Torin Building
photo by: Max Dupain, September 1976. © Penelope Seidler

Site Overview

Current name of the building:
Former Torin Building
Architects:
Marcel Breuer and his partner Herbert Beckhard in association with Harry Seidler & Associates.
Marcel Breuer (project architect) Harry Seidler (consulting architect)
Date of Commission:
1974
Date of Completion:
1976
Address:
23 Coombes Drive 2750, Penrith, NSW
Type:
Industry
Editor fiche:
Noni Boyd

Status of Protection

Whole Building: AIA Register of Significant Architecture, NSW State Heritage Register, LEP Heritage Item

Related sites

Industrial area established as a subdivision of grounds of Coombewood
Visual relations:
Located within a light industrial area
Functional relations:
Located in one of the post-war industrial areas on the Cumberland Plain
Other relations:
One of a series of buildings worldwide that Marcel Breuer designed for the Torin Corporation

Site history

Chronology

commission or competition date:
Correspondence file from Seidler’s office started in 1970 – Penrith Factory Project
design period(s):
1973 as job no is 7303
start of site work:
Building Permit issued 1974 Revised Building Application January 1975
completion/inauguration:
1976

Summary of Development

commission brief:
Early 1970s
design brief:
Early 1970s
building/construction:
Building Permit issued 1974 Revised Building Application January 1975
completed situation:
1976
original situation or character of site:
Industrial area north of western rail line

Consultants or relevant persons

original owner(s)/patron(s):
Torin Corporation
architect(s):
Marcel Breuer and his partner Herbert Beckhard in association with Harry Seidler & Associates.
design architect:
Marcel Breuer
landscape/garden architect(s):
Bruce Rickard however his scheme was largely not carried out
other architect(s):
Harry Seidler – consulting architect (supervised the construction)
consulting engineer(s):
Murray W. Low
building contractor(s):
Prodecon Pty Ltd

Important changes after completion

type of change:
External paint colours altered. Chimney has been added (not dated, post 2008). Site subdivision that has resulted in a loss of the service area to the rear. Alterations to the main façade including the addition of two small single-storey rooms and an additional door. There have also been a number of minor accretions to the main façade such as vents and lights. These elements have not been well detailed and are contributing to the staining problem.
The current internal configuration is unknown.
date(s):
Unconfirmed, but mostly post 2000
circumstances/ reasons for change:
Painted in club colours whilst in Penrith Panthers ownership
effects of changes:
Original form is still evident, when compared to the Dupain photographs
persons/organisations involved:
Subsequent owners including Penrith Panthers

Description

Site Character

Penrith Factory Project

The files held at the State Library indicate that the correspondence regarding the “Penrith Factory Project” began in 1970. The drawings were probably undertaken in 1973, as indicated by the 7303 job number for the drawings prepared by the New York based Architect Marcel Breuer and the local consulting architect Harry Seidler. The Penrith factory was the last of a series of buildings Breuer designed for the Torin Corporation. Harry Seidler had worked for Breuer in his New York office before travelling to Rio de Janiero and onto Sydney so was an ideal choice of collaborator. The drawing titles show that the initial scheme submitted to Penrith Council was prepared by Marcel Breuer & Associates in New York. An undated perspective held on Council’s files includes similar linework to other designs by Breuer in the mid- 1970s. A photograph of the headquarters building in Torrington which includes similar motifs was also submitted to Council. The building permit was issued in 1974 and the revised building application is dated 29 January 1975. This revised application was by Marcel Breuer with Harry Seidler acting as a consultant architect as Seidler was registered as an architect in NSW.

The Torin building was completed in 1976. The completed Torin Manufacturing Complex at Penrith was described in detail in Architecture Australia in June/July 1977. The article was based on information supplied by the architects.

The site is part of an industrial sub division on the flat plains of the Nepean river basin. A high tension electrical reticulation easement cuts across the site but the placing of the building near the intersection of the two streets avoids any conflict. Car access is from one street, trucking from the other. Buildings in the area are widely spaced and there are no special elements that would affect the outlook or disposition of the buildings on the site.

