The Search for the Absolute: The Architecture of De Stijl
Beyond the paintings of Piet Mondrian, the other manifestation of De Stijl that has imprinted the memory of the art world is its distinctive architecture. Indeed, it was architecture that caused the most disagreement among the artists. From 1922 on Theo van Doesburg devoted himself to the cause of a modern architecture appropriate to modern times. With the primary painters, Bart Van Der Leek and Mondrian, drifting away, van Doesburg sought to promote De Stijl primarily in terms of the built environment. In fact it was through architecture that De Stilj finally became known in Europe through exhibitions in Paris and Berlin. Associated with the Bauhaus, van Doesburg made sure that his architects were presented as part of a wider effort in Germany and in Russia to revolutionize architecture. Sadly, the efforts of all of these architects would be halted by the Second World War. Still the De Stijl architects managed to build a few private homes and two notable attempts at small public buildings.
The absolutism inherent in De Stijl could be linked to the practical in architecture, that is, mass-produced elements allowed architecture to achieve a uniform, stripped-down reduced look. The idea of a modern architecture, or what we would call “modernist architecture,” was already in the wind. In his book, Art in Vienna, Peter Vergo stated, “Only in the buildings of Adolf Loos, with his disdain of elaborate ornament, does one find he beginnings of a wholly modern style in architecture…” Loos himself insisted in his famous 1908 manifesto, “Ornament and Crime,”
It is easy to reconcile ourselves to the great damage and depredations the revival of ornament had done to our aesthetic development, since no one and nothing, not even the power of the state, can hold up the evolution of mankind. It can only be slowed down. We can afford to wait. But in economic respects it is a crime, in that it leads to the waste of human labor, money, and materials. That is damage time cannot repair. The speed of cultural development is hampered by the stragglers. I am living, say, in 1912, my neighbor around 1900, and that man over there in 1880.
Loos, as Le Corbusier remarked, “…swept the path before us. It was a Homeric cleansing: precise, philosophical, logical. He has influenced the architectural destiny of us all.” From Vienna to Paris, Loos waged war on architectural eclecticism and the baroque assemblage of meaningless ornamentation torn from its original context and piled into a mass of decoration. Clearly, architecture in the nineteenth century was mired in the past and it was the task of modern architects to define modernist architecture. Van Doesburg had long been concerned with relationship between painting and architecture.
“When everything has been expressed on the present level of painting, new aesthetic potential will emerge therefrom for extending the scope of expressive possibilities,” he stated and continued, “…a monumental cooperative art is what the future holds. In this new form, various spiritual means of expression (architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature) will be universally realized…”
While Van Der Leek rejected any such connection between painting and architecture, the idea of applying absolutism to both art forms seems logical. In fact, although he insisted that painting had to be an independent medium, Mondrian could envision that with NeoPlasticism “…the abstract real…or picture will disappear as son as we transfer its plastic beauty to the space around us through the organization of the room into color areas…” Van der Leek made the distinction between the powers of NeoPlaticism in painting to dissolve the materiality of “naturalism” and architecture, which was characterized by “the space-restricting flatness…” Without debating whether or not the characteristics of the De Stijl style could be applied to architecture or not, it is more helpful to understand that the artists were trying to create a new form of architecture for a new world.
Like Adolf Loos, who had traveled to New York, the De Stijl architects were impacted by architecture in America, a new country that was erecting new kinds of buildings. Some of the architects associated with De Stijl were followers of Frank Lloyd Wright. Anti-monumental anti-ornamental architecture had to be in keeping with character of city streets and new building materials, both of which were geometric for the sake of efficiency. Architects such as Van’t Hoff were inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in America. In fact, Robert van’ t Hoff had worked for Wright and his Huis-ter-Heide, in its turn, inspired Gerrit Rietveld. Wright’s Prairie Style of flat roofs over long low structures seemed especially suitable for the flat landscapes of Holland. But, most importantly, Wright opened up the closed spaces of the Victorian structure into what is called today “the open plan.” He also made sure that his early work was responsive to the surroundings and this is where Wright and De Stijl would ultimately separate. De Stijl sought, not the local, but the absolute, and its buildings make no concession to their environment.
