Surrealism, Los Angeles, and Twentieth Century Architecture


One of the great games of architectural history, both fun and revealing, is to place ourselves in the dusty shoes of archaeologists 1,000 years from now. Digging through the millennial rubble of Los Angeles, what if we were to unearth intact the Perpetual Savings Bank Loan Association building at 9720 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, by Edward Durrell Stone (photo above). Suppose also that the relieving (and humanizing) feature of Harry Bertoia's fountain has still not been reinstalled by this time. What kind of sense (stylistic, aesthetic, historical, social, cultural, etc.) could we possibly make out of this phenomenon? Or--and this is also one very delicate means of assessing architectural quality—how many other fragments would we have to piece together from a reconstructed history of twentieth century art and architecture in order for the building to begin to make sense?

There are indeed some works of contemporary architecture that could stand alone as monuments: Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, the Seagram building by Mies van der Rohe, some Nervi, and in America some Wright, some Kahn, and some others. But picking these is a different game, and perhaps less challenging and less fun than seeking out and developing new relationships on the basis of a given building, then expanding and modifying these implications in the context of other works of architecture and art.

With its slickly modernized neoclassicism, the Perpetual building first calls to mind structures from the Terza Roma. Mussolini's megalomaniacal scheme for erecting a new capital city between Rome and Ostia during the 1930s when Italian Fascism was in full sway: Marcello Piacentini was in charge of the general project, although the major completed building structure was La Padilla's Palace of Italian Civilization (1942) also known to Italians as the "Square Colosseum" (photo below). The architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock has noted the "Chirico-like obsessive force, like something out of a dream,"(1) so similar in quality to effect created by Stone's Perpetual building. Both Stone and La Padilla conceived their structures as essentially a block of high-keyed color, clean-surfaced, and pierced by tiers of dark arcades, composed of dramatically simpli­fied half-round arches. Stone has modified the severity of his design through the typically Wrightian expedient of draped organisms--in this case a system of artificially irrigated, pre-grown Hahn ivy that sweeps downward from the ledges—but who is to say except the inmates that this is not (more aptly) perpetual, plastic ivy?


It is difficult to decide which of these two buildings creates more of a dream-like effect; yet both of them seem to depend closely upon the striking images of Giorgia de Chirico's "metaphysical" painting, especial­ly from the years 1911-1914. The power of paintings like "The Enigma of the Hour" (1912), "The Anxious Voyage" (1913), or "The Fete Day" (1914) to evoke, particularly in then representations of architecture, the strange sense of disorientation in the world of subconsciousness and dreams, made Chirico one of the most influential sources of the Surreal­ist movement in the following decade. Just these qualities, and even the specific forms that engender them, seem to be reflected in the Per­petual building. The oneiric, stage set effect is amplified when we discover, for example, that the windows on the west facade are not real, but are painted--or when we consider the disorienting impact of the large letters on the exterior spelling out PERPETUAL; perpetual what, or saving perpetually for what?

Left: Chirico's "Fete Day" Right: Chirico's "The Enigma of the Hour"

Left: Chirico's "Fete Day"
Right: Chirico's "The Enigma of the Hour"

Mussolini intended his "Third Rome" to last for a thousand years, and indeed the project, although largely unfinished at the time of the Second World War, contained examples of magnificent craftsmanship in building. Archaeologists, a thousand years from now may really find them still standing, if anything is. But will they draw conclusions similar to those we have suggested here about the relationship of other examples of contemporary architecture to Surrealism? Before investigating ideas and examples that help support this thesis (as a fascinating and largely neglected approach to the architecture of our time--one approach among other valid approaches), let us con­sider very briefly some of the alternative relationships between architecture and movements in painting and sculpture.

