In the summer of 2015 we rented a campervan and drove around Europe to speak to a handful of individuals about their experiences growing up as the original inhabitants of iconic Modernist homes. Our goal was to discover and record the recollections of people whose youth was spent in some of the most radical domestic architectural spaces of the early twentieth century. We wanted to see and document these spaces through the lens of their personal stories.
We brought our nine-month-old son along on this adventure, and while we were busy trying to photograph the houses based on the memories of our interlocutors, he was busy making noise and crawling through these Modernist monuments. There we were, crawling behind him on the floor of a Mies van der Rohe or Hans Scharoun building, trying to keep his fingers out of the electrical outlets and away from the plants in their respective winter gardens. We knew that he would not remember this trip, nor would he remember the spaces and floors that he was inadvertently polishing in the sweltering heat with his knees.
We were thinking of the kids, now old enough to have children and grandchildren of their own, who all graciously agreed to speak with us and who, as babies, also must have crawled through these same spaces and played boisterously within them. They, unlike their parents, never chose to live in avant-garde buildings. We thought, naively perhaps, that their perceptions would have been purer and their opinions less biased than those of the clients themselves. They were the guinea pigs of the Modernists’ claims that architecture had the capacity to deeply affect inhabitants, even make them “better people.” Did they believe that these buildings influenced them and who they have become?
While the stories we heard and the memories we recorded ranged from the most heartfelt to the most detached, we know that they cannot be divorced from the personal histories of their parents, their families, and the political context of their time. These stories are both linked to and have been shaped by the tumultuous history of the early twentieth century. Some of our interlocutors were permanently forced out of their radical dwellings by the circumstances of WWII, while others have lived in the same building or neighborhood since their youth.
The buildings themselves have taken on different histories such as becoming youth centers, museums, or stages for political gathering, while some are still being used as housing today. The domestic spaces have become the backdrop for different stories, but beyond that they have also shaped their inhabitants to varying degrees and remain a source of pride or resentment, and even the material of dreams.
The stories and the moments we collected in these domestic environments have become part of our story. Even if our son won’t remember the experiences he had, maybe he’ll assimilate them through our photographs. The radical experiments of Modernist architects with their claims and aspirations and leaky realities will be a part of our story.
Brno, Czech Republic
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1930
J.J.P. Oud, 1927
Le Corbusier, 1926
Le Corbusier, 1952
Hans Scharoun, 1933
The trip was funded by the Lawrence B. Anderson Award, a creative documentation grant from MIT. The research was also supported by a Faculty Fellowship through the University at Buffalo Humanities Institute. The research will be published as a book by Birkhäuser in 2020.