Archive | June 2013

Book Review: Aesthetics of Sustainability

Book Review: Aesthetics of Sustainability

I reviewed Aesthetics of Sustainability in April 2012 and it continues to haunt me. Even though sustainability is often discussed, we rarely want to face the deeper questions about our patterns of consumption, the madness of economic growth in a world of finite resources and how to combat vested economic interests. This cocktail of issues is naturally incredibly difficult to address, and it is good to take inspiration from people like Ralph R. Knowles, for instance, who has been exploring alternatives for a long time.

Ralph Knowles


Raymond Neutra on the VDL Research House

Raymond Neutra – VDL Research House: Dutch connections

There is a long standing connection between Het Nieuwe Bouwen (New Objectivity architecture) in the Netherlands and modernism in the US. The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright on modernism in the Netherlands is well known; through Berlage, van ‘t Hoff, Jan Duiker, Jan Wils, W.M. Dudok, Gerrit Rietveld, and others the prairie style was adapted to Dutch domestic living. Soon after the pendulum swung and the experiments in Europe inspired architects in the United States. A very interesting connection exists between Richard Neutra and Cees van der Leeuw (the director of the Van Nelle Factory, see my book review on the monograph of the architects Brinkman & van der Vlugt, a book on the architects who designed the factory building).

Van der Leeuw had read “Wie baut Amerika?”  and was eager to meet Neutra. When Neutra visited Europe to attend the CIAM conference in Brussels in 1930, van der Leeuw invited him to stay at his modernist house in Rotterdam.

There is the famous anecdote that Cees van der Leeuw, on a later visit to Neutra in Los Angeles, asked him why he did not build his own house, upon which Neutra replied that he did not have the money. Van der Leeuw drew his check book and asked “How much do you need?”. Modest Neutra did not accept the money as a gift, but took out an interest free loan of $3000.-, which was an adequate sum at the time. What is less well known, however, is that Neutra was deeply impressed by van der Leeuw’s house in Rotterdam (designed, again, by Brinkman & van der Vlugt in 1928) (pictured above) and hailed it as follows:

“It was the most modern house I had ever dreamed of […]. An assembly of technical novelties, from English sheet rubber to cover the floors and winding metal stairways to microphonic conversations at the entrance and from room to room, exhausts for cigarette smoke as soon as it left the mouth; organization down to a complicated dashboard of switches over our guest beds to activate all kinds of illumination, move the window drapes, electronically turn on hot and cold water in the bathroom.” (From Neutra, Life and Shape, pp. 252-57)

The connection eventually led to the building of the VDL (van der Leeuw) research house by Neutra, and in this lecture  Raymond Neutra, the son of Richard, explains these connections in greater detail.

Neutra's VDL Research House 1, Los Angeles 1932

Neutra’s VDL Research House 1, Los Angeles 1932

In response to Raymond Neutra’s lecture three remarks:

1. The Theosophical Society building in Amsterdam, which was designed by Brinkman & van der Vlugt, in which Neutra recognises a Wrightian influence, in fact predates the Guggenheim Museum by 15 years. The architect who received the job first, (and whose name Neutra does not remember), is K.P.C. de Bazel. He was a contemporary to Berlage and designed ‘De Bazel’ a former bank building and now the city archive of Amsterdam. De Bazel died before the job started and Brinkman and Van der Vlugt were commissioned. The building is now a public library.

Theosophical Society Building Amsterdam, Brinkman & van der Vlugt Architects 1927

Theosophical Society Building Amsterdam, Brinkman & van der Vlugt Architects 1927

2. I don’t think Loos ever said “Ornament is Crime”. The title of the manifesto was “Ornament und Verbrechen”, Ornament and Crime, in typical Loosian fashion is ironic rather than explicit!

3. Cees van der Leeuw’s name is Cornelis (Cees) Hendrik van der Leeuw, not Cornelius. I have noticed a lot of misspellings out there! I also never heard before that he was from an aristocratic family, as Neutra claims. He was from a merchant’s family. In the Dutch context the prefix “van” or “van der” does not necessarily denote nobility. The word “van” can just mean “from”, i.e. that your family originally came from a place. The Dutch painter Kees van Dongen, for instance, most likely has family roots around the town of Dongen.


Book Review: Brinkman & van der Vlugt Architects

van nelle fabriek

The Dutch modernists architectural practice Brinkman & van der Vlugt is mostly known for the Van Nelle factory (1925-1931). This building is an excellent example of New Objectivity architecture (Neue Sachlichkeit), and its quality is, in my mind, on par with the Bauhaus building in Dessau by Walter Gropius. As a matter of fact, the director of the Van Nelle company at the time; C.H. van der Leeuw, was a visionary figure who traveled extensively and befriended many avant-garde architects. He corresponded with Gropius, Richard Neutra, and many others and traveled to the United States in preparation for the building of the factory.  When he met Neutra, he decided to sponsor the building of his private house with an interest free loan, which later became known as VDL  research house (acronym of Van der Leeuw). He was, apart from his interest in the avant-garde, also a key figure and patron of the international Theosophical Society, where he met Annie Besant and Krishnamurti.

Due to the strong association of the architectural office with the Van Nelle factory, the architects Brinkman & van der Vlugt are sometimes understood as commercial architects who were serving their clients’ needs rather than being innovative figures by and of themselves. They were, in short, somewhat overshadowed by the influential Kees van der Leeuw. Given the fact that in 1922 Van der Vlugt had already done a modernist school in Groningen, (with J.G. Wiebenga), and that Brinkman designed the iconic Spangen housing block with so called ‘streets in the sky’ in the same year, (which later influenced the Smithsons), this reading of history is in serious need of correction. Most of the original literary sources on Dutch modernism are in Dutch, German and French language publications, which makes an English language monograph, in theory at least, welcome. It is quite unfortunate, however, that the architecture is continuously described in the book as “International Style”, – which is the reductive and unfortunate positioning of European modernism as a ‘style’-, and that the commercial rather than the creative and artistic influences are predominantly traced in this book. The sources for the architecture of the office of Brinkman & van der Vlugt are, in fact, much more wide-ranging and complex, and it is quite difficult to maintain, given the unmarketable reputation of the New Objectivity and the economic crisis of 1929, that commercial motives were the main driver of this innovative practice.

For a better account of the architecture of the office I would rather refer you to Dutch language sources, but for those who are not fluent in Dutch, the book does form a nice first introduction to the variety of the work of these important architects.

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