Ernst L. Freud, Architect: The Case of the Modern Bourgeois Home
by By Volker M. Welter ; photography by Volker M. Welter
What can it have been like to be architect Ernst Freud, son of a 20th-century titan (Sigmund Freud) and father of world-famous artist (the late Lucian Freud), both of whom explored disturbing psychological terrain? In addition, Freud's life and career paralleled the upheavals of the early 20th century. He was raised in Vienna, that fin-de-siecle cauldron of Modernism, where he was privileged to the most elite cultural circles. He had a fairly conventional architectural education in Munich followed by study at Adolf Loos' private Bauschule in Vienna, founded in 1912 as an alternative architectural program that included impassioned conversation over kaffee mit schlag. Freud's fellows there included Modernist greats Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra. Neutra, who was a close family friend and his footloose traveling companion in Italy, was also his almost eerily parallel contemporary (Freud, April 6, 1892-April 7, 1970; Neutra, April 8, 1892-April 16, 1970).
Freud's upheavals continued after moving his practice to Berlin. He narrowly escaped the Nazis in 1933 and settled with his wife and three sons in England, a land neither climatically nor culturally disposed to Modernism. Quite reasonably, one might predict he would be a tortured soul, a prescient radical, a true believer in Modernism-anything to match the turbulent times and cultural dimensions of his famed father and son.
Ernst Freud was none of those. While it would have been intriguing to learn more about the family's personal history, architectural historian Volker M. Welter focuses on Freud's reconciliation with modernity as a designer in his meticulously researched book. As Welter illuminates, Freud was a smoothly competent stylist not quite at home with Modernism, gravitating toward it but never disturbing the waters. Instead, Freud exemplified the tension between the primal need to recreate the stable domesticity of the past, and the headlong plunge into that pedigreed Modernism, which many of his colleagues, if not necessarily his clients, embraced.
Using a deep well of primarily German sources, Welter, Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Architecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara, introduces his subject by framing the historical context of the typically free-standing, single-family "modern" bourgeois home. Moving chronologically through Freud's body of work, which included some of the world's first psychoanalytic offices and clinics, the historian concludes with an aptly named chapter, "Architecture Without Quality?" Although not mentioned, the title refers to Austrian writer Robert Musil's famous interwar A Man Without Qualities, which paints the ambiguity, lack of decision, and passivity in the face of modernity.
Welter joins other historians in unpacking Modernism as received Bauhaus wisdom, or a particular style, in favor of a constellation of individual strategies addressing modernity after the ravages of war. He examines the possible meanings in the dissonance between interior and exterior in some of Freud's best-known German works, such as the Lampl House (1926) and the crisply detailed Frank House (1930). On the exterior, at least, the later house recalls Mies van der Rohe's early brick-and-glass houses. Despite their large expanses of glass, however, Freud's interiors were anything but open plan. Their numerous doors and walls upheld traditional 19th-century social hierarchies, while every fitting and finish was sleekly Moderne, rather than functionally Modern. Freud's real talent, it seems, was in interior and especially furniture design, characterized by long, low functional built-ins. In the later English years, Freud struggled for clients, primarily winning interior commissions that delivered coolly smart-yet safe-floor plans for his bourgeois clients. Other architects in Britain, such as Berthold Lubetkin and Wells Coates, pursued a more pure Modernist agenda, and the chapter on Freud's English practice would have benefitted by being placed in this larger context of the emergence of English Modernism.
Apart from the book's primary thesis, a secondary theme, this one elegiac, percolates the text. This is the experience of the Jews who moved to England, accompanied by a Jewish sensibility toward the idea of "place" that added to the tension between recreating the past and the call of Modernism. This idea was articulated by none other than Sigmund Freud: "It is typically Jewish not to renounce anything and to replace what has been lost." This statement contradicts actions of many early 20th-century Jewish figures who did indeed renounce everything, defining modernity in language, philosophy, art, and music, even though it ultimate defines those of Ernst Freud, a refiner rather than a revolutionary.
Sigmund gratefully considered his son's skill in designing their new London home and consultation rooms as even more mysterious than the workings of the human psyche. "Sheer witches' sorcery translated into architectural terms," he called it. And in the spirit of Musil, the author concludes his book not by determining whether Freud's architecture was of high or good quality, as in a standard of excellence, but in explicating quality as those elements that frame and form a series of character traits. For Freud and his clients, recreating the quality of "home" was clearly one of those elements, and an urgent one.
Berghahn Books; paperback; 214 pages; $39.95.