The Story of a Different Way of Drawing
During archival research into the work of architects such as Piet Blom, Jan Verhoeven and Herman Hertzberger for the exhibition Structuralism, we encountered drawings that deviated from the conventional plans, sections and elevations. Instead they comprised abstract structures, geometric patterns with bright colours, visualisations of network-like cities, grids, collages and booklets. Intrigued about the origins and significance of these drawings, curator Ellen Smit initiated a research project with the help of an NWO museum grant. What were these architects actually drawing and why in this manner?
Text Ellen Smit
It was the architect Herman Hertzberger who introduced the term ‘Structuralism’ in 1966 at the presentation of his competition design for a new Town Hall for Valkenswaard in North Brabant. The term was then gradually adopted in the professional literature and is now defined as an architecture movement from the period 1959-80. Structuralist buildings marry human scale with a mix of uses, community, equal social relations and user-adaptability. Their designers were reacting against the division of function and the systematic and technocratic building practices that characterised the post-war reconstruction in the Netherlands. They found this approach too sterile, one-sided and too rigid, and formulated a more poetic and humane alternative, for which the article ‘Het verhaal van een andere gedachte’ (The Story of a Different Idea) in the magazine Forum (1959) was an important spur. Although there is an extensive literature on Dutch Structuralism, almost nothing has been written about the architectural drawings of this period. The collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut not only threw up the question about the significance of these drawings, but also provided me with the resources to find the answers: archives of key Dutch Structuralist architects such as Piet Blom, Jan Verhoeven, Theo Bosch, Joop van Stigt and Herman Hertzberger, and several files relating to Aldo van Eyck, form the core of the collection.
The aim of the research was to offer a better explanation of Structuralist drawings. I have done this by studying the place of drawing in architecture education and by analysing the drawings in the context of the design process.
A research project such as this not only increases our knowledge about architectural drawings, but also of Structuralism. Central to this project was not the constructed building but rather the conceptual and design processes that preceded it, within which drawings and other forms of architectural visualisation play a large role. From this perspective, I wanted to see if I might arrive at another vision of Dutch Structuralism. I also wanted to gain a greater insight into how and along what trajectory innovation in architectural culture unfolds.
I have conducted extensive research into what I call the ‘pre-history’ of Structuralism: the period before 1966, the year in which the term was first published. I have looked in detail at the teaching of design and drawing at the Academie van Bouwkunst (Architecture School) in Amsterdam in the period 1954-65, because the architects under discussion here either studied or taught there. I have also looked more broadly at the teaching of design and drawing through a study of the journal of the Nederlandse Vereniging voor Tekenonderwijs (Dutch Association of Teachers of Draughtsmanship), various instructional manuals on architectural drawing, and catalogues of drawing instruments. These publications deal extensively with ‘the search for the meaning of a structure’ and with the importance of relativity and simultaneity, as well as colour theory, biology, cultural anthropology and the visual arts. This makes the design culture much richer and more multidimensional: less unequivocal but more interesting. I noticed that the architects under discussion were reinventing their own design tradition and that they internalised other disciplines such as art, biology and cultural anthropology, which stimulated a Structuralist design culture.
I have conducted research into more than ten cases in the archive of Het Nieuwe Instituut.
These include the Centraal Beheer office building by Herman Hertzberger (Apeldoorn, 1968-72), the Speelhuis theatre and housing by Piet Blom (Helmond, 1972-76), the various entries for the design competition for Amsterdam City Hall (1967) and the urban regeneration of the Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood in Amsterdam (1969-70) by Theo Bosch, Aldo van Eyck, Guus Knemeyer and Paul de Ley. To gain greater insight into the specific function of the drawings in the design process, I also conducted interviews with architects, including Paul de Ley and Herman Hertzberger and former employees of various architecture practices, such as Fridjof van den Berg, who worked for Gert Boon.
On the one hand, the design drawings exhibit an extreme fascination with rational systems and mathematical structures, which are representations of a new society. On the other hand, the drawings communicate emotion and personal expression.
Through this synthesis of form and feeling, they touch upon one of the larger themes of the twentieth century: reconciling a rationally organised, large-scale society with more human values such as personal expression, individuality and emotion.
My research shows that the abstract manner of visualisation is rooted in an early-twentieth-century tradition of teaching art, architecture and drawing, in which a naturalistic representation of reality was replaced by geometric abstraction and a psychological use of colour. This approach was still alive and kicking in the 1950s and 1960s at the Academie van Bouwkunst in Amsterdam and is evident in its design method. I discovered that architects schooled in this visual idiom sought new ways of visualising their design ideas. This did this not only through colour but also by employing speech and language. They found inspiration not only in pre-war avant-garde abstract art but also in contemporary movements such as Provo, CoBrA and Minimalist art.
The teaching of art, architecture and drawing in the Netherlands in the mid-twentieth century was influenced by ideas and methods that emerged in German-language art and architecture history around 1900.
