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Endless House: experimental archetypes of dwelling

Both artists and architects have used the single-family home to explore universal topics and expand their disciplines in new ways

The single-family house and related archetypes of dwelling often feature as leitmotifs in the creative endeavors of architects and artists, from a figurative space to explore universal topics in the work of artists to a catalyst for design invention in the work of architects. Endless House departs from the unrealized project of the same name by Austrian-American architect and artist Frederick Kiesler (1890–1965), one of the paradigmatic 20th century experiments into the house. Influenced by surrealism and the scientific theories of his day, Kiesler imagined ‘dwellings [that could] be as elastic as the vital functions.’

He began in the 1920s to sketch an endless architecture that could collapse the boundaries between art and architecture, giving this form in the 1950s in the Endless House, a single-family residence that was both a discrete project and a manifesto for a wholly new approach to dwelling. Objecting to what he saw as the limitations of the then predominant sensibility in modern architecture – ‘Machine-age houses [that were] one box next to another’ – Kiesler proposed an environmental house animated through its synthesis with painting, poetry, dance, theater, and sculpture.


Source: MoMA | New York/ George Barrows

Frederick Kiesler. Endless House. Project, 1950–60. Exterior view of the model, 1958


Source: MoMA | ARS, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Mies van der Rohe. Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois. 1945–51

Kiesler’s Endless House was shaped through a long conceptual process using diverse materials. The first model (1950) was streamlined and egg-shaped with gently curving interiors that blurred distinctions among floor, ceiling, and wall to provide a flexible layout. Revised continually in drawings and writing, by 1960, the Endless House was envisioned as an organic arrangement of cave-like spaces in an eight-foot-long model built for The Museum of Modern Art’s influential Visionary Architecture exhibition, where it held court alongside designs by Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and R. Buckminster Fuller. The sensuous interior spaces were to be a composition of different textures (from pebbles to sand), bathing pools, and a prismatic color lighting technology to address both the spiritual and the physical needs of the inhabitants. To radically reformulate the house, Kiesler wrote, it ‘must be a cosmos in itself, a transformer of life-forces.’

For Kiesler, the architectural model was a generative tool in its own right—something that could have its own conceptual existence independent of the built project. Contemporaneous to the Endless House is Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1945–51), with its compact layout and transparent glass walls strongly contrasting in sensibility. In the Endless House exhibition, the models on display push their discipline in new directions: from a house engineered as a visionary structural shell to a hybrid collection of sculptural forms; from a house submerged in a pastoral landscape to a continuous interior blurring domestic divisions between public and private; from artist’s houses revised to embrace contemporary live-work habits to a testing ground for new fabrication methods incorporating geometric models and digital technologies.


Source: MoMA | Haus-Rucker-Co

Haus-Rucker-Co. Stück Natur (Piece of Nature). 1973


Source: MoMA | Philip Johnson Fund

Hans Hollein. Beach House. 1963

As a ubiquitous presence in our everyday lives, profoundly tied to the experience of belonging, the house plays an outsize role in the cultural imagination. Artists evoke the house through familiar architectural types—the pitched roof, the shuttered window, the suburban lawn, the Victorian terrace house—to explore the complex social, political, and cultural imaginaries it embodies as an archetypal space through which individuals mediate their relationship to the world. Martha Rosler and Sigmar Polke draw on media and popular press to explore the house as a symbol of a middle-class, consumer-driven lifestyle. Rodney Graham, Mario Merz, and Haus-Rucker-Co depict the house as a self-contained world shaped by literature or memory. Anthropomorphic houses by Louise Bourgeois, Sandile Goje, and Laurie Simmons mine the cultural and gender roles that characterize domestic life. Performance acts—splitting, casting, and swinging—by Gordon Matta-Clark, Rachel Whiteread, and Vito Acconci publicly invert and make visible private interiors. Thomas Schütte and Kevin Appel appropriate architectural elements and styles, from pitched roofs to LA-modernism, to fashion fictive houses for a new set of users. Wearable, portable, and inflatable shelters by Lucy Orta, Andrea Zittel, and Michael Rakowitz highlight the precariousness of a fixed definition of home in today’s conditions of global migration and uneven urban growth.

‘Artists evoke the house through familiar architectural types to explore the complex social, political, and cultural imaginaries it embodies as an archetypal space through which individuals mediate their relationship to the world’

Contemporary approaches to the house highlight it as an endlessly productive form through which to innovate new construction techniques, to experiment with the design of living spaces in response to the needs of contemporary households, and to critically reflect on historical antecedents. New York-based practice Asymptote Architecture, inspired by mathematical models and the complex, seamless geometries of yachts, cars, and nautical fuselages, uses recent digital technologies to propose an unusual single-family house near Helsinki. Chilean architect Smiljan Radić designed the courtyard house Casa Para el Poema del Ángulo Recto through a process that draws on artistic practices of bricolage. The house combines a reinforced concrete vault derived from a form in Le Corbusier’s suite of lithographs Le poème de l’angle droit (1955) with a fragrant cedar-lined interior Radić developed in an earlier installation. German artist Annett Zinsmeister creates virtual environments out of representations of existing Plattenbau facades—housing estates in the former German Democratic Republic built cheaply and quickly using a construction system of large, prefabricated concrete panels. By inverting this modular facade system to create new spatial scenarios, she comments on its historically embedded utopian vision of a home for everyone.

Text written for the MoMA Endless House exhibition and edited by the AR


Source: MoMA

Asymptote Architecture. Wing House, Helsinki. 2011


Source: MoMA | The Howard Gilman Foundation

Leon Krier. House for Colin Rowe. 1975

Endless House

Where: Museum of Modern Art, New York
When: until 6 March 2016

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