a statement of his intentions for these designs. It is also his manifesto against what he saw as a blithe and banal vision of modernism. It borrows from the aleatory ideas of John Cage and other contemporaries, but, even more, it is a kind of whimsical send-up of early modernist manifestos. Frank certainly never intended for the concept of an “Accidential” architecture to be taken entirely seriously, but he wanted to remind designers of the value in experimenting outside the rules of traditional modernism, and the possibilities of pursuing diversity.
Like all of Frank’s writings, “Accidentism” is not an easy read. He writes awkwardly, and even in German his style comes off as stilted and his thoughts opaque. Yet the piece remains worth reading, not only for what it says about the problems inherent within the modern movement, but also for Frank’s impassioned plea for a new pluralism. His call for an architecture and design attuned to our realities and responsive to our needs was not only insightful but extraordinary prescient.
by Josef Frank; translated by Christopher Long
The formal rules of art have been preserved through tradition, even though their validity cannot be proven. For that reason, there can be no art without recourse to tradition. Since these rules have been consistently observed throughout history, we regard them as axioms; traditions do not develop over short periods of time. Anyone who understands these rules only superficially, without believing in them, does not comprehend their full implications, and cannot vary or expand them.
In our age of scientific thinking, all traditions are gradually being lost. There is no longer any reason to recognize rules that cannot be proven, and so concepts such as art and beauty (which cannot even be fully defined) are cast in doubt. People without tradition must invent their own rules of art, which are, by definition, arbitrary. To believe in these rules and disseminate that belief, they must base their rules on motives that are moral, scientific, utilitarian, or mystical.
In order to make the correct impression, these rules must be strictly and clearly formulated, with no deviation allowed. Today the basis of most such rules is Puritanism, which seems the only recognized value system, even if few can live by its principles. And so the rules of art are more negative than positive; much is forbidden and little allowed. If an object today is accorded any praise, it is usually with the adjectives strict, sober, Spartan, even though people who earn those epithets (especially the last one) are not considered to have any pleasant traits at all.
Art wants to be useful but it does not know how. And thus even industrial products are now considered art … so that they, too, can be pure.
In this way, an art has developed that has little to do with the actual view of our daily lives, but is nearly directly opposed. Despite our hope that art in the future will attract as many people as possible, artists today retreat further into their shells. They appear to believe that art is no longer contemporary. In this, they are supported by science, which will no longer tolerate any illusions that might disturb progress. The connections between science and technology and society are strong enough to accelerate the destruction of art.
Architecture, which only occasionally ascends to the level of art, has left this dangerous terrain behind, and is thus open to adopting new ideas. Its forms today are determined by utilitarianism, and the other arts try to follow architecture’s lead and even to use its materials, in order to share in its progress and commercial success. Art wants to be useful but it does not know how. And thus even industrial products are now considered art (as the boundaries of that category are increasingly unclear), so that they, too, can be pure. This is all happening at a time when art and objects of everyday use are farther apart than they have ever been, since their means of production, which previously was handicraft, is no longer the same.
As a mediator between art and object, the so-called designer has appeared, one who thinks individually, and is therefore not in a position to invent self-evident and natural forms. His charge is the constant invention of novelties, objects of momentary aesthetic value, which is soon lost in order to make room for new assessments, and to encourage a public thirsty for beauty to buy new things. The designer has become the decorator. Through his agency, traditional forms that arose organically are converted into fashion, and fashion, in turn, influences the art that emerges from this environment. Fashion trends are indeed seductive because they mitigate the monotony of standardization, which is a necessary relief in the era of mass production.
The work of such fashion designers is to transmute functional forms into something else, or if that is not possible, to disguise or decorate them. The classic example is the automobile, the most popular technology of our time, whose form now influences all human creation. The horse-drawn carriage and the steam locomotive were designed by their producers, and therefore had a natural, matter-of-fact beauty. The automobile body, on the other hand, is more contrived, its form not merely determined by practical considerations. And it is altered according to the fashion of the day, without any evident reason. All such objects have something about them that is not genuine, because they deviate from the self-evident form, and that is precisely what people understand as beautiful. Consider, for example, our modern silverware. The elevation of good taste happens at the cost of character, which is lost in the striving for formal unity. To preserve and emphasize that character, we need a clearer division between the work of art and the object of everyday use. For a work of art is an end in itself and cannot be used to produce something else, or used for a particular purpose.
