Tristan Tzara and his brushes with architecture

Published in IVANESCU Emil (ed.), Exploring Identity: the nomad archive, Bucharest: Ion Mincu University press, 2014, p.248-61

Exploring Identity_1st page

PART 1: Minor cultures and Dadaism

At the dawn of the 20th century, the Romanian cultural scene was already closely synced with its European counterparts. For instance, at the very same time that Le Figaro was printing the famous Futurist Manifesto by Filippo Tomasso Marinetti on the 20th of February 1908, so was the Romanian magazine Democrația in Craiova, the text being subsequently republished and widely discussed throughout the country[1]. Alongside the developments happening within its borders, Romania also sported an important diaspora on the Parisian art-scene after the First World War. Considered the place to be for anyone having an affiliation with the various declinations of the arts, major names such as Constantin Brâncuși, Mircea Eliade, Eugen Ionesco and Tristan Tzara, all brought essential contributions to the international development of modern culture.

Following his education in Bucharest at the Saint-Sava College, Tristan Tzara, born Samuel Rosenstock to a well-off Jewish family in Moldavia, is part of a young generation to pursue artistic endeavors in the West. It is in Zurich that Tzara, together with his friends the Iancu (later Janco) brothers Marcel, Iuliu and George, as well as the Romanian painter Arthur Segal, first appear on the international art scene as front figures of the Dada movement. After meeting Hugo Ball, these four ‘oriental men’ became part of the avant-garde artistic performers of the Cabaret Voltaire, an establishment that was a melting pot of refugee artists from all over the continent. Each evening would give rise to numerous different spectacles from dancing, or playing both modern and traditional songs, special French, German or Russian evenings and mass simultaneous manifesto readings. It is in this highly artistic and mixed environment that Dada is born. Reproaching the age of logic and reason for being responsible for the atrocities of war, Dada artists rejected all previous artistic standards and lay the foundation of a new aesthetics of non-sense, irrationality and intuition. Following tales of the improbable performances, the publishing of several magazines and the manifestos, Dada took Europe by storm and attracted the attention of the French surrealist writer André Breton who lured Tzara, by now considered the leader of the movement, to Paris in 1919.

The apparition of Dada in Switzerland is generally seen as a western product of its time in close relation to Futurism, Cubism and Surrealism. It is also well documented that Tzara and the Janco brothers already had an intense western cultural exposure before leaving the country and little other than biographical notes are attributed to their national and ethnic origins. However, recent research from historian Tom Sandquist[2] reveals a much more nuanced reality, arguing that besides the favorable context of expression that Western Europe through Cabaret Voltaire offered, it is traditional elements of both Romanian and Jewish folklore that are in reality the core of the Dada movement.

There are several origin stories of how the term Dada came to be. Sandquist recounts that one of them comes directly from Hans Arp who recalls that on the 8th of February 1916 at 6 o’clock, Tristan Tzara was browsing the Larousse dictionary and stumbled by chance upon the term Dada, meaning a hobby horse for children. The idea of a chance discovery and ludic references to childhood entertainment fit perfectly with the artistic imaginary of the movement. However, Tzara’s chance discovery might be less innocent and group defining than it seems. With the help of Romanian scholars, Sandquits stumbles upon a rather complex coincidence. In the current Romanian orthodox calendar, there are not one, but two saints also named Dada[3]. Taking into account a 12-day delay between the old and the new orthodox calendar, 28th of April, one of the two celebration dates of these saints, becomes the 16th of April, or in other words, Tristan Tzara’s birth date. Remarkable coincidence or not, Marcel Janco had already already used inspiration from folkloric and religious imagery when he designed stage costumes for Cabaret Voltaire, strongly reminiscent of traditional masks worn in Moldavia during Christmas and New Years celebrations.

