Gerrit Rietveld, Schröder House
The first issue of a magazine entitled de Stijl was published in 1917. It promoted a
rational, mechanistic, abstract approach to architecture and design. The loose-knit
group was primarily based in Rotterdam, Holland. Its views differed sharply from the
prevailing attitudes of the Wendingen group in Amsterdam, which favored a
handicraft and figurative approach similar to the Arts and Crafts movement in
England. The principal figure of de Stijl was Theo van Doesburg who brought
together architects and artists under the banner head of this magazine. J.J.P Oud
was the dominant architect. He favored a mechanized approach, loosely based on
the popular views of Hendrikus Peter Berlage and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Painters included van Doesburg, Piet Mondrian and Bart van der Leck. Although
Mondrian and van der Leck were reluctant members since Oud saw architecture as
the mother of all arts. Van der Leck didn’t see art as being subordinate to
architecture, but rather as a form of expression that had developed independently
from architecture, destroying old and naturalistic methods through experimentation.
Because of the inherit split of opinion which emerged, de Stijl never achieved the
unity of vision that had characterized Futurism. The architectural wing had developed
along fairly traditional lines. Oud was particularly drawn toward the work of Berlage.
It was a rationalistic approach, which stressed the primacy of interior space. Walls
simply provided enclosure. Berlage felt that “decoration and ornament are quite
inessential while space-creation and the relationships of masses are its true
Berlage had relied on the proportional systems developed by Jan Hessel de Groot,
who compared the shaping of buildings from a vocabulary of architectural forms to
that of shaping words from letters, noting that form is “harmonious when its internal
relationships are such that it creates a whole.” Berlage would translate this to the
simple catch phrase “Unity is Plurality.” Berlage dismissed the prevailing Art
Nouveau style as “unrestful.” He felt that good proportions transcended style,
guaranteeing the permanent value of a building like that of the Roman ruins he so
much admired, which he felt had attained “a noble calm in great monumental
Oud could never reconcile himself with the painters in the de Stijl movement, who
had been moving toward an abstract, mechanistic art, which combined elements of
Cubism and Futurism. Mondrian and van Doesburg were experimenting with
overlapping rectangles with a free distribution of parts, loosely boxed in by lines.
This offered a broad range of compositional techniques which architects could apply
to space planning. Oud shunned this approach, however, relying more on the
tangible examples of Berlage and Wright.
Robert van t’Hoff attempted to reconcile the overlapping planar approach of Wright
with the abstract art of Mondrian and van Doesburg. Van t’Hoff had known Marinetti
and was drawn to the work of Sant’Elia, so he was much more sympathetic to the
artists than was Oud. However, van t’Hoff was never able to Oud continued to
dominate the group with his overbearing personality, insisting on a rationality in
architecture which increasingly grew more utilitarian. Reyner Banham felt this was
the result of the responsibilities he assumed when he became chief architect of
Rotterdam. While many of his essays reflected the prevailing mechanistic views of
the time, he still clung to classical lines in his architecture. Banham characterized
his architecture as academic aesthetics without academic detailing. A formal
classicism reduced to the most basic of volumes where space is given primacy over
De Stijl experienced numerous defections in 1921, forcing Theo van Doesburg to
take his message to other parts of Europe. He was able to retain Gerrit Rietveld, a
furniture maker, who had been experimenting with abstract chairs since 1917, and
Cor van Eesteren, both of whom were closer to the painterly spirit of de Stijl than had
been the previous architects in the group. Van der Leck had both left and Mondrian
remained in name only. Van Doesburg was able to coax Hans Richter, a former
Dadaist, and El Lissitzky, who had been instrumental in the Russian avant-garde,
briefly into the group. Van Doesburg created two imaginary members to round out
the group, seemingly in the Dadaist spirit.
It was during this time that de Stijl arrived at “a new machine aesthetic,” which was
derivative of the European “mechanical” view and the Russian “constructivist” view.
The proponents of this new aesthetic saw the various parts that comprised
architecture and design as “elements,” more or less hinged together by an abstract
supportive structure. The earliest physical example of this were Rietveld’s chairs but
now a formal ideology had been developed to suit the experiments that had
previously taken place. Reitveld described his chairs as standing free and clear in
space. Eventually, this approach became known as Elementarism, a term coined
by van Doesburg, but with roots in Russian Constructivism.
Rietveld would achieve the fullest synthesis of these ideas in the Schroeder House
(1925) in Utrecht. He had “removed the duality of interior and exterior,” by destroying
the enclosure. He devised a system of planar elements acting both horizontally and
vertically, hinged by thin metal frames of reference, so that the planes seemed to
exist in space.
Friedrich Kiesler had pushed this idea even further in La Cité dans l’Espace for
Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris that same year. Banham described it as “a
suspended construction of wooden rails and flat planes forming and occupying the
rectangularities of spatial grid in the regular Elementarist way.” Kiesler referred to it
as “a system of tension in free space.” This space-structure served as the ultimate
conclusion of the ideas of de Stijl and Elementarism.
These ideas were now widely distributed throughout Europe, but there was so much
overlapping ideology that it is difficult to sort out which influenced the other. Parallel
movements in France, Germany and Russia had arrived at many of the same
conclusions. Unfortunately, van Doesburg became hostile to the competing schools,
claiming that de Stijl had been the ideological forerunner. But, such claims carried
little weight. El Lissitzky had brought many ideas from Russia, such as the Proun,
which van Doesburg had freely absorbed into his magazines. The idea of
Elementarism can be traced to the non-objective paintings and theories of Kazemir
Malevich around 1915.
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Mondrian, Compostion in Blue
J.J.P. Oud, Café “De Unie”
Gerrit Rietveld, Red/Blue Chair
Abstraction in Art and Architecture