:: Article


By Richard Marshall.

Stephen J. Phillips, Elastic Architecture: Friederick Kiesler and Design Research in the First Age of Robotic Culture, MIT 2017

Imagine the uncanny trauma of the first nuclear Bomb test of 1945. It shreds the life-dreams of the living, splices magic science-demons into waking hours and fills time with nightmare soundscapes. Imagine this is not the first world trauma. The Great War of 1914-18 similarly spliced time and space and its aftermath was insanity, dread and the end of the human. Post-humanity was a Dada signature. The logic of dreams was its internal interstellar escape route. The robot was its mental technological correlative. But architecture repressed the Dadaist and Surrealist responses. Friederick Kiesler was the exception, the quintessential surrealist architect of post-human trauma.

Resisting the architecture of the right angled white box and the hinge, Kiesler’s modernity fused the logic of dreams to biomorphic forms, a way of redesigning the human environment as both a protective shell against future threat, trauma and dread and a newly configured dwelling space and time for imaginative fulfillment . Machine life for Kiesler involved calibrating the robotic efficiencies of industrial Taylorism to the uncanny subconsciousness of Freudian sex and death drives. He began in the 20’s by working on the design of a production of Karel Capek’s R.U.R of ‘robot’ fame. Stepping into a lineage that included Leonardo da Vinci’s humanoid plans of 1495, Jacques de Vaucanson’s duck, flute and pipe player automatons of 1738-39, of automated technologies and machines that might live such as ETA Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’, Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and Villiers’s ‘The Future Eve’, Kiesler designed the set for the Capek play and merged architecture with automatist fantasies. For the rest of his life he imagined a world where humanity rebooted itself as psychosexual robotic AI’s, dwelling in endless space and time capsules, resisting trauma and perfecting the ultimate pleasures. By the time he reached the 1960s his surreal Duchampean dream of trauma-resisting humanoid organic bliss resonated with the psychosexual revolutions of Wilhelm Reich’s experiments in orgasm perfection and Tim Leary’s psychedelic bombshells. The idea was to extend our minds and bodies into new landscapes of pleasure and fulfilment, a Ballardian inner weirdness drawn from expertise in design and architecture as well as his close association with leading Dadaist and Surrealist experiments.

Kiesler imagines humans as strange AI prototypes living inside shells of protective dwellings resisting the twisted psychosis of the maniacal carnage of his twentieth century. Only a single cinema and the library for the Dead Sea Scrolls were actually, realized prompting Philip Johnson to say that Kiesler was ‘the greatest non-building architect of our time’. But Kiesler was a visionary, a surrealist working at liminal extremities, and Phillips wonderfully detailed and knowledgable book gives us a full picture of how he worked out his ideas.

Friederick Kiesler conceived the inner movements of existence via eating, birth, sex, death, threat, trauma, wombs and movement. Architecture at the start of the twentieth century repressed this. His surrealist provocations raised awareness that the architecture of the box, the right angle, the joint, of the static and eternal pace and time was not the only way architecture could respond to the new century. Kiesler contrasted the new architecture of functional static space with a dynamical conception which involved both space and time. He presents an organic worldview to solve the architectural problem of dualism and mechanism. He dreamt of an organic dynamism, an architecture of living forces passing through and experiencing time. The subjective realm becomes for his architecture the highest degree of organization and development of these forces. Kiesler’s buildings were to contain life in its self-conscious and active manifestation. Kiesler saw an architecture of joints, right angles and fixed boxes repressing these forces, an architecture stuck to responding to life’s lowest form, as he conceived it, its dormant, static and objective manifestation. The idea of motion defines Kiesler’s projects, contrasting his approach to the stasis of his contemporaries. Like Hobbes, Kant, Schelling and Trendelenberg, motion works as a kind of fundamental metaphysical category, a view perhaps originating in Aristotle in Physics III who defines nature itself as ‘a principle of motion and change.’ In Book VIII he writes, ‘motion is… the characteristic fact of nature… there never was a time when there was not motion, and there never will be a time when there is not motion. We understand why something changes or moves, or why it is at rest, through some prior motion.’ Aristotle’s conception of motion was broad, it involved all change, growth, qualitative change, substantial change, coming into Being and passing away from Being. In Aristotle physics is ‘the science of things that change.’

As well as this notion of motion Kiesler is also about transforming the human species. He is an artist working, as another artist, Stelarc writes of himself, ‘… as an evolutionary guide, extrapolating new trajectories, a genetic sculpture, restructuring and hypersensitivising the human body; an architect of internal body spaces; a primal surgeon, implanting dreams, transplanting desires, an evolutionary alchemist, triggering mutations, transforming the human landscape.’ But unlike Stelarc, Kiesler was an architect where the internal body spaces and the external spaces were endlessly entwined. His space works like a mobius strip, a surface with only one side which can be realized in three dimensions and the Klein Bottle which requires four dimensions.

He never compromised his vision to meet the normative demands of the construction industry. He began as a stage designer, exhibition coordinator and theatre architect in Berlin, Vienna and Paris during the 1920s. He was close to members of the surrealist and De Stijl movements. He moved to New York in 1926 where he co-founded the International Theatre Arts Institute in Brooklyn and was director of set design at the Juilliard School of Music from 1934 to 1957. He was a research director and visiting critic of architecture at Columbia and Yale between 1936 and 1952 and a celebrated Surrealist, housing and theatre architect from the 1940s to the 1960s.

