THE LOST ARCHITECTURE OF JEAN WELZ. BY PETER WYETH. DoppelHouse, 2022. 346 pages.
WHEN IT COMES TO THE UR-HISTORY of modernist architecture, we all pretty much know the first few lines by heart. In the beginning there was nothing; the Earth was void, and without Corb; then Sullivan said “Let there be Wright,” and Loos and behold, Behrens begat Gropius begat Mies—or something like that. Even other, sublimated ancestries (the “zones of silence,” as critic Reyner Banham once called them) long omitted from the grands récits of modernism have, by now, largely become part of the general conversation. The whole subject would appear to have been thoroughly strip-mined, and it seems unlikely there is anything left to dig up.
Unless there is. Cue The Lost Architecture of Jean Welz, an engaging if rather eccentric biography from filmmaker and scholar Peter Wyeth. While Welz’s name (and Wyeth’s, for that matter) would ring few bells in architectural circles today, the man never seemed too eager to make his himself known: Born Johann, called Hans in his youth, the Austrian-born Welz declared himself to have a “French soul,” becoming Jean in his twenties. He died, aged seventy-five, in South Africa, having largely abandoned his architecture practice years earlier, with only a handful of completed projects under his own, altered name. Small in scale as well as number, Weltz’s portfolio of mostly residential projects is characterized by a quiet, stringent aesthetic, as though the work itself was as eager to avoid notice as its creator. And yet, as Wyeth contends, “Jean Welz’s achievement as an architect was no mere aside”—nor was his obscurity altogether of his own making. “In more than one sense . . . the architecture of Jean Welz has (been) disappeared,” writes Wyeth, letting the provocative parenthetical hang in the air.
Step by step, Wyeth proceeds to assemble a case proving Welz’s importance as well as his deliberate marginalization, turning the whole book into a sort of reputational murder mystery. The author first discovered his subject when he chanced across the Maison Zilveli, a striking modernist house in Paris’s nineteenth arrondissement, its unassuming façade giving way to a concrete slab daringly perched on pilotis and jutting out over a vista of the Eiffel Tower. Despite or perhaps because of its condition of fairly wretched decay (“a bit Miss Havisham,” Wyeth writes), the building piqued the researcher’s interest, all the more so when he found there was so little extant documentation of its creation. Tracking down the designer’s identity and his life story would prove a yearslong endeavor, a paper chase across multiple continents and into some very deep professional and personal weeds.
As it turned out, the architect was hiding in plain sight. Johann Friedrich Welz was born in Salzburg in 1900 to a well-to-do family with connections in the worlds of business and art. A furniture-maker uncle spotted the young Welz’s precocious talent and encouraged him to pursue a career in design. Taking up his studies at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, the budding architect found himself drawn to the circle around Adolf Loos—his first brush with the incipient modernist wave—but ultimately found employment with the more conservative (though hardly less eminent) Josef Hoffmann. When the latter dispatched him to Paris to assist in 1925’s Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, Welz found himself so at home abroad that he never left, instead setting up shop as an unlicensed modernist-for-hire in a city already dominated by another naturalized Frenchman, this one from Switzerland. “Up against Le Corbusier,” Wyeth asks, “how would he fare?”
Rather well, the answer seems to be, though perhaps not quite so well as Wyeth would prefer to believe. The whole of Welz’s contribution to early French modernism consists of a brace of buildings mostly in and around Paris, mostly completed on behalf of other, older architects, and all done before Welz left for the Western Cape in 1936. As exemplified by the Zilveli house, the work is lean, with a limited material palette and a frank, almost brusque handling of detail, softened (at least in the biographer’s assessment) by a luxuriant feel for space and procession. Though Welz’s major role in little-known but remarkable modern homes like the stately, brick-clad Villa Darmstadter and the lyrical Maison Dubin seems fairly well established, the biographer strains at times to get his man closer to the center of the action: Welz was undoubtedly involved in some capacity with Loos’s landmark Tristan Tzara house in Montmartre. But does the ligature of a single “R,” allegedly in Welz’s handwriting, in one of the final blueprints really tell us much about the scope or significance of his input? Welz played an essential role in the office of Raymond Fischer, a prolific but basically managerial practitioner in interwar Paris. But as the senior architect was usually candid about his younger partner’s responsibilities, should we really award Welz so much credit for projects, such as the bulky, logistically complex Rue de Charonne flats of 1932, on which he was listed merely as a collaborator? Wyeth throws an impressive quantity of archival evidence at the wall, but not all of it sticks.
Even recognizing the significance of Welz’s output—he was, perhaps most intriguingly, the designer for the headstone of Laura Marx, daughter of Karl—the particular canonical niche that Wyeth wishes to reserve for his subject may or may not be there. Its putative location is right between Loos and Corb: “The great challenge for Welz,” Wyeth writes, “would be how he could find his own way in the context of the conflicting cultural philosophies” of his two architectural lodestars. To the author’s mind, Welz succeeded by offering a Loos-inspired “riposte,” freewheeling and spatially dynamic, to the mechanistic thinking of the Swiss master, planting the Viennese flag right in the heart of Corb Country. It’s a novel idea; as the historian Paul Davies has written, Loos had “no disciples to speak of, only those he influenced,” and it is exciting to imagine Welz as the vector for a forgotten, Loosian strain of modernism. But the influence of Loos (whose own legacy has heretofore survived the child molestation charges brought against him in 1928) is so widespread that it’s hard to think of it as truly marginal, or of Welz as its foremost exponent. It was Loos, after all, who formulated one of the most famous dicta in the annals of architecture, forever linking (though not, as often believed, equating) “Ornament and Crime” in his 1910 lecture of that title. Mies’s imposing stretches of marble have Loos’s fingerprints all over them, and even Corb was not unmoved, according to at least one well-informed opinion. “Whatever is good in Le Corbusier’s work,” Loos himself reportedly said, “he learned from Loos.”
Wyeth closes his prosecutorial account by demonstrating how Welz eventually became an unsung hero of South African architecture—illness, lack of work, and a random invitation brought him to Cape Town in 1937—his ideas eagerly received by local modernists who just as quickly denied him his due. Buried beneath their work, beneath Corb, and beneath the ignominy of his art-dealer brother’s Nazi associations in the 1930s, Jean Welz died of tuberculosis in 1975, having spent most of his final years as a painter. Welz’s having been “lost” is indeed a travesty of architectural history to which the book serves as a welcome antidote—one that arrives only too late for the Maison Zilveli, which was demolished just as the author completed his study.
Wyeth’s lengthy first-person digressions on the loss of the building are not the only ones to appear in the book, which often seems as much a chronicle of its own research process as of its subject’s life. But if Wyeth exhibits too strongly the symptoms of Derrida’s “archive fever,” at least he’s in good company. No less a figure than Emil Kaufmann, one of the theorists most responsible for codifying modernist genealogy in the first place (and for putting Corb near the top of it) became obsessed, in the 1950s, with the idea that the whole of eighteenth-century visionary architecture, from Piranesi clear through to Boullée, was attributable to an obscure Frenchman called Jean-Laurent Legeay, whose work Kaufmann had tripped across in the Bibliothèque Nationale. Kaufmann was probably wrong. But of such oddball notions, great history is made.