Frederick Kiesler's unorthodox professional trajectory has been the subject of sustained attention in recent years. A figure who operated at the margins of the architectural field, one who questioned the very underpinnings of architecture as a profession by targeting its institutional assumptions, Kiesler developed investigative and design approaches now widely perceived as anticipatory of the current wave of work conceived through—and possible to construct only with the aid of—computers. In this vein, Stephen J. Phillips's Elastic Architecture is an in-depth inquiry into the life and thought process of an individual who set out to expand the disciplinary boundaries of design. As the author states at the outset, “This book tells the story of Kiesler's pioneering design ideas and visionary research that formatively challenged the architecture profession to invent new design, education, and building practices” (2).
Broken down into seven chapters, the book takes the reader into Kiesler's itinerary of spatial explorations, which were largely reflective of the changing perceptions of time and space that came with modernity. As an outsider, Kiesler enjoyed a unique vantage point that allowed him to expose architectural audiences to experiential arrangements that often engaged the built world only peripherally. Installations, gallery arrangements, set design, window displays, graphic design, lighting, his all-too-rare architectural realizations, and teaching and lecturing allowed him to leave a substantial footprint in design culture, prompting the architect and provocateur Philip Johnson to consider Kiesler as among the most creative designers of his era.1
The assumption governing Kiesler's undertaking was that the introduction of automation and acceleration—both machine based—had profound and lasting effects on the experience of the human-made environment. This triggered his call to update, or at least revisit, widely accepted practices of space making, then still largely confined to managing the static relationships between architectural objects and program. Early in his career Kiesler carved a niche for himself in stage design, restructuring the connections between viewers, actors, and the stage. To that effect Phillips writes: “This book thus critically examines Kiesler's transformation of theatrical space into the architecture of a total work of art of effects (the Gesamtkunstwerk) that fuses viewers, spectators, structure, light, rhythm, and sound into one cohesive spatial atmosphere” (6).
Kiesler's love affair with the mechanized world informed design visions filled with proto-robotic relationships between parts, linked together with hints of the assembly line and of a highly technological universe overriding the vagaries of human action. As an émigré in New York in 1926, Kiesler leveraged the lessons he learned designing window displays for Saks Fifth Avenue. Although inconspicuous commissions, these nonetheless presented him with the opportunity to expose the masses of New York, then still warming up to modernism, to his visionary ideas. Dynamic geometries, shock effects, dramatization of viewpoints, and lighting variations were some of the tools Kiesler used to rethink the world as he presented it. Space, to him, was inherently elastic, ever shifting, expanding, contracting, always in motion.
Phillips quotes Kiesler, speaking at a design conference in 1940: “Architectural education's primary purpose is to teach students to think for themselves” (123). In saying this, he was making his own declaration of independence from the growing hegemony of Bauhaus indoctrination then taking place in the United States, as European avant-gardists fled a continent marred by World War II. As an instructor at Columbia University and at the Juilliard School of Music, Kiesler encouraged the new generation to venture away from architectural conventions. In this respect, his Mobile Home Library project, conceived and built from 1937 to 1939, was an attempt to formulate and solve the problem of shelving books dynamically as use and users changed their interdependent relationships over time. (As an aside, the photographs of the Mobile Home Library reproduced in this publication were among the first assignments of architectural photographer Ezra Stoller, whose brother Claude—later to become an architect—assisted in setting up the scene.)
Kiesler was among the first designers to implement several practices now considered standard. His use of diagrams was as novel as it was enigmatic. It certainly raised curiosity among viewers trying to decode the density of the information he laid out. His 1938 biotechnical motion study and his time-scale chart “From Deficiency to Efficiency” are instances of his effort to bring a pseudoscientific angle to the definition of the architectural object. Phillips also brings into relief Kiesler's invention of a new taxonomy to point to propositions never seen before. “Correalism,” for example, was a bridge term intended to connect technology and the understanding of human needs as the basis of design. Other terms Kiesler developed for his own purposes included “hereditary nucleus,” “corporeality,” and “expansional possibilities”; all were aimed at widening the designer's conceptual vocabulary and assisting him in dealing with new types of problems.
It is the word endless, however, that flows throughout Kiesler's oeuvre. His unbuilt Endless House puts him on the map of architectural history. In this unique project, Kiesler delivered an antitechnological vision in which the traditional hierarchy between inside and outside is shattered and the relationships between floor, wall, and ceiling are disintegrated; the house featured a continuous uneven surface made of an undefined organic substance that only partly enclosed the space. Kiesler observed that nature presents form in continuous mutation in space and over time—a concept that could be adapted to architecture. He was a pioneer in this regard. One powerful example of his theory in action is his 1931 scheme for an endless museum, which fascinated modern architects after World War II and led to examples like Le Corbusier's National Museum of Western Art (1959) in Tokyo. Kiesler's museum project and many others demonstrate his ambitious goal of fusing the romance of technology with the mystery of the organic, an attempt that sets him apart from peers positioned squarely in one camp or the other.
At times the academic rhetoric of this book is tiring; for instance, consider this passage: “Although his body of work would later suggest alternative and more resistant liberatory applications, his efforts to produce responsive systems designed to modulate to the qualities and intensities of dynamic bodies in motion facilitated a society of unconsciously motivated actions” (162). On the other hand, the key concepts of elasticity, automation, time, and organicism are clearly laid out and reiterated throughout the text. Phillips also misses some opportunities to explore other potentially relevant aspects of Kiesler's life and work. One possible area of investigation concerns the man's physical presence. Kiesler's short stature (4 feet 10 inches) was something often noted by those who met him and a trait examined in past publications on his work; one wonders how much his height might have influenced the exuberance of his designs. Further, Kiesler was a prolific writer, and more excerpts from his publications might have better revealed his points of view on various aspects of modernity.
Despite these shortcomings, the book's emphasis on how Kiesler demonstrated that elasticity in architecture is an organic constant in a world dominated by automation and mechanized labor makes it a valuable addition to the growing literature on this multifaceted designer. Phillips has convincingly demonstrated the intellectual coherence of an exceptional character who, through his remarkable work, laid the conceptual foundations for contemporary design.