The Legacy of Ernst Grosz
Some years just tiptoe behind you, hardly noticeable, and then they are gone. Some years, full of disappointment and setbacks, seem to linger on and on. Then there are years full of new adventures, opened doors, lifted spirits. The year 2008 was such a year.
My wife and I had been living in Auckland three years, and she had been working for an academic institution full time. In 2008 she was engaged by a university to assist in publications by the teaching staff. Due to my wife Linda’s planning, due diligence, and hard work, that year we were granted Permanent Resident status. A whole new vista of adventures opened to us as we anticipated in sinking some roots in New Zealand. On top of that, we were allowed to go in and out of New Zealand.
In the northern part of British Columbia, Canada, in a forest of Douglas fir, scientists discovered the phenomenon of mycorrhizal connections between the trees’ roots and a fungus. The relationship is one of interdependence. The underground fungus extracts water and minerals from the soil and exchanges them for carbon-rich sugar from the tree. In some ways, they actually communicate. The fungus extends throughout the whole forest floor, and the trees get information about the rest of the forest from the exchange. The whole forest therefore is a community. Newly planted saplings reach their roots out to the fungus, and they grow with the information that accompanies the supply of resources.
In 2008, we felt like the saplings, and the unseen Kiwi culture was like that underground carpet of fungus, to which we reached out, as we made an effort to become part of the network. One of the contacts from our tentative roots was the Anglican congregation we joined. We were embraced and became regular parishioners. The church building itself is in a revival style that mixes Gothic and Romanesque in heavy limestone, with a solid bell tower. The interior is similarly traditional, with a pipe organ, stained glass windows, and uncomfortable pews. Worship services were welcoming, if rather small--except during Christmas, when the Carol Service drew more than a thousand, and Easter, when unfamiliar faces were liberally sprinkled among the regulars.
It was customary after the 10 am service for the congregation to retreat to the west transept for tea and cake. Fluted stone columns stand between aisles, forming a space in which conversation seems to float. There I found a young man one Sunday, leaning against a column, who seemed to be alone. He looked to be avoiding conversation with the people around him. I decided to approach him, and I started a conversation.
“Hi, I’m David.”
He nodded. I persisted. “I’m from the United States and Canada, and I have just become a permanent resident here. My wife and I are eager to join the Kiwi society.” I smiled as I pointed to Linda and said, “That is my wife over there.”
“I’m Peter,” the young man replied in a pleasant tone. “I’m 100% Kiwi.” He mirrored my smile.
“Oh,” I nodded, “and what do you do?”
“I am working in a wood workshop, part-time.”
“That’s a wonderful craft,” I responded. Then I mentioned what I knew about wood joinery in Japan, how they have a competition every year. We had a good conversation.
Over the next few Sundays, we carried on our conversation over the tea and cake after the church service. I learned that he lived alone and was 22. I gained the impression he was a bit awkward. I had approached him because I was an outsider and if he didn’t want to talk to me, it was not going to upset me. I soon realised he was very well-educated, but he didn’t mention higher education studies at all. He did say he had spent one year on an OE in London and Europe. The OE seemed to have affected him, enlarging his world view. At the same time, he seemed quite content within himself and his work. I wondered how he had educated himself, so I asked.
“I did start at uni,” Peter began, “but I dropped out after a few months. I discovered most lecturers were just regurgitating the textbooks. And I also found out you can buy second-hand textbooks, and they’re cheap. Then I thought, ‘Why don’t I just go straight to the textbooks?’ You have to go down into a basement section of the university bookstore. So, I bought. First, I bought the second-year textbooks of various disciplines.” I looked a bit stunned. “Yeah, mainly humanities and literature,” he went on, “and then more advanced books over the next two years.”
I was very impressed by his concentration and persistence in self-education. I said, “That’s wonderful! No editorialising, no prejudice, no personal preference from the tutors, right? You could form your own definition of ‘where am I in the universe?’” Fascinating character, I thought.
Then he asked me, “Are you working now?”
