Het Nieuwe Instituut collects not only drawings and models of design projects, but also materials produced during the design process, such as study materials, design sketches, correspondence, office administration, and materials that contain diverse information about the design process and the context within which the design was created. In some of the archives, the correspondence is complete and is well ordered. An excellent example is the archive of J.J.P. Oud.
Oud is seen as one of the pioneers of Functionalist architecture, he was a member of De Stijl and played an important role in the development of affordable (workers’) housing, principally in Rotterdam. He corresponded extensively with his peers and architect friends such as H.P. Berlage, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Matthieu Lauweriks, El Lissitzky, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Gerrit Rietveld, Bruno Taut and many others. He maintained a large network and kept his archive in good order. The correspondence includes typed and handwritten letters, invitations, telegrams and postcards relating to both business matters and his personal life. These documents provide a unique insight into the ideas and working methods of Oud and his colleagues and are thus an important resource for researchers.
In the second half of the 1920s, Rotterdam city council conducted research into workers’ housing in the city and perceived a need for affordable housing for low-income families. The Kiefhoek, a project that Oud worked on intensively between 1926 and 1930, was one of the responses to this housing shortage.With the resumption of slum clearance in 1925, many neighbourhoods were declared inhabitable, resulting in a shortage of homes for large families. While working on the design, Oud had regular contact with Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), who was then devoting much thought to simplicity and small dwellings. In 1928, he wrote to Oud: ‘I would be curious to see your solution to the problem of the small dwelling. If well planned, small dwellings strike me as a great way of simplifying life. I’m currently working on an interesting plan for a simplified living environment, i.e. industrialisation of work. If it succeeds I think it will be an interesting new direction.’Letter from Rietveld to Oud, collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut, OUDJ-B49 (1927) In a letter that Rietveld sent to Oud a year earlier, he expressed curiosity about Oud’s ‘little houses’, but there is nothing to be found in the correspondence about the Kiefhoek or Oud’s ideas about that project.
The contact between Oud and Rietveld remained friendly. On 6 January 1928 Rietveld wrote that he would be delighted to meet Oud and his wife again. Letter from Rietveld to Oud, 6 January 1928, collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut, OUDJ-B49 99:28:6 (or 19:28:6).Only four days later, Rietveld wrote to Oud to invite him to give a lecture at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and excused himself for not yet having made a date to meet. Letter from Rietveld to Oud, 10 January 1928, collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut, OUDJ-B49 01:82:64 He signed his letter ‘your friend Rietveld’.Letter from Rietveld to Oud, Collection Het Nieuwe Instituut, OUDJ-B57, 4 April 1929, 47:29:53 Het Nieuwe Instituut preserves the entire project archive for the Kiefhoek, including sketches, design drawings, blueprints and much more, all of which has been digitised and is available online.
J.J.P. Oud had an extensive international network. He maintained a close business and personal relationship with Walter Gropius, the founder and first director of the Bauhaus. Oud’s correspondence from the late 1920s is fascinating because of the sheer number of artists’ names mentioned and because of the gossip about De Stijl founder, Theo van Doesburg. In the early 1920s Oud had had a disagreement with ‘Doesje’ about the significance of colour in architecture, bringing their friendship to an abrupt end.In Oud’s earlier letters to Van Doesburg, he addressed him as ‘Doesje’ Gropius also had a problematic relationship with Van Doesburg. In 1923, he wrote to Oud that he was displeased by Van Doesburg’s attitude during encounters with him and wished to speak to Oud about this in person.Letter from Gropius to Oud, 1923, collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut, OUDJ-B11 A year later, Oud wrote to Gropius about the Bauhaus’s intentions, which he believed ought to be more serious than the school had given people to believe. In any case, the school should not adopt the ‘hobbies’ of peoples such as Van Doesburg.