He invented ways of modulating the built environment as a response to the evolving spatial habits of bodies perceiving in time and motion. He dreamed of an architecture that would expand and contract to perform multiple dwelling tasks. The ‘Endless’ concept was his signature concept. ‘Endlessness was ‘the original conception of folding spaces around the viewer.’ Johnson wrote of this as where ‘ the continuous space moving in complex ways would open vistas unknown to the architects.’ This concept ran through his whole career from the Endless Theatre in the 1920s to his Endless House and Universal Theatre projects of the 1960s. He was one of first to see how film could be put into the design of space by applying experimental animation and film production technology. In this book Phillips ‘… critically examines Kiesler’s transformation of theatrical space into the architecture of a total work of art of effects (the Gesamtkunstwerk) that fuses viewers, spectators, structure, light, rhythm, and sound into one coherent spatial atmosphere’ and shows how and why from this Wagnerian dream for architecture Kiesler’s elastic interiors and structures with free-flowing surfaces were developed. Phillips explains how similar to the interiors of Art Nouveau Kiesler’s interiors were. These were interiors that, for Walter Benjamin, ‘ confront the technologically armed environment.’ Phillips writes: ‘Kieslers’ continuous forms of architecture performed in response to the body-in-motion to parry the shock of modern media and the intensive impact of machine industry on everyday working lives.’

Kiesler aimed to smooth out the disturbances, separation and disjunction in both the physis and psyche of the dweller. He aimed to naturalize the jarring, harsh and uncomfortable in works that resonate with the later preoccupations of Deleuze and Guatteri. Deleuze in ‘The Fold’ of 1988 promoted architectural forms that could evolve, unfold and envelop to create a labyrinth of contracting and expanding continuous elastic surfaces . Kiesler’s Endless concept is the best historic precedent for this and of the use of an unfolding curved space now so very important for digital architecture. His Endless Houses of dust, without columns, struts, angles, joints, where wall, floor and ceiling are continually touching, endlessly, and that rest on the ground like strange egg-shells, are the uncanny result of his lifetimes work.

His themes are stagecraft, display, education, gallery design, housing, theatre and all culminate and morph throughout as an The Endless Theatre (1925-26) and an Endless House (1959-1961). His revolutionary ideas for modern stagecraft in the 1920’s also saw him also begin his relationship with the European avant garde and the use of machine technology. Via Constructivism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Futurism, the Plastic arts, experimental animation, automatons, marionettes and radical space he developed his Endlessness. As he put it himself: ‘The time was ripe for open play.’

He created a performance space of ‘multiple open platforms suspended with elastic cables encased within a double-shell… [g]lass-and-steel, spheroid-matrix-shaped structure…’ It wasn’t popular. Critics disliked it for its ‘ melodramatic pathos’ and he was written off as one of the avant garde’s ‘pompous prophets’. Nevertheless the trauma of the First World War had ended certainties in all fields, including the ‘old realistic-intellectual theatre.’ His Endless Theatre … ‘the first continuous shell construction scheme with no foundation needed to support it’ was a response to this change. It was not an ‘egg as shelter’ as in Bosch’s paintings nor a form of utopian spherical architectural such as those of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in the 1780s and 1790s. It was rather an organic geometric form, more like things found in Bel Geddes, Loos, Walter Gropius and the Futurists. It was similar to Andreas Weininger’s Spherical Theatre at the Bauhaus in 1924 and he may have plagiarized that initially. And in his theatre design for RUR he used optical and mechanical techniques for dynamic spatial effects, asking, ‘Are human beings real, images, or machines?’

Dada’s Hans Richter was impressed by his stage sets. As a result of this Kiesler was invited to Berlin and designed the set for O’Neil’s ‘Emperor Jones’. Richter wrote of this work : ‘Emperor Jones wandering through the jungle: hanging canvas panels, unpainted, criss-cross, in which the wanderer, as in the jungle, has lost his way. Now and then a spotlight on the “walls”, the man, and the path. A spooky world created out of nothing.’ Kiesler’s set ran a huddled sedimentary strata like a line of dilapidated shambles, a deteriorated geology of encrusted supernatural inertia, not just in specific places but through and through.

For Kiesler the ideas were about a ‘refuge in a forest…haunted by visions of wrong doings’ which he adapted from the then-new theatre techniques of Alexander Vesnin and Meyerhold. He used the experimental animation of the time that took up Bergsons’ attempt to ‘recover poetic experience, the duration lost in the interval between the contracted snapshots of our focused conscious perceptions.’ Richter and fellow avant-gardist Eggeling wrote about this. For Eggeling ‘ … becoming and duration are not in any way a diminution of unchanging eternity; they are its expression. Every form occupies not only space but time… What should be grasped and given form are things in flux.’ This notion of incorporating time as well as space into architecture was something Kiesler would continue to develop throughout his work.

Richter’s and Eggeling’s experimental animations responded to the vast trauma of WW1. They were looking for a universal language to unite different peoples altered by inexpiable despair with empty, uncrowned and forlorn visions to ‘… rebuild men’s vision into a spiritual language in which the simplest as well as the most complicated, emotions as well as thought, objects as well as ideas, would find a new form.’ Kiesler was immensely impressed by their animation films.

Kiesler writes of one of them: ‘ There is no doubt that the Symphonie Diagonale has… an expression of austere beauty that is only inherent to work of nature or art embodying entity of all parts held tenaciously together by its very own power of motion that makes it expand and contract, endless in its breadth and most concrete in its structure.’ Again, this idea of our tragic movement through both space and time become the effective activity through which his designs for living were to be structured, and it’s this he’s recognizing in the animation.