As architect J.P.P. Oud said, “Though the importance of a work of art can only be judged from an absolute point of view, the significance of an act can only be appreciated according to a relative standard.” For his part, Oud proposed use of mass production for limited number of standard types that would be a new urban architecture with a “form follows function” philosophy. However, the most famous De Stijl work of architecture was the well-known Schröder House by cabinetmaker Gerrit Rietveld, and this home was thoroughly individual. Still, the Schroder House uses certain elements of mass architecture to its advantage: reinforced concrete over steel. Rietveld collaborated with his client, Madame Truus Schöder-Schrader and completed her Utrecht home in 1924. Thanks to modern construction, this house could fulfill van Doesburg’s 1924 Manifesto on architecture, demanding the “elementary, economic, functional, formless, unmonumental, asymmetry, afrontality, and anti-decorative.” According to van Doesburg,
“The new architecture has broken through the wall and in so doing has completely eliminated the divorce of inside and out. The walls are non-load-bearing; they are reduced to points of support. And as a result there is generated a new open plan, totally different from the classic because inside and outside space interpenetrate.”
Therefore, architecture is anti-cubic, anti-symmetrical and anti-gravitational, the elements float and hover. Despite the connections between van Doesburg and the attempts in Russia and Germany to rebuild the world, De Stijl architecture is uniquely Dutch, ironically, because it translated Mondrian’s principles into architecture. In distinction to the uniformly whiteness of Weisenhofsiedlung, De Stijl buildings were white, with the floating exterior white planes augmented with red, yellow, blue and black trim. The weightlessness of the floating sections is countered by the grey stucco on other segments. The bold use of blocks of color is even clearer inside the Schröder House compared to the all-white interior of its contemporary, the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusiner. Rietveld, the furniture maker, absorbed furniture into the house with built-ins and fashioned sliding panels to close off the open spaces into “rooms.” Walls, floors, furniture—all were dissolved into disconnected sections of red, blue, yellow, or black that mobilized the space. Daringly, in this cold climate, the walls were opened to expanses of glass, making the house seem even lighter weight.
In keeping with the idea of an interior space being a total work of art, Rietveld invented new furniture for his new design. Wright had seen the necessity of such control, if only because of the unsuitability of existing furniture for the modern interior. The most famous of Rietveld’s furniture for the Schröder House is the Red/blue Chair, which had yellow tips, like full stop periods, on the blunt wooden ends. Utterly without padding or comfort, countering Victorian upholstery, this chair is a pair of floating planes, red and blue, held together by black posts and lintels. Inspired by William Morris’s groundbreaking recliner, the bare wood design became the Red/blue Chair of 1918 and fit beautifully into its new home, where it became one of the most famous chairs of all time.
In his article, “The Furniture of Gerrit Rietveld. Manifestoes for a New Revolution,” Martin Filler showed a number of illustrations that showed the designer’s evolution and struggle to keep his furniture simple. His Beachwood Sideboard of 1919 anticipates Art Deco, but it is fussy compared to his Berlin Chair and his Side Table of 1923. Filler made the case that the Red/blue Chair was more sculpture than furniture and one could also add, more painting than chair. Indeed, other examples of De Stijl architecture indicate how tempting it is to devolve into decoration. As seen in Café de Unie of 1925 and Café Aubette of 1927, when the De Stijl colors are used in small planes, rather than for large architectural areas, then the interiors become irritating and betray a certain nostalgia for fin-de-siecle Art nouveau. Destroyed in the Nazi bombing of Rotterdam, Oud’s design (now restored) was far more successful than the collaborative work of van Doesburg and the Arps, Jean and Sophie-Taeuber. Although the Café is considered today (by some) to be a success, van Doesburg’s architectural statement and the artists’ interior was unpopular with the clients and was wiped out in 1928, perhaps because of the rather dizzying array of blocks of bright color. De Stijl architecture would come fully into its own after World War II as a kind of national style of Holland.
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.