Marcel Breuer and the Invention of Heavy Lightness

Marcel Breuer at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo by Evelyne Burnheim.
Marcel Breuer at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1967. Photo by Evelyne Burnheim. [Marcel Breuer Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution]

Marcel Breuer’s devotion to the lightweight, even the weightless, was heralded in his determined search for new and ever more minimized forms for furniture during his student years in the Weimar Bauhaus and even more once he became master of the furniture workshops at the Dessau Bauhaus. For the school’s auditorium, Breuer designed folding chairs as flexible as the space itself. For the school’s magazine, he designed a poster advertising a purely fictive “Bauhaus film,” one that would telescope five years of design exploration into an implied cinematic time lapse epitomizing a radical commitment to progress. In the film, humankind would advance from being ensconced in a massively heavy and symbolic wooden throne (the “African chair,” as it was later dubbed) to sitting on chairs ever lighter in their members and materials. 1

As a young man — he arrived at the Bauhaus in 1920, aged 18 — Breuer had moved rapidly from an interest in the folkloric to an uncompromising devotion to the present, even — with the film — to a projective futurism. In his famous chair design of 1926, he embraced the use of tubular steel, which he could bend rather than hammer into a form that resembled more the ease of a drawn line than the craft of carpentered assembly. The sitter was now cantilevered over a void on a stretched canvas or leather seat rather than firmly placed on four stolid legs. The chair enclosed a large space in its linear frame, yet was so lightweight it could be picked up with ease. An imminent reality (indicated in Breuer’s fanciful poster as “19??”) for this concept chair was projected — a future in which physical chairs would be supplanted by a supportive column of pressurized air summoned from the floor, the physical object replaced by an invisible force that made the sitter rather than maker in charge of height and posture. “Every year things are going better and better,” the poster announced.

Breuer’s devotion to the lightweight, even the weightless, was heralded in his search for ever more minimized forms for furniture during his Bauhaus years.

But the next step would not be as effortless as Breuer predicted. Not until the 1960s would the use of hydraulic pistons in chair design became common, but it was just months before Breuer was entangled in authorship disputes over this tubular steel invention and plagued by financial disagreements over the concept of the cantilevered chair and whether he personally or the Bauhaus collectively held the rights. 2 The paradoxes of design ingenuity in serialized production were laid bare — but Breuer remained committed to the pursuit of lightness. After he moved to Berlin in 1928, he set out to translate his aesthetic from furniture to architecture. There his realized work was largely confined to interiors, including a radical proposal for a space of total transformability and openness in the installation House for a Sportsman, shown at the German Building Exhibition of 1931. In prototypes for prefabricated housing at the Bauhaus and in competition entries for large public buildings, he experimented with cantilevering seemingly weightless building volumes above the ground to create an architecture that might float as effortlessly as a woman seated on a column of air.

Marcel Breuer with Gustav Hassenpflug, House for a Sportsman, German Building Exhibition, 1931.
Marcel Breuer with Gustav Hassenpflug, House for a Sportsman, German Building Exhibition, 1931. [Marcel Breuer Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries]

The Bauhaus tradition of making, of crafting radically new versions of familiar items, was well established. It arose from the exploration of the properties of materials and innovative training in visual perception. But now a third element was introduced: an interest in mathematical calculations from the realm of engineering, something Breuer encountered firsthand on visits to the Junkers aircraft factory in Dessau. Some have speculated the encounter with lightweight aluminum furniture might have been a decisive influence. But if we extrapolate into the future that Breuer so poignantly designated with question marks on his film poster, we might wonder what it would hold for this exile who was to wander between 1933 and 1937 from Zürich to Budapest to London and finally to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in search of a career, while Hitler’s rise in Germany was making Berlin an untenable home for the Jewish-born Hungarian. By 1938 he had settled in at Harvard and into a small joint practice — specializing in light-frame wood houses — with his Bauhaus teacher and fellow émigré Walter Gropius. A decade later his fledgling practice in New York would be given a huge boost by his decision to exhibit a model house at the Museum of Modern Art, and then a few years later there would be a whole new scale to his work realized at UNESCO in Paris and at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota.

How could an architect who had made the pursuit of lightness the essence of his design aspirations become one of the great form-givers of the aesthetics of weightiness?

By the 1960s, Breuer’s New York office was at the height of its invention of new architectural approaches. The images of his work that then circulated most widely were of monumental buildings clad in large blocks of stone or with exteriors of reinforced concrete. Perhaps none was more iconic than the Whitney Museum of American Art (1964–66), described repeatedly in the press as a kind of “fortress” for art. From “floating on air” to a “fortress” — how can one address this radical reversal, the seeming paradox of a career with such a profound change of heart? How could this architect who had made the pursuit of lightness the sine qua non both of his personal aspirations as a designer and also of the very nature of modernity become one of the greatest form-givers of the aesthetics of weightiness associated with poured-in-place and precast concrete, and with International Brutalism in the 1960s and ’70s? 3 My title phrase, “heavy lightness” — an oxymoron lifted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet — is meant to suggest that what remained constant in Breuer’s long career, despite marked shifts between his early European and later American work, were the material and structural experiments and also, in transmogrified ways, the pursuit of lightness. It is worth backtracking to trace that evolution.

Harnischmacher House, Wiesbaden, Germany, 1932.
Harnischmacher House, Wiesbaden, Germany, 1932. [Marcel Breuer Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries]

Had it been finished but a few months earlier, the 30-year-old Breuer’s earliest freestanding building, the Harnischmacher House of 1932, would no doubt have gained a place as a masterwork of the International Style, then being defined by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in their canon-making Museum of Modern Art exhibition. Here was a lightweight volumetric box on a frame of steel and reinforced concrete raised on pilotis above a sloping site in the villa district of Wiesbaden overlooking the ponderously neoclassical spa buildings in the valley below. 4

Even more striking in the design’s cultivation of sharp contrasts is the legacy of the Bauhaus Vorkurs — the influential preliminary course — in which students were sensitized to contrasting textures, materials, forms, and even gestalt theory of perception in order to encourage an approach to making that was freed of composition and relied instead on the physicality of the process. Breuer’s marked taste for strong contrasts — between open and closed, grounded and projected or even levitating, between parallel and perpendicular, glazed and open — are all prominent in this early work, even if the material diversity he would later cultivate had yet to triumph over the purity of white, if one judges by the handful of surviving black-and-white photographs of this house, which was lost to World War II bombs.