He had no rigorously formal or artistic exercises to substantiate his design process. All he had was a showmanship of puerile verbal descriptions to explain his ideas. His working techniques included plagiarism, psychoanalytic jumps, and dadaist and surrealist provocations. He didn’t coin the term ‘Endless’ until in New York and there are inconsistencies between his plans for and the modelled section of his Endless Theatre. Were his drawings really Duchamps? Kiesler was a ‘smart operator,’ an artist and thief, an architectural Genet. He was attacked as a plagiarist by Jacob Levi Moreno in his ‘Theatre of Spontaneity’ for the Raumbuhne. But he had a vision that took him beyond his plagiarisms. His Raumbuhne Space Stage ‘… is not merely an a priori space, but also appears as space.’ As Phillips explains, it was ‘… [t]wo solutions – one a peep show stage as in Emperor Jones, and another, a spiral ramp circulating round a central platform.’ It links with other constructivist stages and he may well have stolen ideas from these too. It also exploited the approach of Meyerhold-trained actors to move as automatically, precisely and agilely as automatisms – a kind of Taylorism adapted as an art of rhythm and tempo. And the use of the Rollercoaster as a new space for theatre that the Raumbuhne exploited, a mobius strip animated by motion, this was not unique or original either. It was found in Moholy-Nagy’s ‘Theatre of Totality’ and in Piscator and Gropius too, in the theme of the nervous system of the crowd, and in Loos’s ‘prep school for unborn intellect.’ The circus developed a totally kitsch new theatre technique but although Kiesler soaked up and used these ideas his own perspective on them was also grounded in his psychological and biomorphic ideas of fantasy and sexuality found in Dada and Surrealism.

Kiesler explains: ‘The stage provided the training ground to work out or work through fears and fantasies of automatist conditions, and to invent more provocative spatial solutions to mitigate the very complex sociopolitical forces acting upon everyday human habits and actions among a new world of machines.’

Moving to New York from Europe in the 20’s we find him adapting the avant garde stage and film. His automatist spatial environments blurred exterior and interior space. His show window designs for Saks Fifth Avenue used optical designs to suck audiences down hallways and to the screen at the Film Arts Guild Theatre at 52 West Eighth Street. Just as Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer did not view distraction as a limitation to social awareness, Kiesler saw the work as mobilizing a ‘physical shock effect’ to ‘induce heightened attention,’ saying that ‘architecture has always offered the prototype of an artwork that is received in a state of distraction… received in a twofold manner: by use and by perception. Or better, tactilely and optically.’

Kiesler explored distracted techniques via shopping. As Phillips points out, ‘[h]is urban designs disclose the complicity of modern art in consumerism surrounding the politics of authority in mass culture.’ Kiesler writes: “No more walls.’ ‘… we must build the organic building.’ He looked to contemporary examples of the spiral glass building , such as the 1926 Schocken Department Store’ by Erich Mendelsohn which looked to create a festive dynamic atmosphere of unity like Tatlin’s monument to the Third International .

By moving to New York he was able to adapt and develop his ideas. American shop windows pre -1920 represented libraries and parlors but through the 1920s abstraction was being slowly introduced. The first challenge was in Raymond Loewy’s displays at Macy’s where ‘contrast was meant to shock’. The idea was too strong and he was forced to resign. But he had laid the ground for future developments and Kiesler arrived in New York as someone prepared to take things further. He and Bel Geddes started in the late 1920s to continue the evolution begun by Lowey. Kiesler did fourteen windows in all for Saks 5th Avenue. He wrote of his ideas: ‘… the evolution of the shop window is due to one fact: Speed…’ His European Dadaism decisively altered states and created a strange fetishised and surreal erotic theatricality. In his windows ‘… one sees only a chair, over which a coat and a pair of gloves have been thrown, displayed against a vast background. The background is of a neutral uniform gray, the coat is black velvet with a white fur collar, the gloves are also white, the cushion of the chair red, the wood of the chair gray.’ Lighting the windows made them ‘aura frames.’ ‘The origin of this type of decoration … comes to us from the most destructive and radical artistic movement in Europe: Dadaism.’ ‘Surrealism… natural illogical way… it brings together any kinds of objects… create an atmosphere of tension between several pieces of merchandise exposed within the frame of the shop window.’ His shop window designs were investigations uncovering the unconscious whilst conscious.

The notion of ‘Aura Effects’ reflects the new power structures of 20th century living ‘… transforming whole spaces into a single electrical sign.’ The potential of frameless buildings became closer to being realized. Kiesler envisioned the electric space of the store window to be interactive. It was a combo of ‘… Fashion news. Daily events. A talking newspaper. Scientific productions… Films which show desired merchandise to customers and explain its qualities and merits as sales robots.’ Against Benjamin’s notion of the store as an extension of the street Kiesler saw the store rather an opportunity to be immersed in new technology.

