While other modern architects imagined a future of single-family homes that resembled Rubik’s Cubes, with boxy exteriors and primary-colored walls, Austrian-American artist and architect Frederick Kiesler considered a return to cave dwelling. His “Endless House” model in 1960’s Visionary Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) had bathing pools and living spaces linked in a womb-like series of chambers, a biomorphic rebuttal to the sleek and angular designs of contemporaries like Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Marking 50 years since Kiesler’s death in 1965, Endless House: Intersections of Art and Architecture at MoMA explores the idea of the single-family house from the 1940s to the present through objects from the museum’s collections. The show was organized by Pedro Gadanho, formerly curator in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, and now on his way to directing the new Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology in Lisbon.
You will not see the actual “Endless House” model — it’s at the Whitney Museum of American Art — although there is an early version here from 1950, in which it appears more egg-like. However, there are some fascinating photographs and ink on paper studies (including one MoMA recently acquired) that rarely go on view and showcase Kiesler’s experiments with rounded forms and sinuous structures, representing his idea of “endless architecture.” (The original plan for Visionary Architecture, according to the New York Times, was to build a full-size model out in the sculpture garden, but it was never realized.) Life as imagined by Kiesler is primordial and fluid, the usual private and public divisions of home distorted, and one wishes that MoMA and Whitney would team up for a proper retrospective devoted to this alternative view of modern architecture.
In the meantime, Endless House at MoMA strolls quickly away from its titular subject, delving into some intriguing and obscure objects, but sacrificing cohesion in the process. At some points the exhibition feels a bit like an alien was tasked with explaining how 20th-century humans lived in homes, and given only the resources of MoMA’s collection for its presentation. A 1984 photogravure by Louise Bourgeois with a woman’s body sticking out of a house, a comment on traditional domesticity, stands next to a quiet 1992 ink study for Rachel Whiteread’s now-demolished “House,” in which she made a concrete cast of a home. Michael Rakowitz’s polyethylene “paraSITE homeless shelter” (1997) inflates on one wall, and Annett Zinsmeister’s “Virtual Interior MoMA white” (2007/2015), with its photographic wallpaper of Plattenbau housing windows, acts as a distracting selfie-magnet. A bright 1968 model by John Hejduk, whose work is too rarely featured in architecture exhibitions, is accompanied by unfortunately little text explaining why its small, squarish form was included. These aren’t uninteresting pieces, they just feel like points only vaguely connected in the single-room show.
The highlight of the exhibition, along with Kiesler’s work, is definitely its assortment of architectural models, which includes some beautiful examples from the MoMA vaults. Across from the spherical 1950 “Endless House” is a maquette of Mies van der Rohe’s “Farnsworth House” (1945–51), its glassy walls that brought the outside nature indoors standing in sharp contrast to Kiesler’s embrace of nature from the inside out. Models from later decades radiate out from these midcentury examples, like David Jacob’s intricate “Simulated Dwelling for a Family of Five” from 1970, which borrows the form of a mollusk shell, and Frank Gehry’s surprisingly subdued “Winton Guest House” (1983–87), with subtly-shaped pavilions inspired by the art of Giorgio Morandi.
Kiesler’s designs, unlike the steel and glass houses of other architects in the Machine Age, considered a home to be made up of connecting spaces that were as “elastic as the vital functions.” With that ideal as inspiration, Endless House offers a fresh account of 20th-century architecture — which so often revolves around the towers of apartment living that have supplanted the single-family home — from the perspective of this very personal oasis from the world.
Endless House: Intersections of Art and Architecture continues through March 6 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan).