An Alter-Ego of Consequence: Artist Katarina Burin and the Architect Petra Andrejovna-Molnár
By Glenn Harcourt
Edited by Christopher Michno and Carrie Paterson
As if by some inexplicable accident, Petra Andrejovna-Molnár’s admirable project for the Hotel Nord-Sud (1932-1934) does not appear in the late Prof. Reyner Banham’s study of early modernist architectural practice, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. This, even though Andrejovna-Molnár was placed among her equally masterful if somewhat older contemporaries József Fischer (1901-1995), Bohuslav Fuchs (1895-1972) and Jaromír Krejcar (1895-1950) during the 2012 exhibition “Between Brno and Budapest” at Galerie M29 in Cologne.
There are, however, two excellent reasons for these elisions. First, although there are some important figures from Central and Eastern Europe in Banham’s account, notably the Hungarian artist and designer László Moholy-Nagy, his analysis has a specifically Western European affinity: the Holland of de Stijl, the Paris of Le Corbusier and his circle, and the Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin associated with the Bauhaus are the geographical nodes through which he traces the development of what came to be called the International Style. Second, and more interesting, is the fact that Petra Andrejovna-Molnár—the architect of the Hotel Nord-Sud, its furnishings and other works—does not in fact exist, except as a creation of the contemporary Slovakian-born artist Katarina Burin, who created the 2012 exhibition and its attendant collateral.
Katarina Burin, born in Bratislava, received her MFA from Yale University in 2002, has participated in numerous exhibitions and has received a number of grants and awards. She won the 2013 James and Audrey Foster Prize from the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; is a recipient of a 2014 Graham Foundation Grant in the Arts; and was a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Sloiture in Stuttgart, Germany for the first half of 2014. She currently works at Harvard University as a lecturer in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. Among her most important and on-going projects has been the creation of an archive of Petra Andrejovna-Molnár’s work; and she is currently compiling material related to Andrejovna-Molnár’s involvement with the Czechoslovakian Pavilion at the Paris Design Exhibition of 1925, for which she will produce a publication in 2015.
Katarina Burin’s is a composite body of work. By now it comprises architectural drawings and plans, models, photographic and printed records, furniture and sculpture—and all with the look, even the feel of genuine archival material. Yet its point of origin seems to have been quite precise: the artist’s desire to design a monogram echoing those produced, as she related in a recent email, “by designers . . . in the Wiener Werkstatte, for example.” As it happened, however, the monogrammed initials were not those of the contemporary working artist Katarina Burin but those of an unknown someone else, she says, “someone who became P.A.” Thus was born the doppelgänger who soon gained a full name and eventually developed into the accomplished architect and designer Petra Andrejovna-Molnár.
It is easy to imagine both the increasing complexity of the task and the frisson of guilty (or not so guilty) pleasure that must have marked the slow unfolding of this project: the construction of a historical alter-ego through the elaboration of a virtual archive, and the creation of an alternate life, and an alternate world, within the actual world of interwar Eastern Europe. But to what end?
It is clear, and indeed the artist has commented, that personal, cultural, and gender-related factors are important here. Moreover, we can immediately sense in Burin’s rendering of Andrejovna-Molnár’s work a desire to evoke the potential for a particular kind of revisionist architectural narrative, albeit a desire that is satisfied in a rather unconventional way. Likewise, one can discern at least the outlines of a broader political framework. For it is not simply architectural history that has suffered from the Westward-looking bias seen in Prof. Banham’s text. Scholars have lately been excavating an entire history of Central and Eastern Europe post-World War I that encompasses far more than the cultural efflorescence of Vienna and the hell of the Polish death camps and the Warsaw ghetto.
Thus, the “history” of Andrejovna-Molnár and her work might help to close one of numerous lacunae in our understanding of a rich and vibrant period in the former Czechoslovakia. Except, of course, that the history that Burin speaks to is an alternative, and not a genuine one. Or are these terms, “alternative” and “genuine,” not necessarily and absolutely incommensurable? Despite its appearance of oxymoron, this is in fact a difficult but fruitful question to try to answer.
