PRINT Summer 1972

Dutch Architecture 1920–1940

THE VAN ABBEMUSEUM IN Eindhoven, Holland recently organized a show called “Bouwen 2040,” which stirred up considerable public interest. The exhibition covers only a short period of modern Dutch architectural history, but this period is an extremely intense and interesting one. 1940 was not an abrupt ending—architecturally speaking—of a fight for a new style. The influence of conservative architects had been increasing ever since the early ’30s. Politically it was a break: Holland entered World War II. Nothing of similar significance happened in 1920. However, for an understanding of the intellectual climate and the sociopolitical context, one must start a few years earlier.

Holland was neutral during World War I. Many Dutch artists returned to their homeland in 1914. The contacts which Theo van Doesburg had during the following years led to the foundation of the group de Stijl. The original members included the painters van Doesburg, Mondrian, and Huszar, the sculptor Vantongerloo, the poet Kok, and the architects Oud, Van t’Hoff, and Wils. The first number of the magazine de Stijl appeared in 1917.

Starting from the basis of a new consciousness of the historical situation, the new artistic canon (“Neue Gestaltung”) called for the predominance of the intellect over nature, for objectivity, utmost precision, and calibrated balance. The artists designed in a messianic manner a new and better society. And art—as the expression of a rationalistic historical consciousness oriented towards the universe—would, it was hoped, lead mankind into the shining Promised Tomorrow. The painters Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian were the strongest advocates of these propositions. They asked for a general application of the laws and principles which they deduced from painting—an application to everybody’s life. And for both artists, architecture is the key to reshaping the environment. Mondrian proclaims that “the new aesthetics of architecture and of painting are the same.” Only extreme simplifications and a superficial knowledge of the phenomenon of architecture can lead to such an idealistic and highly theoretical view. Mondrian,however, is very realistic (also by today’s standards) in his judgment of his contemporary architects: “I am convinced that for the time being we can only realize (it) on paper because of these corrupt architects, these servants of the audience and the latter’s money” (1922). He does not dismiss the utilitarian aspect of architecture but he demands again and again that beauty must prevail. His disgust for the dominating role of pure function is extreme: “. . . wheels of cars might require a round shape whereas the rectangular one would be true beauty.”

Theo van Doesburg also deduces the new architecture from neoplastic painting. He wants architecture to be free of any private emotions. Harmonic proportions should transform the diversity of various architectural elements (caused by differences in weight, scale, position, material, etc.) into a balance of equally important parts. Nothing should dominate. The front and the back, left ’and right, if possible the top and the bottom—all should be of the same importance and equally treated. This sounds like a concept for architecture floating in free space. The most common relationship of conventional architecture to the ground is being denied.

The building which tries to fit these demands is the Schroeder House in Utrecht, built in 1924 by G. Rietveld, a member of the de Stijl group since 1918. The elevations of this building can be turned by 90° or seen upside down—they are always well-balanced compositions of planes and lines without any directional articulations. The esthetic-graphical treatment of the balcony (supporting column and railing) is obvious. And still, one enters the building walking on the ground.

In 1923 van Doesburg and the architect van Eesteren joined to create a team. They worked together on concrete, real architectural programs. Models of one-family houses are the result of this collaboration of a pragmatic architect and an idealistic theoretician. De Stijl preached purification through withdrawal from nature, from decoration, from ornamentation. But from our view one could almost call this model-architecture ornamental, because the emphasis was so exaggeratedly on the exterior appearance, on a refined, lifeless esthetic balance, on a moment-oriented, completed composition. It seems that the architectural vocabulary developed for and demonstrated on these models was more an (artistic) end in itself than a vocabulary which could respond to and grow with a rapidly evolving world.

De Stijl’s models, however, certainly influenced architectural practice to a large degree. Today it is quite common to illustrate architectural ideas with models. The importance, too, which this group attributed to color in architecture is of great cogency today—after so many years of the almost exclusively white-on-white-ideology of the International Style. (Color in architecture today can no longer be a merely artistic-esthetic problem. It should be based on medical, psychological, and biological studies.)

De Stijl advocated a rather static concept of architecture. But the concept of a harmonic, ideal balance can hardly fit the dynamic development of the environment and an ever-changing world. Mondrian’s belief in a final harmony of man’s surroundings and his life is characteristic. He writes in 1927: “The application of the laws (denaturalization) will eliminate the tragic outlook of buildings, streets, and cities. Joy, moral and physical joy . . . will spread through the contrast of proportions, dimensions, and colors, of material and space. . . . With some good will it will be not too difficult to build a paradise on earth.”

Though many architects at that time had similar ideas of improving mankind through hygienic and better architecture, they were more and more preoccupied by new social and utilitarian aspects of daily problems. Modern architecture in Holland, at the beginning esthetically influenced by de Stijl, developed into a new movement called “Neue Sachlichkeit” (new objectivity). One of the most outspoken members of this movement, later named the International Style, was J. J. P. Oud. He left de Stijl in 1921. He acknowledged the esthetic achievements of de Stijl and considered them of the greatest importance as the basis of a new way of thinking in architecture, but for him the social validity of this new way had to be proved in real life. Objective architecture was the ultimate goal as it was for de Stijl—but for Oud it was evident that such objectivity could only be realized through “continuous and actual contact with society and its logical development.” He and this movement wanted to solve the problems in a scientific manner, with utmost accuracy. They therefore condemned imprecise and picturesque materials and forms and praised the fascination of new materials: the clarity and clearness of glass, bright and shining surfaces, sparkling steel.