Back at the beginning of the century, Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower at Potsdam (1921), or the work of architects such as Hans Poelzig and Max Berg, is frequently regarded as a counterpart to German Expressionist painting, especially in the use of non-geometric, irregular, and curvilinear forms. In contrast, Cubism is usually cited as a general source for the block-like rectangular forms employed so ubiquitously. A more penetrating relationship to Cubism, however. might be established by a critical consideration of the use of glass. Possibilities for the new use of glass in architecture were created by innovations in the structural use of steel and by the technological developments that led to slab construction and the designing of curtain walls, following the early work of Robert Maillart (1908-1910), or the Fagus factory by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer (1911-1914). Thus, at the same time that Braque and Picasso presented in their paintings objects seen in multiple views, sharing both the inside and the outside of absinthe glasses, architects began to effect the interpenetration of exterior and interior space by incorporating walls of glass. Perhaps, developing Marshall McLuhan's interpretation of Cubism, the medium became the message for architecture as well, when by "seizing on instant total awareness" (2) it created involvement in the "new world of the struc­ture and of configuration," (3) leading to the Total Architecture of Gropius, and, the even more recent approach of Total Design, in place of the former "point of view" approach to architectural design. Not only in the theories of Frank Lloyd Wright uniting architecture and nature, but also in actual buildings, such as Philip Johnson's home in New Canaan Conn. (1949), in which glass walls are used almost exclusively, archi­tecture ceases to be something, out there, against the landscape, and becomes both physically and visually integrated with it.

Taken by themselves the visual and stylistic characteristics of most contemporary architecture bear the closest relationships to the Dutch movement de Stijl, led by Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg--and following it, to the Bauhaus school in Germany in which, under Gropius, architecture itself was conceived as a means for integrating all of the other arts. But what of the other movements; can there be an archi­tectural counterpart to Abstract Expressionism beyond comparing the painting of Franz Kline to the structure of cranes, bridge trusses, and the steel girder skeletons of skyscrapers? For Pop Art, can we do any better than the big dog on Washington Boulevard in Culver City that now serves as a record shop, or the hot-dog shaped. hot-dog stand on La Cienega or the old Giant Orange roadside fruit juice stands? Yet these do call to mind the witty and visionary drawings for monument projects by Claes Oldenburg. But wouldn't it be taking too slanted a view of things to submit Eero Sarinen's CBS building in New York (1961-1965), or the California Federal Savings and Loan Association building on Wilshire Boulevard by Charles Luckman (1964) as counterparts to the Op Art of Yaacov Agam's "Double Metamorphosis II" (1964), or John Goodyear's "Color Block" (1964).

Left: Agam's "Double Metamorphosis II" Right: Sarinen's CBS Building in Manhattan

Left: Agam's "Double Metamorphosis II"
Right: Sarinen's CBS Building in Manhattan

There are perhaps also Surrealist qualities in each of the buildings mentioned, in addition to their stylistic associations with other movements. On the one hand, this points up the danger of thinking we have discovered something wherever we want to discover something; it also emphasizes the difficulties of relating architecture to movements that were not originally very much concerned with architectural problems. But on the other hand, it suggests that in the nature of Surrealism we might discover a "State of mind," or a series of related principles and characteristics, more deeply and pervasively related to our perception of architecture than hitherto acknowledged. (4)

Among the Surrealist artists--those who were formal members at one time or another, of the movement officially founded with the publi­cation Of André Breton's Surrealist Manifesto in October, 1925--there were no recognized architects who were practicing principally as such. Strictly considered then, there is no Surrealist architecture. But this is not to suggest that Surrealism was absolutely devoid of archi­tectural imagery or activity, for architectural concerns occupy an interesting, if often overlooked place in the movement's history. We have mentioned the proto-Surrealist work of Giorgio de Chirico.

Left: Freidrich's "Monk on the Seashore" Right: Bocklin's "The Island of the Dead"

Left: Freidrich's "Monk on the Seashore"
Right: Bocklin's "The Island of the Dead"

The weird sense of space and scale in Chirico's work that appealed so much to the surrealists can be found in the tradition of Germanic Romanticism, as in the Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin's well-known painting "The Island of the Dead" (1880) (5), and can be traced back to Caspar David Friedrich's "Monk on the Seashore" (1809-10), (pictured above). Typically Surrealist is the similarly agoraphilliac treatment of space by Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dali, with vast open planes (or plains) with the illusion of enor­mous emptiness, only sparsely punctuated by forms, leading usually to a clean, high, and remote horizon. in his later painting, Tanguy's horizon line dissipates, so the space assumes an indefinable character, with suggestion of infinity. When scale is created by relating, in some way, this abstract space to human perception., nevertheless there remains a non-human (and sometimes inhuman) atmosphere. In sculpture this Surrealist scale is seen in Alberto Giacometti's pieces of the late 1930s--curiously enough, most frequently after 1935 when he began making figural sculpture and was officially expelled from the Surrealist group.