Against Benjamin’s idea that glass is the enemy of secrets and has no aura Kiesler knew that glass is auratic. He used glass in a new way, different from Bauhaus’s modernist International Style. ‘Aura…is no longer specifically established through the tactile marking of time and memory on the surface of an aged material that could be ‘read off’ through imaginative interpretation…It is now made manifest through anticipation, generated by the returning gaze of inanimate objects held back at a distance and encased behind a glass display window open to the street.’ Glass would not, as Brecht thought, ‘erase the traces.’ As Kiesler put it: ‘Clarity is no more guaranteed to the naked eye behind a glass window than veiled behind a curtain.’ For Gottfried Semper in ‘ The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings’ a veil is a ruse to provoke the meaning of form, the promise of naked truth a pretention with apparent clues for meaning detection whereas ‘the characteristic feature of genuine aura is ornament.’ Materials were to be used rhetorically. Benjamin sometimes limits this rhetoric to relics of bourgeoise security and livelihood, other times to imagination in response to memory promising some kind of a hermetic magic tradition, seeing ‘meaning as a breathy halo upon objects of desire.’

Benjamin writes about how the flaneur survives glass and steel. In “The Return of the Flaneur’ he says that the ‘… perfected art of the flaneur included a knowledge of “dwelling”… the matrix of shell – that is, the thing which enables us to read off the exact figure of whatever lives inside it’. Benjamin wanted to explode the ‘atmosphere concerned in these things’ but for Phillips he underestimates how modern society uses technology as mechanisms of control.

Phillips aptly quotes Adorno’s lament:

But what are emancipated from formal law are no longer the productive impulses which rebelled against conventions. Impulse, subjectivity and profanation, the old adversaries of materialistic alienation, now succumb to it… The representatives of the opposition to the authoritarian schema become witnesses to the authority of commercial success… the listener is converted, along with his last line of resistance, into the aquiescent purchaser. No longer do the partial moments serve as a critique of the whole; instead, they suspend the critique which the successful aesthetic totality exerts against the flawed one of society.’ Rather than emancipatory, ‘shock effects’ have become everyday tactics of mass consumer manipulation for capitalism.

Into this new context Kiesler carved out his own niche. He proved a master of the shock tactic mass consumer manipulation. He lures the viewer from the street into the movie house at 52 West 8th St. In his NYC Film Arts Guild Theatre he developed his notion of the psycho-function of architecture. He writes: ‘…glass has a different psychological effect from leather, wood, and from metal. The same applies, of course, to colour schemes. Function and efficiency alone cannot create art works. “Psycho-function” is that “surplus” above efficiency which may turn a functional solution into art. The front of this modern picture house is conceived of black and white opaque glass. The design as it spreads from the inside of the building into the front moves in an asymmetric rhythm, emphasizing the purpose of the building as a home of moving pictures.’

His design for the cinema made clear that cinema is not theatre:
‘While in the theatre each spectator must lose his individuality in order to be fused into complete unity with the actors. In the cinema … is this most important quality of the auditorium its power to suggest concentrated attention and at the same time to destroy the sensation of confinement that may occur easily when the spectator concentrates on the screen… to lose himself in an imaginary, endless space even though the screen implies the opposite…interior lines of the theatre… focalise to the screen compelling unbroken attention on the spectator… the ideal cinema is the house of silence.’

‘We are ever more convinced that we are individuals making our own conscious choices, and yet in this media-induced virtual state of distraction in which attention has become so well entertained we may have lost sight of the habits of our actions.’

It was at the Brooklyn International Theatre Arts Institute with associates Princess Norina Matchabelli (aka Maria Carmi) and Dr Bess Mensendieck that Kiesler built a lab of the modern stage. Carmi saw acting as an art of ‘co-relation’ between brain, soul and body using theories of psychology, perception, electricity, magnetism, cyclical theory, the space-time theories of Einstein, of contracting and regenerative energy forces and the balancing of comfort and discomfort. In his pedagogical exercises assigned at Columbia and Yale between 1937 and 1952 he examines naturally elastic processes in biology, anatomy and physics in order to manufacture responsive organic building systems tailored to changing environmental conditions. Against Le Corbusier’s ‘static man’ he promoted ‘evolutionary man.’ Kiesler saw architecture as a living machine.

His Design-Correlation Lab experiments were adapted for a series of gallery and museum designs from the 40s to the 60s. During this time he worked with Breton and Duchamp. In gallery exhibitions in New York and Paris he invented a sequence of dynamic interactive spaces to counter the then-dominant white box functionalist mystique. His World House Gallery in NYC, 1957, and the Museum for the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem expressed his rejection of the clinical white box gallery space. The museum in Jerusalem, for example, was ‘correlated along a path of travel – similar to a scroll – the Shrine of the Book formed a mythical narrative that unfolded through ritual passage.’ He saw it as nothing less than ‘… a challenging national icon riddled with Surrealist psycho-sexualised symbols and gestures designed to liberate modern sensibilities.’ In his opera set design for ‘Helen Retires’ by Antheil and Erskine his first biomorphic designs were revealed where, according to Walter Russell: ‘[a]ll direction is curved – all motion is spiral…’ Kiesler writes: ‘ Biotechnics, a term which Sir Patrick Geddes had employed… can only be used in speaking of nature’s method of building, not of man’s.’

From his strange Nuclear and Space Houses of the 1930s to the cavelike primitive work of the Endless Houses of the 1960’s, Kiesler opposed all modern uses of panel-and-frame rectilinear construction in favour of new, dream-like organic structures. The correlation of space and its bodies was the central principle of all this. He called it ‘Correalism’ where ‘… from shirts to shelter…constituent parts of our… total environment… visible trading posts…anabolic and catabolic…. Nuclear-multiple-forces… integrating and disintegrating… at low rates of speed… time… is the only resistance to continuity… that keeps matter (the world) together…’ His Laboratories researched the movement of bodies and systems, all the time looking to understand a correlation between environment, furniture and bodies. For Kiesler the ‘ maladjustment between the body and some parts of its environment, external or internal, impair the efficiency of the body [leading to] … physical resistance … a progression from fatigue to death… Architecture is a tool for the control of man’s health, its degeneration and regeneration.’