By 1934, Breuer had developed an intellectual position to sustain his artistic explorations; now his interest in contrasts was extended from the autonomous art work to the stakes of modernizing life. This was no doubt propelled by his own rootlessness as the threat of the Nazi regime led him to depart Germany for an extended tour through Morocco, Spain, and Greece, where he focused on traditional architecture and villages. I have previously written about Breuer’s embracing of the freestone structural wall, which was limited to the landscaping of the Harnischmacher House but developed with a whole new appreciation of hybrid materials, construction, and textures in a temporary pavilion in England for the Bristol Agricultural Fair of 1936. To turn to such an explicit display of traditional masonry reflected more than interest in the vernacular. It was also a direct political response to the challenges of the 1930s. 5

By the ’30s, Breuer had developed an intellectual position to sustain his explorations; his interest in contrasts extended from art to the stakes of modernizing life.

Decades later, in a 1972 interview with Istvan Kardos for Hungarian television, Breuer would say he was primarily interested in “farmhouse architectures,” notably “the old traditional farm buildings of the Arabs and Berbers.” 6 But this was no position of nostalgia, as he explained in one of his rare theoretical statements — a 1934 speech before the Swiss Werkbund that made it clear much more was at stake. Modern architects, he argued, have a natural affinity with authentic native traditions in “places where the daily activity of the population has remained unchanged.” At the same time Breuer acknowledged that such places are fewer and farther between than in the past and that imitation is thus not only impossible but also ethically and politically untenable:

The modern world has no tradition for its eight-hour day, its electric light, its central heating, its water supply, its liners, or for any of its technical methods. One can roundly damn the whole of our age; one can commiserate with, or dissociate oneself from, or hope to transform the men and women who have lost their mental equilibrium in the vortex of modern life — but I do not believe that to decorate homes with traditional gables and dormers helps them in the least. On the contrary, this only widens the gulf between appearance and reality and removes them still further from that ideal equilibrium which is, or should be, the ultimate object of all thought and action. 7

All neotraditionalisms firmly rejected, Breuer’s fascination with new technologies and new materials was aimed at reconciling progress and tradition, or at the very least bringing them into dialogue.

From 1937, when he arrived in the United States, until 1946, when he left New England for New York City, Breuer was based at Harvard, teaching and practicing in collaboration with Gropius. There, Breuer’s interest in developing that dialogue between modern expression — materials such as steel and glass, new techniques such as steel-frame construction and cantilevered spaces, new experiences such as transparency and changing views — and vernacular tradition — notably fieldstone walls and the timber balloon frame — took on a new intensity. Soon his attention was focused on aluminum — until it became expensive and rare during the war — then concrete, and finally plywood. Breuer sought to complicate and enrich not only the modernist vocabulary but the modernist project as a whole.

But as noted above, it was during his earlier exile in England, a country where modernism was viewed with enormous suspicion, that Breuer had first embraced the heavy stone wall as an element of a new collage of materials and structural techniques. This was the first opening of his architecture to more ponderous sculptural effects played off against the quest for light volumetric floating solids, and it was to remain a lifelong interest. Indeed, this interest in the vernacular formed the key to his quest for an architecture that could embrace an authenticity of identity and region and also a frank acceptance of the facts of modern life —  a position of realism through the juxtaposition of opposites especially apparent in his early American works, such as his own house in Lincoln or the Hagerty House at Cohasset, Massachusetts, both coauthored with Gropius in 1938–39. In these houses, heavy, self-supporting walls of fieldstone — in his own house slightly curved — were juxtaposed with the balloon frame, to great effect. Following a line of inquiry developed by Sigfried Giedion in his influential Space, Time, and Architecture (1941), Breuer saw wood-frame construction (particularly the balloon frame, which had made the United States the master of both machines and westward expansion) as evidence of American no-nonsense engagement with everyday life. 8

Marcel Breuer with Walter Gropius, Chamberlain Cottage, Wayland, Massachusetts, 1940.
Marcel Breuer with Walter Gropius, Chamberlain Cottage, Wayland, Massachusetts, 1940. [© Ezra Stoller, ESTO]

This was an attitude of readiness that could meet the Bauhaus masters halfway. Breuer had by 1942 sought to transform this great American given (a sort of constructivist objet trouve in the Corbusian sense) into a type of prefabricated construction that would forge an alliance between modern design and industry and thus realize, in a sense, the manifest destiny of U.S. production. As Breuer explained three decades later in his interview with Kardos, the house was the ideal laboratory for future larger-scale projects. The Chamberlain Cottage (1940–41), he acknowledged, became the most famous of his many houses:

The house represents the modern transformation of the original American wooden building. It has only one large room and a kitchen and bath, but in my opinion it was the most important of all [my house designs], and had perhaps the greatest influence on the development of American architecture. 9

Given the subsequent shift toward a weightier and more sculptural aesthetic and toward the use of heroic engineering, it is revealing that in another interview Breuer referred to the triple-ply plywood truss in such buildings as the Chamberlain Cottage, and also in his own dramatically cantilevered weekend house in New Canaan (1947), as a kind of approximation of reinforced concrete. 10 In these works he sought to abandon American stud frame and infill in favor of a construction in which the rigidity of the frame and the space-making capacity of the infill could be united in a single composite material. His New Canaan house was, in essence, a great habitable space truss of reinforced plywood, where the orientation of the slats increased the tensile strength of the individual plywood sheets, making the whole into a type of engineered frame. From that frame he even attempted to project a second expansive balcony supported by “tension cables of standard marine rigging.” 11

Almost overnight he joined a type of American architect emerging in the 1950s — the global designer and architect of institutional identities.

