Visual Arts » Architecture

The Greatest Unknown Architect



Vess von Ruhtenberg stands poised over a foam model in his Fountain Square studio. The small, roofless walls have thumbnail images taped to them, reflecting the wall space within the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art and the eventual show that will debut inside tomorrow night. Vess has been tirelessly researching and compiling information on his grandfather Jan Ruhtenberg for years. It shows.

Huge black and white images panel the walls, showing off images of a newly finished house with a thin angled roof and curved steel columns. White leather Barcelona chairs sit propped up at eye level in the center of the room. Though old, the steel frame supporting the chair looks unwavering. It is meant to last.

Everything in the room seems very familiar, filled with elements that are the foundation to modern design. And there is a common thread between them all--Jan.

Jan was a key leader in the modernist movement of architecture and furniture design even though you have probably never heard of him. Not to name drop, but his clients included the likes of Herman Miller, The Royal family of Sweden and the Rockefellers. Born in Latvia, Jan pursued architecture from a young age and eventually moved to Germany just in time to join the swell of modernists that would later be known as the Bauhaus movement and even studied under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Characterized by asymmetrical design and materials like steel and glass, Bauhaus was to popping up everywhere. It was design that was clean, simple and meant to endure.

Co-Operative Office Building, built 1958, Colorado Springs. - Jan's own office was on the second floor of this 4 story rectilinear composition.
  • Co-Operative Office Building, built 1958, Colorado Springs.Jan's own office was on the second floor of this 4 story rectilinear composition.

Germany had just left behind World War I and the fall of the German monarchy. Censorship was lifted and an experimental approach to the arts was rampart. Bauhaus designers looked to build things that were radically different from the old world styles and create something entirely functional. They stripped away all ornamentation and aimed for beauty in simplicity.

"The Bauhaus was really just a response to what is going on--like the way that putting a roof top with solar panels is a response to what is going on now," explains Vess, who has studied all architectural movements his grandfather was a part of.

Germany was the epicenter of it all and in the blissful years before the rise of Nazism, this was an exciting place to be.

 "At the time [Germany] was like Hollywood at its most decadent," says Vess. "It was late night clubs. There was all sorts of mischief."

It was these indulgences, and the growing Nazi dislike of them, that probably led to Jan's departure from the architectural Mecca that was Germany at this time.

"I think that he may have been in one of the clubs (gay bars where Nazi soldiers would often come in and take down names, leaving with a list) late at night," Vess says, theorizing that his grandfather could have been in one of the early club raids in Germany. "He could smell Hitler coming."

Whether it was the lure from the Big Apple's art scene, or a fear of Nazism--either way Jan found himself on the shores of the states in 1934. His career soared to new heights. Appearing in Time magazine for a furniture line was just one of his prized moments. Jan and his collogue--and speculated lover--Philip Johnson, helped to design the Machine Art show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show gathered applause from critics and media worldwide.

El Pomar Carriage House Museum, built, 1939-demolished 2004 - Colorado Springs, Co.
  • El Pomar Carriage House Museum, built, 1939-demolished 2004 Colorado Springs, Co.

Eventually, Jan settled in Colorado Springs. Vess believes that he was drawn in by the geometric patterns of Native American art and the opportunity for modern architecture in the west. Jan began working for many wealthy clients, designing private homes. All was well until his career came to a sudden halt.

In conservative 1950's America, Jan's son Vessel was said to have outted his father's homosexuality to his stepmother, who was far from quiet with the information. With this news out, Jan's client list plummeted and he was suddenly shunned in the architectural world.

Jan moved to Indianapolis in the late 60s. Believe it or not, the circle city was a pinnacle of modern architecture, and drew in architects like Jan and Vessel. Jan continued to do small jobs but most are nowhere near their original design.

In 1975, Jan died in Indianapolis a broken, unknown man.

But Vess, for one, refuses to let the story end that way. His grandfather was a key artist in the designs that shaped the modernist movement of architecture. More than that, Jan's story was one that needed told.

"He helps start a movement," says Vess. "He ends up in magazines and world's fairs. He takes his own reigns and it kind of falls apart."

The Modernist movement was radically different from anything that had come before and it was something that Jan believed in.

"It wasn't Jetsons yet, but the machine age could help us have a better life," says Vess.

House for Mrs. Spencer Penrose, 1952, on Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs, Co.
  • House for Mrs. Spencer Penrose, 1952, on Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs, Co.

Jan knew long ago not to let these ideas slip away. So does Vess today. "'Let's seize this thing before it runs away from us and let's make it today'--That's the spirit of what caught Jan at that time, and that is what catches me now," says Vess. "You have to catch the spirit of today."

Vess and IMOCA are determined that Jan's spirit not go unseen and unremembered. The two will be presenting a show at the IMOCA gallery opening October 4 for First Friday. Visitors can expect to see images of Jan's designs, prototypes of furniture and listen to live actors reading letters to and from Jan and his collogues.

"We want to bring light to difficult conversations and beautiful artwork that is layered," said Shauta Marsh, iMOCA's Executive Director. "There is story behind Jan and the work."

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