Program requirements and solutions
The company manufactures a wide range of blower units and axial and centrifugal impellers for the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry. Many of the products are also manufactured in Torin’s ten other factories throughout the world. In these locations it has been realised that, as labour costs continue to rise, the materials handling activity becomes an important candidate for automation. Therefore an integrated handling system was developed that dictated the basic shape of the 3,800 metre Penrith factory. The building consists of three basic components: a high rise storage unit containing the integrated handling system; a basic two-floor structure which contains manufacturing, assembly and office areas, as well as a well-equipped laboratory for air flow measurements and tow service cores, three storeys high, but of the same total height as the two manufacturing storeys. These cores project from the façade free of the manufacturing space. One module provides an entrance for plant employees and support facilities: toilets, locker rooms, stairs. The other contains an entrance for visitors and officer personnel and mechanical space, toilets and stairs.

Access to the high rise storage unit is provided at both manufacturing levels. The multitude of components required in the manufacturing process are moved in and out of the 20 metre high storage system by a single rail-guided vehicle as the various manufacturing operations are performed. Because processing lines are adjacent to container racking on both floors, load distances are very short. Once positioned in a pick-up station, loads can be moved by a storage vehicle for a weight check and storage in less than a quarter of the time expected of a conventional fork-lift truck. Storage is accessible only to a special vehicle. This ensures parts, quantity and location integrity and eliminates the shutdown usually required for taking of inventory .

Materials and Structural System
All walls of the complete steel-frame structure, except the north/south walls of the high-rise storage unit, are of concrete block, cavity wall construction, the outer skin consisting of split- face block. Office areas and the lower floor manufacturing areas include precast concrete window units first developed by the architects for the Torin Technical Centre in Torrington, Connecticut. These units in all cases face north and have been designed to provide adequate sun shade. North and south walls of the high-rise storage unit are clad with corrugated metal panels painted white to contrast with the rough textured, warm, grey split block used elsewhere. A further use of this corrugated metal is in combination with the window-wall treatment at the two entrances to the building. The sloping form of the north walls of the services cores is a departure from the horizontal/vertical lines of the building, giving dynamic lines to the composition of building forms.

Max Dupain’s series of photographs of the completed building include two internal shots, one view of a staircase (presumably the staircase in the office service core) and the waiting area. The waiting area contained chrome and leather furniture, including the Wassily Chair, originally designed by Marcel Breuer in the 1920s, and a tapestry mural by Alexander Calder. The blockwork to the walls was painted white. The sculptural stair was built of off-form concrete with dark [stone or terrazzo?] open treads. The only colour was within the tapestry, the characteristic primary colours that Calder employed in his tapestries and large mobiles.

Landscaping
The article on the completed building that appeared in Architecture Australia in June/July 1977 lists Bruce Rickard as having designed the landscape. Correspondence also survives in the project files in the Seidler collection at the Mitchell Library regarding the proposed landscaping. Breuer was not in favour of the Australian native trees proposed by Rickard and a more severe scheme consisting of small shrubs spaced at regular intervals on a grass lawn was implemented. This scheme can be seen in the 1976 photographs by Max Dupain. Rickard also collaborated with Seidler on landscaping schemes for commercial buildings in the 1970s. None of the documentation submitted to Council makes reference to Rickard’s involvement, his scheme having already been largely abandoned.

Design Influences
In the early 1960s Marcel Breuer contributed an introduction to the Living Architecture series publication on Egyptian Architecture by Jean Louis de Cenival entitled “The Contemporary Aspect of Pharaonic Architecture.” In Vie des Arts (No 43 1966) Claude Beaulieu noted that: “He [Breuer] points out that one of the basic elements of Egyptian art is one that is present in contemporary trends. The element is simplicity.”

