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Sigfried Giedion and Carola Giedion-Welcker write about architecture and design, art and literature. The base from which they conduct their rather unorthodox style of research is their Wilhelminian style villa in Doldertal, Zurich. The new book “The Giedion World” depicts the quasi-magical setting and intellectual life of these two dedicated champions of modernism.

By Thomas Wagner.

The best way to enjoy the book is to flick through the pages, look, marvel, and then read the captions under the images. You can feel the presence of Sigfried Giedion, who attributed the success of his book “Raum, Zeit und Architektur” (Space, Time and Architecture) in part to his choice of pictures and unique captions. The deeper you delve into this universe of photographs and letters, the more enraptured you will become. As you are drawn in, you can almost taste the rich historical flavours, and the names of the people you meet sound so illustrious, you feel as if you’re wandering through the spiritual and intellectual landscape of an entire century.

Sigfried Giedion’s career (1888 to 1968) did not follow an ordinary path. He studied mechanical engineering in Vienna and then art history in Munich, in the company of Heinrich Wölfflin, among others. That is where he also met Carola Welcker (1893 to 1979). They got married in 1919. László and Lucia Moholy-Nagy introduced them to Hans Arp and the surrealists. Sigfried wrote about a new kind of architecture that was still being formed. While Carola wrote about artists and writers who were in the process of breaking down established concepts and revolutionising the arts, artists such as Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Arp, Joyce, Mondrian, Schwitters and Brancusi. When the couple moved to the Giedion family villa in Zurich in 1925, the house became a meeting place for key players in the modernist movement.

Discovering a trove of treasures

„The Giedion World“ (publisher Scheidegger & Spiess) breaks new ground in bringing this fascinating cosmos to light. The book is the result of an unexpected discovery. Back in 1972, four years after the death of Sigfried Giedion, his private estate was given to the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture at ETH Zurich (gta), which was then still in its early days. The material from the estate supplemented the extensive archive of the International Congress for New Building (CIAM), founded in 1928, for which Giedion acted as secretary-general until the organisation was disbanded in 1959.

In 1979, after the death of Carola Giedion-Welcker, the premises of Villa Doldertal 7 were photographically documented; further materials were given to the gta and other archives. His son, Andres Giedion, died in 2013. He had taken over the villa from his parents in virtually the same state that it was in when they owned it. What remained in the villa was later found in 2016, and this “find” proved to be a real treasure trove. It consisted of previously unseen photographs, mostly taken by S.G. himself, more than 1,000 partially illustrated letters from artists, and correspondence between C.W. and S.G. over a period of five decades. “Last but not least,” we discover “the disparate contents of the Giedions’ drawers, boxes and suitcases, together with the hotchpotch collection of special furniture, collages, paintings and drawings by their artist friends, and we are given a direct insight into the cosmos and mental world of the Giedions, which is characterised primarily by thought expressed through visual imagery.”

More than a biography in the conventional sense

What is already hinted at in the subtitle “Sigfried Giedion and Carola Giedion-Welcker in Dialogue” is actually realised in the book. The volume reveals more than just a biographical sketch. It traces the web of networks which the two virtuosos spun from their influences, encounters and motivations. We begin to see the outline of an intellectual life that manifests itself in these personal circumstances, but then opens out into a landscape filled with the historical events and catastrophes of the 20th century. Anyone who has read the books by the Giedions are privy to a multifaceted insight into a forgotten way of life – told in pictures, interiors and letters.

In 1918, Sigfried Giedion did not know whether he should choose academic art history, writing or theatre. In Munich, people breathed socialist ideals and made wedding plans. In 1919 “S.G.”, who was travelling around visiting churches for his thesis, wrote to his “dear C.W.” from Würzburg regarding a renewed encounter with “the Dutch school” at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt: “I was almost filled with horror to see that the images I had felt to be so expressive had completely transformed in the four years since I last saw them. And now, C.W., it is Mary with the Child that has the starkest effect on me; the woman who has been hounded through every misery and yet retained the nobility of the movement, which only the chosen ones carry to the end.” In the same way, the Giedions also tried to carry the “nobility of the movement” to the end.