By contrast, the teachers and students at the Bauhaus were full of praise for Oud. In a letter of 1923, Gropius wrote that everyone at the school spoke about him with love and respect. When, in March 1925, the Bauhaus was forced, due to political pressure, to move to Dessau, it was apparently able to rely on Oud’s support. László Moholy-Nagy, a teacher at the Bauhaus, wrote on this subject: ‘In unserer montanen schierigen Situation- wir haben eine kundgebung veröffentlicht, in gelöst erklärten- danke ich Ihnen für Ihre sendung und lieben brief.’Letter from Moholy-Nagy to Oud, 2 January 1925, collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut, B21, 21:25:3 Following the move to Dessau, Oud remained in contact with the Bauhaus but was unable to take up an invitation from the school’s second director, Hannes Meyer (1889-1954), to teach there because of his busy schedule: ‘Overworking is my “sickness”’.
Another colleague with whom Oud corresponded regularly was the American architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005), who was also a critic and a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is not clear from their letters when their friendship began or how they met. The first letters in Oud’s archive date from 1931. They exchanged thoughts about a variety of designs, models and buildings, and Johnson signed many of his letter with ‘love’ or ‘ever yours’. Despite their evidently friendly relationship, Johnson was frank in his criticism of some of Oud’s design, such as the Shell Headquarters building in The Hague.
The Shell Headquarters
In 1938, Oud won the commission to design the headquarters of the Bataafse Importmaatschappij (BIM), later Shell, in The Hague. The design differs from Oud’s earlier work in its rather traditional appearance with Neo-Classical elements. The building was partially destroyed by bombing in 1945, shortly after its completion. The restoration was completed in 1946, when the first press photos were published.
The contact between Johnson and Oud was interrupted by the war, but resumed in 1945 with a letter from Johnson dated 5 September: ‘Dear friend Oud, it is years since I have been in touch with you, I wonder how the war treated you and what you are doing now. [Sigfried] Giedion says that you built traditional buildings including one for the Shell Oil people that was quite conservative.Sigfried Giedion (1888-1968) was a Czech-Swiss architecture historian. His best-known publication is Space, Time & Architecture. I have seen only an interior purported to be by you on the Nieuw Amsterdam. But it did not look like your work. Tell me what you are doing.’ Letter from Johnson to Oud, 5 September 1945, collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut, 99:45:94. The letter ended with an offer to send Oud food, clothing or ‘whichever you think you need the most’.Ibid Oud replied on 24 September, requesting four bicycle tyres and enclosing a photograph of the Shell building: ‘Please notice that the cornice and the profiles of the semi-circular staircase at the end of the building are not yet finished by lack of bronze.’
After receiving the photographs of the Shell building, Johnson wrote a critical letter: ‘I do not know what to say. Maybe I ought to wait until I can see you and we can talk over the whole thing together. Frankly, to me the building looks like a return to Dutch tradition rather than the [next] step in international architecture. It is International only if Berlage was an International architect. No one but a Dutchman would have built it just that way. That is fine, but why call it International?’ Oud replied on 18 December 1945: ‘We have to explore always new terrains. I myself am sure that I did a bit of this in the Shell-building again and I hope that you too will find after studying it that I am right. If it is “conventional” to use anew the rules that as long as this world rolls had reigned good architecture than I am glad that I am “conventionally”.Letter from J.J.P. Oud to Philip Johnson, 18 December 1945, collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut, OUDJ-B100 It is noteworthy that in the correspondence between Oud and Johnson, the two men write a great deal about the Shell building and very little about the war.
Following Oud’s severe modernist designs of the 1920s, he experimented with an alternative formal idiom that was in some cases far removed from the ‘International Style’ that Johnson referred to in his letters. However, in the Netherlands the Shell building was the subject of far less criticism. Although the ornamental elements in the Shell building are not a feature of Oud’s subsequent buildings, the Shell building heralded the beginning of his later, less severe and more expressive work. Johnson’s critique and the building’s reception in England and America was therefore a bitter pill. After the Liberation, began with renewed enthusiasm on new designs. In 1955 he received an honorary doctorate from Delft University of Technology for his idiosyncratic approach.