Some visitors to MoMA’s Endless House: Intersections of Art and Architecture exhibition tell me Frederick Kiesler’s designs don’t have enough windows. His Endless House couldn’t have connected the inhabitants with their environment, they say, comparing Kiesler’s model to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, a glass and steel box intended to float among the trees.
I point out the windows in Kiesler’s designs, but also suggest that connecting with nature doesn’t just mean looking out at it. Kiesler’s friends, including Mies van der Rohe, had doubts and reservations about his ideas. Kiesler, in turn, was critical of the International Style, seeing structures like the Farnsworth House as impersonal and industrial. “Form does not follow function,” he wrote in 1949. “Function follows vision, vision follows reality.” His Endless House was to be made of natural materials and organic shapes, pliable and evolving with people.
The Endless House and the Farnsworth House are the first designs the visitor encounters in this exhibition. Beyond them, single-family homes cluster together on plinths, as if the gallery were a suburb or town of extremely interesting, unusual houses.
Kazuyo Sejima’s Villa in the Forest feels remote, even alongside Peter Eisenman’s towering Max Reinhardt Haus Project—a house which is, in fact, an unbuilt skyscraper. The gallery is not a forest (though one model has a greenhouse at its center and another smells of cedar), but Sejima’s model brings the atmosphere of trees into the Museum.
The Villa in the Forest model has been in MoMA’s collection since 1996. The building, small and round with a white exterior wall, sits in a grid of clear acrylic trees, measuring almost 30 x 30″, on a slight incline that is also entirely white. The forest occupies much more space than the house itself, which is less than five inches in diameter.
One’s view differs according to height; children peer up at Villa in the Forest through the overlapping triangles of the trees, while most adults see it with a bird’s-eye view. In any case, though, we don’t see the house from inside and—separated by all these trees—we can’t really get close to it.
These trees are all triangles, identical and lined up in neat rows. The mountainside is a rectangle, almost a square, upon a triangle. The shadows that fall across the slopes are straight lines. The driveway, extending to the house’s door, is omitted completely. The only curve is the round building; the house interrupts the forest’s geometry much as rectangular apertures and protrusions interrupt its own circle, returning to the trees.We aren’t accustomed to this representation of forest; wilderness, here, is orderly. But the thoughts behind Sejima’s design suggest some ways in which nature actually can be, like these trees, at once ethereal and monotonous. Villa in the Forest, completed in 1994, was built in Nagano, two hours north of Tokyo by car. Here, the forest expands in all directions; it does not give way to frame vistas. Trees block the sun, the land’s topography is concealed, and direction becomes irrelevant.
Sejima chose a circle for the house, noting that a square would give the sense of a front and sides, discordant with this environment. The roof of the house, sloping in the opposite direction to the site, is not shown in MoMA’s model. Instead, from above, we can see a little of the interior. Inside the larger circle is another circle, creating a central area to be used as an artist’s studio, lit by a central skylight. The ring between the two circles is a living area, divided over two floors. The interior of this space is finished in wood; everything else is white. Both circles are punctured with square or rectangular apertures at different heights. For those inside, these openings provide glimpses of the forest outside and connect the interior spaces. One rectangular room protrudes, allowing guests to see the forest while they bathe.
Sejima’s Villa in the Forest doesn’t decide between the two different modernisms that Kiesler and Mies van der Rohe represent, but rather feels descended from both. Sejima has often been compared to Mies, and has cited him in interviews as a favorite architect. Her work, here and elsewhere, uses industrial materials, and seems, sometimes, so light that it might evaporate. In this model, it’s the forest, not the windows, which can be seen through.
But there’s a clear visual link, too, with Kiesler’s Endless House. Villa in the Forest has a shape and lines that don’t lead outside, but rather guide the guest through the house, around it. Circles, here, create a womblike center and a passage through which one can move without encountering an ending. The windows do not dominate. This house is not a site for floating, watching trees. Rather, it feels centered in the human experience of nature; Villa in the Forest almost burrows into the earth.
Kiesler’s ideas continued to develop over the course of his life, as is clear in looking at the contained, egg-like 1950 model for Endless House alongside photographs of the model exhibited at MoMA 10 years later, by which point the spaces had multiplied and become a little unruly. Sejima’s approach to space, too, has developed since Villa in the Forest. This model provides a point of continuity at MoMA: Sejima’s more recent work will feature prominently in the upcoming exhibition A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond.