Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965) more topical than ever
26 November 1996

Rotterdam's Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art has on display until 12 January an exhibition of the work of the and designer, artist and architect Frederick Kiesler (who was also a theatrical designer). Kiesler was the complete utopian and visionary; he built little, but to this day his ideas and concepts remain disconcertingly topical. The exhibition is also to provide a setting for this topicality to be discussed in a two day symposium under the title 'Frederick Kiesler: Re-thinking "The Endless".



exhibition design 'Raumstadt' for the 'Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes', Paris, 1925

During his lifetime Kiesler drew up a continuous stream of visionary plans based on themes of continuity, infinity, dynamism and correlation. Just before he died he prepared a summary which reads like an extremely topical programme for a new architecture. 'The terms I have consistently promoted for forty years and more are: Environmental Design; Multi-Purpose Principle; The Continuity and Continuous tension in Structure and in Life Dynamics; The Awareness of Time- Space Scale and its everchanging Correlation to the Object as well as to the Environment; Shell Construction (not only umbrellas); and finally the term Endless (as concretized in the Endless House)'.

Kiesler in front of a model of the Endless House (1959), photo: Hans Namuth

From the beginning of his career Kiesler earned his reputation primarily amongst avant-garde artists. On two occasions he broke through to achieve a wider reputation. In 1925 he realized 'Raumstadt', an exhibition design closely related to De Stijl, in the Austrian pavilion at the Exhibition of Decorative Arts. In 1927 the design was published in De Stijl under the title 'Organic Building: The City in Space'. The realized design serves as a model for an open, continuous urban structure, foreshadowing the urban models of the likes of Yona Friedman and the Japanese Metabolists.

The second occasion came in around 1960 with the exhibition of a large-scale model of his 'Endless House' acquired by Philip Johnson for the New York Museum of Modern Art. Kiesler's first sketches for this organic, fluid house date from the end of the forties. Kiesler spent fifteen years working on this design, which is based on his fascination with the unbounded quality of space. All domestic activities take place in an organic continuum. His Endless House is topical in the extreme: for example, the architecture of Coop Himmelblau (who designed their own Endless House in Malibu) and of NOX/Kas Oosterhuis (the exhibition pavilion H2O-expo by the Oosterscheldedam) could equally well have come out of Kiesler's sketch-book.

Viewing device, 1942

There is more to see in the Witte de With's four exhibition halls than just sketches, drawings and models of these two well-known designs: the Space House, a number of fine surrealistic drawings and display designs; the Vision Machine (1937-1942), a model house for the Modernage Furniture Company (1933) that already embodied all the characteristics of fifties modernism; an installation for looking at art that can almost be described as a vision of virtual reality, which influenced the much talked-about design for the 'Abstract Gallery' (1942) in Peggy Guggenheim's 'Art of This Century Gallery'. Kiesler's only realized architectonic works are also represented, the Film Guild Cinema in New York (1929) with its unique eye-shaped projection screen and the Shrine of the Book, the place in Jerusalem where the Dead Sea scrolls are kept (1957-1965). Finally there are a number of theatrical designs. Kiesler began his career as a scenic designer in Vienna, during which time he developed the decor for Karel Capek's R.U.R.: an electro-mechanic installation with moving elements, film projections and a mirror installation allowing the audience to see what was going on behind the scenery. In 1931 Kiesler won a competition for the Universal Theatre in Woodstock: a flexible theatre for all forms of podium art. Thirty years later he developed 'Universal Theatre', his 'ideal' theatre, a successor to an Endless Theatre design dating from 1925. This design, exhibited in the form of an exquisite aluminium model, also cast its shadow before it, this time foreshadowing OMA's concept of the separation between auditorium and theatre machinery for Cardiff and the Kop van Zuid, and the fluid forms of present-day designers such as Greg Lynn.


There is not much about Kiesler on the Internet. We were unable to find anything except two pieces about Austrian architects in the USA (first piece, second piece) and a picture of a small table designed by Kiesler.

Two articles about Kiesler's Endless House were included in the November issue of Archis.

Piet Vollaard