Tanguy's "I Await You"

Tanguy's "I Await You"

Giacometti's "Composition with Seven Figures and a Head"(1950) creates a sense of disorientation and Surrealist scale by juxtaposing two small spike-like figures with a forest of five taller ones and a strangely out-of-proportion head, corresponding to a Granite boulder in this forest--an image drawn significantly enough from one of Giacometti's dreams. (6) An even more familiar example in his "City Square" (1943), where he captures the anomie of urban scale, or again "Walking Quickly under the Rain" (1949), which epitomizes the impersonal impact of contemporary city architecture upon the individual human being.

Another disquieting element in this Surrealist world is the threat­ening and sometimes anti-human machine aesthetic. This is seen in Giacometti's "Hand Caught by a Finger" (1932), expressed almost as literally as possible. Marcel Duchamp provided a historical source for the Surrealists by developing the machine aesthetic in his mas­terpiece, the "Large Glass," although other early examples of mechan­ized human images appear in the work of Fernand Leger or Kasimir Malevich in the 1910s. In terms of theory and technique, the clearest examples of the machine approach occur in André Breton's automatism, where the artist abandoned his conscious creative efforts to the mechanisms of the subconscious and of the world of dreams. Overlappings with the history of Dada are especially close here, however, in the light of works such as Francis Picabia's "Amorous Procession" (1917), and "Portrait of Louis Vauxcelles" (1917), or Max Ernst's "The Little Tear Gland That Says Tic Tac" (1920).

Giacommetti's "Hand Caught by a Finger" 

Giacommetti's "Hand Caught by a Finger" 

The principle of ambiguity was deliberately fostered by Surrealism, sometimes for its own sake, no doubt. It is another of the fundamental characteristics of Surrealist art which we shall proceed to examine as an element of contemporary architecture. The gambit of paradox and self-contradiction was accepted by the Surrealists, while in the contemporary art or Mondrian, Malevich, or Max Bill, it was radically declined. The sense of ambiguity is sometimes created by the juxtaposition of more than one scale, as in René Magritte's "The Listening Chamber" (1953), in which a huge green apple fills an ordinary size room, or an ordinary size apple is seen in the room of a doll's house. Again, there may be an ambiguity of materials as in Meret Oppenheim's "Fur-covered Cup, Saucer and Spoon" (1936), (pictured below). There is the ambiguity of verbal and visual juxtaposition also, as in Joseph Cornell's object-poem "Taglioni's Jewel Casket" (1940), or in Magritte's "The Wind and the Song" (1928-29) which is a realistic representation of a pipe together with the inscription: "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." Like other Surrealists, Magritte also develops a sense of ambiguity between reality and illusion (both once-removed, presented in the illusionary medium of paint). His series "The Human Condition" (1934-1935) represents pictures of pictures, set precisely into the context of the scene they picture; thus Magritte carries forward the intellectualized fascination with pictorial ambiguity already investigated by the Cubists, as in Picasso's "Still Life with Chair Caning" (1912).

Left: Magritte's "The Listening Chamber" Right: Oppenheim's "Fur-covered Cup, Saucer and Spoon"

Left: Magritte's "The Listening Chamber"
Right: Oppenheim's "Fur-covered Cup, Saucer and Spoon"

The key feature of content and style underlying these various aspects of the Surrealist approach involves a principle of disorientation. For a very clear and pure example of this, we might again turn to Magritte and his famous painting "The Red Model" (1935), in which a pair of boots transform themselves into feet. But then, what could be more fitting equipment for our imaginary archaeological survey of Surrealistic elements in contemporary architecture in the year 3000.

Apart from the pictorial representations of architecture, the Surrealists themselves put into practice these principles in the creation of interiors: especially settings, or "scenes" for their deliberately outrageous public performances, and for their exhibitions. Marcel Duchamp, who had earlier created the audacious Dada installations with Max Ernst and others, was responsible for two successfully infamous examples of Surrealist interior designs: the International Surrealist Exhibition at Paris, 1938, had 1,200 coal sacks hung side by side from the ceiling and a carpet of dead leaves covering the floor except for a pool filled with waterlilies and reeds--and has been regarded as "one of the most remarkable object-pictures-on the architectural scale--that Surrealism had ever known." (7) Duchamp also installed the International Surrealist Exhibition at New York, 1942, by criss-crossing the entire interior including the works of art on display, with miles of white twine.