I said, “I’m retired, but for years I was involved in designing social housing. How humans have sheltered themselves in the past. And I’m particularly interested in the years 1900 to 1930 in Vienna. That government there provided housing to shelter people in those decades. It was so very different from market housing, like we have today, which is essentially for profit. And you know what the most interesting Viennese housing project of all is? The house of Karl Marx, which is still standing today. You can get a look at it online if you want. It is really a project beyond shelter; it developed into a community. Day-care and shops.”
He expressed a great interest in what I was telling him and wanted to know more. The post-church teatime came to an end. I told him it was a vast and complex field, too much to cover over a cup of tea. I suggested if he really wanted to hear me talk more, we could meet at a café between his lodging and my house.
Peter suggested Monday about 11 am, so we met in Queenie’s café, and had a conversation that lasted through lunch. After that enjoyable lunch, we met again on many Mondays. He usually had Mondays off work.
One day, I raised the topic of the Viennese architectural connection to New Zealand. Because of the coming war and the Nazi occupation in the late 1930s, a lot of architects in Vienna relocated around the world. Some came here.
Peter’s eyes lit up. “My mother, I think, is living in a house that was designed by an Austrian!’ he said. “I think his name was…” he paused and scanned his memory, “Gross. Yes, something like that. She would be more than happy to find out more about the house’s design. She grew up in it, and currently she is living there now.”
That was in September. The following week he told me he had been offered a job to work on a boat, converting it to a hospital to serve in the Pacific Islands. He had to move to Tauronga to work in the shipyard there, where he would be building cabinets and furniture for the delivery of medical care. Before he went, he insisted that I should ring his mother, because he had told his mother about my knowledge of architects and architecture in the time the Viennese architects dispersed. I realised that here was another contact for my roots to make, tapping into the underlying connectivity in Kiwi history and culture.
That October, Linda was invited by an international association to be the keynote speaker in a meeting in Milan. I stayed behind because I was still recuperating from a knee operation. Then I remembered Mrs. Vandegrift, Peter’s mother. He had urged me to ring her, so one Wednesday morning I did.
She answered the phone very warmly. “Peter has told me about you and your interesting conversations!” She gave me specific instructions for getting to her house. “Go on the Southern Motorway to Greenlane East and then to Orakei Road and turn left on Manawa Road. The road curves. At the crown of the curve is a driveway with two stone pillars. Follow the driveway, and then you will see my house.” We agreed I would visit on Thursday afternoon, the next day.
Half an hour before the appointment, I started my car. I really didn’t regard this encounter with Mrs. Vandegrift as a social visit, but rather as part of my enquiry about that period of architecture. I had a long-held idea that the Viennese architects had developed quite a different aesthetic approach from the Bauhaus doctrine. I hoped this visit to a design by someone who came from Vienna and was well-trained in that school, according to my research, would confirm that speculation. So I treated it more like an interview.
When I turned into the driveway, I was confronted by a white-ish building on a green lawn, surrounded by old trees. I proceeded up the paved drive and found it curved into a small parking area at the entrance to the house. A low red convertible was already parked there. I approached the front door.
A very ornate doorbell, in the Secessionist style, begged to be rung, so I rang. The door opened into a spacious, tall tower. In the corner of my eye, I saw a solid, curved landing above me. The flight of steps was on the other side, farther from my view. The young woman who opened the door introduced herself as Ann, Lydia’s niece. She said Lydia would see me shortly in the living room, to which she ushered me through a large opening. Then Ann disappeared.
I didn’t sit. I wandered around the living room, which was very large with a ceiling 4 metres high. Afternoon sun came through tall windows about a metre wide, almost floor-to-ceiling, spaced a metre apart, on the north side of the house. Six of them altogether. Two windows at the end made up French doors to a stone-paved patio with balusters that enclosed the space. The middle of the east wall had a large projection out, with a slightly raised floor and windows. The raised area held a grand piano. The south wall had two large openings, both leading to the entrance hall. A very nice open fireplace adorned the west wall, and above it a large triptych painting in blue, by the French New Zealand artist Louise Henderson, commanded attention. On either side of the fireplace stood ceremonial Aboriginal Australian poles. All the walls displayed paintings of indigenous people around the world.
