Revisiting infinity: Erwin Hauer’s architectural screens and walls find a renewed market

By Hank Hoffman

It is fitting that the light-diffusing architectural screens and walls created by sculptor Erwin Hauer in the 1950s are enjoying a deserved encore. Repetition was at the heart of Hauer’s modular designs, a repetition that hinted at unattainable infinity.

Attention for Hauer’s designs was revived with the 2004 publication of Continua: Architectural Screens and Walls, a retrospective book published by Princeton Architectural Press. Around the same time, Hauer developed a partnership with former student Enrique Rosado to revive production of the screens using contemporary digital design and fabrication methods. Rosado has purchased a New Haven factory building and a powerful, precise milling machine to manufacture Hauer’s screens.

Hauer, who was born in Austria in 1926 and came to the United States on a Fulbright grant in 1955, developed his first modules while still an art student in Vienna. In 1957, he was invited to join the faculty at Yale University by Josef Albers and taught there — with the exception of three years spent in Mexico in the early 1960s — until 1990.

From the mid-1950s into the next decade, his work captured the fancy of renowned Modernist architects and interior designers. Among the locations for major installations were GTE corporate headquarters in Stamford, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Montreal, the Coca-Cola Pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York, and the (now defunct) Look magazine offices. After producing and constructing most of the installations in Austria on his own, in the U.S. Hauer licensed those tasks to a company that made wallpaper and other architectural accessories. He retained responsibility for developing the molds for manufacturing.

In an interview in his Bethany studio, Hauer tells me that his modules were influenced by British sculptor Henry Moore’s exploration of biomorphic form. According to the online glossary of the Tate Gallery, “biomorphic forms or images are ones that, while abstract, nevertheless refer to, or evoke, living forms such as plants and the human body.” Hauer’s own explanation is more piquant: “If you run your hand over a woman, you don’t find edges anywhere. It’s continuous! You might find lines where volumes converge but basically that is a biomorphic form.

“From Henry Moore, I learned the cultivation of the interior of the sculpture — the void and the concomitant saddle surface,” recalls Hauer. The saddle surface, like a saddle on a horse, melds together both convex and concave curvature. But where Moore’s abstract sculptures were meant to be self-contained entities, Hauer envisioned his modules as forming the building blocks of “sculpture with a repetitive, periodic motif.”

Why repetition? Hauer says he was inspired by a repeating pattern he had seen. More important, repetition of the modules reveals spatial relationships not extant in an individual module.

For an example, Hauer refers me to “Design 1,” created in 1950. As described by Hauer in Continua, “Design 1” “originated with the formal concept of two opposing bridges that partially contain an interior space.” He likens the outline of the openings to a highway overpass cloverleaf or the stitching on a baseball. Opening up Continua, Hauer shows me how, with the aligning of two modules, “you get this feature here, an S-curve.” With three modules, the curve continues. Four modules produce a circle pattern.

“That circle weaves in and out. It’s close here and it’s far away here,” Hauer explains, pointing to the picture. “It’s actually the suture curve of a baseball but the suture curve exists within the module as well. You realize that these induced circles actually relate to each other in a particular way but in order to see that you need to have a good number of modules.”

Hauer painstakingly constructed his molds in order to accent the symmetries and ensure the seamless flow of line and curve from module to module.

One of the features that make Hauer’s screens so impressive, particularly in architectural settings, is the way they softly take in and release light. Hauer attributes the light-diffusing quality to the saddle surface: Concave curvature concentrates light while convex surfaces diffuse it. It was an unintended but serendipitous discovery when he created “Design 1.”

“I manipulate shape, which in a way manipulates light because my shape reflects light,” Hauer says.

With tweaks of his module designs, Hauer could conjure new creations. “Design 2” doubled the number of interwoven surfaces in order to more fully explore the “great circles” revealed in “Design 1.” With “Design 4,” created in 1954, Hauer constructed a kind of “structural sandwich” that — while sacrificing some of the luminosity of the previous designs — was capable of functioning as a load-bearing wall.

Hauer makes a point of differentiating between his architectural screens, the Continua, and his related Finite Continua in the Plane.

A work by Erwin Hauer in the Knoll Showroom, Mexico City, Mexico, 1961. Image courtesy of the artist

“I insist (the Continua) are sculptures, but in terms of usage they better fit into the category of design,” says Hauer. The Finite Continua, on the other hand, were produced as limited-edition sculptures and promoted by art galleries. Where the architectural screens were sold in showrooms and priced by the square foot or module, the sculptures were priced according to art-market whim.

The Finite Continua also differ in a substantive aesthetic way. The symmetry patterns of the screens contain the potential for infinite expansion without closure. But with his sculptures, Hauer tells me he “got tired of infinity and (looked) for measures of stopping that infinite flow.”

A number of the Finite Continua sculptures perch on pedestals in the loft adjoining Hauer’s workspace. Shapes overlap one another out of phase or are flipped against one another, revealing surprising relationships. The labyrinthine forms are characterized by an intricate interplay of form, light, shape, and pattern.

(While Hauer is best known for his abstract creations, he is also an exceptional figurative sculptor. On the ground floor of his studio are several large, life-size sculptures of California condors, with wingspans of more than 10 feet. They were produced on Hauer’s initiative from 1978-1984 to advocate for the preservation of the endangered bird and were shown in more than 30 locations including the Smithsonian Institution.)

Hauer says the “market dried up” for the screens in the 1960s and half-jokingly likens it to the passing of the Hula Hoop fad. But as Enrique Rosado tells me in a phone interview, “people were knocking on his door throughout those few decades” when the screens were not in production.

Digitizing Hauer’s designs has turned out to be extremely complex. Hauer explains that the Bezier curve used in most software graphics programs is a “clumsy, incredibly cumbersome” tool for charting the complex curves and interior spaces of his designs.

“What I can do with a rasp in minutes would take them a day to define and shape on the computer,” Hauer says. It isn’t enough that one module look perfect. That perfection has to cross boundaries from module to module.

However, the payoff is worth it, according to both Hauer and Rosado.

Rosado explains, “Once you get past getting it into the computer, you can stretch it, shrink it, enlarge it, or mill it.”

Most of Hauer’s modules in the 1950s were made with cast stone. The new methods allow for working with a wider range of materials including milled limestone, oak, and medium density fiberboard, or MDF. At least 20 projects have been completed so far, including high-profile installations at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Centria, a new residential high-rise at Rockefeller Center.

“I have the heart of an engineer,” Hauer tells me. “From my early teens on, I was building airplane models and then was building and flying gliders. The shapes of aerodynamic engineering have stuck with me and influenced any kind of shape I do.”

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