His vision was to maximize mass productivity by continually fine-tuning the body-machine complex to work to its greatest capacity. This would create a society of perpetual work in the service of mass markets with the ultimate purpose of enabling man to construct higher levels of continuous productivity. This was a kind of insane Taylorism mixed in with Lamarck, Darwin and Hunt Morgan. It somehow worked in research about nervous systems, polyelectrophysiology and radioactive rays. Plus a bit of William James’s ‘The Energies of Man’ and the ‘Principles of Psychology.’ Kiesler’s vision was to perfect the plastic bodily habits of humans, where through ‘continuity of training’ we can ‘make our nervous system our ally.’

The Vision Machine of 1938 was designed to show how networks of nerves correlate visual and tactile information between mind, eye, body and the environment. A dream machine was to capture the ‘direct imprint of dreams’ in the ‘after-image of memory flash.’ Events not known in the moment but choreographed by the body were to make spatial perception habitual.

‘Like Bergson in ‘Matter and Memory’, Kiesler studied the body as a zone of indetermination, as a screen that makes cuts in a field of excess images, which through choice selections define subjectivity and personality based on individual needs. His was what Virileo calls ‘ … a new industrialization of vision.’ Sadly, none of this was ever built and Kiesler was accused of being fatuous. But nevertheless it was very of the moment and inspired several optical display at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century galleries in 1942.

Kiesler was sure that a house was not to be fixed in time but should rather transform to the needs of humans. A house was to exercise, train and comfort the body. He drew increasingly on Freud, William James and Reich to develop this. He believed houses simulated states of auratic communication of deep release with the cosmos. It was to be a primal expression, something seamless, designed to perform as bodily supplement, a fetish object, something that conformed to modern pleasure in the hope of releasing our repressed pain. It was to be a living machine, a dream machine; ‘ … used, inhabited, and engaged by the body for curative effect – to strengthen the ego for discharging individuals back into the sensual world of men – digested, regenerated, and redeemed.’

‘An end must be brought to the divorce between architecture and painting’ write Nicolas Calas and Kiesler in the catalogue for the surrealist exhibition Bloodlines. They attacked le Corbusier’s pure white walls which they thought ostracized paintings. They attacked Lloyd Wright for substituting views to landscapes for paintings, and both for creating anti-galleries of ‘tame groves of polished objects’ ‘trimmed plants’ and ‘organized fields of vision to include a continuum in the feeling of painting, sculpture, walls, ceiling, floor and spectators.’

In opposition they proposed a Magic architecture where: ‘… whatever the truth may be with the erection of the first hut [there was] a Split in the Unity of Vision and Fact.’ Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier had introduced abstraction where before everything had felt transparent. The ideal was ‘soft and plastic …[that] yielded to pressure… enveloped one’s body continuously.’ This is Kiesler’s primordial myth. ‘Imagery in Art healed … the breach in the Unity of man and nature.’

Kiesler’s Correlate building placed ‘ structure, equipment, furnishings, sculpture, and painting…’into ‘… an organic fusion between the physiological and psychological demands…’ combining ‘science that resurrected fact’ with ‘surrealism that resurrected vision’ to create continuous worlds of immanent feeling.

Duchamp’s mysterious ‘Big Glass’ was an exemplar of all this. Kiesler responded to the ‘Big Glass’ by finding sympathetic ideas to his own there, writing how in the work:
‘… nature distinguishes between framework and tensional fillings, both elastic and interdependent, while we build rigidly, inflexibly, lifelessly. The manner of joining parts of similar or of different densities in this interdependence is tantamount to nature or to artifice. Contour design is nothing else but joint. A contour is an illusion of a spatial joint of form. Joints are dangerous links; they tend to did-joint (everything in nature is joined and a group of joints is form). Hence all design and construction in the arts and architecture are specific calculations for rejoining into unity, artificially assembled material, and control of its decay.’

Kiesler resisted any movement towards a building design reduced to joints in the same way Duchamp’s work supported the idea of elastic ‘contouring’ with the aim of continuity, as found in nature. Duchamp used ‘precise form articulation’ creating ‘ligaments of steel-or-what-not… that divided all shapes and at the same time linked them’ like the structure of the x-ray of a leaf where ‘the veins… are merely the extensions into the leaf of the chief elements of the stem.’ As Phillips puts it; ‘Like Goethe and France in their studies on plant morphology, Kiesler looked to the relationship between art and science in nature to discover ways to construct continuous forms that might control inevitable fracture.’

The NY surrealists such as Duchamp, Ashile Gorky, Isamu Noguchi, Breton, Matta and Richter were very involved in this. Guggenheim’s gallery in NY, Klee’s ‘Magic Garden’, Kurt Schwitters ‘Relief’, Arp’s ‘Untitled’ all are examples of these zones of indeterminacy that are neither subjective nor objective but are rather eidetic images, endless images in process of becoming, that were so embedded in Kiesler’s work.