For that reason, the living room should not be a work of art, but whoever furnishes one today or has it arranged by a designer almost always attempts to give it an unalterable harmony, as if to transform it into art. This is encouraged by the many models displayed in magazines and in exhibitions, which as propaganda naturally have the aura of theatrical sets. With so-called stylistically pure objects and color harmonies, designers try to achieve something the client will find beautiful and therefore artful. They even select pictures that match the wallpaper, pretending to have a favorite color when they desire only a good background. They do not understand that a living room in which one can live and think freely is neither beautiful nor harmonic nor photogenic. It is the product of coincidences. It is never finished and can accommodate everything that fulfills the changing needs of its occupants.
A living room in which one can live and think freely is neither beautiful nor harmonic nor photogenic. It is the product of coincidences.
I use the living room as an example because it leads back to a discussion of architectural principles. The living room is, so to speak, the ultimate goal of architecture. It is the most important component of the house, and so I find it better to start here and expand the principles of design than to do the reverse, which is to regard the living room as the result of a particular architectural style and shape it accordingly. The prerequisites for designing a comfortable living room apply also to houses, streets, and cities, whose rigid forms today render their inhabitants essentially “homeless.” This rigidity is not the result of any particular necessity, but rather the product of aesthetic demands. We need greater flexibility in design, not strict formal rules. We need a demonumentalization without recourse to historical styles. Those styles are and will remain dead. What I call modern architecture in the larger sense (not that which was modern for the first half of 1958) is fundamentally different from any historical architecture. Historical styles involved the application of sculptural forms — such as capitals, cornices, and so forth — that visually explained the statics of the structure. Architecture’s primary task was to display in sculptural terms the harmony between bearing and non-bearing elements, which was important because without these symbols people did not feel secure. For us, they are no longer required, because anyone thinking scientifically has faith in structural calculations, even if he does not understand them. As the old symbols are discarded, sculpture is abolished as a key organic ingredient of architecture. Architecture is reduced to its own means, to the arrangement of components; only then can we realize the sculptural qualities so important to the image of the city and its varied expressions. I do not mean to say that all sculptural decoration on buildings has become impossible, only that it is no longer organic. It is something appended that can no longer characterize the building itself, though it may be desirable as a means of lessening uniformity.
The three fine arts — painting, sculpture, and architecture — are now divorced, because architecture no longer offers a field for cooperation, as it did when historical styles were in use. Now every art form can go its own direction. Previously, it was often the symbolic forms on building facades (that is, the work of the sculptor) that made architecture into a work of art. We no longer have that possibility. Today architecture begins art when the building’s function is very simple relative to the meaning of its form, as in the case of a church. From a practical standpoint, no more is required than the making of spaces, which in principle may have any desired form. (We must also concede that every Gothic church fulfilled its function better than any modern building can.) But in this instance, every freedom is possible, which otherwise was only the case with provisional exhibition buildings. Such creative license has always exerted a great influence on the development of architecture.
Historical styles developed in the same fashion. At first they were expressed in strict and simple terms, within a narrow framework of rules, but the lack of variation meant they grew monotonous and wearisome. People desired variety, and where there was no change in principle, such variety was achieved through decoration and constructive trifles, which in the end degenerated to such a degree that the validity of the original concept came into doubt. At that point, people turned to new modes of simplicity that symbolized the ideas of the new epoch.
The proponents of these new superstitions long for a universal style. They cannot imagine a harmonious world in which monuments and machines do not a share a formal resemblance.
A new style develops when a new ideology arises, and not for practical reasons. We can define a style as a compilation of the visible symbols of a given time, in the same way that an outdated symbol of faith is regarded as superstition. In the age of historical styles, the three fine arts were served by the same symbols, so universal styles developed. Then, as scientific thinking matured, these styles waned. What we have gained through this process is the possibility of giving every object its own functional and characteristic form, a freedom of choice that once was neither necessary nor desirable. Humans are not comfortable with this freedom, and in our time, in almost every sphere, there is evidence of a return to superstition. The proponents of these new superstitions long for a universal style, for the image of a harmonious cosmos, which is the foundation of all mysticism. They cannot imagine a harmonious world in which monuments and machines do not a share a formal resemblance. Modern architecture had barely appeared on the scene when the other arts began, for no discernible reason, to conform to its image, in an attempt to conjure the desired uniformity and a universal style. Even objects of everyday use were redesigned. This was achieved through the application of expressionless geometric forms, which supplanted the old organic ones. In this way, our new decorative age began, a purism founded on mysticism, and fashion began to consume everything.