If during and after World War II Breuer was engaged in intense material and structural research in both individual houses and in prototypes for prefabrication, then by the early 1950s, his work was to change valence and scale entirely as public commissions came to occupy his office. This distinct career turn came about not just because of his move to New York City, which was emerging as a world capital, particularly with the construction of the United Nations, along with a series of corporate headquarters along Park Avenue; it was also due to the shift of his office from a small studio, concerned with house clients, to a growing partnership working on large institutional complexes. 12 Two unexpectedly ambitious commissions came his way: the rebuilding of one of the largest Benedictine abbeys in the world; and the creation of a Paris campus for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. These projects would catapult Breuer into a new mode of practice; almost overnight he joined a type of American architect emerging in the 1950s — the global designer and architect of institutional identities.

Each project has been the subject of a detailed monograph; what is of interest here is the extent to which these commissions served to catalyze Breuer’s relationship to engineering, to materials, and to a new visual balance between heavy and light. 13 As the projects developed, in close juxtaposition, these two idealistic and ideologically charged institutions of supranational governance afforded unprecedented opportunities to give form to contemporaneous calls for a “new monumentality.” This was famously articulated by Giedion, Josep Lluis Sert, and Fernand Leger in their  “Nine Points on Monumentality” (1943) — a highly influential effort to recuperate for architecture both artistic symbolism and emotional meaning, both of which had been discredited either by 19th-century academic banalization or more recent fascist rhetoric. The “Nine Points” also addressed the challenges of making democracy durable and building community through architectural means. 14

Marcel Breuer, seated at right, at a building design meeting at St. John's Abbey.
Marcel Breuer, seated at right, at a meeting during the design of St. John’s Abbey. [St. John’s Abbey Archives]

Opening a letter from a Benedictine monk in Minnesota, in March 1953, Breuer could scarcely have imagined that the design of a monastery church would soon make the Catholic Church a mainstay of his growing practice. 15 Equally unforeseen was that the Y-shaped building would make its productive debut in Breuer’s career with UNESCO, a project he had won as part of an international team that included the Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi, who was to exert a decisive influence on his postwar work, and the French architect Bernard Zehrfuss. The three were joined into what Breuer called “an Arab marriage” by a group of international advisors to the UN led by Gropius. 16 For this project Breuer, Nervi, and Zehrfuss first devised a design for a site at Porte Maillot, in which there appear muscular pilotis that pay homage to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation; they also point to an awareness of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brazilian work, in particular the American Hospital in Rio de Janeiro. The new aesthetic of lifting a frame vigorously off the ground with expressive, treelike forms, V-shaped or branching, was thus being explored on both sides of the Atlantic, in both projects. Soon it would soon become one of Breuer’s leitmotifs, bringing his work ever more into dialogue with engineer form-givers, from Nervi to Paul Weidlinger.

By the end of the year, the Porte Maillot project had run into major controversies and was on hold; in the meantime, the scene shifted to Collegeville. By now Breuer’s “Arab marriage” might have seemed a union made in heaven, for in Nervi he found the impetus to advance his thinking. In fact Nervi’s earlier experiments in ferrocemento (reinforced concrete) had interesting parallels to Breuer’s experiments with laminated plywood. Both were based on the proposition that placing sheets in alternating orientations would give the material great strength and enable it to perform in unprecedented ways.

The project at St. John’s had originated in a building committee formed by the monks in August 1951 to consider ways of improving facilities for the aging members of the community. But the committee soon became the venue for discussion of their dissatisfaction with the existing buildings, in particular the lack of differentiation — distinction, as they put it — between the monastery and its service structures. After more than a year, the committee submitted its report, proposing that St. John’s appoint an “outstanding architect to study overall needs and prepare a comprehensive plan” for both the abbey and its college, which was growing rapidly in the wake of the G.I. Bill. 17

Abbey Church, St. John's.
Abbey Church, St. John’s. [St. John’s Abbey Archives]

Abbey Church, St. John's.
Abbey Church, St. John’s. [Marcel Breuer Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution]

The only trained architect among the group, Dom Cloud Meinberg, a graduate of the University of Illinois, was entrusted with drawing up a list of 12 firms. Right from the start the monks had dual, if not immediately compatible, desires. For one thing, they were eager to create a monument to the great liturgical reform then transforming practices and attitudes in the Catholic Church — a reform movement spearheaded by St. John’s beginning in the 1930s. But more remarkable than this liturgical modernity was the conviction that St. John’s should make a contribution to modern architecture. As Hilary Thimmesh, one of the youngest of a remarkably young cohort of monks, recalled:

Father Cloud Meinberg, himself an architect … cited … Abbot Suger’s decision to renovate the Romanesque church of Saint Denis along the lighter but structurally riskier lines of the then new Gothic style. Cloud saw Suger’s break with the past as historic precedent for Benedictine risk-taking in church architecture. 18

The list of potential architects was ultimately, as is so often the case with search committees, an amalgam of diverse wishes. It included Catholic and non-Catholic architects, Americans and Europeans, émigré masters whose work had come into conflict with the mainstream as well as architects with considerable experience in religious buildings or institutional planning. Among the dozen were leading church architects: Thomas Sharp of Oxford; Barry Byrne, a former employee of Frank Lloyd Wright; Joseph Murphy of St. Louis; the Austrian Robert Kramreiter; the Germans Rudolf Schwarz and A. Boslett; and Herman Bauer, from Switzerland. Rounding out the list were the American modernists, mostly European émigrés with little or no church experience — Richard Neutra, Walter Gropius, and Breuer.

A letter that Abbot Baldwin Dworschak wrote to the architects was a remarkable manifesto of religious and aesthetic modernism and an open-ended invitation to enter into a period of mutual learning leading to the creation of a new Benedictine architecture:

The Benedictine tradition at its best challenges us to think boldly and to cast our ideals in forms which will be valid for centuries to come, shaping them with all the genius of present-day materials and techniques. We feel that the modern architect with his orientation toward functionalism and honest use of materials is uniquely qualified to produce a Catholic work. In our position it would, we think, be deplorable to build anything less, particularly since our age and our country have thus far produced so little truly significant religious architecture. 19

Abbot Baldwin explained that “the Abbey is one of the largest Benedictine communities in the world at this time … but … the design would need to be addressed not only to a community resident at St. John’s but to the far-flung set of parishes and monastic foundations the abbey is in charge of in the Bahamas, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Kentucky, and Japan.” 20 Here was an attitude resonant with Breuer’s ideas of developing prototypes rather than one-off designs.

As part of the selection process, the American architects visited the abbey for several days, living with the monks, sharing their meals, and meeting them in after-dinner discussions. The remarkably candid notes drawn up by Father Meinberg reveal that the monks were looking as much to enlist a temporary member of their community as to commission a design, all the more since the Rule of St. Benedict required them to build their own accommodations. The monks’ description of Breuer is telling:

He is a very quiet man who makes no attempt to impress the client, remains calm, although he was evidently very much interested, and speaks only when he has something to say. It didn’t bother him at all that much of his information came piecemeal, scattered and mingled with interruptions. 21

Breuer was intrigued by the idea of the monastic cell as a building block, almost a module of design, although he did not mention the earlier use of that idea in housing studies at the Bauhaus — a place often seen as an avant-garde monastery — and in his numerous studies for prefabricated mass housing both in concrete in Berlin and in wood frame in America. Meinberg noted that for Breuer “modern work … has now progressed into a second stage. … Mere functionalism was not enough. He was not at all opposed to functionalism — quite the contrary — but wanted more depth.” 22 When asked about religion, Breuer responded that although he was not a Catholic — he claimed to be Lutheran though he was born Jewish and practiced no creed — and had not built a church, “the modern man in general has a great thirst for works of content, if you want, for the spiritual. He is looking for something that expresses more than pure functionalism, for a deepening of content.” 23 Meinberg continued: “He talked about the integration of engineering and architecture, especially about the possibilities of working with a really creative engineer. Engineering was not used enough today, he said, ‘as a demonstrative form.’”

More remarkable than their liturgical modernity was the monks’ conviction that St. John’s should make a contribution to modern architecture.

When asked to elaborate, Breuer noted that in Gothic churches the architecture and engineering were integral: the form of the building derived from the ways in which its weight was supported. The architecture thus “demonstrated the engineering,” he said. When asked about his interest in concrete, Breuer replied that “modern architecture has not yet exploited reinforced concrete as a form.” Again he referred to the Gothic; though he noted that he preferred the stronger, less fussy forms of the powerful Romanesque churches. The monks were impressed: “His statement that we should make use of as daring engineering as our theological and liturgical understanding demands, reveals an architect of the caliber we need.” 24 Thus was arranged a union between the abbey’s desire to push liturgical reform toward greater community participation (in advance of Vatican II) and Breuer’s conviction that the modern movement, in aligning itself with engineering, might achieve a new formal expressiveness. Not surprisingly, Breuer would soon call on Nervi to consult for the St. John’s commission even as they were collaborating on UNESCO.

At UNESCO Nervi played a crucial role, not only in finding the dimensions of the vigorous, faceted piers that support the Y-shaped administration building (thus allowing structural forces to generate shape) but also in creating demonstration pieces of the concrete components. These mark the building as a progressive architectural practice for this experiment in global politics. But more consequential for Breuer’s own later design vocabulary were the great slanted walls, corrugated profile, and swooping grooved ceiling that Nervi developed for the Conference Building. Here was an expression of enclosed massiveness, and Breuer, we can only guess, was entranced, as not only the church at Collegeville but also several later masterworks, from St. Francis de Sales Church at Muskegon, Michigan (1964–66) to the Grand Coulee Dam Visitors Center (1972–78), were deeply influenced by this collaboration with Nervi in Paris. In Minnesota he would ask Nervi to work with him hand-in-glove on the design refinement. 25

Over the course of eight months, the problem of designing a whole new monastery preoccupied both Breuer and the monks. Meinberg, who became the conduit for liturgical advice to the Breuer office, set himself to studying medieval buildings, concluding that the Tuscan cathedrals, particularly those of Pisa and Florence with their detached baptisteries, were models. He consulted Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951) — lectures delivered before a Benedictine college in Pennsylvania — as he sought a modern translation of Gothic’s structural logic as a “parallel to the systematic and brilliant logic of the Scholastic Synthesis.” 26 He continued:

The twentieth-century Architect must accomplish a similar task, but his objective must be to form an architectural parallel to the glory of Christ in the liturgy. But who can design such a church? Our age is full of obstacles to such an achievement. Most architects are still imitating styles of the past. Others attempting to break with the past become involved in materialist functionalism or produce novel designs which shock us out of the sterile torpor of imitation but which have little positive value in themselves. Neither type of structure is formed by the liturgy for which it is used. 27

Breuer entrusted two young designers in the New York office, Hamilton Smith and Robert Gatje, to translate the community’s liturgical beliefs into a diagram for the monastery as the core of a master plan. 28 By the time they finished, in July 1953, Breuer was back in Europe, where the UNESCO design was at a critical juncture. At long last the issue of the Paris site had been resolved; so too had the debate over the introduction of a modern vocabulary of glass, steel, and concrete into the French capital’s historic heart. The new structure would be on a prominent site, completing half of the semicircular place facing Jacques-Ange Gabriel’s mid-18th-century classical École Militaire. The relationship of Modernism to tradition, as well as the symbolism of international organizations in local settings, was now being negotiated on two fronts — Paris and Collegeville, secular and sacred.