Breton’s ‘eidetic aesthetic images that would transform the study of everyday objects into infinitely changeable art forms …overriding ‘ the distinctions between the subjective and the objective’ were to be transposed into architectural principles for Kiesler. Kiesler writes that, ‘… the pleasure principle and the desperate instincts of sex and death give myth a dramatic richness unknown to contemporary pragmatism’ and he dreamt of synthesizing humanity and the surrounding environment into a perfect art. His ‘Hall of Superstitions’ started with a Totem for all religions. He wrote: ‘ … death as we understand it doesn’t exist. Death is rather a punishment, a damnation. It is the act of being ordered into Exile; from there you watch your family; from there you participate in their lives. You become part of their Totem, or you impose Taboos. You either take revenge or help them. Particularly through your dreams you take an active hand in their everyday affairs.’ This sort of thing is found in several of his contemporaries of the time, as in Ernst’s ‘Black Lake’ where its ‘… feeding-source of fear’, scantily dressed woman ‘nourished… anguish.’ It’s in Miro’s ‘Waterfall,’ all ‘congealed by superstitions’. But these surrealist fantasies of sex and death – desire, consumption and death – failed to shock. After the gas chambers, what was left for surrealism? Art shocks seem feeble after that.

Kiesler’s ‘Shrine of the Book’ in Tel Aviv was a surrealistic psychoanalytic design. The Dead Sea Scrolls were linked to Freud’s Wolf Man for Kiesler. Freud’s famous case-study was of a young man whose trauma-filled life had lead to anxiety, frustration and guilt, neurosis of appetite, piety and sadomasochistic tendencies. A man with experience of incest and abuse from a sister, unrequited love for a nursemaid and father, this had all ‘fused into an erotic desire laden with deep-rooted anxieties and fears.’ He had dreams of seven wolves ‘The Wolf and the seven Little Goats’. Freud treated him to periodic enemas as a symbol of rebirth ripping the wolf man’s infantile veil, caul or lucky hood. The Wolf man gave birth to feces, the symbol for all gifts in Freud, all disjunction, all fragmentation offered to a loved one (including the penis, money, art, architecture and babies) – Freud thought the wolf man wanted to copulate with both mother and father. This involved a wish fantasy of being back in the womb so that he could reemerge from the womb to replace the mother as the sex object of the father, free from trauma. Kiesler’s architecture was about performing this ultimate cleansing, to liberate humanity and start again. According to Phillips the Shrine of the Book ‘posed a challenging example of what might happen when the architecture itself becomes an object put on display… at the same time… with all its psychoanalytic nuance and eroticism, performed Kiesler’s greatest therapeutic act – to rip through modernism’s tectonic veil and release architecture from its pseudo-functional repression.’

In Kiesler’s work there are contradictions between his humanist vision and his emerging 20th century interests of a technological enhanced post humanism. Surrealist architecture described by founders Tzara and Matta was ‘architecture with intrauterine appeal…prenatal comforts’, and architecture of ‘… soft tactile depths’, ‘circular, spherical, and irregular houses.’ Its models were caves, tombs, hollows in the earth, wet walls, appetizing furniture, infinite motions, ‘like plastic psychoanalytic mirrors,’ ‘architecture that gets out of shape’, that relieve ‘the body of all the weight of …its right angle past.’
Of Keislers’ Endless House Hans Arp writes: ‘In Kiesler’s egg, in these spheroid egg-shaped structures, a human being can now take shelter and live as in his mother’s womb.’

In his Show House of 1933 Kiesler reveals a structure that is ‘something else’ something beyond’ ‘something imagined’ ‘something endless.’ His Space House was conceived as an architectural diagram of Freud’s bodily ego. It was a surface of interior and exterior relationships. A shell, an inorganic shield, protecting unconscious energies and resisting external stimuli it was designed to control the discharges of mobile internal drives and instincts back to external world. The dominant drives of the Freudian sex and death instincts were crucial in Kiesler’s opinion to all this. Id and ego. Too much stress and the ego shell would crack. He imagined the ego shell as discharging protective cathexes to strengthen itself and relieve pressure. In a situation of very intense pressure it was to trigger the flight reflex.

Kiesler saw his houses as ‘… defense mechanisms that give physical expression to the sheltering of [the human]… psyche.’ The Space House was his first attempt at building this. The outer wall was modeled on the concept of an egg shell, which Kiesler took to be the most ‘exquisite example we know of utmost resistance to outer and inner stress with minimum of strength.’ It was never built because the technology was not available to build it at the time. He wanted to eliminate all joints and saw it as a design correlation of Duchamp’s ‘Large Glass’. ‘The Space House with its aim of continuity was formed in reaction to this ultimate fear – fear of the loss of a part or digit.’ ‘There would be no joints, no fences, no separation anxiety, no need for cleanliness – no death- and certainly no Freudian castration fears.’

That sex played a large apart in his work is undeniable and given his involvement with the surrealists predictable. Yet we’re given the particular details that Kiesler gave explaining why he became an architect. ‘When Kiesler was eighteen months old there was a nursemaid-housekeeper and one day each week she would knead dough to make bread. One warm spring day, she took dough into the garden and kneaded it under his beloved chesnut tree. He said she wore full skirts and he didn’t know why, but he went under the skirt and took some matches which he lit to look up, and that’s how he started being an architect.’

