New York

Oscar Nitzchke

Cooper Union

There are many creative artists who receive little recognition but whose activities constitute an important bridge between individual and collective energy The work of Swiss architect Oscar Nitzchke (who has escaped great fame for reasons that would be fascinating to analyze) constitutes such a bridge. His long career has included multidisciplinary collaborations with Auguste Perret, Jean (Hans) Arp, Sophie TaeuberArp, Theo van Doesburg, and Alexander Calder, among others. Nitzchke’s abstracts were inventive and often anticipatory. Many of the projects documented in this exhibition are cues to the direction that architecture has taken in the 20th century Nitzchke has had his ponderous and uncourageous moments, but sureness, optimism, and curiosity are most emblematic of his design activity. His work has inspired many of his more well-known colleagues; for this reason, revisionists must continue to look to originators like Nitzchke.

This exhibition, which was designed with Nitzchke’s active involvement, took the form of an opening fan of four panels on which the drawings were hung. In the corridor north of the gallery was a series of loose “Abstractions,” 1965–72, and in the east corridor a timeline of clippings, sketches, and memorabilia that provided an enlightening compendium of an age. Throughout the exhibition there was a satisfying balance of the generative and the resolved.

One need only look at a few of Nitzchke’s projects to appreciate his substantive contributions to the architecture of this century and why many architects (some of them former students) look to him as a quiet, seminal presence. The Pavillon de la Musique for the 1925 Paris Exposition des ArtsDecoratifs and the Maison de la Publicité project for Paris, 1934–36, are buildings-as-billboards; consequently, they continue to influence those fascinated by both iconography and extra-architectural sources. Shortly after coming to the United States to teach at Yale, and to work with Wallace Harrison of Harrison & Fouilhoux (reincorporated as Harrison & Abramovitz in 1945), Nitzchke was involved in the design of the Bronx Zoo African Habitat, 1939–40, in New York. This pioneering work anticipated the entire reorganization of zoos as groups of individual, open habitats that are both ecologically sensitive and visually compelling.

This exhibition was packed with a lifetime of projects, many of which were schematically developed and then abandoned for another pursuit. Nitzchke is an originator without the follow-through; he has provided brilliant introductions and left others to complete the essays. Perhaps he never developed the critical capacity (or the arrogance) to believe in the promise of his ideas. This exhibition was a belated assessment of an architect whose work—including the failures, omissions, and short circuits—provides important lessons about architecture’s power to initiate as well as to record an era.

Patricia C. Phillips