The author of a new book on the Brutalist architect explains why his buildings are both admired and imperiled today.
In 2016, Marcel Breuer dominated architecture headlines, 25 years after his death.
The former Whitney Museum that the Hungarian-born Breuer designed with Hamilton Smith reopened as the Met Breuer—a modern art extension of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—last May. It’s rare for a museum to be named after its architect, a clear sign that the Bauhaus-trained modernist still matters, even as some of his works face a perilous future.
The Atlanta Central Library, also designed by Breuer with his associate Smith, still stands, despite the city council passing a resolution last June for a new building on the same site. Council members later claimed that the resolution was worded poorly and that they are as interested in saving the original library as local preservationists are. The building’s fate, though, is ultimately in the hands of Fulton County commissioners.
In July, officials in Fairfax County, Virginia, approved demolition of Breuer’s American Press Institute building in Reston as part of a parcel rezoning. That was despite a petition with more than 1,000 signatures to reuse it and a vote by the planning commission against recommending demolition.
And in New Haven, it was announced last fall that artist Tom Burr would set up his own work inside the former Armstrong Rubber Company building for a one-year installation. IKEA, which owns the building and demolished a portion of it for a store of its own next door in 2004, is leasing the space to the Manhattan gallery that represents Burr for $1.
In a busy year for Breuer advocates, a new 447-page monograph helps position his work for a 21st-century audience. Robert McCarter’s Breuer (Phaidon, $150) is an essential work on the multitalented designer. Exploring Breuer’s portfolio, readers are treated to stunning photography and detailed stories behind projects that range from private homes and furniture designs to the hulking precast concrete buildings that defined his contributions to American cities.
CityLab recently caught up with McCarter—an architect and author who teaches at Washington University in St. Louis—to look back on the Year in Breuer and what the future may hold for his most memorable buildings.
2016 ended up being pretty eventful for Breuer’s U.S. buildings. Which one do you think had the most interesting year?
The Whitney Museum’s rebirth as the Met Breuer certainly received the most notice in the press of any of Breuer’s buildings this year. To see a building restored, even if only in part, to its former condition is always a gratifying experience, and the restoration of the entry lobby, lower level, main gallery, and main staircase to something close to the way Breuer made them 50 years ago allows new generations to experience the building as Breuer and his clients intended. Some changes in the circulation of the upper gallery levels (necessitated by contemporary building codes, I suspect), have upset some who recall the museum when it was new.
However, in the larger view, the fact that the Breuer building was saved for at least 10 years, and that it will be used to exhibit exactly the kind of art it was designed to house, must be seen as a cause for celebration. In addition, the Met Breuer, restored to its intended purpose of displaying modern and contemporary art, now serves, with the quiet elegance of its enveloping walls and its powerful yet subtle place-making presence on the corner, as a sharp critique of, and contrast to, the “museum as boutique shopping mall” that now houses the Whitney.
Which Breuer building appears to be most at risk going into 2017?
I still worry about the Atlanta library’s long-term prospects, as it seems there has to be a new drive to save it every five years or so. I am confident that in a time when libraries are becoming ever more important as community centers, the Breuer Atlanta library, with its open spaces and interconnected upper floors, will prove to be adaptable to any new uses that may be added to the traditional public library program in the coming years.
How do you think Breuer viewed his own buildings in context of the cities or neighborhoods they were in?
I have to say the town plan of Flaine in France is one of the most beautiful communities of its kind, both as an urban village form and as a series of buildings set into their natural setting with such care as to serve as an ideal model for such developments.
In designing buildings such as the Whitney, Breuer was very clear about the idea of cities as being made of a few monuments and many fabric buildings, and that both should be characterized by a quiet yet powerful elegance so as to add to the quality of the city. So I do believe that Breuer was very responsive to the contexts in which he built his buildings. Also, some of his very best urban buildings, such as the De Bijenkorf store in Rotterdam and the U.S. Embassy in The Hague, are not well known to Americans.
Related to that, his proposal for a skyscraper at Grand Central seemed to really damage his reputation. Was he able to redeem himself at all before his death?
The Grand Central Terminal skyscraper proposal was a true disaster for Breuer, permanently straining many professional and personal friendships, and it is not clear why he accepted the commission. Perhaps he thought he could steer it towards a better outcome, but in the end he needed to do what most architects find very hard to do: say no. Let another architect have such a thing on his or her conscience. Doing the right thing continues to this day to be a major problem for the profession of architecture, which has an entirely too flexible sense of its ethical responsibility to society and place.
Do you think the post-WWII federal and local government buildings by Breuer and his contemporaries will be viewed differently in the near future?
Without a doubt, the Breuer government buildings are not to the taste of the new administration—if it can be called “taste”—and his buildings boldly make present in everyday experience the ideal of the public realm, this being an ideal that few of the current crop of politicians seem to think necessary to their “vision” of an entirely privatized, and inherently profit-oriented America.
But as Winston Churchill said during the period when the Houses of Parliament were proposed to be renovated, “We shape our buildings, and they shape us.” We can only hope for the continued capacity, noted by Louis Kahn, of public buildings to engender unplanned meetings, to inspire in us a desire to meet others not like us, and to thereby allow us to gain new perspectives of ourselves and of the world around us.