In spring of 1965, during my undergraduate architecture studies at the University of Michigan, I had the good fortune to have as my design professor, William Muschenheim. At that time he was in his 60s, but was one of the sharpest minds and most liberating architectural philosophers with whom I had come into contact. He opened my mind to "modern" architectural thought and perception more than any other teacher in my formal education. Studying with Bill was like growing new wings. He was one of those rare teachers, who instead of pushing a personal approach or philosophy of design upon the student, would quietly observe what the student was trying to explore, and then open new doors and help him express the ideas in the most contemporary creative way.
I remember, that during the evolution of a student's design--at a critical point when the design could turn out good or mediocre--he would take the student to the College library, and selecting a certain book, say, "Here, look at this--I think it will help you..." Then he would look right in your eyes, and you knew you had better check the book out! The chosen book, rather than being a patternbook to copy, was usually a catalyst that triggered the student to open up to new perceptions--and the design project did improve. He believed that architecture was not revolutionary, but was a constant rethinking of universal principles. Being "NEW" was simply a process of expressing those principles with honesty, while utilizing, artistically, the materials and technology available in one's lifetime.
In the summer of 1966, having finished my UofM undergraduate degree, and waiting to go to Harvard GSD that Fall, he invited me to work in his office, which was located in his Ann Arbor residence (photos above). Muschenheim was a sophisticated New Yorker, who had studied in Vienna with Peter Behrens in the 30s, and worked with Joseph Urban in New York on many major commissions in the 40s and 50s. In the 30's he had designed New York's first Guggenheim Museum and its innovative lighting system. When the Guggenheims asked him to work with Frank Lloyd Wright on the design for the second museum, he declined. What a great loss for the Big Apple...
His Ann Arbor residence was a snythesis of his deep cultural experience, a brilliant "Modern-International" house. For a young Michigan kid who had grown up in a wooden farmhouse in the boondocks, working in this house was an unforgetable learning experience.
His wife, Lisa, (seated in the picture above) was fighting terminal cancer that summer, but spent a lot of time with me telling me stories about her life and years with Bill. She was originally from Vienna, the daughter of a famous New York City music conductor, and in her early days was close to the composer, George Gershwin. She was a lady of great depth and humor.
One time in a serious mood, I asked Bill what it was like to be an architect living in the early "modernist" period, when all the old rules of architecture were being broken. He smiled and said in his soft voice, matter-of-factly, "It didn't seem like a revolution, we just lived it honestly, responding naturally, a day at a time...." Having listened to us from the other room, Lisa piped in, in her sardonic Viennese accent,"Oh yes, Villie!, like all those parties we used to have--we used to kill ourselves to make them seem casual and effortless!"
That summer we all became good friends.
Bill and Lisa, Namaste!
© 2009, Dennis R. Holloway Architect