It was not until after the Torin building at Penrith was completed that Breuer undertook a series of commissions in Egypt. Architectural historians have described the factory as being “A powerful work of almost windowless cuboid forms of rough-textured stone [sic] and concrete, the Penrith factory is ‘Egyptian’ in its bold geometries and in its composition as a long rectangle fronted by a pair of truncated mastabas. ” (Hyman, Marcel Breuer Architect : The Career & the Buildings)

Although described as being stone, the building is constructed of split concrete blocks, as were the other Torin buildings. A mastaba being a mud-brick tomb built by the Ancient Egyptians along the Nile, examples of which survive today. When describing the building on its completion neither Breuer nor Seidler appear to have referred to design influences. The comparison between a number of Breuer’s buildings and Egyptian tombs was made by Isabelle Hyman when the complete list of his works was being compiled. Hyman described ‘Breuer’s mastaba building type, a low compact structure with a flat roof and canted sides’. Not all of his designs of this type were constructed, and an unbuilt competition entry from the early 1970s also draws on sculptural Egyptian forms.

It was during the 1950s that Breuer began to receive larger commissions and his work was defined by the transition from small-form, residential projects in wood and stone, to monumental sculptural form rendered in patterned concrete and steel (Syracuse University Finding Aid to the Marcel Breuer papers).

The first of a series of low sculptural buildings for the Torin company was their new technical centre, a photograph of which was shown to Penrith Council. The precast concrete window hoods may have first been used on this design however precast elements had already been used in the Torin factory at Nevilles in Belgium.

Characteristic motifs such as the sunscreens also appear on the Australian Embassy, which was another collaboration between Breuer and Seidler. The first examples were designed for the Torrington Corporation technical centre at Torrington, and an image of this building was submitted to Penrith Council (and remains on file).

Breuer is often described as being a later modernist, however, he began designing in the 1920s, at the start of the Movement Movement. The work is also often described as being Brutalist, but is much more complex in conception. His commissions gave new architectural identity to urban and suburban institutions…. the trapezoids, hexagons, y-shapes, and faceted window bays that mark many of Breuer’s buildings distinguished the institutions they housed… (Marcel Breuer and Post War America: Drawings from Marcel Breuer’s papers, 2011)

Breuer also moved beyond using ‘the smooth industrial materials of International Style modern architecture’ to ‘imbue his buildings with contrasting textures and qualities: heavy and light, massive and delicate, rough and smooth, archaic and modern’. (Marcel Breuer and Post War America: Drawings from Marcel Breuer’s papers, 2011) To this juxtaposition can be added the interplay of light and shade. The factory building was quite unlike any other factory erected in Australia in the post-war years, most of which adhered strictly to the International modernism.

Current Use

of whole building/site:
Factory /Warehouse
comments:
The Torin Corporation have sold the premises

Present Condition

of whole building/site:
The building is relatively intact and is generally in good condition, with the exception of some water staining
comments:
The subsequent owners of the building have not appreciated its architectural qualities.

Notes indicating potential developments

The site is proposed for subdivision.

Evaluation

(from the 2014 Inventory form prepared as part of the study of Modern Buildings in Penrith by Robertson & Hindmarsh)

Technical

Demonstrating Breuer’s progression from International modernism to a more personal architecture that combined modern materials and construction techniques with monumental yet traditional forms that reflects his initial training in sculpture.

Social

Breuer designed a suite of buildings for Torin, as well as houses for senior executives over a 25 year period.

Cultural and Aesthetic

A rare example of an American architect working in Australia, a design that demonstrates how Marcel Breuer raised the quality of industrial architecture, encasing rationalized production lines and warehousing in bold architectural forms that repeated precast elements first used at the Torin head office in Torrington, Connecticut. A rare example of a factory building containing purpose-designed tapestry and the Breuer- designed furniture, features more usually found in commercial head offices in the city. Detailed documentation of this design survives in the Marcel Breuer archive in America, at Penrith Council and in the Harry Seidler collection now held at the State Library of NSW including sketch designs for unbuilt elements and colour schemes.

