Marcel Breuer has been at least as important to American architecture as Hubert Humphrey has been to American government. So it seems only fitting that Breuer, with his partner Herbert Beckhard, should have designed the Health, Education and Welfare building that carries Sen. Humphrey's name.
At the dedication ceremonies this week, Breuer, now 75, made his first public appearance in more than a year and a half.Like Humphrey, he has been seriously ill, though now he seems to be well on the mend.
Looking at architect Breuer, standing hatless in the rain in front of his building, you could notice the similarity in his fave and the facade of the building. His deep shadowed eyes have wrinkles radiating like sunbursts. The smile lines are deep furrows which give a genial look to his face.
The building has that same combination of sun and shadow, one of Breur's favorite concepts. The windows are deep set, shielded from sun and glare, and the concrete surfaces textured and grooved to age and other well.
People will look with more interest in this building between Independence Avenue and C Street and Second and Third Streets SW) because it was one of the last designs before he [WORD ILLEGIBLE] from active architecture.
Breuer has been a houshold (and police building hold) word for so many [WORD ILLEGIBLE] it comes as a distinct surprise to see that he is not merely a myth.
He was born in Pecs. Hungary, in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] But he has been famous for so long, that it sometimes seems as such he should be much older. His time has spanned all the great [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of 20th-century architecture was born at the time of the bureau secession from the Breuer electicism. He grew up as student then teacher, at the German School whose ideas [WORD ILLEGIBLE] mid-century design. As associated professor in the Harvard University School of Design, he taught a new generation of architects a new generation to see and do. Since 1946, as head of own New York City firm, his teachingshave been among the most [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of our time.
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Standing in the rain, in a hurry to get back home, after the exhausting first day-out trip. Breuer nevertheless had a half-minute to talk about reports, however exaggerated, of the death of the International Style of architecture.
"I never called my architecture International Stuyle," he said. "And what do you call finished? Who says it? It is just a statement. I have never wanted to be a trend."
His partner, Beckhard, obviously worried about the responsibility for his mentor's making it back home with some degree of ease, still will take time to talk about the philosophy. "I have spent 25 years working with Mr. Breuer, my whole professional life.
"I think this building is not reminiscent of anyone else's work. The problem was to build a building (not to make a fashionable statement). There were problems: there's a big sewer line and a huge section of highway that goes under the building. We had to hang the building from a network of bridges. The bridgelike trusses are at the penthouse level. Vertical hangers are suspended from these to support the six office floors."
The great loobby, the scene of the Humphrey dedication, is interrupted by only a few massive columns and the three service cores. Breuer Associates is now working on a design for furnishing this area, which today seems rather echoing and empty.
Its one patch of cheer, against the admittedly handsome travetine tiles, consists of two bright tapestries. One of the tapestries, a system of red, blue, yellow and grey squares on a deeply tufted background, is by Breuter.
"Since he's been ill," said Beckhard, "he has been designing tapestries. He's painted the cartoons for about eight. They've been made in Pakistan. He approves all the wools, the techniques and the finished work."
Perhaps the tapestries will be for Breuer what the cutouts were for Matisse, allowing him to work in a satisfying if less energetic way. Breuer actually started as a painter and a sculptor in Vienna, when he was 18, but left after six weeks because, as he said years ago, the teachers and students seemed "a terrifically conceited lot of self-styled geniuses."
Later he said that when he went to the Bauhaus. "No one much talked to me at first. Then only way to paint is in the dark." Perhaps today, now that he's grown up, he may out that he's an artist.
The Humphrey building has its assets: deep protected plazas, a stepped pyramid and a sunken court, designed for concerts and lunchtime lolls. The cafeteria in the penthouse, is certainly much pleasanter than the usual government soup kitchen and has a fine view of Freedom on the Capitol dome. It would even be possible if the doors aren't locked, to eat on the penthouse balconies.
But that's not to say it's perfect. The concrete work in some spots is deplorable, with fist-size chunks broken off, deep cracks and bad joints. One hopes the new General Services Administration is trying to put it back together again. Beckhard has been quite impressed with the way his opinion has been solicited in some landscaping changes and interior work under way.
Still there are always these problems. On the east plaza there is a ring of concrete benches. They were painted white - though the architects specified deep gray - and they are quite dirty and scratched. The benches are in a circle like some ancient mystic site. In the precise middle - where you might expect to see the high priest or the altar - the thing being worshipped isa large, ugly wastepaper basket.