Uncovering stories in a deserted cottage
Byrne has always been interested in, “The idea of making space. How we go about making the spaces we live in.” What struck her initially when she came across Kiesler was: “He had this conviction that we should put human needs and concerns at the centre of architectural practice.” His slant on utopian modernism was very much his own and he was generally seen as a bit of an outsider.
Born in the east of the then Austro-Hungarian empire in 1890 (not in Vienna, as he claimed at one point), Kiesler was Jewish and, with his wife Stefanie Frischer, moved to New York in 1926. He eventually died in 1965. Although he taught throughout his life, he has few completed architectural projects, and it’s fair to say that mainstream acceptance eluded him. While he has always had his champions, it is only relatively recently that he and his ideas have attracted serious scholarly attention.
Byrne cites a fairly dramatic quotation from him: “What are our houses but coffins towering up from the earth into the heavens. Cemeteries have more air for the skeletons of the dead than our cities for the lungs of the living.”
She married Kiesler’s grand construction City in Space with the altogether more modest utopianism of Harty’s family, his grandparents, parents and aunts, in setting out to create their own dwelling with air “for the lungs of the living”.
Harty’s articulation of a remembered past in Limerick is linked to a representation of that past in the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery. Colour photographs of the interior and details of Hanni’s cottage and objects from it are displayed in a scaled-down recreation of Raumstadt. Kiesler’s exhibition framework, as Byrne sees it, becomes a model dwelling space that you have to inhabit and negotiate.
It could be seen as symbolising the disparity between modernism’s utopian idealism and the prosaic reality of domestic life. But Kiesler was sympathetic to that domestic reality, to human priorities. For her, the project is about memory or, more accurately, remembering. “The idea of placing Hanni’s cottage in a beautiful White Cube space like the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery initially felt wrong. But it seemed to me that if I combined it with something else from the past, with a dream about a possible future, that offered more possibilities.” What it offers, she hopes, is a prompt for us to think about the kind of spaces we want to inhabit, and the kind of lives we hope to live.
Raum, an installation by Elaine Byrne, is at the Kevin Kavanagh, Chancery Lane, Dublin, until February 9th. Byrne’s Feralis is at The Belltable, O’Connell Street, Limerick, until January 25th