On an initial reflection, there seem to be two ways that Burin’s apparent absorption into the person of her architectural predecessor might be most readily approached: one personal, and the other historical or archival. There are several possible reasons why a contemporary artist might seek the relative anonymity of a constructed persona; for example, to act the provocateur, as in the notorious and seminal case of Marcel Duchamp’s plumber-manqué and erstwhile sculptor R. Mutt.
But there are a number of obvious and significant differences between these two cases. Mr. Mutt’s appearance on the New York art scene was a one-off, a quasi-theatrical gesture, and an intervention intended (despite its exuberant if corrosive humor) to have an immediate and serious effect on the status of art “now”—that is, in 1913, at the time of the Armory Show, where Mr. Mutt’s outrageous Fountain could be seen in immediate juxtaposition with Duchamp’s own Nude Descending a Staircase. Petra Andrejovna-Molnár, on the other hand, is situated resolutely in history: she exists as if actually embedded in the cultural ambit of Central Europe during the interwar period. Her body of work evokes the structure, the look, the feel of history; and unlike Mutt’s Fountain, Andrejovna-Molnár’s works are not ironic, at least not in any obviously Duchampian sense. Their meaning does not depend on a similarly aggressive disruption of historical and critical categories, a kind of transvaluation of aesthetic value grounded in (arguably) clever word play and scatological associations. But for all their authenticity of appearance, Andrejovna-Molnár’s works belong, if not to our present, then to a set of linked and alternative historical, cultural, and architectural universes.
In the simplest and most superficially negative sense, it can be argued that the artist’s insistence on the historical situation of Andrejovna-Molnár’s works (despite their contemporary provenance) robs them of any real significance. One preview of the 2013 Foster Prize competition takes just this dismissive attitude. If the works are immaculately wrought, they can also be construed as essentially empty: they are not even forgeries since they make no claims, however bogus, to a plausible if illegitimate “maternity.” On this reading, they are at best a graphical overlay on the ubiquitous concrete slab of progressive interwar architecture.
But this reading essentially begs my initial question, which might be rephrased this way: despite their literal existence outside of the history in which they purport to be embedded, can Petra Andrejovna-Molnár’s works (as well as their attendant contextual material) nevertheless help us to understand that history? As intruders into the timeframe of the interwar cultural archive, can the relics of Andrejovna-Molnár’s life and career function to open up that archive to closer inspection and interpretation? Indeed, can they not function as an interpretation in their own right?
Certainly we do not usually think of art in quite this way. Art is supposed to be the raw material—and interpretation, the disentangling of meaning from that material. Obviously, that interpretation does not have to be embodied solely in critical or historical texts. Works of art are always in dialogue with works from their own pasts, and that very dialogue (whether simple or complex, adulatory, or adversary) in fact constitutes interpretations, even though we generally—but perhaps falsely—reserve the latter word as a way of describing the translation and transcription of that back-and-forth by critics and historians.
Nevertheless, there is embedded in all these dialogic relationships a seemingly immutable directionality. It is always the present that interrogates the past. Charles Garnier could hardly anticipate and respond to the eventuality of Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall (1987 – 1996) when designing his own Paris Opera (1861 – 1875). Gehry, on the other hand, is free to engage Garnier, or to ignore him. Time, influence, history: they all flow relentlessly in one direction without tides, eddies, or backwash.
Katarina Burin’s work, however, calls all these assumptions radically into question. In addition to asking us to suspend our disbelief regarding the existence and the career of Petra Andrejovna-Molnár (rather as Vladimir Nabakov asks us to suspend disbelief in the reality of John Shade’s poem “Pale Fire” which lies at the center of his novel of the same name), she seems to offer up Andrejovna-Molnár’s work as an object of criticism within an alternative history in which we must also suspend disbelief. For she insists that it belongs not to her own authorial present, which is also our interpretive and historical present, but rather to its own fictional time and place, its own determinate historical eddy.