Canonical Status

The former Torin Building is an important work by notable architects Marcel Breuer (and his partner Herbert Beckhard) who were architects for the Torin Corporation of the USA designing nine buildings worldwide from 1952 until 1976 including in the USA, France, Canada, Belgium and England. The Torin Factory is the only building in Australia designed by the New York-based architect Marcel Breuer and was the Torin company’s only Australian outlet. The design is the only collaboration in Australia by Harry Seidler with his former mentor, Marcel Breuer. At the time of construction the design, including Max Dupain’s photographs, was published in both Australian and American architectural periodicals.

Historic and reference values

The Torin factory demonstrates the industrial development that occurred in Penrith following the introduction of the Cumberland Plan. Following years of pressure on the Woodriffe family to allow factories to be built on their farmland, it was not until the death of P H Woodriffe that part of the Woodriffe’s original 1000 acre land grant was zoned industrial. The former Torin Building has important associations with the multi-national Torin Corporation, one of a number of international companies who established their manufacturing plants at Penrith post World War II and that played a part in the economic development of the expanding town of Penrith.

Documentation

Archives

Listing & files
Australian Insitute of Architects, NSW Chapter
Harry Seidler – Western Sydney projects ML MSS 7088
ML PDX 613
Architectural Drawings
Local Council / Building Application
Penrith Council holds building files including sketches and photographs sent from New York by Marcel Breuer.

References

Architecture Australia, June/July 1997 Architectural Record, August 1977
Marcel Breuer Architect: The Work and Buildings compiled by Isabelle Hyman, c. 2001
An article by Glen Harper on Breuer’s only Australian building appeared in the Architecture Bulletin in May/June 2008.
Anne Watson article in Monument, 2008

Visual material

original visual records/photographs/others:
Photos by Max Dupain 1976, presumably now in the Dupain collection held in the Mitchell Library
Original drawings
Held in Seidler Collection at the Mitchell Library. Material also held by Penrith Council (now in their local studies collection) including a perspective.
recent photographs and survey drawings:
AIA NSW Chapter holds recent photographs, as does Scott Robertson of Robertson & Hindmarsh Architects. Harry Seidler’s office also retain material including the Dupain photographs
film/video/other sources:
The building appears briefly in Harry Seidler’s 1980 lecture given at the UNSW. Copy at the AIA NSW Chapter
website
www.sl.nsw.gov.au manuscripts & pictures catalogue

Documents included in the supplementary dossier

Torin Corporation; Site History (from the 2014 inventory sheet prepared by Robertson & Hindmarsh for Penrith Council); Project Documentation – a summary of the known sources of drawings
Statements of Significance; Floor Plans (as published); Images; Articles and Publications; Marcel Breuer and Harry Seidler; Marcel Breuer and his archive.

Fiche report

name of reporter:
Noni Boyd
Information provided by
Scott Robertson, Penrith Council and the AIA NSW Chapter
date of report
Fiche updated June 2014, originally prepared in 2008

Supplementary Dossier

1. The Torin Company

The first building designed by Breuer for Torin was the Torin Technical Centre in Torrington, Connecticut erected in 1970. In 1969 the Torrington Manufacturing Company had changed its name to the Torin Company. Based in Torrington, Connecticut, the firm had eight manufacturing plants in five countries. The manufacturing firm dated back to the mid-1880s and initially manufactured tacks but became more well known for its air moving equipment. In the Twentieth Century the firm produced propeller blades and impellers for aircraft.

Torin Corporation Buildings and Projects, 1952 – 1976 (from the AIA NSW Chapter)

Breuer’s work for Torrington Manufacturing Company (the name was changed to Torin Corporation in 1969) raised small-scale industrial architecture in postwar America to a new aesthetic level. A manufacturer of air-moving equipment (Fans and impellers), Torin had its corporated headquarters and manufacturing division in Torrington, Connecticut, wher by 1963 the company owned 60 acres. Breuer’s longtime connection to the company began in 1950 through Rufus Stillman, who was then vice president and later chairman of the board. Rufus and Leslie Stillman’s enthusiasm for Breuer’s architecture led to three Stillman Houses, two Gagarin Houses, the Ceasar Cottage, the Becton Center at Yale University, several schools in the vicinity of Litchfield, Connecticut, and nine buildings for Torin. A tenth Torin project, the Still River Division, was built by MBA after Breuer’s retirement. Stillman documented the history of the Torin buildings through 1971 and his client-architect relationship with Breuer in an article in the March 1972 issue of Architectural Forum. The company eventually was sold, and all the buildings in the original complex in Connecticut and elsewhere were changed or adapted for other uses.

