Born on 22nd September 1890 in the erstwhile Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi, Frederick John Kiesler is the architect of the surrealists, whose radical ideologies ran parallel to the modernism of his times. He studied at the Technical University of Vienna and at the Academy of Fine Art between 1908 to 1912, and began his career as a theatre and set designer.
Following his move to New York in 1926, Kiesler continued to develop sets, exploring painting, sculptures and furniture design as well. Upon obtaining the license to practice architecture in 1930, he established the Planners Institute Inc.
Over the years, he has received global recognition post-humously, invigorating interest in his brand of multidisciplinary creations rooted in deep metaphysical ideologies. Following are five of his works, serving as an insight into the metamorphosis of his ideas through each period of his oeuvre.
- The Endless House (Concept)
Recognised as one of Kiesler’s seminal works, the Endless House is a concept for a home that Kiesler designed between 1947 and 1962. The concept was visualised in a miniature scale for the 1960“Visionary Architects” exhibit at MOMA, New York. His theories in biomorphism derived organic forms occurring in the environment, while correalism underlines the interdependence between man and his environment, both natural and technical.
The reinforced concrete shell poured over the wire mesh frame was crafted into a flattened sphere, elevated on pilotis. Four of these structures and two staircases composed the entirety of Kiesler’s take on a house that challenged the norms of the times. Comprising the typical spaces within a space, the house was finished with a multitude of materials- ranging from sand and terracotta to pebbles and grass.
The aforementioned principles guided the design by incorporating nature in the direct proximity of the inhabitants. Connectivity is articulated by the fluid form made from a single material, also outlining the significance of the adaptive and more “natural” forms held in Kiesler’s design process.
The curvilinear and organic body stood in stark contrast to the orthogonal, modern designs by Kiesler’s contemporaries who included Kahn, Le Corbusier and F.L.Wright. While the Endless House received criticism for being too outlandish and impractical when it was initially conceptualised, it has been recreated and studied extensively to disclose the thought process of its designer.
- The Room of Superstition (Exhibition Space)
Developed by Kiesler in collaboration with André Breton’s 1947 surrealist exhibition in Paris, the Room of Superstition was an interpretation of an organic space that allows the user a free, unstressed circulation. Biomorphic design led to an egg-shaped elliptical room as an exhibition area.
The wooden formwork created the organic elliptical shell within the room employing ribbons of light fabrics to create a soft boundary. This room was a key space in the exhibition, displaying the works of other Surrealist artists from ceiling to floor.
Pliable and free-flowing, the space depicts Kiesler’s context-driven approach. He stated that just as the human embryo evolves into a fully-fledged body composed of varied organs, any idea should serve as a “nucleus of possibility” that can be synthesized into a holistic outcome.
- Shrine of the Book (Architecture)
A repository for the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, the Shrine of the Book took the form of a unique, white dome. The highly sacred project echoes symbolism. The white dome and the black basalt walls bear a contrast similar to that between “Sons of Light” and “Sons of Darkness”.
The shrine entrance has an entrance resembling the caves which were the original site of the manuscripts. The building is two-thirds below the ground, surrounded by a reflecting pool.
The delicate scrolls are displayed inside the structure below the column of light. The curves of the shell and the shrine take form as an enigmatic yet profound culmination within it, and Kiesler claims it to be devoid of symbolism. The shrine, with its double parabolic shell, is a technical and structural expression of the past, present and future.
- The Correalistic Series (Furniture)
Kiesler’s fervour for organic forms guided the design of the multifunctional furniture pieces. Usable as a seat, a pedestal and an easel in its various orientations, the Correalistic Instrument affords the users ample freedom with the furniture. Designed as a part of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, the piece lends eighteen different uses through various permutations.
Correalist Rocker was specially designed for the same event. Each flat, parallel side of the rocking chair was made of three plywood boards and covered in a continuous strip of linoleum seamed below the seat.
The inventiveness of Kiesler’s furniture was on full display at the Surrealist Gallery in Peggy Guggenheim’s museum-gallery ‘Art of This Century’ art salon. The biomorphic origins of the furniture pieces showcase the detail-oriented design of each element, a rare balance of natural forms and uncommon usage of commonplace creations.
- Film Guild Cinema (Architecture)
Built-in 1929, the futuristic theatre in New York showcases another facet of Kiesler’s architectural abilities, creating an important cultural landmark for the movie fanatics. In 1930, it was renamed the “8th Street Playhouse”, with novel premieres and themed cinematic events. Currently it is in use as a Mount Sinai Hospital office.
Kiesler hoped to deliver a singular experience, freeing spectators from the confinement of a typical screen-and-seating theatre. This was achieved by the lack of a stage or winding curtains.
The House of Shadow Silence was a key concept of theatre but never executed. Using ceiling and walls as projection surfaces, the entire space would be a part of the narrative. Kiesler’s design was not only a thought-provoking spatial experience, but widely called the first “100% cinema” for the immersive devices it employed.
Although the landmark contributions of Frederick Kiesler could never achieve global acclaim on par with his contemporaries, his surviving works have shaped the resurgence of the avant-garde principles of the twentieth century. Imagining a world where his often-criticised style would have been a normative expression of architecture, one marvels at the possibilities of an other-worldly urban fabric. His theories and works serve as an unending source of inspiration, while the individuality Kiesler depicts throughout his life makes him a surrealistic icon for the ages.