Sharp, energetic and handsome, Stam strode into the world of architecture at just 21
Reyner Banham called him the mystery man of modern architecture. Mart Stam seems to have been present at all the critical moments in history, but vaguely remembered, like someone we’re sure we should recall but can’t quite fix as to why.
His standing as a key Modernist is uncontested, yet his career is curiously lacking in the canonical projects that glean fame. Wasn’t he the inventor of the cantilever chair? ‘Do you know the chair by Mart Stam that only has two legs? Why have four legs, when you can have two?’ Schwitters asked, referring to a chair made of gas pipes, and looking like a very gawky Thonet.
Mart Stam’s portrait by Lheinrich
Stam grew up in the small town of Purmerend, Holland, among people of progressive beliefs and activist temperament. His mother was a member of the Social Democratic Party, and a vocal campaigner for universal suffrage. Mart, meanwhile, joined a temperance youth group that rambled through the countryside and held town meetings, singing, preaching and staging tableaux. ‘We young people want light and freedom instead of darkness,’ Stam wrote. Still in his teens, he started his first magazine along with two friends. Life Stage [Levensverdieping], subtitled, A Journal to Uplift Youth Seeking Purity pitched temperance, non-violence and vegetarianism. His character was already stamped by those distinguishing qualities: obstinance, idealism, courage and outspokenness. This young Stam was both devout and political; a Christian fired by the revolutionary struggle and a utopian inspired by Soviet Russia. In 1919, he spent six months in prison as a conscientious objector; he came out of prison a committed communist.
‘Do you know the chair by Mart Stam that only has two legs? Why have four legs, when you can have two?’
Sharp, energetic and handsome, Stam strode into the world of architecture around 1922. Aged just 21, he joined the Rotterdam design group Opbouw, abuzz with talk of design purity and industrial production. From this point on, he was on the move. After stints with Granpré Molière in Rotterdam, and Max Taut and Hans Scharoun in Berlin, he met up with Hans Schmidt, Alfred Roth and El Lissitzky in Zurich, where they founded the ABC group. The inevitable magazine, ABC – Beiträge zum Bauen, trumpeted a strict functionalism, invigorated by utopian, Soviet-inspired proclamations. ‘What is useful and practical, automatically clean!’ They promised smartly engineered structures, collaborative work, and a war on style. The pages wove images of Malevich’s Suprematist Black Square with Jan Wiebenga’s skeletal frames, and inspired theoretical projects by the ABC group, like Stam’s extendable house, an architecture of ‘pure function’, and his version of El Lissitzky’s Sky Hook.
Collage showing Stam and his projects
Stam was a rising star, but an impatient one. In 1923, in his first architecture article of his career, he critiqued both his former employer, traditionalist Molière, and the brisk Modernism of Jan Duiker. In ABC, he declared that the best things were always ‘remarkable only for their unpretentious righteousness’, and exed over an illustration of van Doesburg and van Eesteren’s Maison Particulière alongside Bonatz’s Stuttgart Main Station.
In 1926, he declined Gropius’s invitation to design an architecture curriculum for the Bauhaus; Hannes Meyer took the job. Shortly after, he quit work on the Van Nelle Factory for Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, charging that their design decisions lacked functionalist rigour.
ABC, the journal edited by Stam, Hans Schmidt, Alfred Roth and El Lissitzky
In 1927, Stam and Oud represented the Netherlands at the Weissenhofsiedlung. Stam was unsuccessful in attempting to turn the event into an experiment in cooperative housing. Still, he and Oud were the only architects restrained enough to fulfil the mandate to design model workers’ housing. Oud’s units are remembered for the kitchens and their oddly mute ‘fronts’.
Stam’s, though replete with folding walls and industrial hardware, are harder to recall. Stam himself was famously erased from the photograph of Corb and Mies striding through Weissenhof, but he turns up in the group photo at La Sarraz the following year.
Theosophical Church, Amsterdam (1926) Hellerhofsiedlung, Frankfurt (1926)
Housing at Weissenhofsiedlung, Stuttgart (1927)
Henry und Emma Budge Altersheim, Frankfurt (1929/30)
Barrack housing, Orsk, USSR (1933)
‘We young people want light and freedom instead of darkness’
The producers of furniture designed by Stam and Breuer fought a legal battle from 1929 to 1932 to decide which had invented the cantilever chair. Finally, Stam’s representatives won, but although the chair’s provenance remains unclear (and perhaps belongs to Breuer), the court did prove the importance of legal expertise in design
Urban development plan for Orsk, 1933
His two most distinguished built works were the Altersheim and Hellerhofsiedlung, both designed for the New Frankfurt programme directed by Ernst May. In 1928, he moved into one of the model row houses in the famous Römerstadt settlement, and commuted to Dessau to teach his course at the Bauhaus. He and Werner Moser won a competition for the Henry und Emma Budge Altersheim, a home for the middle-class elderly who had lost their capital in the hyperinflation. They called their entry ‘Collective’. With the Hellerhof settlement Stam was finally able to employ a prefabricated concrete panel system.
His predilection for slight frames and columnar structures breathed life into the stolid vocabulary of New Frankfurt settlements. With the younger members of the New Frankfurt team, he started another group, the Union of The New Frankfurt, to foster discussions and debates in the arts. And he pursued his own reputation, hiring the photographer Ilse Bing to record the Altersheim with her portable Leica in sharp angles and from unexpected vantage points. From Ella Bergmann-Michel he commissioned a film Altersheim: Wo Wohnen Alte Leute (Old Folks’ Home: Where Old People Live) and a second, unmade one on Hellerhof.
Model of Stam’s housing at Weissenhof, 1927
Within two years, the Frankfurt programme was ailing, the victim of politics and the economy. Stam left for Moscow in 1930 as one of the so-called (Ernst) May Brigade. The group had high hopes for the Neues Bauen in a socialist context, and Stam, at least, looked forward to building a communist utopia. For four years, the group lived and worked in primitive circumstances.
Given a virtually free hand by the state, if meagre resources, they built vast swaths of barrack housing in the frozen wastes of Magnitogorsk, Makejevka and Orsk. But it was no workers’ paradise. When Stam travelled to Balkhash, Kazakhstan, where the Soviets planned a new town and a copper plant, he reportedly told authorities that every ounce of copper won would cost a life. There was no love lost when a disillusioned Stam departed the USSR soon after.
Plan of Stam’s housing at Weissenhof, 1927
He and his wife, Lotte Stam-Beese, wandered back to the Netherlands in 1934. They started a firm with Willem van Tijen, and Stam joined the editorial board of the journal De 8 en opbouw, then vainly attempting to reassert functionalism as architecture’s single creed. Castigated as a red, Stam gained few commissions.
He worked as the director of what is now the Rietveld Academy through the war years and in 1948, chasing a second chance to build a perfect world, he moved to East Berlin with his then wife Olga Heller. He became director of the Berlin Weissensee Academy but then, in his usual blunt fashion, lambasted the state of art education, effectively challenging the official good-news policy of the GDR. He was accused of ‘cosmopolitan behaviour’ and expelled in 1952.
Advertisement for Thonet’s cantilever furniture
Stam faced more disappointment back home. His Amsterdam apartment towers of the 1960s elicited yawns from an audience from whom he once drew sparks. A diagnosis of thyroid disease was the crisis that changed everything. He rejected political utopianism and functionalist purity once and for all, with a renewed Christian faith taking their place. In 1966, he rejected the world. His excision from the Corb and Mies photo was nothing compared with the excision Stam perfomed on himself.
He and Olga disappeared. For the next 20 years they lived incognito, moving among hotels, spas and sanatoriums, never staying in one place long. As years passed, Stam’s friends believed him dead. Only once did he make contact, when, in 1985, he called a stunned Alfred Roth. They met for an afternoon of reminiscing. The next day, Mart and Olga were gone.