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An Interview With Reto Geiser

An Interview With Reto Geiser

“I am convinced that projects like Befreites Wohnen serve as an inspiration to be more proactive again as architects, to tackle pressing issues, to come up with responses and proposals. Books of this kind prompt us communicate more effectively and beyond our own hedges.”

Reto Geiser is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Rice Architecture. He operates MG&Co. with his partner Noëmi Mollet.

Befreites Wohnen / Liberated Dwelling.  Courtesy Reto Geiser

Befreites Wohnen / Liberated Dwelling. Courtesy Reto Geiser

Could you give us a bit of context about what Befreites Wohnen (Liberated Dwelling) meant to Giedion’s career? Did it redirect his interests, or solidify a line of thought for him?

Contrary to popular belief, Sigfried Giedion was never trained as an architect. His first contacts with the architectural avant-garde in Europe begin in 1923 when, at the age of 35, he visited the Bauhausausstellung, in Weimar, and Le Corbusier's atelier at Rue de Sèvres in Paris. Initially trained as a mechanical engineer, Giedion had just completed his dissertation with the eminent art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. After his encounter with Gropius and Le Corbusier, he decided to fully commit to his role as an advocate for the ideals of modern architecture rather than to pursue an academic career. By choosing contemporary topics relating to art and architecture and by raising his voice for the endeavors of Neues Bauen and Modern Art, he soon established himself as a core member of a group of young idealistic architects, which ultimately would be formalized as the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). With the “Declaration of La Sarraz,” CIAM was launched in 1928, and Giedion was elected as the organization’s Secretary General. Giedion wore many hats. In addition to his role at CIAM, he was a writer, historian, critic, an educator, he was also a developer of modern housing projects (he was financially invested in the Werkbundsiedlung Neubühl) and his own apartment buildings (designed by Alfred Roth, Emil Roth, and Marcel Breuer), a furniture designer, and producer in his role as co-founder of Wohnbedarf AG.

Befreites Wohnen (1929) was Giedion's second programmatic book on behalf of modern architecture. It consolidates the line of thought he established in Bauen in Frankreich, Eisen, Eisenbeton (1928), a first attempt to root modern architecture in a historical narrative. Rather than focusing on the material and formal properties of a new architecture, as the first volume did, Befreites Wohnen resonates with the discourse that dominated the early days of CIAM. At the time, the German and Swiss chapters of the organization, including such architects as Ernst May and Hans Schmidt, had strong affinities to the political left. The book is probably Giedion's most polemical and also most political text and is shaped by a common belief that architecture should be more socially responsive and in tune with industrial progress and its effects on everyday life. This ambition absorbed much of Giedion’s attention in the year between CIAM’s founding in 1928 and its second congress in Frankfurt in 1929, which was dedicated to the minimum subsistence dwelling (Wohnung für das Existenzminimum).

In the introduction you discuss the 1920s as a moment of great experimentation in mass dissemination and publication of photography. What were Giedion’s goals in making this book with respect to visual culture and “book directing?” Was it a publication in which he was developing the visual strategies that were later seen in Space, Time, and Architecture?

Befreites Wohnen is one book in a lineage of many that took advantage of emerging printing techniques that made the reproduction of photographs significantly easier and more affordable. Instead of using images simply as supportive illustrations for his writing, Giedion introduced photography as an inherent component of his argument. He had been exposed to the power of visual rhetoric in the lectures of his doctoral advisor Wölfflin, who introduced the comparative analysis of art by means of double projection of images to allow for the simultaneous viewing of two images. In extending this approach, Giedion visually orchestrated Bauen in Frankreich in collaboration with László Moholy-Nagy. At the outset of the book, Giedion addressed his audience as distinctly modern “hurried readers” who could grasp the publication's main argument by means of images and extended captions.

Befreites Wohnen, I would argue, is an extension and intensification of this approach. Even if the book follows a clear separation of text (on uncoated paper) and plates (on coated paper), as it was customary at the time and required by the publisher, he introduced dense collaged works with hand-written annotations on a number of pages. It is evident that the book was produced quickly and also that it was meant to address a broad audience that was mostly unfamiliar with architecture.

As I outline in my book Giedion and America (2018) the clarity of the visual arguments advanced by Giedion in his first English publication Space, Time and Architecture (1941) was additionally impacted by language barriers. Even though he was invited to Harvard as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor in Poetry, Giedion barely spoke English when he first arrived in the United States.

Interior spreads of  Befreites Wohnen / Liberated Dwelling . Courtesy Reto Geiser.

Interior spreads of Befreites Wohnen / Liberated Dwelling. Courtesy Reto Geiser.

The original book was assembled quickly. How did the speed of production affect its content? Did it make the ideas more accessible, somehow, or more convoluted?

