With the launch of the Marcel Breuer Digital Archive in April, Syracuse University reached the midpoint in digitizing their extensive Breuer collection. While the public and critics debate the merits of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital in Chicago or Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center, the new website will add grist to the mill of Brutalist defenders looking for concrete arguments about the movement’s pedigree. Though Breuer and many of his disciples would likely eschew any stylistic labels, there are finds within the archive that arguably could be viewed as seeds for the Whitney Museum, a Brutalist bellwether on Madison Avenue.
The site delves deep into Breuer’s halcyon furniture-designing days at the Bauhaus and continues up through 1955, when some of his earliest experiments with a sculptural treatment of concrete begin to play out, including the theoretical Garden City of the Future from the mid-1930s and his hyperbolic parabaloids and formwork designs for New York University (NYU) in the early 1950s. All archival materials that could be obtained prior to 1955 are included. As World War II forced Breuer from Dessau to London and finally to Cambridge, Massachusetts, coordinating archival material involved a host of institutions outside of Syracuse, including the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, the Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau, University of East Anglia, and Harvard University.
But the bulk of Breuer’s later works are still awaiting funds to complete the project. The 1955 cutoff was deemed appropriate as the period represents the time Breuer moved from early residential projects to big government and institutional work. Not yet online are the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and the Whitney, though harbingers of both projects can be found in the NYU file. The even-then-expanding university hired the architect, not once, but twice to design buildings for their Bronx campus then known as NYU Uptown, now home to Bronx Community College.
There is plenty of fresh material to mine. “People haven’t written on the concrete; they tend to focus more on the Bauhaus,” said the website’s project coordinator Teresa Harris. The gems revealed in the NYU file show Breuer’s initial experimentations with hyperbolic paraboloids. But the boomerang gesture of the dormitories on the Uptown campus overlooking the Harlem River is a dead ringer for the UNESCO project.
Breuer’s superb NYU lecture halls still astonish, with three huge concrete legs supporting a central hallway uniting the two rooms and Breuer’s intricately designed board-formed patterning. The website’s detail images of the formwork being installed are a delicious hint of things to come. In a 2008 telephone interview, Breuer assistant Robert Gatje recalled, “We used to call it ‘the bird,’” he said. “I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know of any precedent or follow up.”
In a statement, Museum of Modern Art’s Barry Bergdoll said that the website would not only open a new generation of Breuer scholarship but could also open a “whole new set of questions about the profile and issues of American modernism from the 1930s through the 1970s.” Breuer’s legacy could be refined, but so too could the definition of Brutalism. “He hated to be called a Bauhaus architect,” explained Gatje. “He never liked the term Brutalism, but it was adopted by the architecture press. Breuer did his own thing.”