Modernist architecture is undergoing an aesthetic revaluation. Despite the far-right revival of neoclassical traditions, left-leaning critics are assessing how some modernists incorporated the best of ancient forms into forward-thinking designs. At the center of this is an Austrian-born artist who has received little credit for his many buildings and monuments.
That man, Jean Welz, is the subject of a new book by filmmaker Peter Wyeth, The Lost Architecture of Jean Welz. Wyeth takes readers on a deeply personal and revelatory journey, digging through photographs and blueprints, interviews with Welz’s relatives, and his own experience piecing it all together. From Welz’s earliest commissions in Paris to his final days in South Africa before his death in 1975, Wyeth’s paper trail forms a history in which the most vociferous modernists often received the highest honors.
“Jean Welz does not exist,” Wyeth despairs early on, lamenting that an architect who rubbed elbows with the likes of Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos could seemingly vanish into thin air. For Wyeth, the potential demolition of Welz’s renowned Maison Ziveli in Paris reflects a deeper erasure of his stylistic merits and political sympathies — including a gravestone he designed for Karl Marx’s daughter that was destroyed by Nazi occupiers. Despite his mentor, Josef Hoffmann, and brother, Friedrich, embracing the spread of fascism, Welz worked in a socially engaged style that transcended individual pursuits for glory.
“[Welz’s] story,” Wyeth writes, “is an intriguing case of reading between, not even lines, which would be a luxury in this context, but sometimes around a single word — and that, just his name.” To prove this, the author presents a series of signed correspondences that connect Welz’s written initials with a commission for Zurich Dada co-founder, Tristan Tzara. This research process, which readers experience vicariously, makes Wyeth’s prose exhilarating as tiny details become breakthroughs of grand proportions.
Along with longtime boss Raymond Fischer, Welz designed houses and apartment complexes in Paris and its suburbs that ranged from the practical, minimalist Maison Landau (1931) to an extravagant “artist’s house” commissioned by an elite collector. Wyeth ties these class tensions between different commissions to Welz’s own issues with Fischer, who self-identified as a socialist but took much of the credit. In reality, Wyeth contends, Welz’s lack of ego was anathema to the individualistic industry.
Before Lost Architecture, Welz was almost exclusively known for abstract paintings made in South Africa, where he lived for nearly 40 years with tuberculosis. Wyeth notes Welz’s admiration for traditional Cape cottages and reveals a through line from his blueprints to the geometric abstractions. He also touches on his return to architecture in an addendum at the very end but notes that Welz’s position on apartheid was somewhat unclear.
Still, Wyeth argues that Welz’s legacy should be defined by what we have, rather than what’s missing. His most profound designs, such as the Villa Darmstadter (1932), drew equally from the symmetry of the Italian Renaissance and mid-century ergonomics — often threatening the singular authority of Le Corbusier’s Five Points. Was he punished for refusing to fall in line, or did his style merely diverge from Modernism’s market futures? Perhaps Jean Welz did not exist for a time, but thanks to Wyeth, he does once again.
The Lost Architecture of Jean Welz by Peter Wyeth (2022) is published by DoppelHouse Press and is available online and in bookstores.
Editor’s Note, 2/6/2023, 3:53pm EST: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Welz’s brother. This has been corrected.