UNESCO, Paris, looking south with École Militaire in the foreground.
UNESCO, Paris, looking south with École Militaire in the foreground. [Marcel Breuer Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries]

UNESCO, Conference Building, side elevation. Photo by Lucien Herve.
UNESCO, Conference Building, side elevation. Photo by Lucien Herve. [Marcel Breuer Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution]

UNESCO played a very real role in the evolution of Breuer’s design for St. John’s. Although he made a side trip to Germany to study liturgical arrangements in buildings along the Rhine, Breuer took more cues from the Conference Building at UNESCO. It pointed the way toward giving form to the monks’ desire for a wholly new space for worship in which the monastic community and the congregation were brought into closer connection and in which the sacraments were brought out of the recesses of the apse into the central space and the ceremony. Marking up Smith and Gatje’s drawings, Breuer made notes on plan relationships between the church and the monastic dwelling, as well as between different parts of the expanding college in the northwest quadrant of the site; but he zeroed in on the shape and spatial planning of the great church. Smith and Gatje had drawn an extended, thin, longitudinal church, preceded by a separate baptistery. Responding to the desire for a new relationship between the monks and the congregation and to the lessons he was learning about organizing crowds — hierarchically arranged but in working harmony in the UNESCO assembly halls — Breuer sketched an emphatic equilateral triangle over the diagram. By the end of the month, the triangle had become a trapezoid, precisely the form used for the UNESCO Conference Building. 29

On Nervi’s advice, Breuer imparted many of the most successful aspects of the UNESCO assembly halls to the church, where a dynamic space of diagonals in all planes was created. The ten great serrated buttresses of UNESCO were translated, at Collegeville, into 12 buttress-like walls perpendicular to the nave. Above, the nave’s pleated folds increase in all dimensions — width, depth, and wall thickness — as they cross successively broader segments of the bell-shaped plan; in the course of design the strict straight line gave way to a subtle curve, “just enough to recede into infinity,” according to Father Thimmesh.30 The effect of all this diagonal movement, enhanced by the floor, which slopes downward toward the altar, is a subtle telescoping of the space and a great dynamism — impossible to read from the diagrammatic plan and most inadequately captured in photographs.

Abbey Church, St. Johns, south elevation.
Abbey Church, St. Johns, south elevation. [Library of Congress]

Abbey Church, St. John's University. Photo by Hedrich-Blessing.
Abbey Church, St. John’s. Photo by Hedrich-Blessing. [Marcel Breuer Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries]

In Paris, Breuer emphasized the organic wholeness and enclosure of the integral structural system by connecting the Conference Building to the Secretariat by a low passage; thus there is a sudden transition of scale upon entering the former. This is indeed one of the extraordinary elements of the UNESCO plan: its creation of a meandering landscape over which the buildings emerge but in which movement runs through and beyond each element. In Minnesota, guided by liturgical requirements and decorum, Breuer achieved a much greater richness of effect and embraced for the first time axial planning, which he was to use over and over again in his monumental works of the 1960s: the Whitney Museum in New York; the IBM headquarters at La Gaude in the South of France, with its almost neo-Egyptian entrance sequence; and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington. By then, Breuer had penned the introduction to a photographic essay on ancient Egyptian architecture celebrating the lessons to be learned from the Egyptian sublime for an aesthetic of modern concrete and institutional expression. 31 The achievement at St. John’s was trumpeted by Architectural Record:

Breuer …  has gone into an expression new to him — sculptural form of structure. Checked out by the brilliant Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi — whose career had begun in the 1920s in stadium architecture, notably with this municipal stadium in Florence — Breuer will bend a thin cowl of concrete into walls and roof over this monastic church, creased into folds for structural stiffness. 32

As had been the case with Le Corbusier’s church for the Dominican monastery at Ronchamp, the architectural press resorted to pictorial analogies in an effort to explicate the form-giving of modern architecture in a new phase. Famed engineer Mario Salvadori was equally admiring of UNESCO:

The conference assembly building is an extraordinary and imposing structure which looms larger than its size would suggest. It consists of a solid corrugated front wall which folds at the top to become a slanting roof. The roof slopes down to a set of columns and rises again to the top of the back wall. The structure is monolithic and gives a feeling of tremendous strength and lightness. I consider this particular structure one of the masterpieces of the concrete age. … The corrugated front wall and roof give a plastic definition of space to the assembly hall which is entirely new in concept, completely correct structurally and extremely exciting visually. 33

For years to come Nervi and Breuer would echo one another, expressing in almost identical phrases their joint conviction that it was the role of a new synthesis of technology and art to carry forward the incomplete miracle of Gothic. Nervi, in his 1962 Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, suggested that the miracle was, in engineering terms, one of “replacing the equilibrium achieved by masses of masonry with the equilibrium of forces created by the interplay of thrust and counterthrust of slender ribs built with very good materials.” 34 To this Breuer added the marriage of architecture and sculpture, the fluid ways in which concrete was made and in turn made manifest the play of structural forces. “It can,” he explained in a 1963 lecture at the University of Michigan, “reflect the stresses working in the structure with photographic truthfulness.” 35 This seems also an echo of Nervi’s lectures, in which the engineer described the need “to put the concrete where it works best.” 36

St. John's Abbey Church, left, and Alcuin Library, right. Photo by Bill Hedrich, Hedrich-Blessing.
St. John’s Abbey Church, left, and Alcuin Library, right. Photo by Bill Hedrich, Hedrich-Blessing. [Marcel Breuer Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution]

St. John's University, Alcuin Library.
St. John’s University, Alcuin Library. [Hedrich-Blessing Collection, Chicago History Museum]

Breuer would ultimately design 19 more buildings at St. John’s, although none of the later projects achieved the international acclaim of the abbey church and monastery, celebrated in a striking exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, designed by Breuer himself in 1961. 37 The only one to pursue the theme of heavy lightness in ways would prove influential was the university library, today the Alcuin Library. The exterior was of the utmost discretion; forming the northern edge of a forecourt before the church, the library deferred to Breuer’s sculptural group. It not only stepped aside to allow the road to sweep up to beyond it, but it stepped down the hill so that what was a multistory building appeared as a long horizontal box on the plaza before the church.

