Membrane and Ecological Architecture walter scheiffele
In 1930 the model of a round metal house was presented in New York to a select gathering of architects. Its designer was a certain Siegfried Ebeling and the model, so it was said, had been produced in Dessau.1 The architects didn’t quite know what to make of it or the design culture it had emerged from. Although the young Philip Johnson had reported a few years earlier that the Bauhaus in Dessau was a ‘mecca for modern architecture’, scant information filtered through about the radical new construction methods then being explored in Germany.2 The previous year Buckminster Fuller had exhibited his own metal house in New York – a proposal that displayed a number of similarities to Ebeling’s design – and perhaps because of this precedent, Ebeling’s subsequent appearance in New York has remained largely unnoticed. But now he seems to be staging a return of sorts, with this translation into English of his text Raum als Membran (Space as Membrane), which was originally published in Dessau in 1926. Like his architectural models, Ebeling’s utopian text was received with little fanfare and enjoyed only modest contemporary success. Revealing the same combination of the terrestrial and the cosmic, both display a radicalism that we are only now coming to appreciate.
Ebeling could similarly be seen as both embedded in and removed from the earth. His cosmic orientation is as evident as his rootedness, even if he was clearly inclined towards the spiritual (he was too close to Klee during the Bauhaus foundation course to be anything else). This feeling was also reinforced by the fascination that the most technically advanced machine of the age – the airplane – exerted on the young generation. Ebeling recounted the excitement he and his brother (a mining engineer) had felt at Orville Wright’s first flights over the English Channel. In his brother, too, Ebeling observed a simultaneous proximity to and distance from the earth: ‘This was a man, not yet 30 years old, who was used to reporting for duty 1,000m or more underground, installing adits and gravity planes, standing in wet sunken shafts like a good mining man, but at the end of the work day or after a few snatched moments of sleep, this same man would be hungry for light and height, and he would devote his thoughts to the new technology of flying, in search of an equilibrium, a way to restore the wholeness of man.’4 Ebeling’s work was itself largely defined by this conception of the whole man and the attempt to bring humanity and housing into a cosmic relation. Traumatised by the First World War and his wartime imprisonment, Ebeling arrived at the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1922. He landed right in the middle of the dispute over the future direction of the school. Should the Bauhaus students develop their artistic subjectivity in a protected space, or instead, as directed by Walter Gropius,
Paul Klee once compared himself to the German expressionist Emil Nolde, saying that whereas Nolde was an earth-bound daemon, he himself was a spirit elevated above the ground. 3 Viewed in these terms,
Preview of Space as Membrane by Siegfried Ebeling