Josef Frank at 125
By William Richards
You may have noticed Google’s logo doodle today and wondered if the tech gods were recognizing a noted botanist or, perhaps, a psychedelic transcendentalist. Watercolorist? No. In fact, it’s one of the princes of Modernism—or, to be more precise, one of its black sheep. Today marks the 125th birthday of the Austrian architect Josef Frank whose clarion call for pluralism and expression in Modern Architecture defied the rational orthodoxy of his contemporaries, which included Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
As Frank’s biographer Christopher Long explains, Frank was a renegade within Modern Architecture by the late 1920s and early 1930s at a time when members of the movement’s avant garde held the line on increasingly rigid ideas about rationalism and architecture’s relationship to city planning. Long writes, “Frank insisted that it was pluralism, not uniformity, that most characterized life in the new machine age. The modern world, he declared, was too multifaceted…and too diverse to be encompassed by a single style.” In other words, Modern Architecture was not about straight lines, towers in the park, or identical units for Frank. It was about choice and individuation in a world where the promise of modernity did not completely match the economic realities of class divisions, labor practices, and urbanism.
By the turn of the last century and into the global depression of the 1930s, architects and planners in nearly every Western country turned to public housing solutions in response to overcrowding, density, and a burgeoning modern infrastructure. Josef Frank and his Viennese counterparts advocated for single-family suburbs (at the same time that Clarence Stein, Lewis Mumford, and others pursued the regional planning model in the United States after Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City for fin de siècle England). In opposition, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, J.J.P. Oud, and others proposed ideal communities based on multi-family and sometimes collective models of urban dwelling. Think: Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine versus William Levitt’s Levittown and you’ve got a basic idea of the lines of debate.
Frank, for his part, believed that individuation was about rejecting prescribed modes of living and, in design terms, it was about expression. His work as a designer counters the position of one of his countrymen, Adolf Loos, in that shedding ornament (in the case of design) was the true path to accepting the modern world. Loos’ famous essay from 1908, “Ornament and Crime,” succinctly created an extremist’s playbook for modern design within developing notions of what “modern” meant: useful objects made of industrial materials, a new morality—perhaps a new religion—of aesthetic and functional austerity, and, as the title of his essay suggests, ornament defined as more than a nuisance; ornament was a crime against progress and civilization.
This was certainly not Frank’s position. Pluralism—and one can safely say eclecticism—defines his artistic production, particularly during his Swedish period after 1933. His furniture, graphic design, and interior designs are wildly colorful conceits of modern orthodoxy, saturated with both geometric and figural patterns. Working with the Stockholm firm Svenskt Tenn, Frank created hundreds of patterns that are still marketed today. His furniture designs, also widely available today, were similarly playful with curving surfaces and sinuous lines that recalled both Art Nouveau and the English/Scottish Arts and Crafts movement, but filtered through some of the ideas about structural clarity and an honest use of materials held by his colleagues at the Bauhaus.
In the end, was Josef Frank a Modernist? In the tradition of Antoni Gaudi, Victor Horta, Bruno Taut, the Greene Brothers, Norman Bel Geddes, Archigram, and Frank Gehry—yes: fearless, progressive, intuitive, expressive and willing to admit that the modern world, if it has taught us anything, is not a very rational place at all.
William Richards is the Editor-in-Chief of Inform: Architecture and Design in the Mid-Atlantic.