Occupying Merzbau – the critic, her words and the work
Keywords:Merzbau, Infra-ordinary, Spatial writing, Architectural criticism
In the early twentieth century, German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) constructed the work Merzbau [Merz building] inside his studio in the family residence in Hanover, Germany. The interior developed from a series of Merzsäulen [Merz columns] which eventually grew into a continuous spatial structure along with three of the studio’s four walls. The central floor space was left empty while some elements stretched across the ceiling above. Only three photographs, taken in 1933 by a local photographer, have survived as evidence of the work which was destroyed by allied bombing during World War II. Schwitters had, by then, fled Germany and travelled to Norway where he would start the construction of a new Merz building. The following examines the Hanover Merzbau as a work of art embedded in the fabric of a conventional residential house. It explores how, employing the intermediary space of the artist’s studio, the work unfolded an inhabitable wall space built from scrap material collected from the streets of Hanover. If Schwitters seems to have grounded himself between the interior and exterior of his house through the intricate weaving of a liminal living space, the following addresses this space between the ordinary/familiar and the extraordinary/strange that Merzbau negotiated. It does so for the purpose of framing the work’s attempt at transcending its everyday domestic setting. Radical writing strategies developed by French novelist George Perec (1936-1982) are employed for experimentation with the way that insight into Merzbau is produced. This approach involves detailed descriptions of places and scenes that complicate the extra/ordinary nature of these in pursuit of a space beyond named the ‘infra-ordinary.’ Three positions between the artwork Merzbau, the conventional dwelling house inside which it was built, and the critic evaluating the work, are developed for the purpose of foregrounding the act of writing as a critical and creative spatial practice.
Kurt Schwitters, Das literarische Werk [The literary work], edited by Friedhelm Lach
-5 (Cologne: Verlag DuMont Schauberg, 1973-1981); John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985); Dietmar Elger, Der Merzbau von Kurt Schwitters: eine Werkmonographie [Merzbau by Kurt Schwitters: a monography of works], 2nd
edition (Cologne: Walther König, 1999); Elizabeth Burns Gamard, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau:
The Cathedral of Erotic Misery (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000); Richard Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dada Drummer (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991); Friedhelm
Lach, Der Merzkünstler Kurt Schwitters [The Merz artist Kurt Schwitters] (Cologne: Verlag M. DuMont Schauberg, 1971); Ernst Nündel, edited by, Wir spielen bis uns der Tod abholt: Briefe aus fünf Jahrzehnten [We play until death comes for us: letters from five decades] (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Ullstein,
; Ernst Nündel, Kurt Schwitters: in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten [Kurt Schwitters: in his own words and images] (Reinbek am Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1981); Karin Orchard and Isabel Schulz, eds., Kurt Schwitters: Catalogue raisonné 1-3 (Ostfildern-Ruit:
Hatje Cantz, 2000-2006); Cornelia Osswald-Hoffmann, Zauber... und Zeigeräume: Raumgestaltungen der 20er und 30er Jahre. Die »Merzbauten« des Kurt Schwitters und der
»Prounenraum« sowie die Räumlichkeiten der Abstrakten des El Lissitzky [Magic… and showrooms: spatial practices in the 1920s/30s. Kurt Schwitters’s ‘Merz buildings’ and El Lissitzky’s ‘Proun space’ and abstract spaces]
(Munich: Akademischer Verlag, 2003); Werner Schmalenbach, Schwitters Leben und Werk [Schwitters: life and work] (Cologne: Verlag DuMont Schauberg, 1967);" "Kate T. Steinitz, Kurt Schwitters
- Erinnerungen aus den Jahren 1918-30 [Kurt Schwitters - recollections from the years 1918-30 (Zurich: Verlag der Arche, 1963); Gwendolen Webster, Kurt Merz Schwitters: A Biographical Study (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1997); Gwendolen Webster, ‘Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau,’ (PhD diss., Open University, Milton Keynes, 2007).
Georges Perec, L’infra-ordinaire [The infra-ordinary] (Paris: Seuil, 1989) and in English translation, George Perec, ‘from L’infra-ordinaire,’ in Species of Spaces and other Pieces, edited and translated by John Sturrock (London: Penguin Books), 207-
The texts that make up the original collection were first
published individually in various French journals and magazines.