The furniture was casually arranged into four groupings of two to four chairs. Among them were small tables and a card table. There was no sofa. The chairs, along with a narrow, small settee, looked light and comfortable. A low, large table in the middle of the room was covered with various objects from abroad, along with framed family photographs. The space between the two openings on the south wall accommodated two comfortable high-backed chairs, a table between them. Above the table hung two portraits, a man and a woman, painted in a 1930s style—slightly avant-garde but not quite.
While I was wandering around the chairs, a black Labrador walked in and sniffed my trousers, then went to the corner of the room where a blanket lay on the floor, and he settled there—the advance party for Mrs. Vandegrift.
She arrived, carrying a tray of lemonade which she deposited on the table between the two chairs. She was a tall woman, with large bones, dark hair with a streak of white from her temple, an open face, and a humorous mouth that looked accustomed to smiling. She was wearing a simple linen dress in lime green, with a thin gold chain around her neck.
I began by asking about her son.
“He’s working very hard on the hospital boat”, she replied, obviously happy to be talking about her son. “He was always a good son, not wild, just very difficult to understand. He marches to his own drum.”
I nodded, smiling. Then I asked, “Tell me something about yourself. How did you come to own this wonderful house?”
“I was born in this house,” she replied. “I lived here until I married William Vandegrift at the tender age of 19. My husband was a mining engineer. We really had a very nomadic life; we were in every continent that has mining. He was a well-regarded mining consultant. He worked with companies doing open pit mining in Australia, tin mining in Indonesia, copper mining in Malaysia, Africa, South America, and nickel mining in northern Canada. Just to mention a few!” She laughed and I did too. “I followed him everywhere, sometimes living in a mining camp, sometimes in a nearby town. I lived in cold climates and very warm climates.” She offered me lemonade, which was nice and cool.
She continued: “William was an introvert. He focused engineer-like on his work. I actually became the manager of his consulting business. Then five years ago I was back in New Zealand for a visit, and he was in South Africa. He died in an explosion in an open-pit mine.”
I probably registered shock on my face, as I expressed my condolences. Peter hadn’t mentioned his father’s death. She didn’t look at me.
“After my husband’s death,” she carried on, “my father was ill. I came back to live in this house and was his caregiver until he died two years ago. My brothers—I have three older brothers—have all done well. One’s in government, one is a lawyer, and one has an import-export business. They have their own families and live comfortably. That’s why they all insisted the house should be my home.”
“What about the history of this house?” I asked, curious to find the link to the Viennese style.
“Oh, that’s a long story,” she replied. “The house was built by my father in the late 1930s. At that time, he was a lumber exporter and quite often went to England to get orders. He was on his way across the channel to France on a trading mission when he met my mother. Her family was in textiles; they had a successful international trade based in Vienna.” She paused. “They were related to the Rothschilds.” She tilted her head and smiled at me mischievously, as if to say, “What about that!” I laughed.
“It was very romantic. They fell in love, and he swept his Austrian bride off to New Zealand. They settled here in Auckland. By the mid-1930s, my father had accumulated a pretty good-sized fortune. Then he inherited a piece of land from his mother, which is what this house stands on.”
She went on, “About that time, my mother’s nephew showed up from Vienna. His name was Grosz. That’s all I know about him. At the time he was working for a construction company, and my father was very impressed with him.
“But other than that, I know very little about this house. That’s why I wanted to meet you. I believe you can enlighten me.” She beamed at me confidently.
I began pulling folders out of my bag and prepared to report what my notes said. In fact, I had done research on the man whose name Peter had remembered almost correctly.
“Well,” I began, “your grandmother’s nephew’s full name was Ernst Jacob Grosz. He was born in Vienna in 1906.”
“Oh my goodness! It never occurred to me he was somebody whose name would turn up in the books! Please go on.”
I continued. “His mother was your grandmother’s second-oldest sister. The Grosz family owned and operated an artisan stone-carving masonry studio. They produced at that time the most decorative stonework, ornamentations, and statues. They supplied popular architects in Vienna with their work.”
“I didn’t know that! Were they important, then?”
“Yes. But I could find very little about Ernst’s early life, I’m afraid. A newspaper article mentions his uncle, who made a visit to London in 1922 with his nephew Ernst. He and his nephew stayed in London for over a year. A letter from Ernst to his mother indicates that he enjoyed living in London and speaking English. He quite evidently became quite an Anglophile and was enamoured with the manners of the English.”