One of the greatest contributions of Surrealism to the history of archi­tecture involves discovery, or rediscovery, rather than original creative efforts within the media. Salvador Dali was a pathfinder for those who were to follow him thirty years later to set up Camp, when he wrote, in 1929; about "the astonishing ornamental architecture called art nouveau." (8) Four years later, in the Surrealist publication Minotaure, he reiterated, "I believe that I was the first—in 1929, at the commencement of La Femme Visible--to consider, without a shadow of humour, the delirious architecture of art nouveau to be the most original and extraordinary phenomenon in the history of Art." (9) To fully grasp the significance of this insight, we might turn for comparison to one of the standard his­tories in the field, Nikolaus Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design, From William Morris to Walter Gropius. In the 1949 second edition Gaudi re­ceives two substantial but unsure footnotes; Pevsner cites Louis Sul­livan and Victor Horta as founders of Art Nouveau, noting that "A third should probably be added to them: Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926). But he remained—so different...that one remains embarrassed whenever one tries to allot him a historical place." (10) The original first edition of Pevsner's book, published as Pioneers of the Modern Movement, snubbed Gaudi. But the third, revised and partly rewritten edition published by Penguin Books in 1960 betrays no more hint of embarrassment, as Pevsner devotes eight pages of the text, including six illustrations (three are full-page) to Gaudi's works thirty years after Dali.

Left: The roof of Gaudi's Casa Mila apartment building in Barcelona Right: Gaudi's Segrada Familia; construction began in 1882 and is slated for completion in 2026

Left: The roof of Gaudi's Casa Mila apartment building in Barcelona
Right: Gaudi's Segrada Familia; construction began in 1882 and is slated for completion in 2026

Despite the wild forms and fanciful colors, textures, and materials of Gaudi's architecture contributing to the dream-like or fairy-tale quality that made it so acceptable to Dali, we now regard structures such as his only partially-realized church of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona to be sound and brilliant examples of engineering research, as well as extraordinary architectural conceptions. But Gaudi's was not the only architecture to become associated with Surrealism: super­ficially similar to Gaudi in some details was the folk architecture of Ferdinand Cheval, known as the facteur Cheval whose Palais ideal in Hauterives was first published and illustrated in 1929. (11) Photographs of the facteur's dream-like construction, profusely ornamented, and erected between 1879 and 1912, were included in the "Fantastic Archi­tecture" section of the Museum of Modern Art's 1936 exhibition, Fan­tastic Art. Dada, Surrealism, together with photographs of work by Gaudi, of projects by Emilio Terry, and of the Merzbau by Kurt Schwitters.

Simon Rodia's Watts Towers afford a more recent example of visionary structure-sculpture in the Los Angeles area, even closer in its formal relations to the architecture of Gaudi (if not in Badia's basic conception and approach). Both the facteur Cheval and Rodia were folk architects in contrast to Gaudi the professional. Their creations are vastly different in kind from mere building, in both effect and intent; but they should also be relieved (without any apologies necessary) from being judged by the criteria for "professional" architecture. Such a distinction also parallels their relationship to Surrealism. Where both Chesil and Rodia were naive and pure of spirit--just there--Surrealist artists such as André Breton, were most deeply involved with the intellect, or they were, like Salvador Deli, most sophisticated and self-conscious.

The Surrealists might have admired other examples of folk art/architecture had they know of them, or indeed had the works themselves existed at the time. In Hong Kong there is the Tiger Balm Gardens, a gaudily painted plaster fantasy land erected by an oriental patent medicine magnate, and one of the favorite points of interest (for a variety of reasons) of the U.S.Navy. On Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles there is the "Castle of En­chantment" built by Milton Hopkins between 1948 and 1957 without assistance, out of wrought iron from the old Pantages Estate and other materials made available directly by the construction of the Hollywood Freeway. (12) Wandering through any of these structures we might well imagine ourselves to be in a dream world or Surrealist setting. Shapes and forms defy the common architectural use of rectangles and right angles; there is a richness of materials, a variety of unexpected objects or fragments of objects, including shells, bottles, and bits of broken china. Things of wonder are created and made beautiful by incorporating the flotsam and effluvia of the world in lieu of the marble, bronze, and oil academically associated with the fine arts. The Tiger Balm Gardens, however, were created for public consumption from the start, which sets them apart from the folk intent of Cheval, Rodia, or Hopkins, building as beautifully as they knew how in order to live in peace and joy.

