Everything is what it is and not another thing by David Connearn
This handle is not made to the actual dimensions of the original pattern for those of the main floor of 19 Kundmanngasse Vienna, the Palais Stonborough, the house designed to a commission by Margarethe Stonborough and completed between 1926 and 1928 by her brother, the architect Ludwig Wittgenstein, with the assistance of Adolf Loos's protégés, Paul Engelmann and Jaques Groag. It is however the product of an investigation of the identity of the original door handles, reported lost from the building during its dereliction between 1974 and 1975, and born out of a disquietude about their afterlife - their absorption within the separate and often competing discourses of contemporary product copy-writing, architectural history and philosophy. This handle is not a mere piece of door furniture chosen from a catalogue, but an apposite point of entry into the extraordinary richness of Wittgenstein’s entire architectural legacy.
It is not clear to the building’s current occupiers, the Bulgarian Cultural Institute, which of the door handles currently installed in the house are original and which are copies, made during the renovations of 1976. The original handles had a very particular specification. They are the subject of substantial commentary and have been photographed, but no detailed design-drawings of them exist. They are anecdotally celebrated as a diminutive expression of the sensibility that required the completed ceiling of the Saal (some 44.5 square meters) to be raised 30 millimetres, or the hours spent by Wittgenstein’s friend Marguerite Respinger and others in patient readjustment of the height of a stick representing an upper floor window railing. The door handles reputedly took a year to reach completion, during which time Wittgenstein, who as an engineer was accustomed to tolerances expressed in thousandths of an inch or microns, famously left the locksmith, who asked whether a millimetre here or there really mattered, in little doubt that it really did.
Between then and now the handles have however acquired another life, in which their image has become more important than the thing itself. They have become lost in their own history, eclipsed by their representation. This is an inevitable tendency of historical process, but whilst the original material persists it behoves us to pay a requisite attention to the things themselves which, in the words of another philosopher-artist, “have a lot going for them”, before we consign their status to unquestioned convention.
The original handles were cast, requiring the fabrication of a prototype from which a mould was made. The material and means of construction of the prototype is unknown, and would generally be irrelevant beyond its utility for the requirements of that stage of the process: it could, for instance, have been wax. But everything about these handles suggests a design narrative in which the cast, as the final form, is in fact an anomaly. They appear to have been designed one step at a time, in a manner which has distinct parallels with the method of work pictured in the activities of the builders and the commentary thereon in the opening pages of the Philosophical Investigations. A limited design vocabulary is established: bend, house, wedge, bear, fix. Each function is then interrogated as though being defined, or searched for its minimal condition or ‘rules’ of operation and application, in relation to the context of ‘usage’ – the practical and aesthetic conventions, habits and training, which ground and inform the character of the understanding of an object’s identity, utility and, occasionally, its beauty.
In the preface to the Investigations, Wittgenstein refers to himself as a draughtsman; albeit, modestly, a bad one. This is rather more than an appropriate metaphor for compositional process. It signifies a perspective, for there is a very clear formal sense in both engineering and architecture that something which cannot be drawn (specified) cannot be made. Whilst studying engineering in Berlin Wittgenstein had indeed taken additional drawing classes. This capability was put to use whilst working on jet-tip propulsion under Petavel and Lamb at Manchester, where he showed what was then an extraordinary design skill. At a more domestic scale, having exhausted the patience of Pinsent, Russell and no doubt others on countless fruitless trips to select furniture for his rooms at Cambridge, he designed his own, described by Russell on the occasion of its later acquisition as ”the best deal I ever made”. This obsessive capacity to model, to ‘bild’ remained fundamental to him. After leaving Cambridge he designed a small house for his own use in Norway, which became the template for his repeated intellectual retreats. It was recognised by the Austrian army, which gave him charge of a gunnery repair workshop during World War 1, prompting his later gift of 1million Crowns for the development a “decent” cannon. Wittgenstein later designed and built a steam engine to demonstrate its working principles to his pupils at one of the schools at which he taught during the early 1920s in rural Austria. At more serious scale, he personally designed the lift gear in the Kundmanngasse house, together with a host of other mechanisms that are attached to its windows and doors, the sliding steel shutters that rise from the floor to cover them, and, of course, the radiators.
Yet it is these handles in particular which, though seemingly simple, show evidence of greater a density of thought than a merely imposed design. They reveal an intimate familiarity with their build-process and the particular capabilities of the material used, a tactile register of understanding which has, perhaps understandably, been overlooked.
Everything about the design of the handles is indicative of a hands-on working knowledge of the material requirements – not of a cast, but of their fabrication. The radius of the bend in the right-angled handle is tight, but not arbitrary. It is the minimum radius achievable, not in a cast object, but by actually bending the material. The radius of the bends which intersect to form the swaged handle is greater than that of its counterpart by the radius of the handle stock itself, and with 60 degrees of arc produces the clearance common between both handles and the door surface. It is also the tightest return bend that steel or malleable brass of that dimension will naturally form when levered rather than machine-pressed or cast into shape. The swage reduces non-axial leverage on the lock mechanism and handle joint. The visible part of the cylinder into which both handles fit has dimensions no greater than the minimum required to drill it across its axes in order to house the handle shafts in both directions. The combination of all the elements of the handle-ensemble in a tapered fit which bears only on the turning bush of the lock mechanism, and is held together by a single axial screw, displays not only an extraordinary and elegant efficiency, but also suggests the family resemblance of the fabricated elements to parts and functions of the machinery - the mill and lathe - used to make them: the tapered quill, the square chuck key, and the components of the machinery controls. All parts of the door handles have a specific reason to be as they are and the size they are, related to the way in which a prototype has been considered and made. Nothing is extraneous, but this exemplifies an aesthetic perspective, not a program.
The after-life of the “Wittgenstein handle” as a source of contemporary style resulting in objects that have at best a very distant family resemblance to their source – such as those by Ize, Technoline GnbH and FSB - signals a slippage in understanding which stretches beyond the objects themselves, and beyond the treatment of the house for which they were made. I suggest that the material properties of the handles designed by Wittgenstein for the Palais Stonborough are best understood in relation to the design and fabrication requirements of a prototype. The purpose of my investigation has not been to replicate, but to focus attention on the specificity of one small item original material, and to afford it a similar consideration to that required of a manuscript fragment. By taking a closer look at what has become by peculiar default the most widely distributed but least authentically represented object of Wittgenstein’s production, I hope also to have provided an initial ‘handle’ on the importance of affording a similar attention to the detail of the largest remaining unresearched fragment of his career, now approaching the centenary of its commission. A detailed understanding of the house that Wittgenstein designed for his own use, built in Skjolden, Norway, during 1913/14, elements of which are known to have a prototypical relationship to elements of the house in the Kundmanngasse, is essential to the proper assessment of Wittgenstein's architectural thinking. It is likely to be more important than the Kundmanngasse in its relation to his philosophical work.
[A 3/4 scale fabricated model of the cast door-handles of the Palais Stonborough 1928. Brass CZ 131. David Connearn 2011.]