Why accept the norms and conform?
Why perceive spaces, and things as they are?
Why not do something entirely unimaginable?

Surrealism in modern/ contemporary architecture
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Digging deep into chaos and unconscious desires, embracing irrationality, and wild dreams to release the mind’s creative potential, Surrealism aims to revolutionize the human experience. Finding magic in the unexpected, the uncanny, and the unconventional, this 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature had found its footing in architectural thoughts and approaches. Surrealist tendencies might perhaps be a prelude to sensory architecture by shining the spotlight on spatial immersion of the subject and reinvention of perception by representing spaces in anything other than rational. 

Within Modern Architecture, lies clues of Surrealist influences. Let us look at a few of them: 

Apartment at 42, Rue Fontaine, Paris: The enchanting magnetized space was home to the movement’s guiding spirit, Andre Breton. Steering clear from the popularized fashions of the interior design of those times, the house has an archetypal surrealist interior crammed with Breton’s unique collection of artworks, objects, and books. The home is a cross between a ‘Wunderkammer’ (cabinet of curiosities), an alchemist’s lair, and an archive to a point where the nature of the dwelling and the dweller are inseparable.

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Salvador Dali Museum House, Portlligat: The eccentric home on Costa Brava is a reflection of the whacky genius whose famous works have contributed immensely to the Surrealist movement. Tipping on to Art Nouveau style, the quirky interiors filled with stuffed swans, bejeweled polar bears, and the phallic-shaped swimming pool had small whitewashed rooms offering stunning views opening out to Portlligat.

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Mae West Room:  Salvador Dali, along with Catalan architect and designer Òscar Tusquets transformed 1920s Hollywood film star and sex symbol, Mae West’s face into a surrealist space. Using his paranoiac artistic method, Dali transformed West’s facial features into furniture and ornamental motives: lips became a rosy love seat, her nose a chimney, abstract images to represent her eyes, and a blonde wig to enact as apartment curtains.

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Maison de Beistegui Apartment Roof Garden, Paris: Even while following his own five principles of modern architecture, Le Corbusier has designed the roof garden with surrealist tendencies. The missing ceiling, grass carpet, useless fireplace, and fanciful furniture add an unreal charm to the party venue. The garden could offer fantastic vantage views of the well-known Parisian monuments like Arc-de-Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame. However, Le Corbusier built 5 feet tall walls to restrict the garden’s views, turning the monuments into small pieces of art sitting on the shelves of his bizarre outdoor living room.

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Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp: The circulation, sculptural form, curvilinear roof, and timeless appeal of the chapel designed by Le Corbusier stands out as an extraordinary interpretation of a sacred space. The inability to categorize and characterize the style of the design adds to its quirkiness. Sitting atop a curvy hill, rooted in context and designed based on modern principles, Notre Dame du Haut’s spatial quality of both indoors and outdoors seeks to jolt one’s existing perception. 

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Villa Girasole, Verona: Attending to the Surrealist’s dreams of automatism, the villa has a stationary and a rotating part, which spins to follow the arc of the sun. This surrational object is a product of an excess of rationality or logic. By merely rotating, the building’s existing relationship to the ground, the sun, and the landscape is challenged. The non-coalescence of the Architect’s traditional base, the Engineer’s ephemeral, and light moving top, and the typical bourgeois style of the interior produce unusual, jarring experience. 

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Casa Malaparte, Isle of Capri: Possessing simultaneously opposite, contradictory qualities, this provocative house recontextualizes familiar forms to produce startling effects. The smooth geometric exterior is in sharp contrast with the rough terrain of the natural setting. The geometry of the stairs leading to the roof is warped and has an exaggerated perspective. While the roof is open to the infinite sky, the interior is focused, axial, and linear. The cave-like evacuated void of the living room is contrasted with the claustrophobic nature of the densely packed maze of bedrooms and dead-end corridors. The essence of this house of paradoxes designed by Malaparte transcends time and style. 

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Endless House: Friedrick Kiesler proposed an embryonic casing similar to an eggshell as a dwelling unit that is ‘endless,’ providing no sense of boundary, but still sheltering its occupants. The sensuous, virtual elastic skin of the shell introduces time to demarcate habitation through varied lighting effects during day and night. The womb-like organic house promises to stimulate a surreal cinematic spatial experience through the continual expansion and contraction of the skin to engage one’s every motion and desire. 

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Fair Park Lagoon, Dallas, Texas: Artist Patricia Johanson used sculptural surrealist devices to make the viewer move from banal existence to a dream-like garden. Larger than life representation of aquatic plants, large reddish contorted concrete objects, paths, and bridges in the water make up this vigorous three-dimensional surrealist painting that derives its strength from ambiguous meanings. 

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Brasilia, Brazil: This extraordinary city designed by Architect Oscar Niemeyer and Urbanist Lucio Costa took 41 months to build. They hoped to provide the user with an ‘indescribable sense of shock’ that would lift them out of everyday monotony. Dominated by the monumental axis’s immense sense, vast spaces between the buildings, and the hugeness of the sky, the user’s impression of this abstract city is alienating and inhuman. The absence of squares, streets, and street corners suitable for the tropical climate is profoundly disorienting and utterly unreal like a mirage. Absolutely cut-off from the outside world, the city’s terrifying isolation alongside the vast wealth disparity amongst the population makes it a strange place to live in. 

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Designing unforgettable spaces and structures rule the roost in tandem with audience inclination. Technology-driven designs seen in the likes of the Dancing House in Prague, the CCTV Headquarters, Heydar Aliyev Center, or the Museum of Tomorrow in Brazil show an underlying surrealist dream in contemporary Architecture of wanting to push the limits of human potential and imagination. 


Nandita is a budding Architect. Curious by nature, she constantly seeks to experiment and express herself through various creative avenues. She is a bit of a geek who loves her books, fiction and non-fiction. Immensely passionate about art, history, heritage and urban design, she loves travelling to culture-rich places.