William Muschenheim

William MuschenheimWilliam Muschenheim (1902-1990): Trained at MIT and in Bauhaus architecture under Peter Behrens in Vienna, Muschenheim was a well-established New York architect when he came to U-M in 1950, where he taught until the end of his life and lived in the gem of a modern house at 1251 Heatherway that he built for himself in 1953.

Full Biography (from Biography, William Muschenheim collection, Bentley Historical Library)

An early and well-established modernist, architect William Emil Muschenheim viewed the world in which he practiced as different from any world that had existed before. Evidenced in his work, his teaching, and his research is an unwavering faith in the significance of a universal style of architecture based on the cultivation and refinement of rapidly developing technology. At the same time, primary to his thinking was a belief that all cultures are most effectively viewed and understood through ideas dominant in a range of fields — history, sociology, economics, and philosophy, as well as the built environment. For Muschenheim, it was the interrelationships among these ideas (and between them) that establishes the context in which an architecture functioning wholly in the present can be most authentically and fully realized. Such understanding develops the depth of perception and cultural background necessary to break with the concept of designing buildings as isolated objects and launches an architect’s full creative abilities. Muschenheim’s interest in an integrated approach to design was pioneering. Throughout his career, for example, he utilized bold color in a functional and modern way, writing in Architectural Forum , July 1933, that “color, in order to create a positive mood, must be handled not as a pleasing decorative element, but for its intrinsic value as a medium having its own laws of rightness, balance, power, just as form and proportion have theirs. In this sense it should not be used as an adjunct, but as an integral part of the architectural whole.”

Born in New York City on November 7, 1902, William Muschenheim grew up near Shubert Alley in the heart of the Times Square district in a brownstone attached to the family managed Hotel Astor. He attended Cutler School, graduating in 1919 and studied at Williams College from 1919 to 1921. Leaving Williams to pursue architecture at M.I.T. from 1921 to 1924, he earned the Triglyph Fraternity Prize in 1923 for the design of the Museum Building. Although schooled in an American Beaux Arts tradition, Muschenheim was drawn to the “freshness” of modern European directions, and in 1924 went abroad to study in the architectural atelier of Peter Behrens, Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Prior to beginning studies, he traveled widely, visited the Bauhaus in Weimar, and worked in townplanning with Arthur Korn in Berlin. Muschenheim’s visit to the Bauhaus was short, yet he was deeply impressed with what he saw there (particularly the aesthetics inspired by modern painting, accentuating color and abstract forms) and was known as the “Bauhaus student” at Behrens atelier, where the climate encouraged individual expression. Students were expected to develop unique potential and awareness of their relationship to a new era, rather than follow predetermined dogma. In 1927 Muschenheim won the prestigious Behrens prize.

Returning to New York, Muschenheim joined the offices of Peabody, Wilson and Brown in 1929 and was a designer with Joseph Urban from 1930 to 1933 before beginning private practice in 1934. Early projects received widespread attention. Muschenheim’s Bath Houses, for example, designed in 1930 for the dunes on Long Island, were widely published. The forms and spaces for dressing rooms and sun-bathing shelters were simply constructed of large sheets of asbestos cement boards (a new material at the time) supported on a 4×4 wood frame, lead flashed. L’Architecture d’ Aujourd’ hui in June, 1934, was one among many to publish photographs of the grouping and note the “interesting and exotic impression derived from the stark surfaces against the dune landscape.”

In October, 1935, Fortune Magazine singled out the Muschenheim House in Hampton Bays, New York, as “…the only large Modern rebuilding to date…” The article reported that “In opening this house to light, air, and a bay view, no attempt was made to hide remnants of the old shingle cottage which was the core…” Articles in America and Europe noted the unique juxtaposition of new spaces and forms to an existing traditional structure, along with the skillful use of color. His remodeling of the Hotel Astor, in association with Peabody, Wilson and Brown, was also considered one of the first breaks from traditional design in its building type. Wide use was made of new materials, including aluminum, plastic laminates, and glass. Color was utilized boldly and extensively in walls, carpets, floors and furnishings.

