Design Icon: 10 Buildings by Marcel Breuer

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By Patrick Sisson / Published by Dwell
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The Bauhaus designer’s modern vision helped post-war American building see the future.

When designer and architect Marcel Breuer left Europe in the ‘30s to teach architecture at Harvard and start his own practice, it served as a catalyst for the spread of Modernist design, a bend in the road as fortuitous and influential as the curved steel joints in his famous tubular steel furniture. In the coming decades, his work with students and future luminaries such as Philip Johnson and Paul Randolph, as well as his own series of private residences and monumental public commissions, helped many appreciate and understand a new way of designing.

Marcel Breuer

A passionate designer and architect, the Bauhaus-trained icon once wrote about about “The taste of space on your tongue/The fragrance of dimensions/The juice of stone."

Educated at the Bauhaus, where he created a series of influential new furniture pieces and became a protege of Walter Gropius, Breuer brought an impressive sense of material to bear on his projects. Like the steel "Wassily Chair," a radical take on the club chair that still looks futuristic nearly a century later, his buildings reflected the circumstances and elements, from chic residential commissions in elegant wood and stone, to imposing, sculptural concrete churches and museums that never lacked gravitas. A string of impressive structures -- from the Whitney Museum in Manhattan to a demo house in the garden near MOMA that ignited interest in his designs -- has left his influence undeniable. He’s credited with spearheading the International style, but when you read the way he articulated the joy and pleasure of his work ("The taste of space on your tongue/The fragrance of dimensions/The juice of stone"), "universal" may be a better way to describe his approach.

Alan I W Frank House (Pittsburgh, 1940)

As a symbol of modernism’s rise, you can’t really do better than the multi-level, cantilevered staircase in this elegant residence, a signature Breuer touch that would appear in many other residential projects. A collaboration between Breuer and Walter Gropius, the 12,000-square-foot home for a Pittsburgh industrialist and engineer was a synthesis of stone, rich wood paneling, and curves, furnished in custom Breuer furniture. As influential as the design and aesthetic proved to be, the home’s environmentally conscious construction—including a green roof and an energy conservation system that used water from the indoor pool to heat and cool the house—showcased just how far ahead of the game the Bauhaus duo was at the time.

Photo Credit: Joseph, Creative Commons

Hagerty House (Cohasset, Massachusetts, 1938)

When this minimalist, L-shaped modern structure was first erected on the Massachusetts coastline, neighbors said it “looked like the ladies’ wing at Alcatraz,” according to the original resident, John Hagerty. Decades later, guests are still stopping by to explore this inspired Gropius/Breuer collaboration. Exposed pipes and steel staircases provide a streamlined look, while towering glass windows magnify the grandeur of the churning Atlantic Ocean below. Dwell spoke with the current owner, who said the compact-yet-open floor plan results in a “liberating” living experience.

Photo Credit: Diana, Creative Commons

Breuer House I (New Canaan, Connecticut, 1948)

During the post-war period, the Harvard Five architects turned a Connecticut suburb into a Modernist testing ground, presenting stylish visions of how the era’s insatiable construction boom could look. This house was Breuer’s first entry into the “Canaan canon,” and it struck quite the chord, literally pushing the boundaries of cantilevered construction. An Architectural Record article from the time gushed that “the irresistible appeal of the cantilever is here developed to the ultimate degree. What Breuer has done, in effect, is to build a small basement story above ground, and then balance a full-size one-story house nearly atop it.” A difficult balancing act, to be sure, but the horizontal structure would show Breuer leaning out and pushing the boundaries. He’d later gain notoriety for a second New Canaan house, and a model he built for display in the gardens next to the Museum of Modern Art was one of the institution’s most popular and influential architectural displays of the 20th century.

UNESCO Headquarters (Paris, 1951)

Le Corbusier was initially recommended to design this structure, but budget issues from his previous UN project in New York led to the appointment of Breuer, Bernard Zehrfuss of France, and Pier Luigi Nervi of Italy. Breuer left his stamp on the facade of the main building, the Y-shaped “three-pointed star,” creating soaring concrete shapes that would be a signature of his public works for decades to come.

Photo Credit: Matthias Ripp, Creative Commons

Church at St. John’s Abbey (Collegeville, Minnesota, 1961)

In 1950, Abbot Baldwin Dworschak solicited forward-thinking designs from leading architects to remake his Minnesota church and create a monument to the service of God. Breuer answered the call. There's a certain majesty to the bell tower greeting the faithful, a massive panel supported by a curvaceous stand. That Breuer then follows it up with the church itself, with a massive wall of hexagonal stained glass and concrete tresses, makes this a classic.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

IBM Laboratory (La Gaude, France, 1962)

Breuer supposedly ranked this structure of prefabricated concrete panels among his favorites. Its Brutalist facade and bold geometry, suspended above the countryside near Nice, speak to the rationality and cold calculation of his client, the computing giant.

Ariston Hotel (Mar del Plata, Argentina, 1948)

It’s fitting that Breuer’s project at an Argentinian resort town would boast the same kind of playful curves one might spy at the beach. He even used volcanic tiles to slim down this clover-shaped hotel. Sadly, this building has fallen into neglect, though a group is working to preserve and restore the structure.

Photo Credit: arqpulti, creative commons

Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, 1966)

A muscular concrete stack amidst the stately homes of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the Whitney imposes itself on the neighborhood, an architectural statement as challenging as the work housed inside. The granite exterior, ascending edges and upside-down windows, initially seen as pushy and gauche, are now recognized as inspired and grandiose.

Photo Credit: Jules Antonio, Creative Commons

Atlanta Central Library (Atlanta, 1980)

The last structure that Breuer designed (he was too ill to attend the dedication ceremony), the Atlanta Central Library was an evolution of the style and shapes used for the Whitney, a sculptural structure of cubes right angles. The airy shapes, combined with the heavy massing of concrete, led Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, to refer to this type of construction as “the invention of heavy lightness.”

Photo Credit: Alexsandr Zykov, Creative Commons

Flaine Ski Resort (Haute-Savoie, France, 1969)

One of the most prestigious architects to tackle the challenge of apres-ski, Breuer devised a scheme for Flaine that integrated it as much as possible into the surrounding French Alps. His design for the hotel and village played with snow and sun, supposedly including diamond-shaped facades that reflected the light.

Photo Credit: Patrick Nouhailer, Creative Commons