Explanations to why Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco might have inserted such religious referrals into Dada manifestations gravitate more towards national traits rather than spiritual intentions. In his 2009 book ‘The Identity of Romania’, professor Keith Hitchins recounts that in the multiethnic territory of present day Romania, and especially Transylvania, it was orthodoxism that became the symbol of a collective identity and played an important role in the definition of modern Romanian nation[4]. This religious and folkloric affiliation was a conscious trait of the Romanian identity building process, to be found in the writings of many 20th century intellectuals, notably that of Lucian Blaga[5] who defines the people of the world into two categories: the major cultures of the West and the minor cultures of the East, separated by fundamental spiritual differences. Minor cultures, in no way inferior to their Western counterparts, represent separate realities and different modes of existence by the embracement of a predominantly rural existence. Their inhabitants retreat from the world history scene into an ahistorical realm where they carry on existing according to their own rhythms, which often revolve around religion. Starting from the middle of the 19th century, Romania’s identity develops as a continuous oscillation between emphasizing an affiliation to Western major cultures through it’s Latin historical and linguistic roots, while retaining strong presence of the traditional imaginary belonging to the minor cultures of the rural world.

In 1918 Tristan Tzara stated that: Those that belong to us keep their freedom, we do not recognize any theory. We have enough of cubist and futurist academies: laboratories of formal ideas (…) there is large destructive, negative work to do. Sweep away, clean (….) I’m against all systems, the most acceptable system is by principle to have none.[6] Sandquist’s discoveries regarding the origins of the word Dada might simply be a strange coincidence, considering the total rejection of past models Tzara seems to advance in his Dada Manifestos. But together with further details of Jewish orthodox customs surprisingly similar to the anti-art performances of Tzara and the Janco brothers at cabaret Voltaire, there seems to further proof of strong contamination of this modern and western current, by as Blaga put it, minor Romanian and Jewish culture. In 1919, Tzara and Marcel Janco move to Paris and the Dada movement seems consumed by conflict. Three years later, Janco returns to Bucharest and becomes a noted modernist architect, painter and writer until his departure for Tel-Aviv in 1941 following strong Anti-Semite pressures spurred by the Second World War. Tzara was to never return to Romania and after a fallout with André Breton and a reconciliation in 1929, he will be pushed yet again onto the forefront Parisian surrealist scene.


PART 2: The Façade, the Shell and the Uterus


In 1992, Anthony Vidler raises the question regarding the role played by surrealism in the realm of architectural theory[7] by bringing up three articles published in the quasi-surrealist magazine the Minotaure by Tristan Tzara[8], Salvador Dali[9] and Roberto Matta[10]. The three interventions, none by actual architects, all eloquently defend an intrauterine, soft, wet and sheltering architecture against the ‘complete negation of the image of the dwelling’[11] represented by the modern architecture in vogue at the time. To add fire to architectural interest in these articles, Le Corbusier himself contributes to the journal in 1936, albeit in order to promote the drawings of his cousin Louis Sutter. Despite the subject of the article not even being remotely related to the art of building, Corbusier manages to briefly and slightly bitterly state his oppositions to the architectural ideas vehiculated by the magazine and even his own cousin[12].

The rivalry between the surrealists and Le Corbusier is well documented, as Breton rejected the ‘rationality and coldness’ of Corbusier’s Pavillon Suisse at the Cité Universitaire in Paris and Corbusier himself noted surrealism as being ‘a noble, elegant, artistic, funereal institution’[13]. And yet Walter Benjamins’ assessment that ‘(to) encompass both Breton and Le Corbusier – that would mean drawing the spirit of contemporary France like a bow, with which knowledge shoots the moment in the heart’[14] pinpoints the interdependence with which these two radically different approaches of modernity evolved. Following Vidler’s observations, it isn’t until November 2004, that an extensive collection of research on the connection between surrealism and architecture is published[15]. Edited by Thomas Mical, it features an array of interesting rereadings of the four Minotaure articles, while at the same time placing them in the larger cultural, but also more importantly, architectural context in which they were written.