But the real surprise comes within. Here, the concrete waffle-grid roof slab, a monumental ceiling plane, floats above an enormous open interior space, interrupted by only two supports. Inspired by Nervi’s Palace of Labor in Turin (nearing completion as the centennial of Italian unification approached in 1961), Breuer designed a series of concrete trees that branch out to brace eight points on the roof. 38 This exemplified what Breuer saw as the great challenge of modern structure and materials. In Matter and Intrinsic Form, his 1963 Michigan lecture, he explained:

Buildings no longer rest on the ground. They are cantilevered from the ground up. The structure is no longer a pile — however ingenious and beautiful — it is very much like a tree, anchored by roots, growing up with cantilevered branches, possibly heavier at the top than at the bottom.

He concluded with the new demands for an architecture in which sculptural form and its space-making capacities would lead to a fundamental reevaluation of the modern movement’s earlier refusal of symbolic dimensions. “With the rebirth of solids next to glass walls, with supports which are substantial in material but not negligent in structural logic … a three-dimensional modulation of architecture is again in view; the brother or lover of our pure space. Although not resting on lions or acanthus leaves, space itself is again sculpture into which one enters.” 39

Whitney Museum, New York.
Whitney Museum, New York. [© Ezra Stoller/ESTO]

Perhaps no building better exemplifies this newfound aesthetic of heavy lightness than the Whitney Museum, commissioned shortly after the Michigan lecture. After interviewing I. M. Pei, Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, Edward Larrabee Barnes, and Philip Johnson, the trustees chose Breuer to create a building that would situate its collection more prominently on both the grid of Manhattan and the world map. Breuer understood the challenge immediately.

According to Gatje, Breuer spent a weekend at home and returned to work with a design for an inverted ziggurat, clad in flame-treated gray granite, that would loom mysteriously over the corner of Madison Avenue and East Seventy-Fifth Street. 40 Without violating any zoning codes, Breuer inverted the traditional form of the famous setback skyscrapers of the 1920s and ’30s and of the white-brick apartment houses then rising everywhere; in this way he created a decidedly singular building that nonetheless fit the urban fabric. “What should a museum look like, a museum in Manhattan?” was how Breuer began his presentation to the trustees on November 12, 1963.

It is easier to say first what it should not look like. It should not look like a business or office building, nor should it look like a place of light entertainment. Its forms and its materials should have identity and weight in a neighborhood of fifty-story skyscrapers, of milelong bridges, in the midst of the dynamic jungle of our colorful city. It should be an independent and self-relying unit exposed to history, and at the same time it should have a visual connection to the street, as it deems to be the housing for twentieth-century art. It should transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity and profundity of art. 41

The experience of entering the Whitney is too well known to require much recapitulation here. The itinerary takes one from Madison Avenue via a bridge announced by a cantilevered canopy, under the overhanging of the upside-down ziggurat, into a west-facing glazed lobby with a gridded ceiling of circular lighting fixtures. And while this design resonated with the emerging minimalism in ’60s sculpture, Breuer was thinking largely in terms of the stakes of history and symbolism that had informed the internal critique of architectural modernism ever since the monumentality debates two decades earlier. “Today’s structure in its most expressive form is hollow below and substantial on top — just the reverse of the pyramid. It represents a new epoch in the history of man, the realization of his oldest ambitions: the defeat of gravity,” Breuer told his friend Peter Blake in 1964. 42

Whitney Museum, lobby. Photo by Ezra Stoller.
Whitney Museum, lobby. [© Ezra Stoller/ESTO]

Whitney Museum, gallery. Photo by Ezra Stoller.
Whitney Museum, gallery. [© Ezra Stoller/ESTO]

At the Whitney, Breuer cut out the urban equivalent of the white box gallery so beloved by contemporary minimalists; the result is the building has a palpable aura, a feeling of remove that seems to protect the art from the nearby world of quotidian commerce. The museum was becoming a complex, cubist spatial sculpture, a place of contrasting experiences: a lobby characterized by flow and spatial excitement, in which architecture, large-scale public sculpture, and the city itself all seemed to convene; and upper floors in which attention was focused inward. The greatest expanse and loftiest ceilings were reserved for the fourth-floor gallery: here it was as if not only ancient tradition but also modern rivals were turned on their head; here was a free span space like Mies’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin but lifted high above the city.

Breuer abandoned the dream of dematerialization for the conviction that art must embrace the contradictions of experience.

In an odd sense the Whitney Museum returns full circle to Breuer’s experiments with vision and viewing at the Bauhaus, as well as to the idea of levitating, sitting on air. Here it is an inverted ziggurat that seems to float over the open space of the lobby. But by now Breuer had abandoned the youthful dream of the dematerialization of art for the conviction that art must embrace the contradictions of experience if it was truly to enrich life in a complex postwar world. So here was a temple of art that engaged the commercial streetscape of Madison Avenue, a museum that was both removed and connected, and that held heavy and light in remarkable equipoise. It was at once a unique building in Breuer’s portfolio and the culmination of a research project underway for decades.

Editors' Note

This essay is adapted from Marcel Breuer: Building Global Institutions, edited by Barry Bergdoll and Jonathan Massey, and published this month by Lars Müller. It appears here courtesy of the editors and publisher.

