Frederick Kiesler and Design Research in the First Age of Robotic Culture
384 pp., 7 x 9 in, 21 color photos; 134 b&w photos
- Published: April 7, 2017
Twentieth-century architect Frederick Kiesler's innovative multidisciplinary practice responded to the ever-changing needs of the body in motion, anticipating the research-oriented practices of contemporary art and architecture.
In 1960, the renowned architect Philip Johnson championed Frederick Kiesler, calling him “the greatest non-building architect of our time.” Kiesler's ideas were difficult to construct, but as Johnson believed, “enormous” and “profound.” Kiesler (1890–1965) went against the grain of the accepted modern style, rejecting rectilinear glass and steel in favor of more organic forms and flexible structures that could respond to the ever-changing needs of the body in motion.
In Elastic Architecture, Stephen Phillips offers the first in-depth exploration of Kiesler's innovative and multidisciplinary research and design practice. Phillips argues that Kiesler established a new career trajectory for architects not as master builders, but as research practitioners whose innovative means and methods could advance alternative and speculative architecture. Indeed, Kiesler's own career was the ultimate uncompromising model of a research-based practice.
Exploring Kiesler's formative relationships with the European avant-garde, Phillips shows how Kiesler found inspiration in the plastic arts, experimental theater, early animation, and automatons to develop and refine his spatial concept of the Endless. Moving from Europe to New York in the 1920s, Kiesler applied these radical Dadaist, constructivist, and surrealist practices to his urban display projects, which included shop windows for Saks Fifth Avenue. After launching his innovative Design Correlation Laboratory at Columbia and Yale, Kiesler went on to invent new houses, theaters, and galleries that were meant to move, shift, and adapt to evolutionary changes occurring within the natural and built environment.
As Phillips demonstrates vividly, although many of Kiesler's designs remained unbuilt, his ideas proved influential to later generations of architects and speculative artists internationally, including Archigram, Greg Lynn, UNStudio, and Olafur Eliasson.
With this book the MIT Press continues its support for architectural thought at a time when both print books and the authority of thought are under attack. Certainly an English-language monograph on Kiesler is long overdue, especially today when the avant-garde seemingly consists of random façade shape-making. Kiesler is one of the few people since Alberti to compare the design of an individual house to the scale and space of the city. His work on the City in Space, a De Stijl-like composition that could be read at either scale, showed a full range of design and theoretical potential. Kiesler exemplified what it meant to be an architect who wrote, thought, and designed in the cultural medium of space.
Peter Eisenman, architect
Kiesler went from applied arts in Austria to applying every technology within reach in New York, moving from experiments in perception, theater, and robotics to a single-minded obsession with elastic space and its endless iterations. Phillips has discovered in him the half-forgotten originator of so much recent architecture whose allure comes from fluid shapes and swiftly changing surfaces. This is a revelation, as there was only one Kiesler with the ability to wing it in the old and in the new world, leaving a trail of ideas and conundrums that seem forever just over the horizon and tantalizingly out of reach.
Kurt W. Forster, Hon FRIBA, Visiting Professor, Yale School of Architecture
Frederick Kiesler's avant-garde production stands at the threshold of modernism with a set of intuitions, ideas, and experiments that appear retrospectively as key milestones on the path leading to contemporary digital architecture. In this brilliant book, Stephen Phillips reveals the relevance of the 'greatest non-building architect' for whoever attempts to rethink today the relations between the body and the built environment.
Antoine Picon, Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Design; author of Digital Culture in Architecture and Smart Cities
Frederick Kiesler is an immensely important influence in contemporary design thinking. His visionary redefinition of architecture's scope—and its relationship to technology, research, and interdisciplinarity—modeled the notion of 'alternative practice' and continues to shape the discipline today. Stephen Phillips thoughtfully charts the development of that redefinition with new and provocative connections to contemporaneous thinkers and movements. As the mechanisms of controlling subjectivity evolve to become more sophisticated and ubiquitous, this nuanced revisiting of Kiesler's concepts of embodied freedom and 'elasticity' is absolutely critical.
Thom Mayne, FAIA, Design Director, Morphosis
In Elastic Architecture, Stephen J. Phillips persuasively unites Kiesler's diverse designs under one coherent philosophy: elasticity. This philosophy embraces 'flexible environmental systems that... modulate in response to everyday actions, human desires, and bodily needs'... Elasticity recuperates Kiesler for contemporary design by recontextualizing his work as a lifelong exploration of the sensory qualities of space.
Los Angeles Review of Books
Kiesler was a visionary, a surrealist working at liminal extremities, and Phillips's wonderfully detailed and knowledgable book gives us a full picture of how he worked out his ideas. This is a great book on a fascinating guy.
Phillips has convincingly demonstrated the intellectual coherence of an exceptional character who, through his remarkable work, laid the conceptual foundations for contemporary design.
...demonstrates the ways in which Kiesler's work... established new contextual horizons for what architecture and design could be under industrial and postindustrial capitalism.
Journal of Architectural Education