So sex laid out a formative desire to be an architect and he held that art and architecture alleviate the repression that forms through acts of aggression. Kiesler believed man was ‘conscious of his interrelationship with his environment‘ and he himself had a deep empathy with trees. When he explains what the woodcut ‘Raumseele’ – ‘Space Soul’ is about we catch a glimpse of what would be his architectural vision: ‘… a man seated with closed eyes, his hands and feet immovable, as though in a state of petrification. From him into the background of this picture extended a landscape and the extension continued into the sky, and the sky bent above his head, then backwards into the foreground, into the earth again, and forward toward his seat.’ This is the poetic correlative of his Endless Houses and Spaces, his dream of the unity and connectivity of everything.

He writes: ‘… the beginnings of architecture are strangely enough not connected with life necessities, but with death … the anxiety of explaining to himself the process of death leads [one]… even today to believe in immortality.’ From this we’re told that ‘For the architect of the twentieth century, not only did architecture follow from fear of death (Loos’s theory of the tomb); so did the desire to modulate space (Kiesler’s idea of soul space).’
Kiesler’s ideas are clearly influenced by Freudian Otto Rank’s ideas about the soul being the desire for immortality, represented as spirit, unconscious, or reality.

Kiesler was incorporating the womb and the maternal into his architectural vision, a matriarchal intelligence and sensitivity that could either be seen as an attempt to jump the species forward beyond linguistic communication, a posthumanism of telepathic wholeness, oneness and unity or else, as Phillips says: ‘… an uncanny desire to achieve prelinguistic unity by invoking fusion between vision and reality.’ What is clear to Phillips is that ‘… in his 1940s Surrealist gallery spaces, we have to account for his instrumentalisation of psychoanalysis in his architectural practice… he simulated the aura of the primal maternal relationship in his Surrealist galleries, he did so to work through modern trauma and repressed wish fantasies in hope of arriving at what he believed could be a more critically engaging and ethically conscious building practice.’

In this he rejects Benjamin who thought of aura as a breathy ornamental halo encasing an inanimate object and who sought to end the cult of dwelling. Kiesler wanted to develop that cult, so to speak, and wanted to dwell in the abode of maternal being. His designs were of strange spheroid matrix shells whereby his Endless House took on an uncanny regression to primitive structures. Kiesler’s visionary rationale for architecture is clear: it was a ‘… magic architecture [whose] function is physical protection…[through]… ‘nest building…’ For Kiesler ‘.. the talent for building is… nothing else but the extended gesture of defense of the animal-psyche: protection against attack and death; preservation of food, shielding the sick…’

He studied the homes of termites, the topography of caves, nests, stones. He investigated Wilhelm Reich’s orgone theory and was intrigued by Reich’s analogy between physical and psychical structures of the body, in particular the sexual and urinary systems. Reich writes of his experiments as being ‘… gradually and logically centered on one basic problem: how deeply is the function of the orgasm rooted in biology?’ In his ‘Function of the Orgasm’ Reich broke with Freud, who maintained that sexual conflict was at the basis of any neurosis but used the word ‘sexuality’ in its widest sense. Reich used ‘sex’ to mean genital sex culminating in orgasm and not just the orgasm as simple ejaculation but as a peak liberating moment, linking this with full human freedom. In ‘Nova Express’ William Burroughs writes of Reich’s claim that ‘… the basic charge of life is this blue orgone-like electrical charge – Orgones form a sphere around the earth and charge the human machine – He discovered that orgones pass readily through iron but are stopped and absorbed by organic matter – So he constructed metal-lined cubicles with layers of organic material behind the metal … Reich insisted that orgasm is an electrical discharge…’ In his book ‘The Sexual revolution – Toward a Self-Governing Character Structure’ Reich summarises his criticism of the sexual conditions and conflicts he found prevalent in his ‘sex-economic’ medical experiences over a period of years. In “People in Trouble’ of 1953 he writes about his personal experiences with major social and political events and ideas and reveals how these experiences led him to a deep awareness of the significance of human character structure in shaping and responding to the social process. In his ‘The Orgone Accumulator Handbook’ he lays out plans for the construction of experimental orgone accumulators, orgone blankets, garden seed changers and gives directions for their use. In his ‘Children of the Future’ he writes about the essential right of children to experience ‘genital gratification’, writing; ‘ Let the children themselves decide their own future. Our taks is not to destroy their natural powers to do so.’ In ‘The Mass Psychology of Fascism’ he wrote the formula – Sexual repression + herd instinct = goose step. Rather than seeing fascism as an ideology or action of a single individual or nationality, or of any ethnic or political group he understood it as the expression of the irrational character structure of the average human being whose primary biological needs and impulses have been suppressed for thousands of years. Kiesler incorporated these strange realms of biophysical emotional expression, the realm of orgone therapy, into his designs.

Like Reich’s orgone, his architectural forms expand as a joy reaching outwards to the world and contract sorrow and pain ‘away from the world – back into the self… Life process [takes] place in the constant alternation of expansion and contraction… sexuality [was nothing other than] the biological function of expansion (out of the self’)… [and] anxiety…(‘back into the self’)… expansion and contraction function as sexual excitiation and anxiety, respectively… Life process in especial respiration, can thus be understood as a constant state of pulsation in which the organism continues to alternate, pendulum-like, between parasympathetic expansion (expiration) and sympathetic contraction (inspiration)… The elimination of sexual stasis through orgasmic discharge eliminated… every neurotic manifestation.’ The organsm gave a ‘Cosmic Orgone Energy.’