  1. On the African chair, see Christopher Wilk, “Marcel Breuer and Gunta Stozl, ‘African’ Chair, 1921,” in Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity, ed. Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 100–109.
  2. This has been much commented upon. See, for example, Frederic J. Schwartz, “Utopia for Sale: The Bauhaus and Weimar’s Consumer Culture,” in Bauhaus Culture: From Weimar to the Cold War, ed. Kathleen James-Chakraborty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 216ff.
  3. Ruth Verde Zein, Brutalist Connections (Sao Paulo: Altamara, 2014), and
  4. The Harnischmacher House embodied Le Corbusier’s five points of a new architecture, revealing the impact of Breuer’s short stint in Paris between his time at the Weimar Bauhaus and return to Dessau. The structure perhaps also reflected the influence of the Weissenhof Siedlung (1927), in which Breuer’s furniture was displayed in Walter Gropius’s model house adjacent to Le Corbusier’s buildings. The house signaled that Breuer was already moving toward his own synthetic architectural language distinct from that of Gropius. A number of surviving photographs are annotated as “designed with Walter Gropius,” notably one in the Museum of Modern Art archives and one reproduced on the website on Breuer’s work by North Carolina Modernist Houses. . However, none of the archival sources that I have consulted provide any evidence of Gropius’s involvement. The house is also sometimes referred to as the Harnismacher House, an alternative spelling that appears in Christopher Wilk’s important study, Marcel Breuer: Furniture and Interiors (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1981), 110.
  5. Barry Bergdoll, “Encountering America: Marcel Breuer and the Discourses of the Vernacular from Budapest to Boston,” in Marcel Breuer: Architecture and Design (Weil am Rhein: Vitra Design Museum, 2003), 260–307.
  6. “Transcript of an interview of Breuer by television interviewer Istvan Kardos, 1972,” Box 6, Microfilm Reel 5718, Breuer Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. Breuer repeatedly explained to historians that his work was based in an authentic expression that Bauhaus method could share with unauthored barns and farmhouse architecture, something clear to him in a deliberate play on words in German: Bauhausarchitektur versus Bauernhausarchitektur, or Bauhaus versus Farmhouse
  7. Marcel Breuer, “Wo Stehen Wir?” (1934), reprinted in English as “Where Do We Stand?,” in Buildings and Projects, 1921–1961, by Marcel Breuer, with captions and introduction by Cranston Jones ( New York: Praeger, 1962 ), 269.
  8. Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1941), 269–76.
  9. Kardos interview, op. cit. note 6. Unable to read the original Hungarian, I am translating from the German version in the document in the Archives of American Art, Reel 5718, frame 508: “Dieses Haus vertritt die moderne Umgestaltung von Original amerikanischen Holzgebauden. Es besteht nur aus einem groseren Raum und Kuch sowie Badezimmer, aber meine Meinung nach war veilleicht am Wichtigsten vor allen, und vielleicht hatte es die groste Wirkung auf die moderne Entwicklung der amerikanischen Architektur. [sic]”
  10. Breuer, describing the house in a letter to his former English partner, F. R. S. Yorke, March 8, 1943, Box 45, Breuer Papers, Syracuse University Libraries; cited in Isabelle Hyman, Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001), 334.
  11. Breuer, Buildings and Projects, 1921–1961, 222. In an unrealized project for a prefabricated wooden house called the Plas-2-Point, developed with Harvard students, Breuer upended the balloon frame by making the floor and roof mirror triangular truss constructions on the analogy of an airplane wing, with the occupiable frame rendered rigid by a skin of plywood panels treated with a new Monsanto product that would add strength to the sheets, the whole “acting only as a tension member.” For a reproduction of this diagram, see Breuer, Buildings and Projects, 1921–1961, 248, fig. 88.
  12. Barry Bergdoll, “Breuer as a Global Architect,” in OfficeUS Agenda, ed. Eva Franch i Gilabert, Amanda Reeser Lawrence, Ana Miljacki, and Ashley Shafer (Zurich: Lars Müller and PRAXIS, 2014), 149–59.
  13. See Victoria M. Young, Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); and Christopher E. M. Pearson, Designing UNESCO: Art, Architecture and International Politics at Mid-Century (London: Ashgate, 2010). See also Hilary Thimmesh, Marcel Breuer and a Committee of Twelve Plan a Church: A Monastic Memoir (Collegeville, MN: Saint John’s University Press, 2011); and Colm J. Barry, OSB, Worship and Work: Saint John’s Abbey and University 1856–1992 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993).
  14. Sigfried Giedion, Josep Lluis Sert, and Fernand Leger, “Nine Points on Monumentality” (1943), in Architecture Culture, 1943–1968: A Documentary Anthology, ed. Joan Ockman and Edward Eigen (New York: Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, 1993), 29–30.
  15. It was certainly not apparent to him in England in 1936, when he first expressed his aims to expand his practice beyond the domestic and to develop a comprehensive architectural language embracing new materials and new needs for the building types and programs of a modern city. This had been the ambition of his utopian Garden City of the Future; see Teresa Harris, “From Garden City to Concrete City,” Marcel Breuer: Building Global Institutions, ed. Barry Bergdoll and Jonathan Massey (Zurich: Lars Müller, 2018). Although little published then or since, the lost model of this British project contained a veritable catalog of building types that would reappear in Breuer’s research for a language of public architecture. The small amoeboid pavilion, for instance, had been developed in lightweight wood for the Ariston Club at Mar del Plata on the Argentine coast (1947–48). Even more consequential was his interest in a concrete exoskeleton frame, one in which the structure becomes highly expressive — the opposite of the tradition of the American balloon frame or the so-called Chicago steel frame, in which structure retreats to an invisible interior.
  16. I have discussed this at greater length in “Into the Fold: Nervi, Breuer and a Post-War Architecture of Assembly,” in Pier Luigi Nervi: Architecture as Challenge, ed. Carlo Olmo and Cristiana Chiorino (Milan: Silvana; Brussels: CIVA, PLN project, 2010), 87–115.
  17. St. John’s Abbey, “Report of the Building Committee to Community,” March 3, 1953, copy in File 6, Box 70, Breuer Papers, Syracuse University Libraries, Syracuse, NY.