An intellectual network

Over eleven illustrated chapters, each of which are visually distinct due to the use of different coloured paper, the volume traces the couple’s activities, which are closely linked with the passing of time. Together with five other chapters, arranged chronologically and supplemented with private correspondence, the book provides insights into their period of study in Munich, their private retreats, intellectual network and spiritual field of experimentation, as well as the interior of their home, their library and their collection of paintings and sculptures. It specifically singles out events and moments that are important to both of them, or that characterise their life together.

Their circle of friends was wide and varied. The villa at Doldertal 7 in Zurich opened its doors to artists, architects, writers, publishers, philosophers and physicians, including the likes of  Franz Roh, Jan Tschichold, Le Corbusier, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, L’szlé and Lucia Moholy-Nagy, James and Nora Joyce, Aino and Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer and Walter and Ise Gropius. The villa bore witness to their discussions and rivalry. Within these walls they inspired each other, made plans, but also found rest and tranquillity here. Even though the architecture of the villa is by no means modern, the couple and their guests not only reflected and took part in shaping the new, modern lifestyle, they also lived it. This stately home remained a place of power for decades. If, for Giedion, it was the iron skeleton buildings of the 19th century that embodied the unconscious, as yet unarticulated precursor to the ideas of modern construction, for his wife Carola, it was through the current expressions of art and literature that the new world manifested itself.

Open, experimental, and interdisciplinary

Sigfried Giedion founded Wohnbedarf AG in 1931 together with Werner Max Moser and Rudolf Graber, merging lifestyle with home decor. The shelves in the villa’s study – Marcel Breuer’s Wohnbedarf Model 131 – are full to bursting. At the desk is Alvar Aalto’s stacking chair, Wohnbedarf Model 6. The Giedions were always open and experimental, but never dogmatic in their research. They helped each other choose topics and advised each other on how to tackle them. They relied on their perception and looked beyond the technical boundaries, drawing on a mixture of findings from architecture, art, literature and everyday culture. Whether C.W. was compiling an anthology on hermetic poets or whether S.G. was writing his monumental study entitled “Mechanization takes command”, which was published in the USA in 1948, both strove to include as many cultural and historical, artistic and creative aspects as possible in their investigations.

America as a laboratory

It was Walter Gropius who arranged Giedion’s appointment to Harvard for the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures; he started teaching his first course abroad in the autumn of 1938. In 1940 he returned to Zurich for a good year, only to travel back to New York in a luxury seaplane, for safety reasons, in August 1941. He travelled via Lisbon, where emigrants waited for the next ship in “Europe’s waiting room”. In October he gave the Townbridge Lectures at Yale. During the war, Carola looked after the house and children by herself in Zurich. She was deeply affected by the death of James Joyce in January 1941. When the United States joined the war efforts, S.G. was unable to return; thereafter the couple lived in separate orbits until he finally made it back in December 1945.

In the book “Mechanization Takes Command”, which is still an essential reference book for all kinds of designers, Giedion uses America as a laboratory to describe the modern relationship between the body and the machine viewed from its historical development. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he also defines the appalling ambivalence that unconsciously influences technical progress. At the end he writes: “The type of person we need in our time is a person who can find the lost balance between inner and outer reality.”

An anchor in a faltering world

While Sigfried was stuck in the USA, Carola braved the turmoil of the world in her own way. She continued her academic work, organised exhibitions, and even in those dark days she invited guests to talk about art in her home. These gatherings became a stronghold against anti-modernism and a place of refuge for those who remained stranded in Nazi Germany. In 1949, Ise Gropius wrote to tell his friend just how much those gatherings in Zurich meant: “Doldertal 7 is probably the only thing that has survived in today’s Europe, and has therefore become something of an anchor for many people (…) in a greatly faltering world. Keep Doldertal 7 alive for all of us.”

The Giedion World, Sigfried Giedion und Carola Giedion-Welcker in Dialogue

Edited by Almut Grunewald. With contributions by Roger Fayet, Almut Grunewald, Mario Lüscher, Bruno Maurer, Arthur Rüegg, Bettina Zimmermann, and a preface by Monica Giedion

Verlag Scheidegger & Spiess, 2019
Hardcover edition, 420 pages, 198 colour illustrations
Language: english
ISBN 978-3-85881-819-5
EUR 97.00

All pictures by courtesy of the publisher Scheidegger & Spiess. Archive images © gta Archiv / ETH Zürich

Picture of the article: Sigfried Giedion und Carola Giedion-Welcker up in the mountains, 1930’s. Photographer unknown. © gta Archiv / ETH Zürich

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