Growing up Modern: A Family Story
Text and photographs by Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempster
In the summer of 2015 we rented a campervan and drove around Europe to speak to a handful of individuals about their experiences growing up as the original inhabitants of iconic Modernist homes. Our goal was to discover and record the recollections of people whose youth was spent in some of the most radical domestic architectural spaces of the early twentieth century. We wanted to see and document these spaces through the lens of their personal stories.
We brought our nine-month-old son along on this adventure, and while we were busy trying to photograph the houses based on the memories of our interlocutors, he was busy making noise and crawling through these Modernist monuments. There we were, crawling behind him on the floor of a Mies van der Rohe or Hans Scharoun building, trying to keep his fingers out of the electrical outlets and away from the plants in their respective winter gardens. We knew that he would not remember this trip, nor would he remember the spaces and floors that he was inadvertently polishing in the sweltering heat with his knees.
We were thinking of the kids, now old enough to have children and grandchildren of their own, who all graciously agreed to speak with us and who, as babies, also must have crawled through these same spaces and played boisterously within them. They, unlike their parents, never chose to live in avant-garde buildings. We thought, naively perhaps, that their perceptions would have been purer and their opinions less biased than those of the clients themselves. They were the guinea pigs of the Modernists’ claims that architecture had the capacity to deeply affect inhabitants, even make them “better people.” Did they believe that these buildings influenced them and who they have become?
While the stories we heard and the memories we recorded ranged from the most heartfelt to the most detached, we know that they cannot be divorced from the personal histories of their parents, their families, and the political context of their time. These stories are both linked to and have been shaped by the tumultuous history of the early twentieth century. Some of our interlocutors were permanently forced out of their radical dwellings by the circumstances of WWII, while others have lived in the same building or neighborhood since their youth.
The buildings themselves have taken on different histories such as becoming youth centers, museums, or stages for political gathering, while some are still being used as housing today. The domestic spaces have become the backdrop for different stories, but beyond that they have also shaped their inhabitants to varying degrees and remain a source of pride or resentment, and even the material of dreams.
The stories and the moments we collected in these domestic environments have become part of our story. Even if our son won’t remember the experiences he had, maybe he’ll assimilate them through our photographs. The radical experiments of Modernist architects with their claims and aspirations and leaky realities will be a part of our story.
Brno, Czech Republic
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1930
1. The children’s room at the Villa Tugendhat. We spoke with Mr. Tugendhat, a retired professor of philosophy, the eldest child who lived in the house until his family was forced to leave in 1938. He was only eight at the time.
2. The children’s outdoor playroom on the rooftop of the Villa Tugendhat, overlooking the garden and the city of Brno. Mr. Tugendhat recalls playing here and waiting for the honk of his father’s car to signal his arrival home every evening.
3. The winter garden in the Villa Tugendhat, adjacent to the living room. Even the most idiosyncratic of the interior spaces in the Villa did not leave a lasting impression on our interlocutor.
4. Mr. Tugendhat’s strongest memories are of the outdoor spaces of the house. The Villa Tugendhat and its gardens have recently been restored and are open to the public by appointment.
J.J.P. Oud, 1927
1. Mr. Fassbaender showed us photo albums from his childhood growing up in the row houses in the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart. The photo of his house, number 3, is in the center of the spread, with images of his mother and playmates surrounding it.
2. The buildings are still being used as public housing. We spoke with Mr. Fassbaender in number 5, as the interior was awaiting renovation.
3. Unlike the geometric and closed front of the Weissenhof row houses, the back of the houses are open to individual yet connected private gardens. The balcony off Mr. Fassbaender’s bedroom was his favorite place, since he could drag the head of his mattress outside and sleep under the stars in the summer.
4. The garden bench in the garden of the Oud row house. The children played outdoors, as they had many private spots within the Estate to do so. The streets were also their playground, since at the time there were only three cars in the whole neighborhood.
Le Corbusier, 1926
1. Mrs. Goron has lived in several of the houses in Cité Frugès, Pessac since she was small. Unlike many of her neighbors, she found the Modernist neighborhood familiar because it reminded her of the architecture in Morocco, where her family had relocated from.
2. Mrs. Goron and her husband have lived in several of the houses in the Cité Frugès on the outskirts of Bordeaux. The apartment they rented after they got married was in this building.
3. The houses of the Cité Frugès are in varying states of repair. They have been added to, repaired, renovated, and are the object of both restoration efforts and financial speculation.
4. Mr. and Mrs. Goron had many stories to tell of the struggles with the heritage protection of the buildings and of the changing of the neighborhood over the years.
Le Corbusier, 1952
1. We spoke with Gisèle Moreau, who moved into the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille as a child and has lived there ever since, except for when she moved away for university. She has lived in several apartments in the building, but is now back in the apartment where she grew up, having inherited it from her parents.
2. Ms. Moreau remembers doing her math homework on the sliding blackboards Le Corbusier designed to separate adjoining children’s bedrooms.
3. The children of the Unité often played in the building’s generous stairwells. Taking advantage of the found spaces of the skip-stop system, several additional programs could also be accessed from here. These multi-functional spaces are still used for classes and other social programs today.
4. The Unité d’Habitation is home to many loyal residents and aficionados. Le Corbusier is close to Ms. Moreau’s heart. She vividly remembers hearing the news of the architect’s death on the radio while sunbathing on the amorphous concrete rock to the left in the image. She was devastated.
Hans Scharoun, 1933
1. Each of the children had their own storage shelf in the playroom. Our interlocutor, Mrs. Zumfe, was the youngest and had the yellow cubby.
2. The winter garden of the Haus Schminke in Löbau. The glass portholes on the doorframes were set at a low height, so that the children could look out at the world through different colors.
3. Hans Scharoun became a close friend of the family and visited regularly. He made this folded picture book for the children documenting one of his stays, including pictures of him and the kids playing in the pond. In this picture, he is drying Mrs. Zumpfe’s back.
4. The house is currently a museum, but it can also be rented for overnight stays. Doing so we had the opportunity to, ever so briefly, experience everyday domestic activities in it.
The trip was funded by the Lawrence B. Anderson Award, a creative documentation grant from MIT. The research was also supported by a Faculty Fellowship through the University at Buffalo Humanities Institute. The research will be published as a book by Birkhäuser in 2020.
Coryn Kempster and Julia Jamrozik have been collaborating together since 2003. Having studied and worked internationally, they now have a small practice doing art and architecture projects in Buffalo, NY, where they teach at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). In 2018, the Architecture League of New York awarded their work with the League Prize.