Sketch by Architect Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965)

Sketch by Architect Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965)

Today I had an invitation to visit the Austrian Frederick and Lillian Kiesler Private Foundation for a private tour of the archives of this important and difficult-to-categorize architect of the 20th century. The Director, Monika Pessler, will soon be the new Director of the Freud Museum, and we met at the Lucian Freud opening last week. She and her colleague Gerd Zillner introduced me to Kiesler’s work and thought, which encompassed Freudian theory, surrealism, the avant-garde, and social reform. Like many in the Jewish intellectual circles of the 20th century, he emigrated to the U.S., and his wife Steffi, who worked at the New York Public Library, was instrumental in helping other Jewish emigres to the U.S. Kiesler was committed to the idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk” – total art, which embraced multiple disciplines. He wanted to create buildings with fluid biologically-based forms that would create security and foster creativity in human beings, rather than the stark minimalism of strict functionalism and the sharply angular formalism of the Bauhaus movement (where he began). He believed in a 3-way intersubjectivity: among the art object, the person viewing it, and the environment in which both stand. This parallels the current interest in intersubjectivity in psychoanalysis, and also reception theory in the arts. Our conversation began with the general creative milieu that he shared with Freud, Schoenberg, Loos, and others of the early 20th century – which is part of the larger cultural context for my research at the Freud Museum – but we also ventured into the philosophy and psychology of design that directly relate to my former (still unfinished) project on sacred space and the psyche. Kiesler, in fact, influenced Christopher Alexander, a California architect whose work has influenced my own views on sacred space and the necessity of design that fosters human security, healing, and empowerment to act for justice. Toward the end of his life, Kiesler had a very spiritual concept of art and space, although he resisted theological terms or doctrines. Kiesler believed that art was closely tied to the transcendent. We spent some time looking at his original sketches and photographs for a Meditation Grotto in Harmony, Indiana (commissioned by a friend of Paul Tillich, Jane Owen, but never completed), and his idea for an “Endless House.” I came away from this meeting very excited and overwhelmed by the interdisciplinary whirl of ideas that were current in Freud’s and Kiesler’s time, and which continue to hold fascination for new movements in art and culture and also contemporary psychoanalysis and theology! I will be processing this conversation for a long time! For more on Kiesler and the Foundation, see the Foundation’s web site:


About pcooperwhite

Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychology and Religion, Union Theological Seminary, New York NY
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