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Het Nieuwe Instituut has digitised more than 15,000 letters, postcards and telegrams to and from the architect J.J.P. Oud (1890-1963). The correspondents include fellow architects such as Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson and Gerrit Rietveld and the letters contain personal anecdotes and project-related documentation.

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.

Formal idom

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.