Two important authors in this respect were the art and architecture historians Heinrich Wölfflin and Wilhelm Worringer and. They replaced a diachronic vision of art with a synchronic view and a structural explication based on formal and visual associations between contemporaneous art forms and those of the past. In his Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (1915), for example, Wölfflin introduced fundamental principles for the practice of art history, consisting of polarities such as plane/depth and open/closed. He posited that not only did art develop on the basis of these polarities but that they also provided the means to research art in a scientific manner. In his publication Abstraktion und Einfühlung (dissertation, 1907), Worringer also employed such polarities and connected expression and experience with abstraction, construction and non-naturalistic representation.
During my research, I found a 1961 reading list issued by the Cultural History department of the Academie van Bouwkunst that included Wölfflin’s 1915 German-language publication. I found it remarkable that in 1961 students would be studying an art historical methodology from 1915. As I explored further, it transpired that these theoretical ideas were introduced to the Netherlands primarily by Aldo van Eyck. During his studies at the ETH Zurich from 1938 to 1942, Van Eyck had attended lectures in art and architecture history by Linus Birchler, who discussed numerous art movements on the basis of Worringer’s Abstraktion und Einfühlung and Wölfflin’s polarities. In Zurich, Van Eyck befriended the art historian Carola Giedion, who introduced him to avant-garde art and the art historian and theorist Sigfried Giedion. Giedion, whose doctoral thesis was supervised by Wölfflin, discussed the importance of human scale and the emotional impact of buildings in his theoretical writings on architecture. Back in the Netherlands, Van Eyck transmitted these ideas with great conviction and élan, first as a lecturer at the Academy of Art and Design (AKI) in Amsterdam, from 1954 at the Academie van Bouwkunst, from 1959 as an editor of Forum, and later at Delft University of Technology. This dual thinking (the concept of simultaneity and so-called ‘twin phenomena’) not only formed the basis for a new design method, but also stimulated the acceptance of other disciplines such as visual art, cultural anthropology and biology as equal fields of knowledge within architectural design.
The teaching of art and architecture in the early 1950s was focused not on the transmission of aesthetic forms but on the exploration of cultural manifestations in the broadest possible sense.
An important stimulus for this inclusive form of education was the essay ‘Musee Imaginaire’ (1947) by the French art historian and philosopher André Malraux. Joop Hardy, lecturer, artist and philosopher of culture, drew attention to Malraux’s ideas in his lectures, which brought together images, texts and objects from all periods and corners of the earth, without hierarchy or scholarly knowledge. He was concerned with stripping images of their textual or geographic context and being moved by ‘primitive’, foreign or anonymous buildings and diverse cultural manifestations. From 1954, architects such as Aldo van Eyck, Jan Snellebrand, Cora Nicolai-Chaillet, Dick Apon and Joop Hardy gave lectures on colour theory, cultural history, art history (archaic art, avant-garde art), architecture history (cultural anthropology and archaic forms of dwellings), morphology, free-hand drawing, and explored the relationship between space and art. The lectures on colour theory explored the primary and secondary colours, colours as ‘twin phenomena’, the colour theories of, among others, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, and the psychological and emotional effects of colour. Klee’s theoretical ideas, including those about shifting perspectives in art and the emotional meaning of a drawn line, and his colour theory were introduced to the Netherlands via his publications and through the teaching of art, architecture and drawing.
In his drawing classes, Jan Snellebrand encouraged students ‘to free themselves from an overly naturalistic manner of sketching and instead to capture the essence of the material or subject in a few lines.
He also advised students to use the colours Indian yellow, Prussian blue and carmine, to draw the structures of crystals, and to study the structures of bird formations, honeycomb and animal skeletons, stressing a relationship between biological systems and spatial design. In the lectures on architecture and architectonic design, the focus moved away from a rational analysis of the brief towards an interpretation of related life forms, which the students had to visualise in an illustrative and convincing form. The students’ drawings show a shift from a design based on the distribution of functions to an integral design approach with the emphasis on a cohesive spatial structure. Some of these design drawings exhibit the principles of ‘basic design’ that Aldo van Eyck had taught earlier in his art-history classes at the AKI (1951-54) and had applied in his urban planning design for Nagele, which was published in Forum. This design method was characterised by square and rectangular forms that interlock to create configurations of rotating patterns. Van Eyck later explicated this design method in a publication on ‘Configurative Design’ (1962). In the 1960s, this became a fully-fledged discipline within design education.
Instead of an additive design method in which functions are strung together as individual volumes to create an architectural design, these drawings exhibit an all-embracing design approach aimed at mixing uses and the integration of spaces and a partial overlap of different levels of scale.
