Reflections on the Breuer-Nivola Nexus


Carl Stein, FAIA


Docomomo US/New York Tristate


Newsletter, Breuer, Art, Architecture, Sculpture, nivola
Image details

The following is excerpted from a talk prepared for the Universita degli Studi di Sassari, Sardinia in October, 2015. All images are by author unless otherwise noted.

From the mid-1930’s through the 1980’s, New York City and its immediate surroundings were a nexus for the Modern art and architecture movement that had relocated from Europe to escape the rise of fascism and the destruction of the Second World War. The community included immigrants who had been active in the formative years in Europe and native-born Americans, generally a half-generation younger than their colleagues. Key among the transplanted Europeans were Marcel Breuer and Costantino (Tino) Nivola. I have good fortune to have known both men from my early childhood onward and, on entering the world of architecture, to have worked for and with each of them. My father, Richard Stein, collaborated with Tino on numerous projects beginning in the early 1950’s and I spent significant time with the Nivola family during this period.

By the time I went to work for Marcel Breuer and Associates (MBA) in 1968, I was well acquainted with Nivola’s sculpture. After leaving MBA in 1971, going to work for my father and our founding The Stein Partnership in 1977, I worked with Tino on an unrealized Memorial for Antonio Gramsci and then from 1983 until 1988 on his bronze installations for the Combined Police/Fire Facilities on East 67th Street in Manhattan for which I was the architect. This turned out to be his last public commission in North America. I mention this history because much of what follows is highly subjective and my experience is relevant.

Nivola’s involvement with many of the leading Modern architects is well known. These include Le Corbusier, Carlo Scarpa, and Eero Saarinen. Yet the only instance that I know of where a Nivola work was commissioned specifically for a Breuer building is a large fresco mural at the Gagarin House executed in 1958. Records show that Breuer did purchase two sand-cast Nivola sculptures, probably from Tino’s 1950 exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York, and what look to be bronze castings of these pieces appear in photographs of the courtyard of the first Stillman House and in the living room of Breuer’s partner, Herb Beckhard. It’s not clear whether these show the same sculptures in different locations or if several copies were made. There is also what seems to be a Nivola sculpture at the edge of a photograph of the second Geller House.

Breuer and Nivola, however, are not typically associated with one another. In 2014, my daughter, Jesse Lee deNeeve, and I were visiting Breuer’s Annunciation Priory in Bismarck, North Dakota.  Jesse remarked that the concrete bell banner, as Breuer called it, reminded her of Tino’s sculpture. I hadn’t thought about a connection between the two since I worked in Breuer’s office. During that period, I was the Job Captain for the Nassau State School, working with Breuer and one of his partners, Tician Papachristou, and was an Associate for the new Atlanta Library with Breuer and another partner Hamilton (Ham) Smith. For both of these projects, there were moments when in the course of preparing sketches following internal meetings, I drew on forms from Tino’s sculpture. At the Nassau State School, it was the pyramidal ground forms and at the Atlanta Library, the overall composition of the facades as well as the use of splayed planes. I never mentioned the precedents of my sketches and have no idea whether Breuer saw the connection but I can say with certainty that Tino’s influence did find its way into at least these Breuer designs.

Jesse’s observation prompted further consideration. The bell banner reminded me of some early Nuragic (ca. 1500 BCE) sculptures that I had seen in Sardinia, Tino’s homeland. Tino would almost certainly have been aware of these figures, and the Nuragic Venuses suggested a series sculptures by Tino of figures on tall bases, among these the pieces for Saarinen’s Stiles College at Yale. These. In turn, recalled the Breuer composition. There is also a strong resonance between Saint Francis de Sales in Muskegon, Michigan and many of Tino’s figures in both stone and wood. Further, if Muskegon church is seen as resembling a figure in robes, the “head” is closely related to a stylization of “head” that Tino used repeatedly.