42 rue Fontaine


 If we were to look at the connection between surrealism and architecture, in both theory and practice, we would undoubtedly have to start with the views of the spiritual leader of the movement, André Breton. Although he makes many contributions to the Minotaure magazine, alas none touch the domain of architecture. We already know he opposed the ‘machine for living in’ of Corbusier, but he also had his own interpretation of inhabiting transparency: ‘As for me I continue to inhabit my glass house (ma maison de verre), where one can see at every hour who is coming to visit me, where everything that is suspended from the ceilings and the walls holds on as if by enchantment, where I rest at night on a bed of glass with glass sheets, where who I am will appear to me, sooner or later, engraved on a diamond.[16]

Bretons’ imaginary architecture is thus a construction for the mind, rather than one meant for the body, helping him reveal the deep psychological self. However, Breton did indeed inhabit real space and his apartment at 42 rue Fontaine in Paris was considered an ‘exemplary surrealist interior’[17]. Referred to in terms of ‘studio’, ‘factory’ or ‘surrealist construction site’, it was primarily a place to think, write and socialize, but also a home to an overwhelming and ever increasing collection of objects, many of which of African origin, giving the place more the feeling of a lair of a atemporal dweller than a home in the chic Paris of the 1920’s and 30’s. The profusion of his vast collections would easily distract from the neutral background of the apartment with its dusty-neutral shades of the walls, unmatched second-hand furniture and non-western textiles spread throughout the place. Maybe it was because of the complete coherence or the unambiguous connection between the dweller and the dwelling, but 42 rue Fontaine quickly became the embodiment of surrealist interior design.


15 Rue Junot via 7 rue Gauguet


 Unlike Breton, Tristan Tzara delights architects and offers them half a column of his explicit distaste for modernism at the end of ‘D’un certain automatisme du goût’ article. He argues that ‘(modern) architecture as hygienic and stripped of ornaments as it wants to appear, has no chance of living – it could (only) eke out an existence thanks to the temporary perversities of a generation (…) subjecting itself to the punishment of who knows which unconscious sins’[18]. He then vigorously proposes an alternative of round or spherical architectures, accessible through cavities of vaginal shapes and offering the prenatal comfort of the womb. These realms of half-lit, soft and tactile depths of ‘luxury, calm and sensuality’, instinctively reenacted throughout childhood and adolescence under bed covers and tables, are revealed as humanity’s only possible hygiene[19]. His vision of intra-uterine spaces is further supported by fellow surrealists, such as Roberto Matta[20] who envisions a ‘wet’ body-wrapping architecture, complete with furniture molding to our infinite motions like a myriad of umbilical cords.

However, Tzara probably wrote his intrauterine text in the confines of his own, specially designed studio, built seven years earlier by Austrian architect, father of functionalism and despiser of ornament, Mr. Adolf Loos. Loos’s practice was already deeply admired by a myriad of modern architects including Le Corbusier himself, following the publication of his 1908 essay titled ‘Ornament and Crime’ and his distinctive architecture of tridimensional articulated volumes, bringing us to question Tzaras’ choice for an architect. Could we still claim the same amount of coherence between theory and practice as we did in Breton’s case? Furthermore, Tzara’s seemingly modernist house is not the only example of ‘inconsistence’ in the surrealist group. Dali’s own home before 1937, an apartment in a brand new modernist building situated at 7 rue Gauguet, was also a modern derived space, with apparently little to no spatial indication of Dali’s personal beliefs. A photograph taken by Brassai at that time clearly reveals ‘a rather bare and open interior decorated with a few carefully chosen objects and paintings, and simple tubular steel furniture’[21].