To an extent, this approach is akin to the formal design method and spatial hierarchies of plans in the nineteenth-century tradition of the École des Beaux-Arts and the École Polytechnique. These geometric plans are based on a grid and modular dimensions, with longitudinal axes, transverse axes and symmetry. K.P.C. de Bazel and Mathieu Lauweriks also made designs based on systems, geometric relations and colour as a structuring principle, but then from a Theosophical perspective. Structuralist designs are typically designed on the basis of a grid. The grid’s smallest unit of measure (the cell) can be determined in a variety of ways. In the case of the majority of the architects under discussion, it was determined on the basis of a careful analysis of the brief. Explications of the designs describe ‘the cell’ as the carrier of the design’s DNA. The doubling, multiplying, mirroring and stacking of this module constitute the building blocks of the entire design, horizontally, vertically and diagonally. Once this structure is established, in theory the design could be expanded ad infinitum. Research into Joop van Stigt’s work has shown that the construction method was decisive for his design. Research into Blom’s designs for the Speelhuis theatre and surrounding housing complex shows that the tension between the need for high-density accommodation and sufficient daylight was decisive for the dimensions of the cube house (the smallest cell).
The use of colour in the drawings examined is almost always symbolic. The most frequently used colours are the primary colours, red, yellow and blue, the secondary colours, purple, orange and green, and pink (magenta). Black and dark brown were also used.
My research has shown that the application of colour had various functions. Many colourful drawings/visualisations are design and study drawings in which colour is used to figure out the structure of the design or in which the colour represents different design variants. In other designs, the colour served as a code within communications about the design between the architect and the various draughtsmen (e.g. Bosch, Hertzberger). Blom also used his colourful abstractions for exhibitions and publications, some of which talked of ‘Escher-like’ drawings.
Although I haven’t found any extensive writings by the architects on their use of colour, for the majority of them there was a certain logic to their palette: in his designs, Hertzberger used yellow and other light colours for the communal spaces, which he considered the most important, and darker colours for less important spaces such as private spaces and storage areas. Verhoeven employed the same graphic effect in his colour studies for Drienerlo, in which the light colours ‘illuminate’ the communal spaces, while the darker colours for private and storage spaces recede into the background.
Colour was deployed to clarify structures and relationships during the design process.
So, although I have found no evidence of a consistent use of colour or a single dominant colour theory, there was great interest in colour in the 1950s and 1960s. For example, there was a significant amount of contact between architects and artists in those years because colour was seen as an important visual element within spatial and architectural design. Van Eyck and Constant, for example, worked together on the Paarsblauwe Kamer (Purple-Blue Room) in the Mens en Huis (Man and House) exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1952) and on the publication Voor een spatiaal colorisme (For a Spatial Colourism, 1953), which married abstraction, emotion and the use of colour in architectural design. The colour theories of Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, all former teachers at the Bauhaus in Germany, the chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, and artist Richard Paul Lohse attracted great interest in the Netherlands in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. These artists drew a link between abstract art and the psychological effects of colours. They had also written about various colour systems and how colour effects people’s moods. The architects under discussion here became acquainted with the ideas of these artists through their publications and their works, which were shown in several exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, including De Stijl in 1951 and Kleur (Colour) in 1958, through their architectural training and through articles published in Forum magazine. The folder accompanying the Kleur exhibition, for example, emphasised the optical and psychological effect of colour in the works of the Impressionists, through which colour became an independent means of expression in non-figurative art. Richard Lohse, for example, discussed with Van Eyck whether the visual grammar of colour could be applied to architectural design, and also published on this subject. Van Eyck expressed his views on this subject in ‘Het Verhaal van een andere gedachte’ (The Story of a Different Idea) in Forum in 1959.
The results of the research will be made visible over the coming years in various projects.
The Structuralist drawing could be part of the larger research project entitled ‘Total Space’. An online digital drawing catalogue is a serious option. Many of the drawings were digitised for this research project and are already accessible online. Another possibility is a series of publications written from different perspectives or which explore aspects of the research in greater depth. A short article has already been published in the magazine Volume. The knowledge acquired about these drawings during this research also provides a valuable basis for conservation and restoration; many of the drawings from this period are very fragile. For example, we want to investigate how to conserve drawings with ink from felt-tip pens, which fades very quickly. Another ambition is to make the research visible in education. This began already at the beginning of 2017 in the form of a seminar with architecture history students at the VU University in Amsterdam.
It is not the case that after six months of research your questions are exhausted. We could do much more research into the influence of other disciplines, such as biology, the visual arts and cultural anthropology on Dutch Structuralism. The role of the international context on Structuralist thinking is also interesting. By looking at the design process and the teaching of drawing, art and architecture, I have added a nuance to the historical context of Dutch Structuralism. It is precisely through examining these processes and developments that it has become clear that the architectural representation of Structuralism was not an isolated phenomenon but was related to the teaching of art and architecture in the early years of the twentieth century. The research thus shows that a new relationship to historical knowledge and skills plays a role in the renewal of architectural culture.