Obituary: Aldo van Eyck - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Obituary: Aldo van Eyck

FROM THE early Sixties, when design was increasingly being reduced to a problem-solving discipline, the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck defended the idea that architecture, beyond being merely functional, should be a bearer of meaning.

He gave new momentum to the notion of architecture as a language with an emotional impact and a social-cultural scope, as the primary visual medium with which human society expresses and reveals itself. He acted as the conscience of architecture and defended his humanist views with unremitting energy, often going against both the routines of established Modernism and the deviations of Post-Modernism.

Van Eyck from the outset occupied a distinct place in post-war architecture. From 1947, when he joined CIAM, the International Association of Modern Architecture, he took a critical attitude towards the prevailing functionalism. At a time when the building industry was abundantly endowed with commissions and plunged rather thoughtlessly into a euphoric flush of production, van Eyck was almost the only architect at the core of the modern movement to formulate a critique of modern architecture. He strongly opposed its reductive rationalism, its obsession with industrial production and its alienating abstractions.

Van Eyck held the conviction that 20th-century avant-garde art and science had revealed a new world view, inaugurating a "new reality" which he considered to be the most legitimate base for the development of contemporary culture. He set himself the life-task of actualising it in the field of architecture. That is why in the early Eighties he reacted so strongly against Post-Modernism, which he saw as an aberration, a betrayal of the original Modernist ideals.

His identification with the 20th-century avant garde did however not mean that he shut himself off from the past. He also developed an original outlook on tradition; he nurtured a long-lasting interest in the heritage of classical Western culture and the archaic constants of a wide variety of non-Western cultures. From this rich intellectual substrata, he evolved an architectural language of unusual eloquence.

Van Eyck was born in Holland in 1918, but grew up in England. He received a classical but unconventional education at King Alfred School, Hampstead (1924-32), and Sidcot School, Somerset (1932-35), where he concentrated on classic English literature, and nourished a passionate interest in Symbolist poetry from Blake to Yeats.

He studied architecture in the Hague (1935-38), and at the Zurich Eidgenossiche Technische Hoch-schule (ETH, 1938-42), where architectural design was largely dominated by the solid functionalism of Rudolph Salvisberg, he was taught among others by the Baroque art historian Linus Birchler, and attended the classical design course of the Beaux- Arts veteran A. Laverriere.

At the end of his Zurich studies van Eyck got involved in the Giedion circle, and became close friends with Carola Giedion-Welcker, who was one of the first classically schooled art historians engaged in an in- depth study of modern art. She introduced the young van Eyck into the world of the 20th-century avant garde and brought him in touch with such artists as Arp, Lohse, Vantongerloo, Giacometti, Ernst and Brancusi, and the Dadaist Tristan Tsara. This proved to be of fundamental importance for the constitution of van Eyck's world view and cultural ideology.

In 1943 he married Hannie van Roojen, a Dutch fellow student whom he met in Zurich. After the war, he returned to Holland and settled in Amsterdam where Cor van Eesteren engaged him in the Municipal Office of Public Works (1946-51). There he designed a large series of public playgrounds, enabling him to start the experimental development of his formal language.

At the same time he became involved in the Cobra Movement (1948-51). He took on the defence of its fiery artists and designed the lay-outs of their major exhibitions. In 1947 he became a member of the Dutch CIAM group "de 8 on Opbouw", which appointed him as a delegate to international CIAM. Both in national and international meetings, he took a critical stand from the start. In 1954 he founded, with Jaap Bakerna (Holland), Georges Candilis (France), Alison and Peter Smithson and John Voelcker (England), Team 10, the group of angry young architects who rejected the established analytical method of CIAM, and generated a new design approach based on "patterns of human association". Van Eyck proved to be one of the most inspired members of this group. He developed a personal version of the Team 10 ideology, a view he expounded in the Dutch architectural journal Forum, of which he was an editor from 1959 till 1963.

After some minor projects (houses, schools, exhibitions), he gave his ideas a fully elaborated form in the Amsterdam Orphanage (1955-60), "a house like a tiny city". This building earned world-wide admiration and was paradigmatic for a new design approach, the so-called "configurative" or "structuralist" approach which mainly developed in Holland. Meanwhile van Eyck made his ideas concrete: in the competition project for a Protestant church at Driebergen (1963, a prize-winning but unexecuted design), a Catholic church at the Hague (1964-69) and the Sculpture Pavilion for Sonsbeek (1965).

Afterwards he applied his approach in the context of historical towns, first in his competition design for the Deventer town hall (1966, another prize-winning but unexecuted project), and then in the urban renewal projects for the Amsterdam Nieuwmarkt and Jordaan quarters (1970), and for the inner cities of Zwolle (1971-75) and Dordrecht (1975-81). His most striking contextual building is the Hubortus House in Amsterdam, a home for single parents and their children (1978-81), which integrates a functionalist language within an eclectic context.

From 1983 Van Eyck worked in association with his wife Hannie. Their institutional projects such as a church for the Moluccan community of Deventer (1983-92), the ESTEC complex in Noordwijk (1994-89) and the Auditor's Office in the Hague (1992-97), were characterised by biomorphic forms and flowing space.

Unlike many modern architects, van Eyck did not limit his love of modern art to constructivist currents. He wished to embrace all avant-garde currents, from Cubism to Dadaism, from De Stijl to Surrealism. In spite of their mutual oppositions, he conceived them as the diverse aspects of the same rich new reality, which he moreover considered to be grounded on one fundamental idea: the idea of relativity.

Van Eyck used to summarise this view with a pithy statement of Piet Mondrian: "the culture of particular form is approaching its end. The culture of determined relations has begun". In this new culture, every frame of reference is equally legitimate, all standpoints are relative, every standpoint can be regarded as central. But relativity by no means stands for relativism. Relativity implies that things, in spite of their relative autonomy, are strongly related and that these relations are indeed as important as the things themselves.

To realise this paradoxical yet cheerful idea in architecture, van Eyck appealed to the proper spatial means of architecture. From his first designs, the Amsterdam playgrounds, he set up mutually shifting frames of reference, marked equivalent standpoints, and relativised the conventional spatial hierarchies by the establishment of eccentric centres and symmetries.

The environment he thus developed does not appear to be a universe of equal, repetitive spaces, but places of various measures and density which contrast with each other and disclose different perspectives. In the "new reality", opposites such as part-whole, unity-diversity, large-small, many-few, inside-outside, individual-collective must be reconciled in what van Eyck called a "twinphenomenon", an interaction of two opposites which only really show up by their mutual contrast.

Thus, small can only be appreciated in relation to large and vice versa. Van Eyck exemplified this idea with his 1960 metaphor of the large house and the small city: "A house must be like a small city if it's to be a real home; a city like a large house if it's to be a real city. In fact, what is large without being small has no more real size than what is small without being large. If there is no real size, there will be no human size."

Van Eyck frequently set forth his ideas in his teachings and major writings. He taught art history at the Enschede Art and Industry Academy (1951-54), architectural design at the Academy of Applied Art (1950-66) and the Academy of Architecture, both in Amsterdam. From 1966 to 1985 he was a professor at the Delft Polytechnic, and from 1966 to 1984 he was Professor of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

He received the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects (1990), the Fritz Schumacher Prize (1992) and the Wolf Prize (1998). He was knighted Officer in the Order of Oranje Nassau and Commander in the Order of the Dutch Lion (1998).

Aldo van Eyck, architect: born Driebergen, Holland 16 March 1918; married 1943 Hannie van Roojendied (one son, one daughter); died Amsterdam 14 January 1999.

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