The Neglected Modernist

Volker M. Welter, Ernst L. Freud, Architect: The Case of the Modern Bourgeois Home

Berghahn Books, 214pp, £25.00, ISBN ISBN9780857452337

reviewed by Luke White

Histories of modern architecture tend to accord Ernst Freud (youngest son of Sigmund, and father in turn to celebrity sons Lucian and Clement) only a marginal place, in spite of the high profile of his practice in 1920s Berlin, and then in London, where he moved in 1933. At the core of Volker M Welter’s excavation of this neglected figure, is an argument about the structural reasons for his marginalisation from such histories. These understand modernism’s importance to lie in the ‘radical’ credentials of its alliance with a socio-political project that sought to destroy an outmoded bourgeois present to build instead a proletarian future. Such accounts focus on grand housing projects, experiments in communal living, or the ergonomic reorganisation of working-class apartments. Freud in contrast, was an architect concerned with well-heeled clients, and with the bourgeois domestic interior. The psychoanalytic metaphor that seems to underlie Welter’s account (though he never quite states it quite explicitly) is that such middle-class modernism gets structurally relegated to architectural history’s unconscious. His detailed examination of Ernst Freud – a form of discursive therapy – sets out to recover these repressed contents.

Freud’s work – that of a ‘moderate’ modernist, however oxymoronic the phrase may seem – does not orient itself around a modernity to come. Instead, his interiors served to facilitate and affirm an already-achieved modernity that the early 20th century bourgeoisie enjoyed. Such bourgeois life neither involved the cluttered, dusty spaces that Walter Benjamin famously discusses; nor, however, did it involve substituting these for the hard, bright, unwelcoming surfaces Benjamin associated with modernism. Freud’s architecture served the purposes of the early-20th-century middle classes’ demands for comfort and convenience, their social and familial rituals and their forms of subjectivity and identity, juggling these with the limitations in spatial and financial resources that much of the expanded bourgeoisie faced.

To this end, Freud’s output was eclectic, forming itself around the varied tastes and lifestyles of his clients, rather than offering a one-size-fits-all solution. Welter traces the influence of Loos on Freud, who took from him not the dogmatism of the famous dictum that ornament is crime, but rather the precept that the architect should not impose taste or style upon his clients. An example of such eclecticism in Freud’s work is the house he laid out for his father in London, a masterpiece of restrained Viennese fin-de-siècle pomp, orchestrated functionally around the Freud family’s rituals of work and leisure: hardly an example of purist geometry, or of the famous modernist open plan, but nonetheless animated by a modern sensibility towards light and openness.

One of the most illuminating and original chapters of the book compares Freud’s and Loos’ projects to the poetry of Rilke (of which Freud was an enormous fan). Rilke’s poetry neither sought pure subjectivity (as with expressionism), nor to embrace the pure objectivity of the realm of commodities. Rather, it sought a relationship between the poet and things where, as ‘animate objects’, they might be gathered around as mediating presences to create the poet’s humanity itself. Similarly, for Freud, ‘to create a home was not primarily about the fulfilment of minimum spatial requirements … Instead it meant to conceive houses which the occupants and their animate objects could fill so that both together would create the home and thus come alive.’ For Freud, then, architecture comes close to continuing, in built form, his father’s therapeutic project, concerned as it is with ‘interiority’, and with the family scene in which the psyche and identity of the bourgeois individual is formed. Given such a sympathy with psychoanalysis, it is hardly surprising that, as Welter documents in detail, Freud went on, alongside his domestic work, to design consulting spaces for psychoanalysts.

Though Welter does not fully follow up on tracing how Freud’s buildings carry out such a project of mediating presence, Welter’s book nonetheless offers us a patient and scholarly anamnesis of the architect’s work. In keeping with Freud’s own practice, Welter places the architect’s relations with his clients to the fore, rather than an overarching narrative of architectural-historical development, and the book thus develops an anatomy of the modes of life of the various middle-class customers that Freud served, each with a very different set of requirements. The book is at its best in its detailed discussions of the buildings in these terms – its high point is the analysis of Freud’s 1928 weekend retreat for Theodor Frank, manager of the Deutsche Bank. Here, Freud, negotiating complex tensions between the needs for appropriate formality and informality in the entertainment of both intimate friends and business guests, assembled a set of spaces into a machine to serve the complex rituals of high-bourgeois social life. The concerns in organising such a space are very different though, for example, from those of the many homes Freud designed for psychoanalysts, balancing consulting rooms and domestic life, or again for Ernst Freud’s own London home, which Welter describes as working to compress bourgeois luxury into the confined space of exile.

Where the book disappoints, however, is in fully anatomising the class origins of Freud’s clients. An early chapter comments on the somewhat complex nature of the ‘bourgeois’ class of the early 20th century, especially in relation to the growth of the white-collar workers described by the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer, and the permeation of highly variegated (quasi-) bourgeois forms of identity throughout society – all with the haute bourgeoisie as their role model. Unfortunately, such insights rarely make their way across into the detailed and more empirical work on the buildings themselves that take up the bulk of the book, which offers little extended reflection on the similarities and differences between the class status of Freud’s different clients. This, it seems to me, marks the limits of Welter’s work as a liberal paean to an architect of the bourgeoisie, rather than radical critique. The radical promise of Welter’s book is that in order to understand and fully critique modernism, we need to understand its (often disavowed) relationship with the bourgeoisie. Welter, at his best, offers a deepening understanding of this class – which in the 1920s was perhaps at the height of its power. To the extent, however, that Welter pulls back from following through with this project, it loses its critical bite, and even serves to normalise and celebrate, through the persona of Freud, the ethos of that class.

This is, perhaps, of even more importance if we, unlike Welter, start to ask questions about the relevance of the modes of domestic living developed by the early 20th century bourgeoisie to the present day. In a time when increasingly people identify themselves as middle class rather than working class, we are all heirs to Kracauer’s ‘salaried masses’. The aspiration to – if not the actuality of – the bourgeois blueprint of modern domestic life has been taken up, it seems, universally, along with its spatial forms of the home. There seems much to question here in the wake of the ‘credit crunch’. This started with the crash in speculation on American ‘sub-prime’ home-owner loans for those in the poorer reaches of society who had been given a sense of entitlement – if not obligation – with regard to bourgeois architectural domesticity which ultimately, it seems, many could not afford. Whether our society might be able to live up to such promises, and, if not, whether there are other ways that ‘home’ might be more equitably organised thus remain pressing questions. These, indeed, would be good ones to motivate a ‘return to (Ernst) Freud’, though I fear this motivation is not Welter’s. At worst, Welter’s celebration of an architect of the upper-middle-class twentieth-century interior might bolster the continued embourgeoisement of domestic space and of our value system.

At best, however, Welter’s detailed account of Freud’s oeuvre and his relation to his clients recovers, if in a still-somewhat-empirical vane, vital material for understanding aspects not just of the nature of architectural modernism, but also of a broader cultural modernity itself, a modernity which still impresses itself on the present day. This – quite aside from the inherent interest of an unjustly neglected architectural modernist, and of Welter’s riposte to architecture-historical orthodoxies about modernism – makes the book more than worth reading.
Luke White teaches the history of art, design and visual culture at Middlesex University and Birkbeck College. He has recently contributed to various journals including Radical Philosophy and Tate Papers, and with Claire Pajaczkowska edited the book The Sublime Now.