At the entrance to the current exhibition Endless House: Intersections of Art and Architecture is Frederick Kiesler’s Endless House (1947–60). He envisioned this eclectic, flexible habitat as “a living organism, not just an arrangement of dead material.” He saw the house as a composition of spaces “as elastic as the vital functions.” A selection of drawings features his exhaustive investigation of forms for it, drawings which, through his lively use of ink and superimposition of multiple sketches on transparent overlays, approach animation.
Visitors will notice that one drawing hangs slightly above the rest (see above). Done in 1947 and recently acquired by MoMA, it is an example of one of Kiesler’s early visualizations of the Endless House. The ink-on-paper sketch (shown at top) depicts a curved structure that resembles a sliced egg jauntily propped up on two squat plinths. With no indication of how big or small it is, its scale appears provocatively poised between a proposal for a sculpture and a study for an architectural enclosure, a sort of cave-like shelter. In many ways, this ambiguity is precisely the point.
An émigré to New York, Kiesler made the drawing while in Paris, where he was designing an installation for the Exhibition Internationale du Surréalisme at the invitation of Marcel Duchamp and Andre Bréton. The installation, Salle de Superstition, used ribbons of cloth, a lightweight wooden frame, and atmospheric lighting to create an elliptical room within a room. Works by Surrealist artists Roberto Matta, David Hare, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, and Yves Tanguy were installed on every surface, from ceiling to floor. Visitors participated in a delirious art continuum that hinged on direct perceptual experience.
Kiesler was interested in a similarly synthetic approach to architecture. As he wrote in his Manifeste du Corréalisme, drafted during the same Paris trip, the elements of construction—whether for a city, a chair, or a house—should be a “nucleus of possibilities” developed and transformed in relation to its environment. The final form of the design should emerge organically, just as the “multiple, specialized functions of organs are already contained in the amorphous embryo of the human body.” The design challenge of how to embrace such radical ideas of spatial and conceptual continuity within a freestanding structure became the puzzle to be solved in the Endless House.Eggs, wombs, and other biomorphic forms abound in the experiments for the Endless House. Jean Arp, having visited the Salle de Superstition, described Kiesler this way: “…his head was full of eggs that he roosted on day and night. He brooded upon one with particular care until the egg of eggs hatched from the egg and overshadowed the gross constructions of our architecture. In his egg, in these spheroid, egg-shaped structures, a human being can now take shelter and live as in his mother’s womb.” Both a psychological and metaphorical reference, the ovoid form, apparent in the 1947 sketch, was also a structural solution: the curved shell created a self-supporting structure with an interior that blurred distinctions between floor, ceiling, and wall to provide a flexible layout. These forms were already in use in his innovative 1924–26 design for an Endless Theater.
Its long creative germination is one of the fascinations of the Endless House. Quickly moving on from the early drawings, over the next decade Kiesler tested diverse means of representing the house, exploring new materials and incorporating ideas from his other projects while liberally borrowing concepts from molecular biology and the field of magnetism to describe it. The current exhibition sets the new acquisition in dialogue with materials from different points along this spiraling, looping design trajectory.The first model, from 1950, assembled out of eight ceramic pieces and created in collaboration with the sculptor David Hare, is paired with drawings from 1951 that further refine the architectural aspects of the project, studying the lighting and detailing sections for wall construction. Photographs of the eight-foot long concrete and metal mesh model built for MoMA’s Visionary Architecture exhibition (1960) capture the fully fledged final design: an exuberant cluster of grotto-like spaces arranged organically on fluted pillars. Enlarged to wall-sized photo murals for the 1960 exhibition, the photographs convey haptic, sensual interiors composed of different textures ranging from pebbles to sand. Bathing pools and a prismatic color lighting technology would address both the spiritual and the physical needs of the inhabitants. Viewing this sequence of works is a rich, happily disconcerting entry into the oscillations of the Kiesler’s creative process.