Georges Perec, Entretiens et conferences [Interviews and conferences], edited by
Dominique Bertelli and Mireille Ribière 1 (Nantes: Joseph K, 2003), 234, cited in Michael Sheringham, Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 279.
Enrique Walker and Paul Virilio, ‘Paul Virilio on Georges Perec,’ AA Files 45/46 (2001): 15.
Available at: https://www.jstor. org/stable/29544247.
Walker and Virilio, ‘Paul Virilio on Georges Perec,’ 15.
Perec, Species of Spaces and other Pieces, 51.
Perec, Entretiens et conferences
, no. 56, cited in Sheringham,
Everyday Life, 279.
Perec, Species of Spaces and other Pieces, 50-51.
Perec, Species of Spaces and other Pieces, 51.
Perec, Species of Spaces and other Pieces, 141.
Georges Perec and Marc Lowenthal, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (Cambridge, MA: Wakefield Press, 2010), 3." "12 Richard Phillips, ‘Georges Perec’s experimental fieldwork;
Perecquian fieldwork,’ Social & Cultural Geography 19, no. 2 (2018): 180/184, accessed
December 2020, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2016.1266027
Georges Perec and Andrew Leak, ‘Scene in Italie,’ AA Files 45/46 (2001): 34. https://www. jstor.org/stable/29544250
Andrew Leak, ‘Paris: Created and Destroyed,’ AA Files 45/46 (2001): 29. https://www.jstor. org/stable/29544249
See for example, Yuriko Saito, Aesthetics of the Familiar: Everyday Life and World-Making (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Allen Carlson,
‘The Dilemma of Everyday Aesthetics,’ in Aesthetics of Everyday Life East and West, edited by Liu Yuedi and Curtis
L. Carter (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014); Thomas Leddy, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2012).
Perec, Species of Spaces and other Pieces, 91.
Perec, Species of Spaces and other Pieces, 92.
Jane Rendell, ‘Architecture- writing’, The Journal of Architecture 10, no. 3 (2005): 256, accessed on 16 September 2019, DOI:
Rendell, ‘Architecture-writing’, 256.
Jane Rendell, Site-Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), xvi.
Jane Rendell, ‘Only Resist,’ Architectural Review 243, no. 1449 (2018): 17.
Gavin Butt, ‘Introduction: The Paradoxes of Criticism,’ in After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance, edited
by Gavin Butt (Malden, MA: Blackwell), 5. Original emphasis and grammar.
Butt, ‘Introduction,’ 8. Original emphasis.
Della Pollock, ‘Performing Writing,’ in The Ends of Performance, edited by Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 80." "25 Pollock, ‘Performing Writing,’ 80.
Pollock, ‘Performing Writing,’ 80-96.
Pollock, ‘Performing Writing,’ 75. Original emphasis.
Pollock, ‘Performing Writing,’ 80.
See note 1 for the sources of information regarding Merzbau used for the description of the house and work.
Tordis Berstrand, ‘Splitting and Doubling: Spaces for Contemporary Living in Works by Gordon Matta- Clark, Kurt Schwitters and Gregor Schneider’ (PhD diss., University of Kent, 2013).
Kurt Schwitters, Das literarische Werk 5, no. 37, translated
by the author from the text ‘Die Merzmalerei’ [The Merz painting] published in the journals Der Zweeman, Der Sturm and Der Cicerone (all 1919).
Perec, Species of Spaces and other Pieces, 13.
Kurt Schwitters, Das literarische Werk 5, 343, translated by the author from Merz 21 erstes Veilchenheft [Merz 21 first pamphlet] (1931). Original emphasis.
Kurt Schwitters, Das literarische Werk 5, 344, translated by the author from the text ‘Ich und meine Ziele’ [Me and my goals] (1931).
Kurt Schwitters, Das literarische Werk 5, 133, translated by the author from the text ‘Die Bedeutung des Merzgedankens in der Welt’ [The significance of the Merz ideas in the world] (1923).
Nündel, Wir spielen bis uns der Tod abholt, 41-42, translated by the author.
Butt, ‘Introduction,’ 5.
Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 47-48.
White, Tropics of Discourse, 47.
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