Since it is within the totality of embodied cultural memories, what we can call the master Archive, that we gain access to the raw material for the construction of our own narrative histories, it must be within the same Archive that Katarina Burin’s alternative history is played out and evaluated. Both normative history and alternative history must exist within the same conceptual space. This complicates Burin’s project in several specific ways.
In the first place, the Archive is necessarily incomplete, despite our totalizing desire to see it as a whole. Like our own personal memories, cultural or archival memory is subject to processes of effacement, erasure, distortion, suppression, destruction—all actions of loss (some repairable, others irreversible) that provide the interstices enabling interpretation. Conversely, the insertion of counter-factual memories can and have appeared as false memories: the artifacts of an alternative history, implanted by artists and others to their own ends.
However, the Archive is a closed system. Even if not always with complete clarity or agreement, we can nevertheless discern from the artifacts that it provides where particular histories begin and end: an example would be the various articulations of the seaside hotel and how those are entangled in the overall development of the International Style. Andrejovna-Molnár’s Hotel Nord-Sud can easily be inserted into this historical continuum. Despite the fact that it does not and never has existed, its precedents and influences can be detailed. Even its impact on subsequent designs and historical developments can be proposed. And the more successfully convincing the work of Katarina Burin, the richer and more complex can be the story supported by the Andrejovna-Molnár counter-archive. But, that potential richness and complexity is finally and absolutely constrained by the fact that we all know how the larger story (the development and eventual triumph of the International Style) turns out in the end.
This is quite different from the way alternative histories exist within the world of fictional texts. Within those fictional worlds, any intervention into the imagined archive, any counter-factual event (no matter how large or how small)—for example, the assassination of a president, a different victor in a war, an important historical actor having a different gender, even something as insignificant as the crushing of a butterfly underfoot—generates a cascading series of changes that make “fictional” and “actual” present increasingly divergent as the story moves forward in time. This can happen effortlessly in a novel or a short story since the texts themselves contain within their fictive boundaries both archive and history.
In film, the results are slightly different and perhaps more akin to Katarina Burin’s project, with the audience’s knowledge of history and contemporary interpretation of that history often residing outside the media frame. For Burin, the archival arena within which Petra Andrejovna-Molnár’s work is staged is the same one within which the real Bohuslav Fuchs (1895-1972)—Andrejovna-Molnár’s putative mentor in Brno—lived and worked. It is also the world of the real Le Corbusier, the real Villa at Poissy-sur-Seine, and the real Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. This means that Andrejovna-Molnár’s work can nudge the history in which it is embedded, can impart to it a certain personal inflection (if only within that small eddy that moves against the flow of “real” time); but can it have a radically disruptive effect?
Built objects are “facts,” after all, and would seem to provide an impregnable bulwark against the contents of a fictional archive or the thrust of a hypothetical critique. Does this then mean that Petra Andrejovna-Molnár’s work can exist, at best, as a curious counter-factual footnote to the history of interwar architecture; and that the objects, plans, drawings, models fabricated by Katarina Burin must be consigned to a kind of limbo within the Archive of our collective cultural memory? Not necessarily. In fact, they may be perfectly cast to fulfill a quite different if likewise essential function. And that is the function of pointing to gaps both in scholarship and in interpretation within an archival system that is closed and also necessarily incomplete.
Interpretations, by their very nature, are subject to contest. In theory, if the Archive were complete, if it were somehow possible for our entire cultural memory to exist in an external and concrete form, there would be no need for interpretation since all meaning would be immanent in the connections between those externalized memories. But the Archive is not and cannot be completed, and it is in the interstices between those externalized memories (the objects of culture: paintings, novels, buildings, newspaper advertising supplements, etc.) that interpretations are constructed.
It is not possible, however, for any one interpretation to draw together all the archival lacunae, even within a very small domain like the set of all International Style houses, and so any one interpretation can always be opposed, critiqued, refigured, or elaborated upon. Often, these interpretations are discursive in nature (contained in books, journal articles, lectures, etc.) but, as we suggested above, they do not have to be—they can even reside in the realm of poiesis. Discourse is largely a matter of disentangling prior interpretations “built into” the objects of our historical interest.