There are many other shared formal or evocative elements that can be found in the works of these men such as the bench details at Breuer’s Saint John’s Abbey Church with Tino’s geometric sculptures, Breuer’s fireplace designs and church details with Tino’s bas relief for the NYC Olivetti showroom as well as various figures; chairs that Breuer designed for an exhibition for Pennsylvania State Exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair with Tino’s horses for the Stephen Wise Playground; apertures that interlock the designed object with the context – natural or built.  Perhaps the most iconic is the truncated pyramid. This is the architectural logo of the Whitney (now Met Breuer) Museum but it is also the basic shape used for the chapel at Flaine, the lantern at Saint John’s church, the main window at the Atlanta Library and, as noted above, the land forms at the Nassau State School. The truncated pyramid is the basic formal building block for many if not most of Tino’s geometric sculptures.

Dr. Isabelle Hyman, Breuer’s biographer, as well as his personal assistant for many years, has said that she thinks if Breuer had had his choice, he would have been a sculptor. Tino Nivola was trained as a mason and got great pleasure in the making of his objects, many of which were assembled much in the same way that buildings are constructed. Materiality and, in many cases, the visible evidence of construction or assembly are generative aspects of both oeuvres. It is worth noting that the chronologies strongly suggest that whatever the flow of inspiration, it was not one way. Some elements appear first in Breuer’s work, some in Nivola’s.

There is also no evidence that the influences of Breuer and Nivola on each other were ever direct or one-for-one. I did, however, recently ask Ham Smith whether Breuer knew Tino. He answered, “Oh yes. He knew him and liked him very much.”

Image Credits

  • Nivola with the mold for a model of the bas relieve at the Grady Vocational High School, Katz Waisman Weber Stein and Blumenkranz. ca. 1955

Gallery 1: 

  • Nivola mural at Gagarin House, ca. 1958, Breuer archives, Syracuse University
  • Courtyard at Stillman House (#1) ca. 1951, Breuer archives, Syracuse University

Gallery 2: 

  • Annunciation Priory, Bismarck, ND, constructed 1963, image 2014
  • Nassau State School, Site Plan Study, 1969
  • Atlanta Library, Preliminary Elevations, 1970
  • Atlanta Library, Design Development Model, 1971
  •  Atlanta Library, constructed 1980

Gallary 3: 

  • Nuragic Venus, Sanna Museo Archeologica, Sassari, Sardinia, image 2012
  • Figure, 1969, The Drawing Room Gallery
  • Stiles College, Yale, constructed 1961, Fondazione Nivola
  • Bell banner, Annunciation Priory, 1963, image 2014
  • St. Francis de Sale, 1966
  • Wood figure, ca. 1982
  • Concrete Figure – note head, 1966
  • Copper Figure – note head, ca. 1968

Gallery 4: 

  • St. John’s Church, bench detail, constructed 1961, image 2014
  • Detail stone figure, Cagliari, 1986, image 2012
  • Fireplace, Gagarin House 1958, Breuer archives, Syracuse University
  • Communion Table, St. John’s Abbey Church, constructed 1961, image 2014
  • Olivetti Showroom bas relief, 1953, Fondazione Nivola
  • Travertine figure, 1981, The Drawing Room Gallery
  • Pennsylvania State Exhibition, 1939 World’s Fair, Breuer archives, Syracuse University
  • Steven Wise Playground, 1965, Elemental Architecture Archives
  • Wall in Nivola Garden, The Springs, NY, 1951, Fondazione Nivola
  • Figure, Cagliari, Sardinia, 1986, image 2012
  • Cleveland Trust Tower, 1971
  • Atlanta Library, constructed 1980, Tom Abraham, 2006
  • Whitney Museum window, constructed 1966, Image 2012
  • Geometric sculpture, image 2015

Gallery 5: 

  • Bell banner as sculpture, constructed 1963, image 2014
  • Sculpture as construction, 1966

About the Author

Carl Stein, FAIA, is principle and founder of elemental architecture, llc and has pursued architectural practice in tandem with research throughout his career. His research, exploring both built work and planning, has focused on energy efficient design, historic reconstruction and their relationship to establish a contemporary architectural vocabulary. Mr. Stein is nationally recognized for his contributions to the field of sustainable design, is committed to a robust and modernist understanding of its practice, and is a long-time Docomomo US member.