A photograph of the headquarters building is held on file at Penrith Council, sent by Breuer’s office to indicate the intended character of the proposed building. Refer to the study of modern buildings in Penrith by Robertson & Hindmarsh, a study commissioned by Penrith Council.

2. Site History

The Torin Factory was erected within an industrial estate built between the depot and the sewerage farm. The land was part of the grant of 1,000 acres made to Captain Daniel Woodriffe in February 1804. This part of Woodriffe’s land was bounded on the south by the Western Road, to the west by the Nepean River, to the north by William Neate Chapman’s grant (and a large lagoon) and on the east by the grants of Captain P.P. King and John McHenry. The land remained in the Woodriffe family for generations. Woodriffe himself spent little time in Sydney, returning to England with a cargo of colonial timbers a few months after obtaining his grant. Rodley farm, as the property was known, was leased until Woodriffe’s grandson Daniel James Woodriffe came to Penrith to settle on the estate.

Around 1890 Francis Henry Woodriffe built a substantial house known as Coombewood to the west of the Castlereagh Road. This house survives today, surrounded by a small parcel of land. Subdivision of the estate occurred in 1899 when Mr F D Woodriffe subdivided 300 acres of his river frontage into small farms (Western Champion 20 October 1899)

In 1925 a speedway was established on land to the southwest of Coombewood, just north of the railway line. This site was used as an Engineers Supply Depot during World War II. The Commonwealth resumed the land in 1945 and the use as a depot continued, as a supply depot in case of mobilisation for war. Industrial areas were proposed for Penrith and St Marys in the late 1940s, however, the Woodriffe family were not keen to sell land (Nepean Times, 7 September 1950). Following the death of P H Woodriffe the Department of Local Government proclaimed an industrial estate to the east of Castlereagh Road (Nepean Times, 24 March 1960).

The Lemongrove Progress Association agitated for a link road between Castlereagh Road and Lemongrove Road. This road, Coreen Avenue, was built during the 1960s. To the north of Coreen Avenue an industrial area was established. The industrial area seems to date from the 1970s however no layout has been located. Coombes Drive is presumably named for the nearby house built by the Woodriffes.

3. Project Documentation

At the time of completion, the building appeared in Architecture Australia (June/July 1977) and in the American Architectural Record (August 1977). In both cases Max Dupain’s series of photographs were used. This set of images may have been included in the photographs donated by Eric Sierens to the Mitchell Library (part of the State Library of NSW) as the Max Dupain and Associates Records and Negatives Archive however this has yet to be confirmed.

Harry Seidler donated his correspondence with Breuer, drawings and other documents as part of his architectural archive donated to the Mitchell Library (State Library of NSW). Included are drawings, specifications and correspondence regarding the construction of the Torin Factory at Penrith.

MLMSS 708 Harry Seidler Project Files 1959-1981
iii. Torin – Penrith factory project, 1970-1976
1970-1976; ‘Torin – Penrith factory project’, being correspondence, reports and papers (Call No.: MLMSS 7078/11)
1974-1976; ‘Torin factory contract administration’ (Call No.: MLMSS 7078/12)
1974; Agreement and conditions of building contract concerning Torin Pty. Ltd. and the Penrith Factory Project (Call No.: MLMSS 7078/13)
1974-1975; ‘Torin 7303’, including correspondence; sketch plans; product brochures (Call No.: MLMSS 7078/13

PXD 613 Harry Seidler Collection: Western Sydney Projects

Harry Seidler Architects
Copies of the photographs are held by Seidler’s office and the office also took their own photographs. Photographs from Seidler’s office were scanned in 2008 and are now in the Digital Archive of the Institute of Architects (NSW Chapter).