I believe that the strict limitations of the book format (a given page count and the required dichotomy of essay and plates) was probably more decisive than the actual speed of its assembly. The visual sequences, the captions that accompany them, and the visceral quality of some of his collages indicate the power of visual argumentation and Giedion’s mastery of that technique. It is possible that he would have included other case studies if there were more time to get the materials from his colleagues across Europe. That said, time pressure and speed can also be seen as an editorial agents, and these conditions probably helped to make the book's argument more direct and more accessible.

The urgency of the Modern movement, and CIAM in particular, can be hard to sense nearly a century later and through just looking at the buildings produced at the time. How can we better understand their urgency, seen looking backward from the midst of our urgencies today?

Befreites Wohnen was published just a few months before the stock market crash signaled the beginning of the Great Depression. Due to this major crisis and its impact on the world economy, many of the book's claims grew even more pressing. This is perhaps not unlike global warming or other severe environmental issues we are currently facing. All of them have been addressed repeatedly on many different levels, but, sadly, only in the context of major environmental catastrophes (e.g. Hurricane Harvey here at the Gulf Coast, or the Camp Fire in California) do we seem to grasp their urgency.

German facsimile and English annotated versions of  Befreites Wohnen / Liberated Dwelling . Courtesy Reto Geiser.

German facsimile and English annotated versions of Befreites Wohnen / Liberated Dwelling. Courtesy Reto Geiser.

A big question, but how did housing fall away from our sociopolitical understanding of Modernism? Philip Johnson, for example, suppressed it in his “International Style” exhibition at MoMA in 1932. Were questions of housing and its spatial sociopolitical dimensions lost in importing Modernism across the Atlantic? What were other factors?

Maybe it is not so much the question of housing in particular, but the concern for sociopolitical issues related to architecture in general. As part of the Modern Architecture International Exhibition at MoMA, there was a marginal housing section curated by Lewis Mumford; it was sidelined but not completely off the table. Johnson and Hitchcock "successfully" managed to strip modern architecture of its social ambitions. Early CIAM congresses were heavily dominated by housing—CIAM 2 was in fact dedicated to the minimum subsistence dwelling—which was reflected in the sociopolitical messages of its leading voices at the time, including Ernst May, Hans Schmidt, and others. Befreites Wohnen and the agenda of CIAM at that point were influenced by the socialist writings of the mid-1920s. But in their exhibition, Johnson and Hitchcock presented the International Style as an all-embracing, worldwide solution to the fragmentary and contradictory production of the first generation of modern architects; modern architecture was forced into a stylistic straight jacket.

In your question, you also allude to the loss of a sociopolitical dimension of modern architecture and its translation from Europe to the United States. I think this is an important observation. The economic upturn after World War II, as well as the manifestation of the United States’ global power during the early Cold War years, was the basis for an increasing number of architectural commissions across the globe. Many of the architects who had fought idealistically for the modern movement in Europe now found themselves in comfortable positions at renowned universities or they had successfully established their architectural firms. Most émigrés did not challenge the ideological reduction of the International Style, which by then represented a mashup of diverse European movements, and they were willing to adapt their own architectural agenda to the imperatives of American capitalist society.

By the time Giedion published Space, Time and Architecture in 1941, his first “American” book, a change in tone and position was noticeable. In contrast to some of the fiery notes for social liberation in Befreites Wohnen, all traces of political tone were removed in Space, Time and Architecture, a book that almost exclusively served the propagation of modern architecture and its alleged triumphal procession throughout the world (as the reader can trace in the revised introductions and added chapters).

Giedion and America . Courtesy Reto Geiser.

Giedion and America. Courtesy Reto Geiser.

This volume arrives shortly after your book Giedion and America was published. What’s the connection between that book and this one in your own thinking?

Both books, in different ways, underline my interest in a strong correlation between the past and the present, between the history and theory of architecture and how it can resonate with the contemporary discourse.

Giedion and America is based on extensive archival research and focuses more on disciplinary discourse (including the writing of architectural history), academic cultures on both sides of the Atlantic, cross-disciplinary research, and architecture pedagogy. Befreites Wohnen is more directly concerned with the potentials of architectural production in the early twentieth century and how new construction methods could improve our living conditions.

Both books also link back to my interest in book culture and the making of architecture books. Giedion and America is lushly illustrated to convey a sense of the culture of the time and provides a glimpse into Giedion's archive. All of his documents represented in the book are reproduced at full scale. Befreites Wohnen, is the careful reproduction of a mass-market book from the late 1920s. Lars Müller and his team engaged in a forensic study of the original book, researched reproduction methods and materials to match the original as closely as possible in the context of contemporary lithography and printing techniques.

Giedion and America  and  Befreites Wohnen . Courtesy Reto Geiser.

Giedion and America and Befreites Wohnen. Courtesy Reto Geiser.

Other than its lack of an English translation, what inspired you to work towards translating and republishing Befreites Wohnen?