“How on earth do you know that?!” Lydia was full of excitement.
“Ernst’s mother wrote a letter to your grandmother, her sister in New Zealand, in which she imparted this information from Ernst, and that letter was subsequently quoted in a church publication.”
“You have done remarkable research!”
“I looked for records not only in New Zealand but also in Austria.” I attempted to look modest as I continued. “In 1926 Ernst joined the studio of the architect Josef Frank. He was an amazing artist organic and full of flowers—and in his later life, he designed furniture. He and his wife went to Sweden, where he influenced the Scandinavian craft movement and furniture design.”
“Amazing!” Lydia’s eyes were large.
“Anyway, 10 years later, Ernst Grosz boarded a steamer from Trieste to escape Vienna and Nazi persecution. In Liverpool, he boarded another cattle transport steamer and arrived in Auckland. Because he was fluent in English, he quickly found a job with a construction company that specialised in concrete. Sometime that year, 1936 to1937, your grandparents engaged him to design and build this concrete house in Remuera. He managed the trades and supervised the construction. Your father took a chance on your cousin. It was his first design project to be built.
“In 1940, according to the military records, he joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces, and subsequently he was in the echelon that went to Maadi in Egypt, where there was a training camp. It’s still there today. When he joined the army, he had changed his name from Grosz to Grose. He became Ernest Grose.
“Eventually, he was assigned to the Armory division. In October 1944, they landed at Taranto, Italy, and they fought all the way up to Monte Cassino. It was a major battle, one in which tanks were…not successful. The town of Cassino was mined and pulverized, and ruins of tanks are still there today. When Ernie came out of his tank, which had become mired in mud, a German sniper shot him, and he was badly wounded. His comrades, the tank driver and the gunner, got him to some medics, but he died there at the age of 39. Ernie Grose is buried outside of the town in the cemetery.”
I didn’t think I should talk about the fate of his whole family, who were exterminated by the Nazis.
A silence followed my narration. Sun through the tall windows made slanting parallel patterns on the floor. The black Lab slept quietly. After a while, I suggested a walk through the main floor of the house, so I could give Lydia an idea of the concept that Grosz’s mentor, Josef Frank always, emphasised: The flow of the space.
We walked through the big opening to the entrance hall, which had the tallest ceiling of all the rooms in the house. Next to the grand living room we came to a study. It was a long, narrow room. At the end was a large circular window—reminiscent of Josef Frank’s doctrine. The room was lined with bookcases and display cases. One of the displays was rock and core samples, which Lydia said her husband had lovingly collected. In the middle of the room stood an old, large, roll-top desk. A small door led to another room, which turned out to be a kind of convalescent’s bedroom with an attached bathroom, fitted with hand rails and space for a wheelchair. Lydia explained this was where her father spent his last years.
When we went across the hall from the living room, another large opening revealed a spacious dining room. One end of the room was curved, with ribbon-like horizontal windows, another idea from Josef Frank. The dining table sat 10 people easily. A cupboard in the style of the Viennese architect Hoffmann was built into an alcove.
The living room, the central entrance hall, and the dining room all flowed into each other. It demonstrated what Josef Frank called “floating space.” In addition, the central entrance hall floated upward higher than two floors to the bedrooms.
“Come to my absolutely favourite part of my house,” said Lydia. We went through a doorway from the dining room to the kitchen. She very proudly opened her arms wide and announced, “This is my kingdom!” When, some years later, I renovated her kitchen, I only replaced the cookstove. But I retained the old Aga, at her request, and she continued to do some of her cooking on it.
The kitchen was sizeable. It had windows on the west wall, so it was light-filled, and warm in winter and open to breezes in the summer. The dominant feature was a large, wooden, well-used table in the middle of the room. Bench seats sat at the two long sides. Another feature was open shelving, which displayed her collection of ceramics. On both sides of the stove hung pots and pans. The floor was tiled, as was the wall between cupboards. It was a cheerful and welcoming room, a working kitchen rather than a showplace. Intimate friends would be entertained at that big table.