Penrith Council retains the architectural drawings submitted by Breuer, including a sketch design and photograph of the Torrington technical centre. At the time of writing this material is held by Penrith City Council in its archives rather than in the Penrith City Library Local Studies Collection.

In America
A range of architectural documentation is held in the Marcel Breuer papers at Syracuse University Library in New York including progress photographs however this material is not yet available online. Archival material relating to Breuer’s other designs for the Torin Corporation is held in the Marcel Breuer Digital Archive, as is Harry Seidler’s Remembering Marcel Breuer. The Breuer digital archive (breuer.syr.edu/) is being progressively added to.

Max Dupain’s photographs and a series of architectural drawings have been included in the Marcel Breuer papers in the Archives of American Art held at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

8.11.26: Torin Corporation, Penrith, Australia, 1976

Box 26 Reel (Frames) 5733 (810-811) Photographs of Plans
Box 26 Reel (Frames) 5733 (810812-830) Photographs of completed project, exterior and interior. (3 folders; oversized material housed in Box 40)
Box 26 Unfilmed Negatives and Color Transparencies
Box 40 Reel 5733 Oversized photographs of completed project, exterior and interior
(oversized material scanned with Box 26, Reel 5733, Frames 812-830

From www.aaa.si.edu/collections/marcel-breuer-papers-5596/more

The design for the Torin Corporation building at Penrith was included in Marcel Breuer Architect: The Work and Buildings compiled by Isabelle Hyman (refer to the attached images). In 2008 an article by Glen Harper on Breuer’s only Australian building appeared in the Architecture Bulletin in May/June 2008. Anne Watson’s article on Breuer and Seidler’s collaboration appeared in Monument in [add date].

4. Statements of Significance

The AIA (NSW Chapter) nominated the building to the State Heritage Register in 2008 and the building was included on the Register in 2009. The Statement of Significance noted that

The former Torin building is of State heritage significance as a rare and intact example of a Late Twentieth Century Modernist style industrial building designed by internationally acclaimed master architect Marcel Breuer. It is the only Marcel Breuer building in NSW and Australia and is one of a suite of buildings specifically designed for the Torin Corporation located throughout Europe, Canada and the United States. The Torin building in Penrith was the last of 9 buildings designed for the Torin Corporation by Marcel Breuer and the the form and design inclusions of this building had evolved from the visual and technical experience of the Torin Corporation buildings preceding it. The Torin building in Coombes Drive Penrith differs from the early Torin Corporation buildings which were more classically gridded modernist work. The Australian example is a strong expression of the powerful scupltural mode of Breuer’s later career. (Letter from Barry Bergdoll, Curator in Chief, Architecture and Design, MOMA)

A revised Statement of Significance was prepared in 2014 by Robertson & Hindmarsh Architects

The Torin building is of at least State significance as the only Australian example of a factory complex designed by the leading New York-based architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer. The last of the series of factories and offices designed by Breuer worldwide for the Torrington (later Torin) Corporation, this monumental modern factory building was supervised by the local architect and former assistant to Breuer, Harry Seidler.

In contrast with most post-war factories, Breuer’s design is a complex composition and is a rare example of the combination of modern architectural ideas and materials with sculptural forms drawn from traditional architecture (in this case Egyptian tombs), reflecting Breuer’s initial training in sculpture. The precast window elements that characterise the Torin factories designed in the 1970s remain evident, motifs that also characterise Seidler’s other substantial collaboration with Breuer, the Australian Embassy in Paris.

The construction of the factory demonstrates the progressive establishment of industrial areas on the Woodriffe Estate surrounding Coombewood. The form of the building reflects the separate zones within the building. The two projecting, tapering forms at the front of the building represent the factory staff entry and amenities (east block) and the office staff entry and amenities (west block). Technological advances allowed for increased speed during production and retrieval and the high portion of the building contained the automatic goods storage and retrieval area.

