Frederick Kiesler: The Vision of an Endless House

Kiesler’s vision of an "endless" architectural space that would manifest as a biomorphic, freely flowing, continuous, human-centered living space, dates back as early as 1922. He gave this idea, which he would pursue until the end of his life, a title that is as literal as it is abstract: the Endless House,or simply the Endless. The Endless House was based on Kiesler’s ambition to strive for a “contemporary expression of a new synthesis of painting, sculpture and architecture.” In addition to offering healthy and comfortable living conditions, it would establish a space, in which no sense of boundaries would limit the mind and imagination, creating a spiritually stimulating environment.

In an interview with Thomas H. Creighton, Frederick Kiesler recalled that the first complex Endless structure was designed in 1923. It was the design for a space theatre, a double-shelled building, which also provided an endless playground. It was the positive response Kiesler received when sharing his early designs in the United States that prompted him to consider staying in New York. He explained: “When I came to this country in 1926, I had the sections and plans for the Endless with me, which had been exhibited in 1924 in Vienna and which were shown in 1926 in an exhibition in New York sponsored by the Theater Guild. The only person who paid real attention to it was Harvey Wiley Corbett…. He was a remarkable person indeed. He said: “Although I don’t understand your plans, you Europeans seem to design abstractly. I am fascinated by them and I would like to try to build the Endless. Won’t you join our firm for a year or two?” And that was why I stayed in the United States.”

Structurally, the Endless House was to be raised on columns and accessible either by stairs or a large curving ramp. It was to be made of reinforced concrete, which would allow a fluidity and irregularity of form and contain several windows and skylights, some made of differently colored plastics. Its floors were to be made of pebbles, sand, wood, and terracotta. Meanwhile bathing pools were to replace traditional bathtubs, which Kiesler regarded as “white enamel coffins.” The house’s interior walls were to be covered in frescoes and sculpture. Each room contained “changing curtains” and “plants.” In addition, Kiesler's ideas for a lighting system were not less innovative. He envisioned lenses to be set into the roof, which as the sun's rays would pass through, would gradually affect the light temperature inside the house and allow the occupant to tell the time by the color of the light. Kiesler, who believed that all great architecture was also sculpture, transformed the Endless House into exactly that: an environmental sculpture, which would be a responsive organism to its surroundings. Kiesler explained: “The house is not a machine for life, it is an alive organism with a very sensitive nerve system.”

Describing his understanding of the terminology, Kiesler stated: “The Endless House is called endless because all ends meet, and meet continuously. It is endless like the human body – there is no beginning and no end to it. The endless is rather sensuous, more like the female body in contrast to sharp-angled male architecture.” In his essay “The Iconography of the Endless House,” Michael Sgan-Cohen elaborated on this divide between male and female attributes and pointed out that Kiesler’s relating of the Endless House to a female body, which is controlled by cycles, was a direct connection to the cycles of life and nature in general. To Kiesler, Endless did indeed refer to the endless organic interactions between space, body and vision rather than to a mathematical concept of infinity. Though he developed his idea over decades and completed numerous drawings and design proposals, no Endless House has ever been built. In his review of the Frederick Kiesler retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1989, Michael Kimmelman wrote: [Kiesler] spent some four decades evolving a scheme for the home that was never to be realized but that synthesized Mr. Kiesler's ideas about the connections between art and design. A cocoonlike structure to be made from reinforced concrete and wire mesh…

Reminiscent of a womb, the Endless House was to be more than a living space - it was a space for meditation. Though he never pointed at specific religions, Kiesler was extremely spiritual and he envisioned the Endless House asa place, where one was able to retreat from worldly distractions and to find oneself. Leonard Pitkowsky, Kiesler’s last studio assistant and close confidant recalls: “Kiesler never used that word [God]. For him, it was more about creativity and a greater consciousness. I don’t see much of a difference. I would say that the search for the divine was involved and I think that is what all the great creatives do, search for a greater consciousness and something that is bigger than they are. Kiesler’s poetry and search for being reborn to me translates as a search for divine nature and ultimately for who we are.” The complexity of Kiesler’ vision of the house was summed up in 1963 when he wrote in his diary on the subject and titled it The Endless House: A Man-Built Cosmos.

Kiesler’s love for eclecticism and progressive, if not futuristic ideas was reflected in his colorful life and the people he encountered. He was born in 1890 in Tschernovitz, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which today belongs to the Ukraine. He studied at the Technische Hochschule (1908-09) and at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (1910-1912) in Vienna. To put Kiesler in the context of his time, it is important to note that he was a contemporary of Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and that he was a student in Vienna when both of these artists, as well as Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) were dominating the Viennese art scene. Though Kiesler became more involved with the avant-garde a decade later, he did indeed follow the Expressionist traditional involvement with the theatre, both in Vienna and Berlin. In 1923 he worked on his first set design for Karel Čapek's play “W.U.R.” and in the following year, he organized and designed the “Internationale Ausstellung neuer Theatertechnik” for the Music and Theatre Festival of Vienna.

In 1920, he started a brief collaboration with architect Adolf Loos. He became a member of the De Stijl group in 1923 and in the following year, he arranged the world premiere of the 16-minute film Ballet mécanique directed by Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger, with Man Ray, in Vienna. In 1925, Josef Hoffmann invited Kiesler to design and organize a theatre display for the Austrian theatre section at the “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” in Paris. In return, Kiesler realized “Raumstadt” (“City in Space”), a futuristic design of a freely floating city, which closely related to De Stijl. In 1927, the design was published in De Stijl under the title “Organic Building: The City in Space”. Kiesler moved to New York City in 1926, where he lived until his death. He collaborated here with the Surrealists, in particular with Marcel Duchamp. His writing was extensive and embraced two lengthy manifestos, "Pseudo-Functionalism in Modern Architecture" (Partisan Review, July 1949) and “Contemporary Art Applied to the Store and Its Display’” (New York: Brentano, 1930). In 1958, The Museum of Modern Art commissioned Frederick Kiesler to design a family home for the garden of the museum. Though the life size model was never realized, the museum presented other large Endless House models at their “Visionary Architecture” exhibition in 1960 to great critical acclaim.

Today, Kiesler’s best-known works are the architectural projects that were indeed realized, such as his design for Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery (1942) and The Shrine of the Book (1957–65), as well as his life-long vision of the Endless House, which found its expression in numerous designs, drawings and sculptures. In recent years, the scholarly research on Kiesler’s oeuvre has deepened, leading to such landmark exhibitions, as the retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 1989 and “Frederick Kiesler: artiste-architecte," which was hosted by the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1996. Through these in depth explorations of Kiesler it has become increasingly clear that though one can focus on single works, it is the consistency of thought underlying Kiesler oeuvre that reveals his visionary impact, be it in architecture or art. Truth is, in Kiesler, there is no such divide and in the end, he was always striving for creating his own futuristic version of a temple, which as a meditative and transformative space should be Endless.