Celebration/Love/Loss: A Public installation by Chris Larson
In Celebration/Love/Loss, Chris Larson constructed a full-scale model of an 1800 sq.ft. 1962 Marcel Breuer house on a wooden frame clad in cardboard. Despite its ephemeral materials, Larson’s model evoked the restrained cinderblock of the original, and reiterated the elegance of the split-levels that Breuer designed to hug the property above the Mississippi River, located three miles from the artist’s studio in Saint Paul. The replica’s split levels were suspended on stilts on property owned by the Depot in downtown Saint Paul where on the night of June 8th, 2013 it was set on fire.
Bauhaus trained architect Marcel Breuer had been commissioned by St. John’s University art professor Frank Kacmarcik to design the campus and church for St. John’s Abbey. Breuer took time to design the small private home for a monk out of abiding respect for Kacmarcik even while he himself was kept busy designing embassies for international clients. The still occupied house is a living example of the pure austere beauty Breuer mastered. No detail of the house or the landscape it frames escaped Breuer’s notice. The design is as elegant as the materials are modest, suited to an artist monk’s home. The richness lies in the perfect balance of every element in his design for living as it weds indoor spaces to outdoor areas.
Larson’s love for the house drove him to recreate it in celebration of its 50th anniversary. But there is something about this house’s purity and perfection in design that seems an endpoint rather than the point of departure. Like the prairie fires that allow new seeds to germinate, he ignited the model to watch as fire consumed its pure, clean lines. Fire initially followed these pure forms before being engulfed completely by flame in a spectacular and brief conflagration.
Burning the Breuer replica is not an act of mourning. Rather than a funeral pyre, it is an act of hope. The spectacular flame prevents melancholy from arising at the loss of Modernist purity, functionalism, and rationality. Ruinous beauty burns to reveal new possibility—seeing through the high point of man-made perfection to the potentialities wrought through its destruction. The burned house persists not as a blank page, but as an erased page, a palimpsest, a way to begin again. Architects always find hope in ruin: to build on old foundations but to build something anew. Value is in the fire, the spectacle of ruin, and the release of potentiality. Therein lies hope.
— Gretchen Gasterland Gustafsson