Sibyl Moholy-Nagy - June, 1971


The below text was written by Paul Rudolph for the June 1971 edition of Architectural Forum.

[Note: in transcribing this text, we have retained most of the grammar, spelling, capitalization, and construction.]


Sibyl Moholy-Nagy
By Paul Rudolph

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy as our readers know, died on January 8th of this year. We have asked Paul Rudolph, who was one of her closest friends, to write some words in Sibyl's memory.

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy seemed so indestructible with her well-nurtured passions and prejudices, devotion to work, organizational ability, and outpouring of energy. These characteristics were often transmuted, so that passions and prejudices became a vehicle for growth for everyone who came in contact with her, since they always demanded a reaction, and served as a measure for one's own idiosyncrasies.

Her devotion to work resulted at mid-century in an outpouring of books, lectures, essays, and commentary which is possibly unequaled in the architectural world, even though she had no formal training as an architectural historian or critic.

Her organizational ability and insights helped to hold together more than one institution, sparked fruitful alliances between unlikely types, and established sensible priorities for many.

Her outpouring of energy to the very end allowed her to research, to travel, to investigate worlds beyond the consciousness of most of us, to search for inter-connections, and to pursue an idea long beyond the point that everyone else had given up. Simone de Beauvoir's statement "There is no happiness without work" was true for her. In spite of her rather hard life she never lost the love for living.

These characteristics often made her contradictory. She could be imperiously impatient, but touchingly vulnerable; passionately obstinate, but ruthlessly objective; exhaustive in her research, but conveying her unique feelings, which rendered her critics defenseless.

The transformation for me of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy from a “formidable lady” to the most lively of friends began in the late 1950s. Our paths crossed many times and my respect and admiration steadily grew. It was Philip Johnson who pointed out that she was an extremely different person when you were lucky enough to be with her alone, If there was more than one person in her presence then the “show girl”, which she had been in her late teens, came to the fore. She felt it her responsibility to entertain, to dazzle, to be the catalyst, to be outrageous, to be the center, to attack, to prod, to try out new theories, to regale her audience with her impressions of the famous and near famous. Proust, reflecting on the qualities which marked a very great actress like Sarah Bernhardt, noted how the supreme actress could make mediocre plays seem like masterpieces of theatricality. In fact, lesser plays gave the great actress free range to express her own magic and dominate audiences with her sheer power and magnetism, whereas master works demanded submission to the role and to the art which transcended her personality. These situations were usually rewarding, but she was even more exciting when one was alone with her. Then there was a true exchange of ideas, and her ability to look at many subjects from an original point of view came clearly into focus.

She could be exasperating in her criticisms and comments, but could also be very positive. She was particularly sensitive to students and her splendid relationship to them testifies to her compassion. Her enthusiasm for architecture as an art grew with the years and she focused in the most stimulating and exciting manner on this aspect of her all-consuming passion.

Her enthusiasm was then at its peak. When viewing a proposal for a new project she managed to put her finger on the essence of a given scheme, to sense the untrue, to make helpful suggestions without destroying, or damaging, human relationships. She grew and grew in her understanding of the creative process. There is no one to take her place.

Her students loved her, partially because she demanded their best, but also because they sensed that all her life Sibyl Moholy-Nagy grew, becoming ever more aware, ever more committed and passionate in her prejudices, giving of herself to students, friends and, above all, to architecture.

— Architecture has lost a key figure.