The book is a facsimile and as such most obviously a document of its time. But this project should not be understood as a nostalgic attempt to reenact a particular moment in history. Both in terms of its argument and its form, Liberated Dwelling is, in my opinion, a book with contemporary relevance. The production of affordable and sustainable forms of dwelling is as critical today as it was in the late 1920s. The aspiration to realize mass-produced housing and to take advantage of economies of scale was voiced almost a hundred years ago, and yet the construction industry at large still operates rather archaically. Standardized construction systems are still the exception to the rule.

But the book is also interesting as a case study in architectural broadcasting. How do you communicate with laypeople? How do you get their attention? Compact in in size, it is a picture book that conveys a lecture-like tone and captures the attention of a large public. The Schaubücher series, in which the book appeared, deliberately targeted a broad audience in order to educate the public about architecture, the arts, society, and technics—culture, broadly. The first print run alone was 12,000 copies; that's about four times the number of a successful architecture book today.

German facsimile and English annotated versions of  Befreites Wohnen / Liberated Dwelling . Courtesy Reto Geiser.

German facsimile and English annotated versions of Befreites Wohnen / Liberated Dwelling. Courtesy Reto Geiser.

The formatting of the English language version reproduces the German layouts with annotations. How did you arrive to that layout as the most appropriate arrangement to showcase its contents for English speakers?

It soon became clear that the challenge of translating this book was not just a linguistic question, but also a graphic challenge. Due to its collage-like character, many pages are packed with different types of information, from photographs, to news clippings, to handwritten notes, etc. Giedion literally glued the book together. For this reason re-creating the layout based on the original design in a new language—an approach the Getty Research Institute has successfully implemented in the Texts & Documents series—was not an option.

In dialogue with Lars Müller, we decided to clearly separate Giedion’s original publication, as a facsimile reprint, from its English translation and the commentary. The original graphic form of the German edition is intentionally not replicated in its English translation. Since we wanted to engage readers in a close reading of the text and its visual arguments—and because it was important to us that also small, collaged text fragments could be deciphered and matched with the original—we established a relationship between the facsimile and the translation by introducing thumbnail spreads that key in the English text and the notes.

In today's context where affordable and socially and environmentally responsible housing remains an urgent question, what, in your view, is the role of standardization? To what extent is this framework of existenzminimum productive now? How do you think societal attitudes toward standardization have changed since Giedion's writing in 1929?

Giedion's argument that the quality of affordable housing and its production methods are intertwined is still worth considering today. I am convinced that we will have to embrace standardization more decisively, even if our motivations to do so might differ from those outlined in Befreites Wohnen. Today, we are faced with the repercussions of more than a century of resource exploitation and its effects on the environment. Standardization in the early twentieth century was closely tied to steel frame construction and ferroconcrete (as celebrated in Bauen in Frankreich, Eisen, Eisenbeton), both of which are environmentally taxing construction materials. Inevitably, we will have to embrace alternative construction methods through which the allied building industries could, through pre-fabrication and economies of scale, deliver high quality affordable space. One example of this is the emergence of mass timber, an approach that has been explored at Rice through the teaching and work of Albert Pope and Jesús Vassallo.

I don't think Befreites Wohnen provides us a blueprint for how to solve the challenges we face today, as it is decisively fixed in its historical moment. But I am convinced that projects like this serve as an inspiration to be more proactive again as architects, to tackle pressing issues, to come up with responses and proposals. Books of this kind also prompt us communicate more effectively and beyond our own hedges.

As you write, we face similar challenges to the ones addressed in Befreites Wohnen in contemporary cities. Dwelling, as a spatial concern, never goes away. You’ve taught a series of studios at Rice about housing that were sited in Houston. How do you see the architect’s responsibility to advocate for housing today?

Though the single family home has endured as the symbol of twentieth century American urbanization, the occupation of new land was initially a collective endeavor; the house was the unit of collective survival. In polycentric urban aggregations like Houston that are experiencing rapid population growth, infrastructural and environmental challenges, the creation of denser housing arrangements at large scales is nearly inevitable. A demand exists for revised models of inhabitation that foster the densification of the existing urban fabric and offer attractive housing opportunities for all social strata in proximity to workplaces and public infrastructures. For Giedion, housing was one of the key challenges of his time; it was a moral imperative. Today, housing is, more often than not, perceived as a narrowly-defined architectural problem, dominated by restrictive policies and codes and fluctuating real estate markets and their supporting instruments. In the United States, architects have largely retreated from dwelling as a design problem and as such have left its advancement to developers and investors. I believe it's time to claim it back and, as I framed it in my design studios, to understand it as a space of architectural invention!

We’re asking everybody this… How do you communicate mood?

With my eyes.

Reto Geiser's Sigfried Giedion: Liberated Dwelling, published by Lars Müller Publishers, and Giedion and America: Repositioning the History of Modern Architecture, published by gta Verlag/ETH Zürich, are both available now.

Thumbnail image of interior spreads of Befreites Wohnen courtesy Reto Geiser.

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