Kiesler thus saw his architecture as an architecture of sexual liberation. It was a liberation from modernism’s sexual repression. The Endless House was a physical manifestation of anti-Loos modern housing, the prurient architectural dispensation which Kiesler read as repressing sensual pleasure. The Paris ‘Endless Exhibition’ of 1947 liked his Endless model and he received another positive response again in 1951. The following year it was shown in Drexler’s exhibition ‘ Two Houses: New Ways To Build’ alongside Fuller’s geodesic dome.

His approach of movement introduced time into his architecture. As time passed the room systematically changed colour, changes ‘diffused on surfaces and inscribed in personal memory.’ Dwelling no longer left traces in the physical markings on material surfaces of the architectural body. Instead, ‘dwelling was dispersed as sensational images marked through time as phantasmatic illusory colours and shadows recorded in memory.’ It was a preemptive attempt at multi media.

His Endless House moved on from his Paris Endless. It was a shock proof shelter, like the rock-shaped formations of his Magic Architecture, rooted in primal regression but rather than being a hypersexualised elastic expression like Paris Endless the new version was rather ‘a palpable luxury of warm soft glowing atmospheres of multimedia affections.’ Kiesler exploded space creating endlessness through illusions that ‘sweep past the boundaries’ dwelling in a solid protective shell.

His shell was beyond the technology and materials of the day required to build its skin frame rather than the typical skeleton frame of ordinary housing. To date it has never been constructed. His Endless Sculptures followed where ‘form became more prominent than function’. He explained that ‘… the sculpture’s wings are really made of clay and his work is earthbound. It is the breathing of the intervals between details that makes his materials live and expand visually.’ And from this he posed the question: ‘Isn’t the dimensioning of space-distances, the exactitude of intervals, the physical nothingness which links the solid parts together so powerfully – isn’t this the major device for translating nature’s time-space continuity into man-made objects?’

Heliose, Embryo, Vessel of Fire. These were the various names of his Endless Sculpture. Of Heliose he wrote: ‘ …Heliose stands now in my house, threefold puberty: shyness, anguish, longing. She is wrapped in snow-white cloud tissue, a heavy body of bronze inside… We shall undress her as soon as Alice arrives to view her…’ In this he recalled the problems of adolescent and infantile sexuality researched by Reich.

His creation of the Endless House (so called because all ends meet continuously) used shapes and volumes with precision and care. As he was keen to point out, they were not ‘amorphous, not a free-for-all form. On the contrary, its construction has strict boundaries according to the scale of your living. Its shape and form are determined by inherent life processes.’ And the purpose of all this? ‘You could womb yourself into happy solitude.’

The uncanny aura of womb he constructed linked to the Minotaur tales of the Greeks, a monster lurking inside complicated dark passages, a palace of intestines that wind strangely compacted within our watery bodies. Kiesler promised architecture that delivered the ‘illusionary way’ – a winding, endless place for dreaming.

Phillips examines how he ‘systematically developed a new spatial order from De Stijl roots that was at once continuous and free-flowing, while at the same time able to shift and evolve with the changing temporal parameters of urban site, user, and program.’ He shows in detail how it linked to an ethical proposal, merging theatre, art and business and challenged functionalist dogma with a new spatial order. Phillips is crisp on this: ‘Kiesler elaborated a complex elastic architecture that aimed to support humanity’s desire for flexibility, adaptability, and freedom amid the controlling, organizing, and delimiting automated systems and laboring practices of modern times.’

He ends by discussing the impact of Kiesler’s ideas on contemporary projects. He sees Kiesler’s impact on contemporary interest in ‘… responsive systems, resilient strategies, adaptive technologies, affective spatial environments… contemporary robotics and postmodern human perception.’ But Kiesler was wary of how these ideas might be progressed as he surveyed them in his later years : ‘The performances of mechanical art-toys unfortunately are, by their very nature, as repetitious and limited as push-button releases of jukeboxes…Sculptures as electronic marionettes, architecture as engineering antics, amusing as they may be in themselves must not lure us from the real issue… in an age of falling boundaries, separatism, segregation, isolation in our social life must make way as never before to integration of purposes in all fields of endeavor.’

Perhaps the best way to understand Kiesler’s legacy is to read Ballard’s ‘The Crystal World’ by way of contrast. Kiesler introduced time to architecture. Ballard says that in his book he ‘… described a situation in which time doesn’t exist at all. The crystallizing forest, in which people become crystallized, describes a state beyond death, a kind of non-living existence.’ By juxtaposing these two master surrealists we can start taking stock of the new diagrams of the topographical geometry of the outer world of reality being quantified and eroticized. Maybe the kinesthetic Mobius-strip or Klein Bottle psychic environment is the future landscape for earth.

The dark, traumatising interiors of David Lynch’s work and the endless biomorphic forms littered throughout his uncanny works contains an eeriness also found in Kiesler. There is an unsettling, unbidden resonance in Kiesler’s work hinting at some insane dread and spectral ontology that, despite his benign intent, creeps about too. As with all utopian projects there is always the threat of revenge effects, those unforeseen consequences of good intentions, and perhaps Lynch is an interesting alternative route for Kiesler’s vision.

This is a great book on a fascinating guy. I was listening to some architects talking about Keisler’s Endless House a few days ago and one asked herself; ‘But how would you have doors?’ I thought: Maybe through performative twisting. To quote Freud: ‘… the material presenting the form of memory-traces being subjected … by a re-arrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances – to a re-transcription. .. My theory is that memory is present not once but several times over, that it is laid down in various species of indications.’ Perhaps Kiesler is best seen as that kind of indication.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 27th, 2017.