Oud and his combatants attacked with particular violence the School of Amsterdam. The architects of this group specialized in the design of facades of big. housing developments. The developers made the distribution and the layouts of the apartments themselves. The architects were hired to design only the elevations. To accept and to do this kind of work was considered a crime by the functionalists since it was against one of the basic rules of Modern Architecture: "The outside must be developed from the inside. Nonetheless, some of the achievements of the School of Amsterdam, especially the work of de Klerk, are very interesting. The compositions of the elevations were more oriented towards the street than towards the building. The emphasis was here upon shaping and defining the character of the street, the appearance of public space—a concern which is of growing importance today. For the International Style the character of public space was more or less an accidental by-product. The pseudoscientific objectivity of the functionalists seems sometimes as one-sided as the extremely individualistic designs of the School of Amsterdam. But the functionalists recognized the necessity and importance of an analytical approach to architecture, of social commitment and involvement, and of a sound architectural theory—and they worked according to their discoveries. It is the work of these architects, the buildings designed and constructed in this new spirit, which made Dutch architecture between the world wars internationally famous.

The central theme of all the discussions among architects during that period was public housing, housing for the masses. The socioeconomical circumstances gave this problem such an importance. At the beginning of the century the living conditions of the working class are described as disastrous. Solving the housing problem before and after World War II was a question which affected the nation’s entire economy. Private market and government-controlled construction of housing often had to be readjusted in order to find a politically workable balance. Housing was therefore a key to Holland’s political life. The architect van Loghem describes the position of many architects around 1930 in the following way: “We are artists and not politicians . . . this does not exclude that the entire substance of our creative thinking concentrates on the idea of social change.” Though only a few architects were actually members of a political party—it is this active political (“political” in a wider sense) commitment, this active involvement in social problems, this reflective awareness and consciousness of historic processes of society and a true sense of duty, which provided the architectural misconceptions and failures.

The architects tried to achieve their goals outside the machinery of party politics. By doing so they were confronted with a problem which is today considered of prime importance for architecture and planning: the process of decision-making. The more the architects of the mid-’20s widened their concern from a single apartment to an urban area and an entire city, the more this question gained in importance. One of the keys to the failures of the International Style might be the architects’ attitude towards this decision-making process for larger developments. City planning without the collaboration of politicians ’leads most of the time only to idealistic dream world renderings.

The international efforts of the architects from the late ’20s to the ’40s were almost identical with the activities of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne). Here too the Dutch group—especially van Eesteren—played an important role. It is common practice today to blame many evils of our cities, mainly the boredom and frustrations of isolated residential developments, on CIAM. The subdivision of a city (and the life of the people) in four functions: 1) Dwelling, 2) Work, 3) Recreation, 4) Transportation, and the physical isolation of each of these functions, appears today as false as the naive idea that hygienic apartments and green grass between the buildings will produce morally better human beings. But this should not make us forget that many positive facets of today’s architecture are largely based on the pioneer work of the architects of that period. The analytical attitude towards building, for instance, is widely accepted; building programs and building techniques are subjects of interdisciplinary discussions; the results of scientific research and technological development are applied to “the art of” architecture. Architects demanded investigations to improve the living conditions in cities. Such an important initiative was taken by a Dutch group of architects (“8”) in 1931 when they asked medical doctors and hygienists to work out rules for new constructions to prevent certain diseases. Despite the fact that the investigations which followed could not be summed up in statistical norms, they did have some practical results: for instance, the awareness of a general psychobiological desire for more sunlight. Architects as stimulators.

In turn, the architects were stimulated by abstract art. Marc Stam, one of the leading Dutch functionalists, wrote in 1936: “We don’t deny that abstract art is completely unrelated to the social process. It is not backed by any social movement, nor by a religious cult. Nevertheless it was the abstract art which reevaluated the elements and which tried to recreate an elementary vocabulary for all the creative artists. Color, form, plane, and volume have regained through it their proper meaning.”

The exhibition includes films and photographs. And it is completed with a well-documented catalogue. The films show the historical frame to the new developments in architecture. The photographs make it very clear that the average architectural standard was very high. For a country in general the quality of its average architecture is definitely more decisive (and also more telling of its culture) than a few isolated architectural highlights. Some of the photographs explain to the layman architectural slogans of that period, such as “sun,” “air,” “light,” “new construction techniques,” “new programs,” “hygiene.”

Two objections to the otherwise excellent catalogue: the importance of the theoretical influence of Piet Mondrian on the new architecture has been more or less ignored; secondly, the trend towards conservatism by so many architects (and artists) in the late ’30s should no longer be ignored or hastily be excused as personal mistakes. As happened everywhere else in Europe an outspoken reactionary movement developed in Holland: the School of Delft. But it is too simple to call that reaction only an escape from today or fear of tomorrow. Because even within the progressive functionalist groups, “8” and “Opbow,” similar trends developed. The office building for Shell which Oud built in 1938 in The Hague is testimony to the fact that even a former leader of the International Style had changed his architectural ideology. Given Oud’s importance and influence, it is very strange and disturbing that this building is neither shown in the exhibition nor mentioned in the documentation of his oeuvre.A schematic black-or-white description does not match the complexity of the years before World War II. An in-depth study of these changes would be very revealing. Especially for our time it seems important that one learn to understand why and how the final disastrous face of fascism was many years earlier already present in architectural façades.