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REVIEW

Breuer brand of modernism

By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / April 26, 2009
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PROVIDENCE - If there's one style of art and architecture that never disappears for long, it's modernism. Other trends come and go, but modernism, love it or hate it, always seems to return like a boomerang. The latest evidence is the major exhibit here on the work of Marcel Breuer, one of the pioneers of the modern movement.

"Marcel Breuer: Design and Architecture" is at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. The show begins with the famous chair designs Breuer created when he was a student, and then a young teacher, at the Bauhaus school in Germany in the 1920s.

Whether you know his name or not, I think it's likely that you have sat in one of Breuer's chairs. More than 80 years after he invented them, they're ubiquitous. The best-known ones have chrome-plated tubular steel frames with seats and backs of either cane or black leather.

More than 40 different chairs are on display at RISD, all of them the original models. (What we buy today are mostly low-price knockoffs.) It's fascinating to see how the designer experimented with materials and variations as he gradually perfected his masterpieces.

Chairs, though, were only the beginning of Breuer's career. Like other artists, he fled the Nazis in the late '30s and came to the United States. Here he taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design with his mentor, the architect Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus.

Here Breuer began a second career. He turned his attention from furniture to architecture. He created such notable buildings as the Whitney Museum in New York and the UNESCO Building in Paris. In New England, where he lived in Lincoln and Wellfleet and later in Connecticut, he designed some of the earliest, most widely imitated American modernist houses.

Trying to stuff architecture into a museum is always a problem, because you can't present actual buildings the way you can chairs. Breuer's buildings are represented by photos, drawings, and scale models of 13 works. Least successful are the models, which are pure white, ignoring Breuer's passion for color, texture, and materials.

I can't avoid the thought that Breuer's work evolved as his physique evolved. There are lots of photos here of Breuer the man, with family or friends. The young Breuer is slim and handsome, and his youthful designs, both chairs and houses, are light, taut, and graceful too. But as the architect himself grows older and thicker, so do his buildings. They morph into rugged fortresses, usually in concrete, in the style of architecture that came to be called Brutalism, the style of Boston City Hall. Like other architects in the 1960s, Breuer fell in love with the muscularity of concrete.

Breuer's late style succeeds best in what I suspect will prove to be his most enduring works. These are a series of churches and monasteries, scattered across the Midwest where Easterners seldom see them, such as St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., or the Annunciation Priory of the Sisters of St. Benedict in Bismarck, N.D. The raw concrete shapes assert their presence powerfully, like natural features, against the vast open spaces of the region.

Marcel Breuer was a major furniture designer but as an architect he fell a little short of the top rank. Nevertheless, a visit to this show is a rich education in 50 years of modern architecture and design. While the exhibition originated at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, it's especially appropriate here at RISD, a school which, like Breuer, embraces and teaches design in many different fields.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

MARCEL BREUER: Design and Architecture At the Rhode Island School of Design Museum through July 20. www.risdmuseum.org