Design Profession: Architect, Furniture Designer
Building Types: Civic, Commercial, Educational, Religious, Residential
Born in Pecs, Hungary, in 1902, Marcel Breuer was surrounded by a raw landscape and ever-changing climate that captured his imagination and inspired his later career. Upon graduating from the Magyar Kiralyi Forealiskola and winning a scholarship, Breuer briefly attended the Vienna Art Academy in Austria, but found that the school's formality did not suit him. Instead, Breuer took a position in Vienna with architect Hans Bolek, where he developed an interest in architecture and furniture design. While in the employ of Bolek, Breuer became aware of the Bauhaus school, founded by Walter Gropius, and left Vienna for Weimar, Germany, in order to study there.
Breuer dedicated many years to the Bauhaus, first as a student and later as master of the carpentry shop. While both attending and teaching at the Bauhaus, Breuer developed his constructivist, or machine age, aesthetic and began experimenting with various forms of furniture design. He gained acclaim with his designs of chromium-plated, bent tubular steel chairs, most notably the classic Wassily chair in 1925.
In1928 at age 26, Breuer left the Bauhaus to practice architecture on his own. With his memories of Pecs as an inspiration, Breuer based his work on the relationship of a building to its natural setting, paying special attention to space, sun, and shadow. In 1935 as World War II loomed, Breuer left Germany. He first moved to London and then to the United States in 1937, when he was recruited by Joseph Hudnut to teach at the newly formed Harvard Graduate School of Design with Walter Gropius.
For a number of years Breuer and Gropius worked together on a number of architectural projects; but in 1946, Breuer formed his own architectural firm in New York City. Seven years later the City of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, commissioned Breuer to design its new public library building. The library project marked a transition in Breuer's career from residential to public commissions and was one of his first major public projects in the United States.
Breuer was also commissioned by St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, to design a new church. The soaring bell banner made of reinforced concrete was a precursor of his design for the Saint Francis de Sales Church in Norton Shores, Michigan, constructed in 1961. Both churches reflect Breuer's belief, stated in a speech given at the dedication of the Westchester Reform Temple in Scardsdale, New York, that "modest as it may be, a place of worship seems to demand dignity and serenity as its birth right. It is part of its function to reach beyond functions. Its destiny seems to be to express in static material – stone, concrete, glass – man's drive towards the spiritual. The inanimate structure reflects the vibrations of his thoughts, of his emotions, of his beliefs. The sober science of building and engineering has to achieve more than a routine solution: the routine solution has to receive demonstrative and symbolic dimensions."
That same sober science is found across his entire portfolio of work, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, completed in 1963: a fairly brilliant example of why Breuer is often identified as the originator of the Brutalist architectural style. The originality of the design easily finds its place alongside the others completed throughout his career. His designs, whether implemented in brick or exemplified by his innovative use of reinforced concrete, made Marcel Breuer one of the most respected Modern architects of the twentieth century.