(Excerpt from the catalogue of Dorit Margreiter`s Solo Show “Description” at Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2011)
For Dorit Margreiter, debate about the preservation of late-modernist architecture provides the occasion for probing larger issues shaping our contemporary sociocultural context: the legacy of the Modernist Movement; the ways that media representations of the built environment inform our collective imaginary; the consequences of the growing interdependence of architecture and spectacle culture.
The genesis of zentrum was a monumental neon sign used to identify a housing complex named Brühlzentrum constructed in Leipzig in 1963. When Margreiter arrived there in 2004 as the recipient of a Blinky Palermo Grant, these abandoned buildings were slated for demolition. Tasked with the creation of a new work for exhibition in the city’s contemporary art space, she was immediately drawn to this social complex comprised of public housing, a theatre, a restaurant and a kindergarten, for the way it formed a kind of small town in the centre of town: though she found it mediocre in architectural terms, she was impressed by the articulation of its social function and, not least, by its logotype. As an occasional graphic designer, Margreiter had long been aware of Leipzig’s vaunted reputation for neon lettering and of its widely esteemed traditions of typographic design and typesetting.
Though the style of Margreiter’s beautifully proportioned lower-case letters takes its cue from a sign produced in Leipzig in the 1960s, its origins lie clearly in the revolutionary New Typography movement of the 1920s, when innovative topographers, ranging from Bauhaus associates Josef Albers and Hannes Bayer to the brilliant graphic designer and theorist Jan Tschichold, promoted designs based in clarity, formal simplicity, economy and functionality.
The elements in Margreiter’s mobiles that comprise letters are scaled one to one with the now lost originals on the Brühlzentrum building. Suspended from cross-beams made from polished aluminium, they seldom align to form the shape of a letter: the sculptures. consequently equivocate between word and image, information and abstraction. Although they reference both vernacular and fine art traditions – children’s toys, design artefacts and modernist sculpture – they are best characterized in relation to the doyens of their genre: Alexander Calder’s playful fantasies. In Calder’s mobiles, delicate components are cantilevered asymmetrically so that their hand-drawn arcs overlap like the branches in a weeping willow. When a counterforce is required, an element is introduced that makes a sprightly surge upwards like a twig venturing skywards. Notwithstanding their apparent defiance of gravity through a series of deft deferrals, their behaviour seems completely “natural”. By contrast, their appearance is best described as abstract, given that Calder restricted his palette to a few crisp, vivid hues. Clearly hand-made, these irregular planar elements are fixed in place in what appears to be makeshift fashion, as if the whole composition had been casually and quickly put together. However qualified, their allegiance is unquestionably to the organic; Margreiter’s cleaves to the architectonic. In her works exactitude and precision are put in service to lucid structures comprised from standardized formal elements: the tensile strength of the supporting cables, held in place by customized machine-finished fixtures, is clearly articulated; the off-setting of weight and counterweight appears to be calibrated logically and rationally.
Series of framed advertisements, grouped under the collective title Original Condition, also dwells on the shifting ideologies underpinning modernist architectural landmarks. Original Condition (Victor Gruen, The Rosenstiel/Augunas Residence, 1950/2005), 2006, is comprised of twelve advertisements clipped from the real estate section of the Los Angeles Times between autumn 2005 and spring 2006. They track the declining market value of a residence designed by the Austrian-born architect best known as the inventor of the shopping mall. A second set, Original Condition (Masters for Sale), 2006, charts the hyperbolic language in which real estate agencies attempt to sell properties designed by modernist architects: “celebrity owner”, “widely published”, “Price includes designer furniture”, “Own a piece of history!”. Original Condition (Modernist Interpretation), 2006, the third series, features examples modelled after the formerly derided and often neglected Case Study Houses, today much sought after by the intellectual bourgeoisie, artists included. An innovative post-war housing scheme devised to make affordable, well-designed homes available to a Californian middle class, the residences designed according to this bold initiative for social renewal combined technical innovation and advanced design. Evaluated in its own terms, this “blueprint for modern living” failed: none of the designs were ever mass-produced. Yet among the few that were built several have become icons of that era, notably Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22, 1959, immortalized in Julius Shulman’s elegant nocturnal image and the subject of several works by Margreiter.