Left: Hong Kong's Tiger Balm Gardens in the 1950s Right: Miriam Hopkins' "Castle of Enchantment" in Los Angeles in 1954

Left: Hong Kong's Tiger Balm Gardens in the 1950s
Right: Miriam Hopkins' "Castle of Enchantment" in Los Angeles in 1954

The Hong Kong Gardens suggest, however, a whole "architectural" genre that almost deliberately provides Surrealist-type experiences: Tivoli Gardens, Coney Island, Luna Park, The Boardwalk at Atlantic City, the Long Beach Pike, or Pacific Ocean Park. The Surrealist disorientation at times may be more visceral than visual, but it does make some sense to consider a rollercoaster ride as a four-dimensional, space-time experience, aesthetically and essentially related to our perception of archi­tecture. In fact, in the classroom or studio, the Big Dipper would pose a nice economy-of-means problem in design.

A more every-day example of Surrealist disorientation, although no less disquieting perhaps, is the freeway or turnpike experience. Who has not been confronted by the ambiguity of wanting to turn left, knowing he must go left, and yet following the signs and turning to the right? Vestigial common-sense is not only useless--the intuition of a Daniel Boone, based on a little knowledge and a good sense of direction can be life-endangering today, when a literal and obedient faith in signs is the surest practical way of reaching an objective. The Surrealist image of the machine-human has become an effective if not a literal reality. But it is the aesthetic experience engendered by such structures as freeways, subways, or amusement parks that is so often overlooked by the critic or historian of architecture, who thereby misses the impact (direct or otherwise) of Surrealism conditioning our space-time architectural perceptions.


The problem still remains whether freeways (rollercoasters, bridges, or dams, etc.). are significant enough as works of art to justify this apotheosis from engineering or mere building to architecture. From the engineer's point of view, for almost anything an architect can con­ceive today, he can find some way to make it stand up. Of course there are more and less efficient, economical, and practical or practicable solutions, just as there are also more and less aestheti­cally pleasing ones. The point is that a surprisingly large percent­age of engineering decisions themselves are today fundamentally con­ditioned by aesthetic factors. Decisions that are aesthetic in nature involve design considerations—hence the formerly viable distinction between engineer and architect has become, so far as function is concerned, one of subtle emphasis. in turn this tends to dissolve the distinction between their products, between art and life, and between illusion and reality--precisely the syzygy sought by Surrealists.

Considering the freeways as valid sources of aesthetic experience may not be that much different from the attitudes of a classical archaeolo­gist or architectural historian as he regards the Pont du Gard at Nimes, or the Roman aqueduct at Segovia, with the same interest that he turns toward the Maison Carée. Again Marcel Duchamp showed us the way in The Blind Man (1917), where he wrote, regarding "The Richard Mutt Case" (involving the urinal -which Duchamp signed with the pseudonym of R. Mutt) "The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges." (13) One difference from conventional architecture    that freeways as static things are seldom capable of eliciting much of an aesthetic response. It is only then we perceive them in a special physical state of being, namely at 65 m.p.h., that their real aesthetic dimensions as space-time events become apparent. In a closely related way this same principle applies to the architectural experiencing of Manhattan's Park Avenue. This impressive canyon of steal or aluminum and glass demands to be per­ceived at least at 35 m,p.h., preferably from the windows of a taxi headed south from the east 70s; then it becomes a magnificently thrilling event, quite unlike any other aesthetic experience available anywhere in the world, despite the fact that most of the individual structures, when contemplated individually, are dull exercises in mere building. The great exceptions, such as Mies's Seagram building, of course have their traditional architectural qualities diminished when perceived in this new temporally (and brutally) democratic way. But stopping destroys the other aesthetic event—so apparently we cannot have our space-time cake and eat the static one too. The heritage of this approach might be more Futurist than Surrealist, but it is also the way most people experience architecture today, whether they ever actually enter one of the buildings or not.

