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Heynen Revives the Voice of '60s Critic

"On an oriental trip an old soothsayer told me my fortune,” wrote Sibyl Moholy-Nagy in 1943. “Toward the end he bowed in a stagey manner and said in French: ‘Madame, you are one of the few chosen women.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because you shall have a vie complete—a complete life.’”

Professor Hildegarde Heynen of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium and a current fellow at the Radcliffe Institute is completing an intellectual biography of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy. The architectural historian presented a lecture on the topic on Wednesday, Feb. 20.

“First of all, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy had a very interesting and very exceptional life,” Heynen says in a telephone interview. “Second, she was very important in the ’50s and ’60s at a critic of architectural culture.”

Heynen advocates for a fresh perspective on Moholy-Nagy, and sees her influences in present day architectural practices. Moholy-Nagy was one of the first critics to treat South American modernist architecture seriously, writing a book on the architecture of Venezuela (see the current show in the Sert Gallery: “A Little Piece of Heaven (1998-2008),” which revolves around the architecture of Caracas and even exhibits Moholy-Nagy’s book). Moholy-Nagy also proposed an environmentally conscientious approach to architecture, one that seems particularly prescient today.

Moholy-Nagy also had a contentious relationship with Harvard. Architect Walter Gropius persuaded her to donate the seminal kinetic sculpture “Light-Space Modulator” to Harvard’s Fogg museum. Her husband, the prominent Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, created the piece. Moholy-Nagy was consistently troubled by its preservation and attempts by the museum’s curators to make a working replica to avoid damage to the original. The object files for the sculpture, currently in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, are full of subtly barbed letters between Sibyl Moholy-Nagy and the museum’s director.

Moholy-Nagy was born in Dresden in 1903. In the late ’20s she met and married Laszlo when he asked her to help him edit an avant-garde film. After the rise of Nazism, the couple came to the United States by way of England and settled in Chicago, where Laszlo founded the New Bauhaus school.

“Laszlo dies in ’46, and she has two daughters, so she has to become the breadwinner,” says Heynen. “At that point, she comes to the teaching and academic career.”

Moholy-Nagy became a professor of the history of architecture in 1951 at the Pratt Institute in New York City. She taught there until her death in 1971. “That in itself is very remarkable: starting out without any serious education, and making it to an architectural professorship,” Heynen says.

Heynen notes, however, that Moholy-Nagy’s work has been lost in the historical record. “That voice has been forgotten, and I think it’s important to revive some of her criticisms of modernism.”

“Historians tend to single out men rather than women,” says Heynen. “In writing architectural history, [women] are always seen as occupying secondary positions, but they were important all along.”

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy is an example of an influential critic who is perhaps less recognized today than her work deserves.

“She is very critical, and in a very sensitive way, to modernism. Modernism was too much veering away from the historical city, from what history had to teach… She thought the historical city should be studied to learn how it works,” says Heynen. In opposition to the Bauhaus program of scientific construction and planning, initiated by Gropius and perpetuated by architects like Mies van der Rohe, “She was convinced that science and technology alone couldn’t build a city.”

Heynen says that she’s currently working on how “to find an eloquent position of how to describe her.”

“I have a lot of sympathy for her ideas on architecture. However, for example, her position towards feminism is much more difficult for me to be sympathetic with.” Moholy-Nagy’s antagonism toward the feminist movement in the ’60s is seemingly at odds with her own pioneering position in architecture.

According to an article by the historian Judith Paine, Moholy-Nagy called herself a “beachcomber of history, an unaffiliated digger after treasure and debris buried under the tides of conformity.” Heynen has now taken up the role of beachcomber, collecting treasures from Moholy-Nagy’s life.

—Crimson staff writer Alexander B. Fabry can be reached at fabry@fas.harvard.edu.
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