“I love this kitchen,” Lydia declared passionately. “With a helper, I can prepare meals for ten people.” She was smiling broadly. “Quite often I’ll bake three cakes for my music soirees when I have 20 to 30 people.”
A door led from the kitchen to a corridor. The other side of the corridor was formerly a quarter for servants, but Lydia explained that it had been renovated to accommodate guests. “My niece Ann is living here just now.” Two small rooms attached to the kitchen: a pantry and a laundry room. At the very end of the corridor, we came to two doors. One went outside to a service yard. The other went to a garage.
I peeped into the garage and saw an old Jaguar, a 1970s Volvo station wagon, and a gleaming Morgan 4-plus-4, in British Racing Green. Lydia explained that the Jaguar had been her father’s, and the Volvo was what her husband used to drive. “I use it for shopping and errands now,” she said. “And the Morgan…That is a gift to myself! Since my husband’s death, I’ve taken to roaming around Northland, with the top down!”
I suggested we go outside, so we made our way out the front door, and we walked some distance down the drive in order to turn and look back at the house. There I began to describe to Lydia the ‘sculptural character’ of the building—a term Josef Frank frequently used to refer to the design of the architecture. Ernst Grosz was obviously a devoted disciple of Frank’s work. What appeared in front of us was a series of geometric blocks. The living room was essentially a cube, and the entrance hall was a tall block more than two stories high. Next to that, came the dining room with its curved end, which softened the angles, and beyond that the service functions including the kitchen were a low rectangular block. An interesting characteristic concerned the master bedroom, which was above the curved dining room. It did not cover the curved area, but rather the curved space became a terrace for the master bedroom occupants to sit and sip or eat and enjoy the view.
The house design demonstrated two basic principles. One was the interlocking of blocks in the design, which described the sculptural shape of the building as one unit. The second principle was that the interlocked blocks were combined in such a way as to produce proceeding and receding vertical and horizontal planes. The total effect was harmonious.
“Come back to the kitchen and we’ll have tea,” Lydia said. Ann came and joined us.
“I really am in love with this building,” Lydia confided. “It’s so liveable. Why is that?”
“I have a theory,” I replied slowly, “but it’s not exactly proven. More a speculation.” I had been thinking about this for many years, but I had not spoken of it, except to very close architect friends.
“I think what makes the Viennese architects different from the others, the Modernist Bauhaus followers, is the effect on them of the development of psychoanalysis during the period they were designing buildings. It was just emerging as a scientific approach to human behaviour, and articles about it often appeared in journals and newspapers. Psychoanalysis of human impulses and behaviour resulted in categories and new terms for identifying them—very scientific and observational—and led away from emotion. In contrast, the Viennese architects essentially focused on living, I mean, on behaviour as experienced through emotions. They focused on the feelings involved in human behaviour. They were interested in the effect of design on the feelings of users of the space. They pursued the interaction between design and emotions. That approach is infused into the architectural design.
“What I mean is the designer is thinking about how the space makes people feel when they are in it, living in it.”
The sun was getting low, and I thought it was time for me to go. Lydia offered to accompany me to the car. She said, “When your wife is back from Milan, you two must come to my musical gathering and have dinner with me. I’ve enjoyed this afternoon! Thank you for coming.”
When I got on the motorway, I thought, “My speculation about Viennese design as a deliberate choice away from the Bauhaus school has been confirmed by that house. That successful design was Grosz’s only house to be built. It is truly Ernst Grosz’s legacy.”
* Original drawings by the author
* The house in this story in imaginary. The young man is based on someone the author met who was keen on designing a co-housing project, and met with the author several times in a cafe. The author created Ernst as a vehicle for an idea he has been developing for some years about architectural design approaches that interact with human feelings, as opposed to the Bauhaus school of building-as-machine design. The story is an illustration of what that real and historical Viennese group of designers were thinking. They had heroes such as the designer Frank who created furniture quite different from the heavy Victorian era and who was a key creative force in the Scandinavian modern furniture of the mid-20th century. But Bauhaus was the dominant style that prevailed and drowned out the Viennese group, who were pretty much flotsam after WWII.