Such considerations expand the definition of architecture (and works of art) from an objective thing made with aesthetic intent, to an event in which the viewer participates as fully and as necessarily as the creator--and indeed shares the role of the creator himself. Perhaps an even more Surrealist realm in which to explore this thesis is provided by any large airport. The planes themselves are kinetic sculpture--rare examples of sculpture that has attained truly twentieth century monumental scale. The little kid who stands transfixed at the aesthetic field they create (image plus sound and smell and temperature), and who cries when taken to the museum, is alive and right. Architectural experiences overlay the sculptural ones: the huge tail of a plane (unseen) moving behind a barricade can be as beautiful, and as Surrealistic, as the sweeping interchange ramp from the Santa Monica freeway west to the San Diego freeway south. Excellent "con­ventional" architecture often acquires Surrealist stylistic character­istics in fulfilling airport functions, as in Saarinen's T.W.A. terminal at New York. In some ways more startling are the functional structures such as hangar spaces. The classic examples might be gene Freyssinet's airship hangar at Orly (1916-24), or Pier Luigi Nervi's designs for aircraft hangars in the 1930s, at Orvieto, Orbetello, and Torre del Lago, now destroyed, but which in photographs still appear weird in form although justified by sound engineering. In the early 1940s Nervi also proved that his design for a 400 ton ship of reinforced concrete was not quite as Surrealistic as many thought.

The TWA terminal at JFK Airport, now being converted to a hotel (2017)

The TWA terminal at JFK Airport, now being converted to a hotel (2017)

With Nervi's designs, even more than their form, it is the sense of scale that arouses Surrealist associations; this is also true for Freyssinet's structure in the shape of a simple catenary curve. (14) This sense of scale is often utilized in fair and exhibition architecture, as in Nervi's "Exhibition Building, Salone B" at Turin (1948-50) with a span of almost 330 feet; but the "Halle des Machines" designed for the Paris International Exhibition of 1889 by Dutert and Contamin spanned 305 feet, with a height of 150 feet and a length of 1,400 feet. World's fairs have grounds for architectural experimentation through the nineteenth century, because of the flexible programs and the lack of any great need for per­manence together with competitive inducements to erect striking structures. Hence Joseph Paxton's "Crystal Palace" of 1851, Gustave Eiffel's tower for the same 1889 exhibition as the "Halle des Machines," the 1914 Werkbund exhibition buildings by Walter Gropius, or the Surrealist structure known as the "Trylon and Parisphere" designed by Harrison and Fouilhoux, punctuated the world's fair at New York in 1939. A deliberately "futur­istic" content in such projects (although not futuristic) probably accounts more for the unorthodox form of structures such as Le Corbusier's Phillips pavilion at Brussels in 1950, or Minoru Yamasaki's super-Gothic arches at the Century 21 Exposition at Seattle in 1962, than any direct influence of Surrealist sources. It is worth reiterating that those architectural examples, or any others, must be approached for the Surrealist effects they create—in view of the almost complete lack of Surrealist architecture proper.

Clockwise from upper left: Dutert and Contamines' "Halle des Machines"; Nervi's "Exhibition Building"; Le Corbusier's "Phillip's Pavilion"; Harrison and Fouilhoux's "Trylon and Parisphere"

Clockwise from upper left: Dutert and Contamines' "Halle des Machines"; Nervi's "Exhibition Building"; Le Corbusier's "Phillip's Pavilion"; Harrison and Fouilhoux's "Trylon and Parisphere"

Not all world's fairs, however, provided optimistic architectural visions of the future. There is Louis Sullivan's famous response to the 1893 Columbian Exposition, "The damage wrought to this country by the Chicago World's Fair will last half a century." (15) Also retardaire in many ways, but with a new foreboding, Kafkaesque, anti-human qual­ity, was the totalitarian architecture of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia at the 1937 Paris World's Fair. Contemporary with the flourishing of Surrealism, the two pavilions, which faced each other, inadvertently manifested some of the most frightening and nightmarish aspects of the movement. Hitler's favorite architect Albert Speer designed the severe, brutally monumental, inhumanly-scaled structure--which is nevertheless a tremendously powerful statement in purely formal terms. Thus several stylistic characteristics that we observed in works of the surrealists--the overpowering scale, the anti-human quality, the mechanical austerity, and a dream-like sense of disorientation--were plaited up by totalitarian governments to mixed with a recast neo-classicism in formulating their respective ponderous and disturbing nationalistic styles. Of Germany, Russia, and Italy, it was Mussolini's partial accep­tance of progressive and "Rationalist" architectural principles that led Fascism to produce some of the highest quality work of the three totalitarian nations--with the same Surrealist stylistic qualities that seem to have enjoyed a curiously prolonged life in American institutional architecture following the Second World War. That Marcello Piacentini, "the most influential architect of the Fascist Academy" (16) was indeed a man of talent, was demonstrated by the Palazzo delle Sport for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, on which be collaborated with Nervi. But it is Piacentini's earlier and more expressly Surrealist designs, such as the Palazzo del Rettorato at the Univer­sity of Rome (1932-35) that call to mind so much construction of the last two decades on American campuses. To its austere facade, blank windows, and super-humanly scaled rectangular pillars of the forbidding porch, compare the Student Union building at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mass., or what is to be the new architec­ture building at UCLA.

