Pychotropic Architecture I - Kiesler's Endless House

“Form does not follow function. Function follows vision. Vision follows reality.”
Friederich Kiesler

I/ Introduction to psychotropic architecture: Kiesler's Endless House.

          In the popular culture, as long as the human does not turn into a cyborg, architecture is a necessity. It is seen as a protection against the environment. Through history and geopolitical reasons, the way we live has shaped our buildings, letting them evolved from fortification to places as open as possible. But one could argue that our built environment influenced our way of life, especially with urbanization after the French Enlightenment in the occidental world. In the book Bio-politics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture, Sven-Olov Wallenstein applies Foucault's concept to the architectural world and goes beyond, linking the emergence of modern architecture and modern power. For the author, since the bio-political is related to a “spacialization of the power”1, architecture is a materialization of it, and reading its close history helps us to understand the shift between buildings as a “symbolic form” of the power and buildings as “a tool for the ordering, regimentation, administering space”2 . In other words between architecture as a representation of the power and architecture as an apparatus of it. Power in Foucault's vocabulary used in the sense of politic. But Modern Architecture had different ways of expression.

          If the 19th century was the century of hygienic, and architecture and urban planning seen as a tool for the sanitization, the 20th century was the century of architecture as a way to prevent diseases, explained by the epidemic of tuberculosis. Architects positioned themselves and gave their idea about the role of the architect, almost a clinical one, and the modernists pursued experimentations together with science. The creation of hospitals, and especially asylum and sanatorium is the best example. Health becomes a religion, guiding modernist towards new forms, such as pilotis to isolate buildings from the ground 'humid" and sick, and new typologies with the creation of new hospital, clinics and care centers. Old cities are questioned but never urbanity in itself. Beatriz Columina underlines in the article “Illness as a Metaphor: Modern Architecture” that while Le Corbusier introduced his famous concept of the house as a “Living Machine”, the Viennese architect Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965) took a different direction introducing the concept of psycho-function with his Endless House3, far from the 90° angle, white walls and curtain-walls. Kiesler collaborated with Adolf Loos and has been a member of the De Stijl movement. Traces of his collaborations can be found in his work and way of working. He is an incredible figure who dedicated most of his life this single project. More than a house, it is the materialization of his theory. The project was carried from the mid-twenties to the sixties, culminating with an the 1965 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art for which Kiesler built a large-scale model of the Endless House. This exhibition was not the first for the house at the MoMa, as his Endless House was exhibited before alongside the geodesic dome of Buckminster Fuller in 1952. for Through his explorations, model was always the tool he preferred, because of its flexibility. The refusal to only work with drawings, and instead preferring to built large-scale model is relevant to the work of the next generation of Viennese Architects as well. Redesigning the tools of architecture is one way for the architect to free himself from a traditional way of thinking, considering the idea that the process is as important as the final product. Therefore for Kiesler a successful building had to be imagined in three dimensions, and could not easily be translated into a plan, agreeing with Adolf Loos on that, who declared that "The sign of a truly felt architectural work is that in plan it lacks effect". Architecture is not condemned to visual but is related to a feeling as well. To go beyond the visual sense can be understood as a strong wish to break free from traditional architecture, reunifying it to other arts, such as sculpture (let's point out here that Kiesler was also a sculptor). 

Kiesler in his model

          Criticizing the modernists with a manifesto written with the De Stijl movement, the architect saw the rigid architecture and urban planning as one of the sources of social problems and diseases. Kiesler was concerned as well by the influence of architecture upon the body, and instead of referring to technology and efficiency, he refered to biology and emotions. The architect theorized in 1930 the concept of «psycho-function» in the book «Contemporary Art Applied to the Store and Its Display». The psycho-function is the idea that the house carries emotions, it is a «living organism» , meaning that it can – by its materiality and form- give a psychological pleasure to the user. In his own words:

«The ‘psycho-functional’ influence is exhibited not only in lines, planes and form, but also in materials and colors. (...) Functions and efficiency alone cannot create art work. ‘Psycho-function’ is that ‘surplus’ above efficiency which may turn a functional solution into art» 4 

For Kiesler the choice of the materials has psychological effects on the inhabitant. Glass and leather do not have the same effect, but not only, color affects as well. And vice-versa. The idea of architecture seen as a human body is a main concept for him, such as in Le Corbusier's mind. But if the modernist architect is close to technology with his expression "Machine for living", Kiesler is closer to biology, a "living body”. For him, the house lives emotions through it's incarnation, and the psyché cannot be separated from the body. So the design of the single family house had to have a structure interacting to the inhabitant spiritual needs and desire. Kiesler is seeing architecture as a process, organic, not as a mechanical product.

George Barrows, pictures photos for the exhibition «Visionary Architecture» MoMa of New York, (29 september – 4 december, 1960). Model of the Endless House built Frederick Kiesler. From the MoMA website.

          Not only happy to redefine architecture, he redefines the role of the architect:

«The primary role of the architect is to satisfy appetite, weither sexual or gastric: «If art could be accepted like eating, men and women would not feel like perverts shamelessly obscene in the presence of modern art of architecture»

Here, Kiesler is taking the role of the architect further than designing a built environment. What is interesting in Kiesler's vision of the architect is its intimate role, designing atmospheres and interiors in order to give psychological pleasure to the visitor, answering deep desire of the inhabitant. 

         The «Endless House» abolishes walls and ceiling, merging them into a biomorphic symbiosis: there is no up or down, just an endless surface,  "endless like the human body—there is no beginning and no end.". More than an envelop it is the skin of an unidentified organism, of a closed body, with an elastic universe far from the rigidity of concrete. To enter the Endless House is to enter your own body, experience yourself. Without ever taking LSD, we could argue that Kiesler produced one of the first psychedelic architecture. His theory will inspire the designers of the “LSDesign”, and the generation of architects of the sixties.

Plan of the Endless House

1 Wallenstein, Sven-Olov Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009
2 Ibid.
3  Colomina, Beatriz «Illness as Metaphor Modern Architecture». In PHILIPPS Andrea & MIESSEN Markus (Eds)  Actors, Agents and Attendants. Caring Culture: Art, Architecture and the Politics of Health. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011. 
4 Kiesler,  Frederick  «Pseudo-functionalism in Modern Architecture». Partisan Review XVI. Juillet 1949, 735

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