The works of Petra Andrejovna-Molnár assume their places within a history already known, so in that sense, they function as contemporary interpretive narratives, interrogating their own “past.” Yet they do this from a position that presupposes the unfolding of a subsequent “future” in a way denied to the real buildings that share Andrejovna-Molnár’s putative “present.” The historical position of Andrejovna-Molnár’s Hotel Nord-Sud, for example, is privileged with respect to every other similar project dating to the mid 1930s, for example the 1935 József Fisher house in Budapest (Katarina Burin’s model for which can be seen above), since Katarina Burin designed Andrejovna-Molnár’s hotel with knowledge of the subsequent historical unfolding of which its design and architecture is putatively a part.
At the same time, however, a project like this cannot betray its privileged position. It must appear to be in dialogue only with that which came before. Its existence as a contemporary interpretation (akin to our own discursive efforts) must remain implicit if its place within the Archive is to remain plausible. In short, it must remain invisible as a contemporary twenty-first century object if it is to remain visible within its putative historical context.
Nevertheless, we cannot accept its place as simply given, simply natural. We know it to be artificial, just as we know the object(s) that it contains to be in reality the artifacts of a counter-archive, the stuff of an alternative history. This history is at once architectural and social. It concerns both buildings and the designers of buildings. It is a history where gender matters, and where the traditional underrepresentation of women in the architectural profession can be significantly addressed, if not completely redressed.
What this means is that we can accept, and use, the Petra Andrejovna-Molnár archive as a series of “counter-designs,” reconsiderations of certain architectural and design problems in light of a whole history outside of which it necessarily stands. In that sense, it shifts the burden of historical proof to other scholars; it poses questions about gender in architecture, both in terms of the actors within the historical narratives, the designs that precede it in hypothetical time, and of those that follow it.
Only a few scholars have taken it upon themselves to deeply investigate the contributions of women to the architectural field in the early 20th century—for example, the first European woman to get a degree in architecture Liane Zimbler (née Juliana Fischer 1892 in Moravia, former Czechoslovakia), or Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, the first Austrian female architect, each of whose significant contributions were for decades underrepresented in architectural history.
In sum, the work of Petra Andrejovna-Molnár—still being discovered/created—uses the Archive’s own necessary incompleteness as a means of excavating a space from within which we can gain a privileged picture of the actual historical landscape that we survey. This thanks to Katarina Burin, who has provided us with a fragmentary, alternative historicity, which illuminates historical works in new ways and pushes us as historians and critics to look differently, to question differently, and to understand differently.
All photos courtesy Katarina Burin with the exception of Zimbler apartment (photographer unknown) and Schütte-Likotsky (Creative Commons).
 Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (New York: Praeger, 2 ed.1967).
 Katarina Burin, email correspondence with the author, December 3, 2014.
 Katarina Burin, Skype conversation with editor Carrie Paterson, January 23, 2014.
 See, for example, Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York, Basic Books, 2010).
 In Andrei Tarkovsky’s brilliant 1972 science fiction film Solaris, there are a number of shots of the Russian cosmonaut Kris Kelvin’s familial dacha, as he imagines it floating on a misty sea swirling above the surface of an alien planet. For me, these shots provide a powerful visual analog for the notion of Andrejovna-Molnár’s Fisher House adrift in history.
 For a further elaboration of this position, see http://x-traonline.org/article/some-notes-on-the-archive/
 For the last of these examples, see Ray Bradbury’s classic 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder,” which encapsulates in fictional form what came to be known in chaos theory as “the butterfly effect.”
 For example, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) offers a spaghetti-Western style Jewish revenge fantasy with a fiery end for the most notorious World War II Nazi villains.
 See Katarina Burin’s model for the József Fisher, House on Szépvölgyi Avenue, Budapest, 1935 / 2012, 10 x 20 x 14 inches, http://www.ratio3.org/artists/katarina-burin/images