Why is the demolition of a Marcel Breuer house important?
LAWRENCE, NY – “Are people going to care about a tiny house?” asked Elizabeth Waytkus, who had been alerted a few weeks ago to the possibility of a once-famous house by architect Marcel Breuer being demolished. She is the executive director of Docomomo US, a nonprofit organization that promotes the preservation of modern structures.
People cared, it turns out. She received an outpouring of dismay and grief upon learning that the 1945 Bertram and Phyllis Geller home in Lawrence, on the southwest edge of Nassau County, had been torn down without warning on January 26 by current owners, Shimon and Judy Eckstein, who Waytkus said had assured him just three weeks earlier that they had admired him and had no plans to take him down.
It was a beautiful composition of three single-storey, cedar-framed wings, which zigzagged among the trees and shrubs of a spacious site, each wing topped by a low-pitched roof which gave the house an undulating silhouette. . The house had been significantly, but not irreversibly, altered, according to images on a real estate website.
His question, however, raises a larger point. The Geller house was rapturously covered by the press in its early days because it appealed to an America obsessed with a better life after enduring the sacrifices of World War II and the gloom of the Great Depression. It was “one of the most famous houses of the time,” said Barry Bergdoll, an expert on Breuer, who teaches architectural history at Columbia University and was the chief curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art. However, he had fallen into a kind of obscurity, well known especially to aficionados.
Preserving single-family homes is difficult and expensive, Waytkus explains, primarily because they are private. Docomomo’s modest resources are primarily focused on preserving commercial, cultural, and civic buildings as they are generally accessible to the public. In large-lot suburbs like Lawrence, the loss of a single home is less shocking because it isn’t seen as part of a whole, as a row of Manhattan mansions or towering brownstones might be. .
Suburbs often resist local preservation ordinances, especially those aimed at mid-century modern or later buildings. The taste for modernism is not universal, and suburban officials often shy away from enacting historic ordinances that compel property owners to become unwitting stewards of an important cultural resource.
“There aren’t a lot of tools to help with the preservation of these houses,” Waytkus explained. The best activists can do, she says, is promote the value of post-war architecture to the community, as well as vendors. Then try to find buyers willing to keep them.
The Geller House received a lot of attention during its construction because it confidently embodied the new values of the suburbs: technological progress and an informal and discreet way of life around children, with easy access to games. and relaxation in the open air. It’s the emblem of an era that has completely disappeared: when post-war suburbs, at their best, were places of possibility, innovation and new ideas. The architecture of single-family homes expresses these aspirations and embodies this emerging way of life.
The Geller house has been described as binuclear, a rather important way of emphasizing the primacy of child rearing that informed the design. The visitor entered a closed covered passage which separated the wings reserved for family activities from a bedroom wing. Two of the children’s bedrooms faced a playroom that ran the full width of this wing, which opened directly onto a lawn for outdoor recreation.
On the other side of the breezeway, the kitchen, dining room and living areas came together in a relaxed way – emblematic of the greater informality sought by families. The owners didn’t treat the house like a showpiece. Joe Geller, one of Geller’s four boys, told Caroline Rob Zaleski, the author of “Long Island Modernism: 1930-1980,” that his mother “didn’t bother us as young kids running inside out, and from room to room”. with all our friends.
The upward-sloping roofs in both wings lent a generosity to the modest dimensions of the rooms, as did the vast floor-to-ceiling glazed walls that projected sunlight onto the flagstone floors and opened onto the greenery outside. outside.
Marcel Breuer, born in 1902, left Hungary to study in Vienna, then entered the Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany, where he would later lead the furniture workshop. He designed two famous chairs, the Cesca and the Wassily, both framed in chromed tubular steel and succinctly capturing the Bauhaus synthesis of abstract geometries and industrial techniques.
With the rise of the Nazis, Breuer, who was Jewish, moved several times, finally settling in Cambridge, Mass., in 1937, where he practiced and taught with Bauhaus colleague Walter Gropius at Harvard. Gregarious and charming, “Lajko” befriended many clients, including the Gellers, who hired him to design another house in Lawrence, in 1967. (That’s why the original Geller house is now known to curators as Geller I.) The house has been extended but remains largely as it was built.
In a series of houses with Gropius, Breuer would soften the sharp cubic forms, white plaster or metallic surfaces, and dramatic overhangs of his Bauhaus work. Geller was conceived as Breuer separated from Gropius and moved to New York.
In this house, Breuer merged his stylistic tendencies more completely with American building techniques. Conventional wood construction was clad in vertical cedar sheathing that gave a flat, sleek feel. Inside, he used thin panels of varnished plywood and contrasted them with expanses of saturated paint colors in the fashion of modern artists. Jackson Pollock made one of his first drip paintings – sold a long time ago – for the home.
Breuer anchored this light architecture to the earth with a living room wall and a massive fieldstone fireplace. Stone walls projected into the landscape to delimit play and relaxation areas. You could say the old-fashioned brickwork is reminiscent of the traditions Americans cling to – or the stone is simply a sultry counterpoint to the sleek planes of the rest of the design.
Many of the ideas Breuer had honed at Geller would appear in a house he had designed that was built in the garden of MoMA in 1949, spreading his ideas to an international audience. “The Geller and MoMA houses were meant to be replicable,” Bergdoll said, “a house that a local contractor could build.”
While many other architects, including émigrés like Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Richard Neutra, as well as the architects of the California Case Study Houses, brought new ideas to the rapidly expanding suburbs at this time, certain aspects of Breuer’s—and, by extension, Geller’s—MoMA design appeared nationwide, massaged to suit local conditions by talented so-called regionalists, in the Carolinas and Texas, California, and the North -western Pacific. A clean break from the past, homes celebrated the modesty and thrift people took away from the Depression.
I would argue that Geller House is more important today than it was when it was built, precisely because the qualities that made the era unique have largely disappeared. As the government endorsed suburban highways, towns emptied out, some returning later, largely by luring people to underappreciated neighborhoods, held together by those who didn’t leave, with stunning architecture but neglected. Ideas and optimism have started to come from the cities again.
The suburbs are now struggling to control traffic. Some have become impoverished. Thrift and modesty now seem antiquated. Land in desirable locations has become unaffordable and demolitions epidemic – in what were once middle-class suburbs as well as enclaves of innovative homes commissioned by adventurous clients – as the home as an investment vehicle triumph of the house as shelter. (In Lawrence, homes that appear to be three to four times larger than the longstanding mix of modest ranch homes and substantial summer “cottages” of the early 1900s rise along the coastal salt marshes and fairways of golf courses.) Zaleski, the author, estimates that more than two-thirds of the homes she showed in her 2012 book have been demolished or drastically altered.
As working from home frees people from commuting, the indoor-outdoor orientation and innate flexibility of House Geller and its ilk seem ideal, a reprieve for people glued to screens in dark rooms all day. Unfortunately, the lessons these houses teach are being lost as they become fewer and fewer.