Collegiate architecture provides many examples of Surrealist spatial effects, created by the strange juxtaposition of dissimilar architec­tural styles, and the sometimes vast areas stretching be­tween the jumble of usual nonentities. The north campus area at UCLA, between the Social Sciences building by Maynard Lyndon and the New Dickson Art Center by William L. Pereira (1966) is typical of many that, despite landscaping recreates the anomie of a Giacometti. Yet the largest bronzes of its sprinkled statuary are dwarfed by the engulfing space. But again, the problem is one of scale, and not of mere size--what used to be thought of as large pieces sculpture, such as Lipchitz "The Song of the Vowels" (1931-32), appear forlorn in this setting. Where the exterior architectural space has been especially designed for the display, however, as in Pereira's Norton Simon Sculpture Plaza at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, (1965), the sculpture fare little better. Quite contrary to the design intention, the net result is that the pieces of sculpture appear as irrelevant intrusions in the Tanguy-like expanse. A Boeing 727, or an earth-mover would be superb.

Left: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (painting by Ed Ruscha) Right: Le Corbusier's Swiss Pavillion in Paris

Left: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (painting by Ed Ruscha)
Right: Le Corbusier's Swiss Pavillion in Paris

One of the recurrent architectural statements that contributes in a major way to the Surrealistic quality of both the areas just mentioned is the floating effect of the buildings. The pools surrounding the museum create the illogical illusion that the whole complex is actually floating; the black lining makes the shallow pools seem bottomless--an allusion to the La Brea tar pits over which the museum does ironically float. (What a Surrealistically sophisticated place to build a museum.) Lyndon's building at UCLA is made to float in space through the use of a Corbusier-derived principle first expressed on a large scale in his Swiss pavilion at the Cite Universitaire in Paris (1930-32). There Le Corbusier's reinforced concrete pilotis under the major block must have made it seem as Surrealistically propped up in space as one of Dali's crutch-supported appendages. In fact, this brilliant building also provides an excellent early example of radically large and clean wall surfaces, one of which is dramatically curved; and on another surface, the big rectangular window openings are cut out as simply as as severly as in one of Chirico's "metaphysical" edifices. In some the rough stonework in the lower part of the "Swiss Pavilion", Le Corbusier uses (for one of the first times in modern architecture the "free form" in structural design. This step was historically significant in the development of organic form in archtectural expression, as in the work of Oscar Niemeyer, or in the current researches of Paolo Soleri--organic for which inevitably recall the Surrealist images of Tanguy, Miro, Ernst and Matta, as well as the more distant Art Nouveau.

The principles of design and architectural elements expressed by Le Corbusier in the early 1930s have long since become common in the vocabulary of contemporary building—so common that the Surrealist effects they induce often lurk just beneath the surface of our con­scious aesthetic perceptions. This is precisely that realm of our being, the importance of which was explored by Romanticism and Freudian psychology and underscored by Surrealism. On this level of experience, the disquieting effects of such perceptions—the inhuman scale, the dream-image facades with their machine-like severity and anti-human detailing, the ambiguities of interpenetrating space and floating mass, and the general disorientation of place and purpose--remain perhaps undiminished subconsciously, despite their unremitting frequency. These effects are created alike by important works of architecture, such as Gordon Bunshaft's Lever building (1952) on Park avenue and by a concentration of architectural insignificance such as downtown Los Angeles, which really is a depopulated Chirico scene in the late summer afternoons. Surrealism is clearly a very important and often overlooked point of reference (among others) for our comprehension of contemporary architecture. There are whole cities even, whic create the effect of a Surrealist vision.