The New School for Social Research Dance Laboratory, designed by Muschenheim while working with Urban, also garnered attention for being one of only a handful of new buildings built in the modern manner in America at the time. While with Urban, also a gifted colorist, Muschenheim designed the full color scheme for the Century of Progress Exposition held in Chicago in 1933. Showcasing the potential of color as an architectural medium, it was the first such large scale outdoor application in America. In 1939 and 1947, Muschenheim undertook the remodeling of buildings to house the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Art for two locations in New York City. Considering light an architectural quality with unique characteristics that work much like color, Muschenheim employed in 1939 one of the earliest extensive uses of fluorescent lamps. The New York World Telegram reported that there had never been handsomer lighting than the illumination provided by the fluorescent bulbs used in the galleries.

Typical of a large number of commissions during Muschenheim’s practice in New York is the Gulden Penthouse, which was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. Design for Today , January 1936, said, “Coloring is made attractive by having the walls white, the window curtains a gray raw silk, with the radiator cover orange.” Color was also a primary element in the De Liagre House, 1937. Critic Herbert Williams wrote that the house was a true trailblazer, particularly in its use of color contrasted with the warmth of natural materials. Outside were natural gray asbestos shingles, with white trim except for the large corner window and west door, which were respectively strong green-blue and maroon. Along with color and light, furnishings were an important component in Muschenheim’s work. Describing the Dunbar apartment designed in 1929, articles in Britannia and Eve (February 1935) and Casas y Jardines (July 1937), focus on the attention given to comfort and convenience through integrated furnishings, as well as the use of color to define architectural lines.

In 1930 Muschenheim was instrumental in bringing to the Brooklyn Museum a traveling exhibition of the work of Peter Behrens and students. The exhibit, previously mounted in Vienna, Berlin, Essen, and Hamburg, had wide distribution in America. Four of Muschenheim’s projects were included. In 1931 Philip Johnson exhibited Muschenheim’s work in Rejected Architects , a show highlighting modern architects ignored by the Exhibit Committee, Architectural League of New York. In 1938, Muschenheim was one of the founders and editors of PLUS: Orientations of Contemporary Architecture , a revolutionary magazine devoted to modern architecture.

Muschenheim was a member of the Congres Internationale des Architectes Modernes, American Chapter (CIAM) from its inception. The group met regularly in New York to address problems, conduct research, and examine case studies. Architects from around the world, including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Jose Luis Sert, Arthur Korn and Le Corbusier, joined the meetings when they were in the City. Muschenheim cited those he came into contact with at CIAM as most significant in affecting his opinions and convictions. “They asked themselves whether the cultural, social, technical and economic aspects, as well as the unexplored and fresh patterns for beauty, were being properly examined…Complete like-mindedness rarely occurred. But there did exist a mutual spirit of adventure.” [1]

Knud Lönberg-Holm, a key coordinator of the group and originator of Sweet’s Catalog , first posed to Muschenheim the notion of teaching at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The school was reorganizing, looking toward revitalization, and Lönberg-Holm put Dean Bennett in touch with Muschenheim, Theodore Larson and Walter Sanders. Larson and Sanders went first; Muschenheim was persuaded to follow in 1950 as visiting professor for a semester, but stayed on, becoming professor of architecture the same year.

As professor in the College of Architecture and Design, Muschenheim taught a range of courses in architectural history, design, urban design and research on visual problems. He was instrumental in introducing new material to the curriculum, including a course in architectural theory and philosophy entitled “Ideas and Architecture.” He was named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1964, won the Sol King Award for Excellent Teaching in Architecture, University of Michigan, 1971, was named Professor Emeritus in 1973, and was awarded the Michigan Society of Architect’s Gold Medal (the state’s highest honor) in 1984. Also in 1984, the Muschenheim Fellowship in Architecture was established to bring outstanding young architects from outside the university to teach design on the Michigan campus.