Published at the time of completion in both Australian and American architectural magazines, the building is one of very few examples of Australian architecture to be included in American archives. The surviving plans and photographs clearly show the original design intent, the landscaping, the original furniture including Breuer’s Wassily chairs and the tapestry by Alexander Calder. This is a very rare example of a factory foyer containing modern furniture and commissioned art works by leading international designers, most commissions were for commercial buildings in the city.

5. Floor Plans

Former Torin Corporation, Penrith Sydney, Australia
As published in 1977

GROUND FLOOR
1 – Entrance for Visitors and Office Personnel
2 – Entrance for Plant Employees
3 – Locker Room
4 – Mechanical
5 – Manufacturing and Assembly
6 – High-rise storage facility
7 – Laboratory

UPPER FLOOR
4 – Mechanical
5 – Manufacturing and Assembly
6 – High-rise storage facility
8 – Lunch Room
9 – First Aid Station
10 – Reception
11 – Offices

6. Marcel Breuer and Harry Seidler

Marcel Lajos Breuer was one of the most influential of European modernist architects who were forced to flee their homeland. Of Jewish descent, Hungarian-born Breuer was educated in design at the Bauhaus in the 1920s. From the mid-1920s he designed furniture that combined industrial materials such as steel with more traditional materials such as leather as well as factory and residential buildings. In the mid-1930s he fled to London, as did a number of other European-trained modernists. By 1938 he was working in America where he remained. Harry Seidler met Breuer whilst attending architectural master classes at Harvard run by Walter Gropius. Breuer moved to New York to establish an office, taking several of the Harvard design school graduated with him. At the end of 1946 Seidler persuaded Breuer to take him on to do with drawings (Remembering Marcel Breuer, oral history held at Syracuse University). Seidler later recalled that

I became intimately involved with his methodology of approach. Each building design had its theme a single strong idea. Plans were always basically direct in organisation and resulted in related sculptural masses. Detailing was consequential and universally applicable. It was continually refined and carried forward from one project to the next…(Frampton & Drew, Harry Seidler: Four Decades of Architecture)

This trend can be seen in the use of similar architectural motifs for the series of Torin factories worldwide. Breuer began to design for the Torrington Manufacturing Company in the early 1950s, by which time Seidler had established his own architectural office in Sydney. In the early 1970s Breuer and Seidler collaborated on two projects, the Torin factory at Penrith and the Australian Embassy in Paris. Breuer was the lead architect for the design at Penrith whilst Seidler was the design architect for the Australian Embassy.

Marcel Breuer and his archive
(from the summary to the Marcel Breuer papers )

Marcel Lajos Breuer was born on May 21, 1902, in the Danube valley town of Pécs, Hungary, to Jacques Breuer, a physician, and Franciska (Kan) Breuer. His siblings were Hermina and Alexander. Throughout his life, Breuer used his first name only on official documents and preferred that his friends use his middle name, the Hungarian form of “Louis.” The diminutive form of this name was usually spelled “Lajkó” and pronounced “Lye-ko.”

In 1920, Breuer graduated from the Magyar Királyi Föreáliskola in Pécs. He had received a scholarship to study art in Vienna but took an immediate dislike to the Art Academy there, so searched elsewhere for training. He started working in the studio of a Viennese architect and soon became interested in training in the cabinetmaking shop of the architect’s brother. Breuer was not satisfied with this arrangement either, and, upon hearing about the year-old Bauhaus school in Germany, he departed for Weimar in 1921.

Founded and directed by Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus combined the teaching of the pure arts with training in functional technology. Breuer received a master’s degree from the Bauhaus in 1924, then studied architecture in Paris, where he first met Le Corbusier.

In 1925, Gropius enticed Breuer to return to the Bauhaus, now relocated in Dessau, by offering him a post as master of the carpentry workshop and a commission to design the interiors of the new Bauhaus buildings. Inspired by his new bicycle’s handlebars, Breuer designed his first tubular steel chair, the Wassily chair, named for his friend Wassily Kandinsky. This chair and dozens of other Breuer designs for furnishings were mass-produced by the Thonet Brothers in Germany.