But coming back to the only built project of Loos’s years in Paris, the Tzara residence was to be situated on a steep site at the bottom of Montmartre, aligned to the Junot avenue on one side and facing a semi-private garden on the other. The program comprised of a home and studio for Tzara and his wife, as well as an apartment to be rented. Loos designs a five-storey building facing the main avenue, that compensates for the steep terrain by only having three levels giving onto the semi-private garden in the back. Entering the house meant engaging in a vertical circulation on an intricate staircase, gradually arriving to increasingly private spaces as one moved upwards. The ground floor housed the garage and the vestibule, the first floors were reserved for the tenants, a third encased the kitchens, while the fourth housed a symmetrical insertion of the dining room facing the street, and a double height living room facing the garden. The very last floor was reserved for the most intimate part of the program, the bedrooms[22]. From the outside, the house presents itself as a sober insertion designed in the classical spirit of symmetry and golden ratio proportions, while at the same time featuring a rough and unadorned, natural stone and smooth white plaster façade. A number of openings and a loggia are visible, but nothing betrays the real use of the space inside as Loos believed that ’(the) house does not have to tell anything to the exterior; instead, all its richness must be manifest in the interior’.[23] According to his philosophy, the façade actually serves as a protective shell, a mask shielding its occupants from the outside world, offering an environment of privacy reminiscent of Tzara’s desire for a safe, womb-like architecture.

Furthermore, this empty shell encases a clean and neutral space ready to be taken into possession by the owners, as Loos relinquishes the control over the interior design of the project, in stark contrast to many other modernist architects of his time. As such, the furnishings of the Junot residence do not belong to Loos’s imaginary, but instead are representative of its Tzara and Greta Knutson’s universe. A picture of the study in which the Minotaure article was written, offers depicts a typically surrealist collection of African objects, although significantly less impressive than the one owned by André Breton. The rest of the house is uncluttered and at times bare, leaving the interplay of Loos’s volumes clearly visible. One intriguing detail is found in the living room, where a large wooden table and two benches resting upon several mats appear, to a Romanian eye, as perhaps being traditional or at least traditionally inspired from local vernacular designs. We already know that at least one of the carpets is sent by his mother directly from Moldova, but there are chances that the majority of the furniture is a mark of Tzara’s homeland. More research and visuals would be needed to confirm or infirm such a hypothesis, but if true, it would justify his lesser enthusiasm for French-colonial derived interest in African art. After all, following Tom Sandquist’s revelations, it wouldn’t be the first time that Tzara exhibits his vernacular roots.


More of an ‘interior design’


Anthony Vidler at times implied the possibility that surrealist ideas for architecture were or could be blueprints for real design. But after looking through the physical realities in which the writers lived in, especially the custom made residence of Tristan Tzara, and the fashionable modernist interiors of Dalí’s rue Gauguet apartment, it seems that the Minotaure writings actually point towards a rather different interpretation. As Krystof Fijalkowski puts it, ‘they explored the notion of unconscious or irrational readings of architectural space but without necessarily wishing to imagine these as rationalizable models for real built environments’[24]. Spyros Papapetros also concludes that for Dali ‘architecture is not about the reality of the external world but about the interiorized space of fantasy. As opposed to an architecture of erecting and “filling in,” Dalí presents an architecture of emptying out and unearthing.’ Placing these texts in their physical context shows them not as precise descriptions for real living conditions, but more of a physiological and personal reading of space. After all, Loos didn’t need any molding umbilical design in order to deliver to his clients a real envelope of domestic intimacy.

However, paraphrasing Vidler, is it truly uncanny to picture a re-reading of these texts today, independently of the authors’ initial meaning? Couldn’t the ‘apparently warm and all-enclosing interiors of the intrauterine existence’[25] be already glanced at in Vernon Pantons 1970 Visiona II project? Don’t these wet and soft mental spaces sound close to Markos Novak’s liquid architecture or Greg Lynn’s designs of the 1990’s? In fact, the referrals between surrealism and architecture made by Vidler, take place in his ‘Homes for Cyborgs’[26] essay that eventually adventures into references of the cyberculture of the 80’s such as Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto[27] and William Gibson’s Neuromancer[28]. Perhaps not aligned with the original intentions, but surrealist heritage seems to appear more and more in contemporary discourse, and a new look to these 90 year-old contributions might prove fruitful after all. In any case, thanks to recent research, the work and contribution of Tristan Tzara to the development of the avantgarde in the first half of the 20th century seems to acquire an ever increasing complexity, thanks to a proper examination of the notions of heritage and tradition even in the most abstract of arts. Perhaps the relationship between architecture, surrealism and the contemporary world could as well.