Muschenheim’s research orientation while at Michigan reflected his interest in global architecture. In 1958, funded by a grant from Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, he spent six months visiting architectural schools throughout Europe, where he studied and reviewed curricula and student work, meeting also with planning authorities rebuilding cities destroyed during the war. Subsequently, an article, “Report on European Schools of Architecture,” was published in The Journal of the American Institute of Architects and distributed to educators in Europe and America. In 1961 he became chairman of the Relations with Foreign Architectural Schools of Architecture, Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. His work on comparative curricula continued into the seventies, with world tours in 1964 and 1972 to schools in Western and Eastern Europe, South and Central America, the Mid-East, Africa, Asia, Australia and Canada, resulting in numerous publications.

Interested in the ways schools he visited communicated design philosophy to communities, Muschenheim began to gather together visual materials to distribute to groups outside the profession. As a first step, he produced an annotated bibliography of books, pamphlets, periodicals and films — materials recommended as useful in introducing an understanding of architecture. His vision was to produce a series of eighty plates to serve as exhibition material, be televised, or reproduced in slides to bring appreciation of the significance of the art of architecture as an important element and expression of culture to broader segments of society.

An outgrowth of this research was Elements of the Art of Architecture published by Viking Press in 1964. In it, Muschenheim addressed the main components of architecture — space, form and surface, juxtaposing modern examples with historical ones. In preparing the book he found that there wasn’t a single example where the modern and the historic didn’t share related basic concepts. In 1980, he published Why Architecture , utilizing photographs taken on his 1972 world tour. Color plates Muschenheim developed were designed to illustrate important trends in architecture during the recent past, as well as provide insight into the historic aspects of architecture that had particular meaning to contemporary problems.

Muschenheim continued in private practice after arriving at the university. Among his significant achievements while in Michigan are the home he designed for his family in Ann Arbor, 1954; alterations to the Museum of Art, University of Michigan, 1957; the Rutledge House, along Huron River just west of Ann Arbor, 1960; alterations to the Harrison House, Ann Arbor, 1961; alterations and addition to Phi Epsilon Pi Fraternity House, 1966; and the Hermann Hermannsson House, Saline, Michigan, 1980. All of these projects were executed with great attention to scale, texture, light, circulation and color (thirty-five different colors, for example, were utilized in the Muschenheim house). In addition to practical requirements in planning and construction, emphasis was always on a contemporary expression in form, spatial generations and surface treatments.

Although he retired from teaching in 1972, Muschenheim remained active professionally and in the Ann Arbor academic community. In 1989 at age 86, the year before he died, he entered a design in a competition for a new terminal at the East Hampton Airport. In that same year, he taught a laboratory course on theater design with Professor Thomas Hille. In his introductory welcome to students Muschenheim reviewed the rich, creative heritage of the Bauhaus and the modern movement, which he believed were too often misunderstood in the post-modern era, closing with a message from Le Corbusier: “The purpose of architecture is to move us.”[2]

Among those who nominated William Muschenheim in 1961 to Fellowship of the American Institute of Architects was a former student, Jose F. Teran Callejas of Managua. In his letter of nomination, he spoke to Professor Muschenheim’s “…profound knowledge…and uncompromising enthusiasm…Through his intense teachings we learned of the substantial services that an architect can give society, achieving through good design the order of the physical environment. He especially stressed the sublime expression of his art…and the human origins that should guide the planning of our Technological Era. Furthermore, his personal and friendly attention to all and each of his students has made him the best friend of all, and for each one the example of a life integrated with all the arts, nature and society.”[3]

  1. Muschenheim, William E., Why Architecture (Karoma Publishers, Inc.: 1980), p. 7.
  2. “Lecture with Slides, May 3, 1989,” Architecture 562, Box 1, William E.Muschenheim Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
  3. Jose F. Teran Callejas to Jury of Fellows, American Institute of Architects, December 12, 1961, Box 1, William E. Muschenheim Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

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Image source: William Muschenheim collection, bl003611, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.