Two years later, in 1928, Breuer left the Bauhaus to begin a private architecture practice in Berlin, emphasizing prefabricated housing and the use of concrete in building. During this time Breuer worked on a designs for the Potsdamer Platz, Spandau-Haselhorst Housing, and a hospital in Elberfeld, and he completed work on the Lewin House and the Harnischmacher Apartment. Due to the deteriorating economic and political conditions in Germany, Breuer closed his Berlin office in 1931 and traveled to Budapest, Zurich, Morocco, Greece, and Spain. Returning to Germany in the following year, he began designing furniture in aluminum. Breuer established his reputation as an architect upon completion of the Harnischmacher House in Wiesbaden, a house notable for the use of contrasting materials and distinctive interiors.

The Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933. The following year, Breuer designed the Dolderthal Apartments in Zurich for the Swiss architectural historian Sigfried Giedion. From 1935 to 1937, Breuer settled in London, and became partners with F. R. S. Yorke. During this time he designed for the Isokon (“isometric unit construction”) Control Company laminated plywood furniture that became widely imitated.

In 1937, Breuer accepted an invitation from Walter Gropius to join the faculty of the School of Design at Harvard University to teach architecture, and he moved to the United States. Among his students were Edward Larrabee Barnes, Ulrich Franzen, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, and Paul Rudolph. Breuer formed a partnership with Gropius in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from 1937 to 1941. Their firm was engaged primarily in the design of private homes.

In 1946, Breuer moved to New York City, where he established an office in an East 88th Street townhouse. The number of his commissions began to grow slowly, and it was during this time he constructed his own notable residence in New Canaan, Connecticut. He developed the bi-nuclear, or “two-center” house, which was designed to meet the living requirements of modern families by creating functional areas for separate activities. Breuer’s architectural reputation was greatly enhanced when, in 1953, he was commissioned to design, in collaboration with Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Headquarters in Paris. During this year, he also began work on a series of innovative buildings for St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Between 1963 and 1964, Breuer began work on what is perhaps his best-known project, the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City. He also established an office with the name Marcel Breuer Architecte, in Paris, to better orchestrate his European projects. Also during this time, Herbert Beckhard, Murray Emslie, Hamilton Smith, and Robert F. Gatje became partners in Marcel Breuer and Associates. When Murray Emslie left a year later, he was replaced by Tician Papachristou, who had been recommended by Breuer’s former student, I. M. Pei. After several moves to increasingly larger office space in New York, Breuer established his largest office at 635 Madison Avenue and 59th Street in 1965. After suffering the first of a series of heart attacks, Breuer reduced his travel to Europe, eventually leaving the management of the Paris office in the hands of Mario Jossa.

Between 1965 and 1973, Marcel Breuer and Associates continued to receive many diverse and important commissions, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development Headquarters Building (Washington, D.C.), showrooms for Scarves by Vera (New York City), the IBM Corporation (La Gaude, France), the Baldegg Convent (Lucerne, Switzerland), Bryn Mawr School for Girls (Baltimore, Maryland), a third power plant for the Grand Coulee Dam, the Australian Embassy (Paris, France), the Armstrong Rubber Company (New Haven, Connecticut), and the State University of New York Engineering Complex (Buffalo). Breuer also designed residences including a second Gagarin House (Litchfield, Connecticut), the Saier House (Glanville- Calvados, France), the Soriano House (Greenwich, Connecticut), and a third Rufus Stillman House (Litchfield, Connecticut).

Due to failing health in 1972, Breuer sold his New Canaan house and moved into Manhattan so he could more easily commute to the office. By 1976, Breuer’s health had declined further, and he retired from practice. The name of his firm was subtly changed from Marcel Breuer and Associates to Marcel Breuer Associates, and later to MBA/Architects and Planners.

Marcel Breuer died on July 1, 1981, in New York City.

Photo by Max Dupain
Photo by Max Dupain
Photo by Max Dupain
Photo by Max Dupain
Photo by Max Dupain

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