If the archeologists of a thousand years from now find themselves perplexed with what remains of Los Angeles it is beyond guessing what their reaction would be to the discovery of Brasilia (pictured above), a complete city, 500 miles from anywhere, in the middle of the Matto Grosso, containing architecture that is great.

Kurt von Meier


1.      Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Architecture Nineteenth and twentieth Centuries, (The Pelican History of Art), Penguin Books, Balti­more, 1958, p. 409. See also George P. Liras, "Italian Fascist Architecture: Theory and Image," The Art Journal, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Fall, 1961), pp. 7 ff. For the Palazzo della Civilta Italian, Mras credits Guerrini, La Padula and Romano, so spelling the second architect's name.

2.      Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,  Me Graw-Hill, New York, 196 (First paperback edition), p. 12-13.

3.      A distinction should be offered between the specific relationship of Surrealist principles to architecture on the one hand, and the long, rich tradition of fantastic architectural concepts on the other, although many of these also manifest Surrealist quali­ties. For the latter, see Arthur Drexler, "Visionary Architecture," Arts and Architecture, Vol. 78 (January, 1961), pp. 10 ff. This article was based on an exhibition organized by Drexler at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1960. Also the following: Ulrich Conrads and Hans G Sperlich, Architektur, Verlag Gerd RAW, Stuttgart, 1960 (The Architecture of Fantasy, Praeger, New York, 1963); Willy Ley, Beginner's Dreams, Viking, by 1960;and by the present author, "Introduction," Visionary Architecture, Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand, 1962. I am grateful to Dr. Rand Carter of McGill University, Montreal, for some of the original ideas that stimulated the preparation of this article.

4.      Bocklin's painting seems to have lost little of its appeal and relevance in over half a century. It provided the specific source and inspiration for one of the classic thrillers, The Isle of the Dead (1944), starring Boris Karloff, and directed by Mark Robson for RKO (written by Ardel Wray and Josef Mischel. Produced by Val Lewton).

5.      Peter Selz, "Introduction," Alberto Giaccmetti, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1965, pp. 11, 55.

6.      Marcel Jean, The History of Surrealist Painting, Wieidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1960, p. 281.

7.       Ibid., p. 209. This may also be partisan sentiment, since Dali was Catalan too.

8.       Ibid., Salvador Deli, "Concerning the Terrifying and Edible Beauty of Art Nouveau Architecture," Minotaure, No. 3-4 (December, 19353.

9.      Nikolaus Penner, Pioneers of Modern Design/ From William Morris to Walter Gropius, Museum of 'Modern Art, New York, 1949, P. 139, note 4. See also p. 140, note 23, "Gaudi's church of the Sagrada Familia will no doubt remain as an anachronistic monument to the eternal Southern Baroque."

10.     J. B, Bruniuz, in Varietes (June 15, 1929), cited by Jean, op. cit.. p. 210.

11.      For this information I am grateful to Frank and Myrna Cook.

12.     Walter Hoppa, Ulf Linde and Arturo Schwarz, Marcel Duchamp: Ready-mades, etc. (1913-1964), Galleria Schwarz, Milan, 1964, p. 62, which reproduces the original article.

13.     Los Angeles goes beyond New York in this respect: it is almost Jimpossible to get a coherent impression of the city of Los Angeles in an automobile—it demands to be perceived from an airplane in order to be grasped aesthetically.

14.     Freyssinet's shell construction as corrugated in plan and only eight inches thick, although it was emplojed in two hangers that were 984 feet long and rose to 205 feet high; both were bombed in 1944.

15.     Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition, Harvard, Cambridge, Mass., 1959, p. 392.

16.     Eras, 22. cit., p. 12.

17.     One of the curiously ambiguous and possibly Surrealist qualities of many downtown areas is their capacity to change character completely during different hours of the day, or on different days of the week. People are seen on the streets in new York--and they are seen con­sistently, perhaps only in New York, or in Manhattan alone. The population of Los Angeles is really counted in terms of machines: automobiles, not human beings; and most large cities now, not only Los Angeles, are realizing T. S. Eliot's prophetic visions of the "Unreal City, / Under the brown fog..." and of the "yellow smoke that slides along the street."


This article was published in the September, 1966 edition of Artforum. Here's a copy of the cover of that edition.