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Aldo van Eyck

Considering the career of the architect who subverted mainstream thinking by championing place over space

Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck would probably have disagreed with this characterisation, but he was in many ways a contrarian (in that sense he was in good company with Team X, whose other members were not exactly the most accommodating personalities either).

A big part of his life was going against the grain, being in opposition to the mainstream, whatever that was: mainstream Modernism, mainstream CIAM, mainstream Team X or mainstream Postmodernism (the latter most famously in his Rats, Posts and Other Pests rant at the RIBA in 1981).

The last time I spoke with him on the phone, about a year before he died, typifies his contrarian character. He complained about an article on one of his latest works, the Court of Audit in The Hague, written by a then-colleague of mine. Van Eyck contended that if every single sentence of this article was reversed, it would have been closer to reality, adding that he very well understood that someone could claim that Copenhagen was the capital of Germany but that did not mean it was true. He reiterated his opinion in a lengthy letter to the magazine that had published it, Archis, which was fun to read − if not for my colleague.

Van Eyck’s oppositional nature can be seen in the light of his lifelong architectural interest in relativity, reciprocity and what he called dual phenomena, which could only exist with their opposite ‘without resorting to the arbitrary accentuation of either one at the expense of the other’. While in his architecture he carefully avoided the one-directional, the centralised, and the definite − he had a deep aversion to monumentality − his rhetorical power was such that he tended to make rather absolute statements, if not for their own sake, then to oppose equally absolute ideas of others. 

Van Eyck built little and wrote much. As with many architects that write, his work is very much judged by the criteria and standards he formulated himself (even in a supposedly illiterate culture such as architecture, words clearly do have power). It would be unfair to say he was a better writer than architect. However, the richness of his ideas, his erudition and even his artistic worldview are more easily conveyed and appreciated through his written work than in his architecture.

His designs seem somehow underwhelming compared with his vivid, lucid and poetic writing, which even 30 to 60 years later is still strikingly relevant. While some of the early texts have a preachy side, with all the desperation and hope for salvation connected to sermons, many of his later lectures and articles are more polemical, sharp and witty.

It is not accidental that there is an impressive biography of Van Eyck, written by Francis Strauven, who pays more attention to his life and his ideas than to his designs and buildings, and that there is an equally impressive tome of Van Eyck’s written work, Writings: Collected Articles and Other Writings, edited by Strauven and Vincent Ligtelijn. What’s missing, though, is a comprehensive monograph of his architecture,and one could wonder, bearing the preeminence of his writing in mind, if it is likely to appear soon.

Like many well-known architects, Van Eyck’s reputation as a designer is mainly based on an early masterpiece, the Municipal Orphanage in Amsterdam (1955-60), built near the 1928 Olympic Stadium. Completed during his Team X years, the building is a programmatic complex of interrelated structures: an ideal city in microcosm.

Early works of architects often have a novelty that later works evidently lack. And since those later works cannot reproduce a similar shock of the new, they often fail to attract the same attention from colleagues and architectural critics, who are always on the look out for novelty. Moreover in architectural criticism and historiography there is often a process of repetition at work that reaffirms the importance of what is already considered important and hence leads to an overvaluation of early works, because they will be mentioned over and over again (just as is happening here, by the way).

But it could be contended that the early works of Van Eyck are by far the most interesting. Next to the Orphanage stands one of his later projects, a speculative office building from the 1990s, which is the outcome of complex negotiation. In the mid-’80s the Orphanage was threatened with demolition but eventually preserved thanks to a successful international protest, initiated by Herman Hertzberger.

As a result, the building was saved, and to compensate the developer, he got permission to build on the adjacent plot. The Van Eycks − in later years Aldo’s wife Hannie was credited as designer as well − got the commission for both the renovation of the Orphanage, and for the new Tripolis office building (which has recently undergone an elegant interior renovation by Moriko Kira).

‘Aldo van Eyck was always going against the grain, opposing the mainstream, whatever that was’

The constraints of commercial real estate make it difficult for any architect to excel in this field, but even if that is taken into consideration, Tripolis obviously doesn’t give the same thrill as the Orphanage. The colourful facades of Tripolis − which follow Van Eyck’s adage that the rainbow is his favourite colour − cannot hide that it is less rich than the brownish-greyish Orphanage that reveals the power of place and occasion Van Eyck’s early work had to offer. Even the many playgrounds he designed while working for the Amsterdam municipality in the immediate postwar years, before he got the commission for the Orphanage, show his architectural poetry, although these projects are almost without any built substance.

Many of Van Eyck’s most exciting projects stem from his younger years, from the playgrounds in the 1940s, to his two other masterpieces from the mid-1960s: a pavilion for a 1966 sculpture exhibition in Arnhem (recently reconstructed in the gardens of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo), and a church that is both spatially and liturgically the most spectacular 20th-century ecclesiastical building in the Netherlands, the Pastoor van Ars church in the Hague (1963-69).  His later work has never surpassed the evocative force of the work he produced in this period.

During the construction of this church Van Eyck started teaching at the Delft Technical University, where he remained until the early ’80s. He inspired a whole generation of Dutch architects with his convincing pleas to counter the dominant functionalist Modernism of the 1960s with a humane alternative of small-scale, labyrinthine intimacy, and to challenge the arid rationalism by a more imaginative approach.

At the end of his life he witnessed a revival, with a large presentation, mainly of his early work, in the 1997 Kassel Documenta X. The exhibition, which he designed, was shown a year later in the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam. For its opening there he wrote a statement which reveals the tragic fate of the long shadow cast by his early work: ‘My position has not changed since the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, nor for that matter has the overall situation, other than that it has worsened. So falling back on the past was all right with me − in Kassel as it is here in Rotterdam. The truth is that the entire world of art and architecture has failed to contribute in any substantial way since, let’s say 1968.’

Aldo van Eyck

1918-1999

Education: Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, Zurich

Key buildings:
Municipal Orphanage, Amsterdam (1955-60),
Pastoor van Ars church,The Hague (1963-69)
Sonsbeek sculpture pavilion, Arnhem (1965-66

Quote:
‘Whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more’

 

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