[1] The research of Emilia David Drogoranu in her 2004 thesis ‘Influences of the italian futurism on the romanian avantgarde. Syncronicity and Specificity’[1] or her 2006 ‘Futurismo, dadaismo e avanguardia romena: contaminazioni fra culture europee (1909-1930)’[1] emphasizes this up-to-date western cultural profusion.

[2] SANDQUIST Tom, Dada East : the Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire, Cambridge : MIT Press, 2006

[3] In about 304, under the rule of Diocletian, the Dacian Dada and the Romans Maximus and Quintilianus were martyrised in the Ozovia village, present day Dobrogea, by the roman army for refusing to renounce their Christian faith.

[4] HITCHINS, Keith, The Identity of Romania, Bucharest : The Encyclopedic Publishing House, 2009, p.43

[5] HITCHINS, op.cit., p.271

[6] TZARA Tristan, PICABIA Francis, Sept manifestes dada, Paris : Jean Budry & Co, (?1920), p.17

[7] VIDLER Anthony, The Architecural Uncanny, Cambridge : MIT Press, 1992

[8] TZARA Tristan, D’un Certain Automatisme du goût, Minotaure, no.3/4, 1933, p. 81-84

[9] DALI Salvador, De la beauté terrifiante et comestible, de l’architecture Modern’style, Minotaure, no.3/4, 1933, p. 69-76

[10] ECHAURREN MATTA, Mathématique sensible – Architecture du temps, Minotaure, no.11, 1938, p.43

[11] original text in TZARA Tristan, D’un Certain Automatisme du goût, op.cit, p. 84; english translation from VIDLER Anthony, op.cit., p. 150

[12] to Soutters’ remark that ‘the minimum house or future cell should be in translucent glass. No more windows, these useless eyes. Why look outside?’ Corbusier only replies that such a statement is ‘the very antithesis of (his) own ideas’. See original text in LE CORBUSIER, Louis Soutter. L’inconnu de la soixantaine, Minotaure, no.9, 1936, p. 62-63. English translation from VIDLER Anthony, op.cit., p. 151

[13] both citations appear in the context of lectures given by Breton in Prague and Corbusier in the United States, both taking place in 1935, and quoted by PINDER Davis, Modernist urbanism and its monsters, in MICAL Thomas (ed.), Surrealism and architecture, Oxford: Routledge, 2004, p. 185-186

[14] BENJAMIN Walter, The Arcades Project, Cambridge : Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 459

[15] MICAL Thomas (ed.), Surrealism and architecture, Oxford: Routledge, 2004

[16] Original text can be found in BRETON André, Nadja, Paris: Gallimard, 1964, p. 18-19. This English translation is provided by VIDLER Anthony, Fantasy, the Uncanny and Surrealist Theories of Architecture, Papers of Surrealism, no. 1, winter 2003, p.6

[17] FIJALKOWSKI Krysztof, The domestic spaces of surrealism, in MICAL Thomas (ed.), op.cit., p.19

[18] original text in TZARA Tristan, op.cit., p. 84, translation by the author

[19] emphasis not present in the original text

[20] ESCHAUREN Matta, op.cit.

[21] FIJALKOWSKI Krysztof, op.cit., p.20

[22] Several changes are made to the original plans following a rather conflicting relationship between Loos and Tzara, despite initial collaborative intentions.

[23] COLOMINA Beatriz, On Adolf Loos and Josef Hoffman : Architecture in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in RISSELDA Max(ed.), Raumplan versus Plan Libre, Delft : Delft University Press, 1988, p.66

[24] FIJALKOWSKI Krysztof, op.cit., p.21

[25] VIDLER Anthony, op.cit., p.152

[26] VIDLER, op.cit., p.147

[27] HARRAWAY Donna, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Oxford : Routledge, 1990

[28] GIBSON William, Neuromancer, New York : Ace Books, 1984