  18. Thimmesh, Marcel Breuer and a Committee of Twelve, ix, n.12.
  19. Abbot Baldwin, letter to architects, March 7, 1953, Folder 13, Box 2, Office of the Abbot, New Church and Monastery Building Records, 1952–81, St. John’s Abbey Archives, Collegeville, MN. Something of this determination had been reflected by the abbot’s predecessor, who in 1947 commissioned Antonin Raymond — a modernist who had followed Frank Lloyd Wright to Tokyo to supervise construction of the Imperial Hotel — to provide syntheses of Japanese tradition and Western aesthetic and technical innovations. In St. Anselm’s, completed in 1954, Raymond’s brilliant use of a system of hollow folded concrete plates to create a box of light on a dense urban site in Tokyo underscored St. John’s’ commitment to experimental architecture.
  20.  Ibid.
  21. “Notes and Observations on a Visit of Mr. Breuer to St. John’s, April 20, ’53,” typescript, Folder 4, Box 5, Building Committee, Comprehensive Plans and Reports, St. John’s Abbey Archives, Collegeville, MN.
  22. Meinberg comment is from “Notes and Observations on a Visit of Mr. Breuer to St. John’s.”
  23. Breuer comment quoted in “Notes and Observations on a Visit of Mr. Breuer to St. John’s.
  24. “Notes and Observations on a Visit of Mr. Breuer to St. John’s,” op. cit.
  25. For the most recent, and thorough, documentation and analysis of the Breuer/Nervi collaboration on the concrete work at UNESCO, see Roberto Gargiani and Alberto Bologna, The Rhetoric of Pier Luigi Nervi, Concrete and Ferroconcrete Forms (Lausanne: EPFL Press, 2016), esp. chap. 9.
  26. Rev. Cloud Meinberg, “The Monastic Church,” lecture text, September 1953, St. John’s Abbey Archives. See also Daniel J. Heisy, “Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture,” in American Theological Inquiry: A Biannual Journal of Theology, Culture, and History 8, no. 1 (2015): 41–48.
  27. Meinberg, “Monastic Church,” op. cit.
  28. See Whitney S. Stoddard, Adventures in Architecture: Building the New St. John’s (New York: Longmans, Green, 1958), 38–43; and Robert Gatje, Marcel Breuer: A Memoir (New York: Monacelli Press, 2000), esp. 87–92.
  29. As at UNESCO, the trapezoid served to hold large crowds even while creating a sense of intimacy and a central focus. Seen from the choir, the nave appears shorter than it is in reality; from the nave the monks’ choir is splayed into a panoramic view. This effect would be further enhanced once the three-dimensional form that could house this great, broad figure without compromising interior supports was worked out in an intense period of collaboration between Breuer and Nervi, whom the monks had endorsed as a collaborator. Here Nervi extended his experiments in achieving great spanning capacity and strength in folded plates of concrete, used both in elevation and to span the space, the whole tied together as an integral cage of buttress-like trusses. At UNESCO, the revealed concrete had lent gravitas. At St. John’s, Breuer was determined to clad the form in granite, both to help it withstand the harsh Minnesota climate and to emphasize a certain lightness in its whiteness; in 1954 he compared the form of the church to a tent, as Thimmesh recalls. Thimmesh, Marcel Breuer and a Committee of Twelve, 1.
  30. Ibid., 17.
  31. Marcel Breuer, “The Contemporary Aspect of Pharaonic Architecture,” preface to Living Architecture: Egyptian, by Jean-Louis de Cenival (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964), 3–6, originally published in French as “Modernisme de l’architecture pharaonique,” in Egypte: Epoque pharaonique, ed. Jean-Louis de Cenival and Henri Stierlin, in the series Architecture Universelle (Fribourg, CH: Office du Livre, 1964), 3–6. Breuer was proud of the book and seems to have gifted it to clients. My inscribed copy was a gift from Professor Molly Nesbit of Vassar College, who inherited it from her father, who had served on the committee of the Episcopalian church in Rochester, New York, and had interviewed Breuer as the potential architect for their new church.
  32. “A Masterplan for the Next One Hundred Years,” Architectural Record (November 1961): 132.
  33. Mario Salvadori, “UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France,” Architectural Record (February 1958): 166.
  34. Pier Luigi Nervi, Aesthetics and Technology in Buildings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 5.
  35. Marcel Breuer, second annual Reed and Barton Design Lecture, presented at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, March 6, 1963, published as Matter and Intrinsic Form (Taunton, MA: Reed and Barton, 1963), unpaginated.
  36. Robert Einaudi, “Pier Luigi Nervi Lecture Notes, Roma 1959–60,” in La lezione di Pier Luigi Nervi, by Pier Luigi Nervi, Annalisa Trentin, and Tommaso Trombetti Milan: Pearson Italia, 2010), 112.
  37. “Marcel Breuer: The Buildings at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota,” Design Quarterly 53 (1961).
  38. This solution had achieved great popularity at that moment, including Nervi’s design of the Italian embassy in Brasilia, Ove Arup’s design for a bridge at Durham University in the UK, and German Samper’s SENA building in Bogota.
  39. Marcel Breuer, Matter and Intrinsic Form: The Second Annual Reed and Barton Design Lecture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1963), final page of printed pamphlet. The same lecture was delivered in November at Cornell University; a bound typescript of “Remarks of Marcel Breuer, December 4, 1963, Cornell University,” is in the Avery Library, Columbia University, New York, NY.
  40. Gatje, Marcel Breuer: A Memoir, 196.
  41. Quoted from “Notes for M.B.’s comments at the Presentation of the Project on November 12th,” Frame 431e, Reel 5729, Breuer Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Cleaned up, these notes were later reused in many different publications and printed as “Breuer’s Approach to the Design of the Whitney Museum,” AIA Journal, April 1967, 67. They are reprinted in Tician Papachristou, Marcel Breuer: New Buildings and Projects (New York: Praeger, 1970), 14–16.
  42. “Upside-Down Museum in Manhattan,” Architectural Forum (January 1964): 91. See also Barry Bergdoll, “I. M. Pei, Marcel Breuer, Edward Larrabee Barnes and the New American Museum Design of the 1960s,” in A Modernist Museum in Perspective, ed. Anthony Alofsin (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2009), 107–23.
Barry Bergdoll, “Marcel Breuer and the Invention of Heavy Lightness,” Places Journal, June 2018. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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