The popularity of modern architecture is not a result of its functionality. Every modern house can be executed in any of the historical styles without diminishing its practicality. It is the new aesthetic effects, combined with the symbols of our time — products of our scientific thinking, which can be achieved with the aid of new materials and construction techniques — that are so persuasive. Modern architecture has its own symbols as well, but they are no longer structural ones. To name only the most important, I will mention the flat roof, whose practical advantages are not always significant enough to evoke the impassioned debate that marked the battle for the new architecture. Today, it is a symbol of scientific thought; it tops off the house, where its function is terminated, without the addition of an unclear, irrational attic, with its attendant mysticism.
I cannot imagine a discussion like this (from Ibsen’s The Wild Duck) taking place in a modern house:
HEDWIG: If I think about that, I imagine that all of this would be called the bottom of the ocean, and yet it is only the attic.
GREGERS: Are you sure about that?
HEDWIG: That it is merely an attic?
GREGERS: Do you know that for sure?
It is not, however, calculated clarity that makes a house comfortable. One yearns once more for spaces that provide greater latitude for fantasy, rather than carefully determined compartments for the various functions of a dwelling, such as eating, sleeping, and so forth. One yearns for streets that are not merely solutions to traffic problems, no matter how successful they are in that respect.
As was the case with every historical style that preceded it, modern architecture can symbolize more than structure. In 1851, Semper wrote, in The Four Elements of Architecture: “How unfair it is to reproach our architects for a lack of invention, when nowhere there is a new concept of universal historical importance being pursued with force and vigor. First, provide some new ideas; then we architects shall find architectural expressions for them.” 8
What Semper means by expression (Ausdruck) has to do with the symbols of a new social order. In recent decades, we have become acquainted with more than enough new societal forms of this sort, but none has achieved what we might describe as its own individual art. Architects could merely select from extant forms, an event which was irrationally viewed as an act of expression; everything else was repressed. There was thus no free development that could lead to something better. Certain architectural ideas were determined by pressure, and thus were unlikely to contain symbols that accorded with the societal forms they were supposed to express. That was the case for the entire so-called free Western world.
Modern architecture, inspired by its close association with industry and standardization, began to come into line with these totalitarian symbols, without our understanding what that meant.
For even here it has been difficult to liberate ourselves from totalitarian symbols. Modern architecture, inspired by its close association with industry and standardization, began to come into line with these totalitarian symbols, without our understanding what that meant. At first, there was practically an inquisition to determine what was allowed and what was not. But standardization that exceeds utility and becomes an aesthetic ideal is barbarism. It promotes the uniformity of human beings, who are supposedly shaped by their homogeneous surroundings. It does not appear today that the idea of intellectual freedom is pursued “with force and vigor.” Artists should be prophets, but these days there is hardly any evidence that they take this role seriously — certainly not with the seriousness that they once promoted the new totalitarianism. One of the consequences of that propaganda is the monotony of our cities.
Everyone needs a certain degree of sentimentality to feel free. That will be lost if we are forced to make moral demands of every object, including aesthetic ones. What we need is variety and not stereotyped monumentality. None of us feels comfortable in an order that has been forced upon us, even if it has been doused in a sauce of beauty. So I am not suggesting new rules and forms but a radically different attitude toward art. Away with universal styles, away with the idea of equating art and industry, away with the whole system that has become popular under the name of functionalism. I propose a new architectural system to replace the present one, and I would like to give it a name, as is currently fashionable, one that explains its basic principles. For the time being, I will call it Accidentism, and by that I mean that we should design our surroundings as if they originated by chance.
Everyone needs a certain degree of sentimentality to feel free. That will be lost if we are forced to make moral demands of every object, including aesthetic ones.
Every place in which we feel comfortable — rooms, streets, and cities — has originated by chance. In cities that have grown up organically over time, buildings of all epochs stand harmoniously next to one another. Of course, something like that cannot be attained today, but I am convinced that uniformity is not the result of necessity but of an ideology that is not even our own. The architectural symbols that once offered us a sense of variety no longer exist. Thus, today we need other means, more powerful means, which will have real impact in an age of mass-produced housing. Architecture is sculpture, but we must now use only architectural means to produce affective designs. The aesthetic value of an individual building is no longer of great importance, though we should also not underestimate it. What we see from the street are display windows and the silhouettes of buildings. For that reason, city planning will be the most important problem in architecture in the future. What variety offers is not universal good taste, but individual character. A theater does not have to look like a factory and a bank hall like a pastry shop.
The notion of “elevating” everything to the level of art is indeed tempting. But we should not forget: even if we cannot define what a work of art is, we know that one of its essential attributes is that it is something unchangeable, and that it can serve no purpose other than to be contemplated. In that way, art places demands on people, and I do not think that we can feel comfortable for long in an environment that makes such continual and total demands.
I have spoken here of works of art; but it is worse still when we are confronted with objects that pretend to be art without possessing its values!