Great movements in architecture are usually set in motion by a dull societal ache or as a response to a sudden, unforeseen reorientation of a community at large. The Dutch city of Rotterdam - vast swathes of which were cast into oblivion during the blitz of May 1940 - has been at the forefront of many shifts in approach to the built environment. It is therefore fitting that the latest exhibition at the Nieuwe Instituut (formerly the NAi), simply titled Structuralism, is being held in the city that was recently named Europe’s best.
Furthermore, Dutch Structuralism is a timely subject for Dirk van den Heuvel and the Jaap Bakema Study Centre (JBSC) in Delft to tackle. With major civic buildings like OMA's extension to Rotterdam's City Hall taking shape, it appears that a resurgence of Structuralist formal thought is appearing in the contemporary city. The exhibition seeks to shine a new light on the movement by uncovering drawings, models and texts which profoundly shaped 20th century architectural thinking.
The structuralist movement itself was born in Amsterdam, a short train journey north of Rotterdam. Having crystallised during discussions at the CIAM congresses and Team10 meetings, it offered a compelling alternative to the rationalist, often bureaucratic post-war constructions of the 1950s. By the 1970s the term ‘structuralism’ had been firmly cemented into architectural discourse and its most famous advocates emerged: Aldo van Eyck, Herman Hertzberger, and Jaap Bakema. They spoke for a new type of social space which facilitated interaction, imagination and experimentation, with the implicit ideal for people to ‘realise their full potential’ through architecture.
The birth of Structuralism in The Netherlands came about through “a unique confluence of people and events.” As van den Heuvel explains, “van Eyck and Joop Hardy were teaching at the Academy of Architecture [in Amsterdam]” in which a relatively open studio system allowed for standout students like Piet Blom and Joop van Stigt to “fanatically pursue a new approach in architectural design.” This fresh approach saw architecture as a practice embedded in society and cities - an awareness that buildings and urbanism sit as small fragments of a much wider social structure. This arrangement, made up from “a concatenation of events and encounters,” saw buildings “no longer conceived of as an autonomous, solitary object, but as a piece of fabric enmeshed in a web of interrelations.” Ruth Benedict described it as "patterns of culture"; Alison Smithson coined the term "mat-building".
Set out as an "installation in four acts," the composition of the exhibition itself encapsulates this ideology: the exhibition material is emulsified into a central piece of furniture coated in coral red paint. Exhibition designers Lada Hršak and Vesna Poljančić (Bureau LADA) were well placed to fabricate this intramural terrain: as a student at the Berlage Institute (when it was based in Amsterdam) Lada spent time studying in Aldo van Eyck's seminal Municipal Orphanage in Amsterdam (1960). She recollects that “it is amazing how flexible it was,” and the notion of flexibility within limited means became a direct inspiration for the miniature mega-structure she crafted to house the archival material on display. Alongside its aesthetic attributes, the exhibition’s four acts also allowed for the installation to become an instrument for research in its own right. Its layout facilitated opportunities to rediscover the archives and explore new combinations in which it can be displayed.
Incisions within the central installation allow you to nest yourself within the furniture. Inspired by the archival chests of London’s Soane Museum, the act of opening a drawer and revealing its contents is a pleasure akin to uncovering material from the archive of the Nieuwe Instituut itself. It is an installation of scales: immaculate ink drawings and newspaper cuttings are presented in their aged tones of yellowish-white, waiting to be stumbled upon, while a topography of models and large scale drawings define the surrounding surfaces. Above, a circular lantern imprinted with some of the definitive photographs from Structuralist buildings can be lowered down to meet a submerged rotunda, or “conversation pit”, in which the weekly Salons Structuralistes has been held by the JBSC. An assortment of reclaimed furniture, rescued from antique shops across Amsterdam and also coated in a striking coral red colour, have seen audiences listen to the likes of Herman Hertzberger and Kenneth Frampton in conversation.
Although the majority of the work exhibited is taken from the archives of the Nieuwe Instituut, certain objects have been given on personal loan. One model, lent by Tess van Eyck (the daughter of Aldo van Eyck), is of a playground nestled on a plot behind a tight collection of canal houses in Amsterdam. Dirk van den Heuvel reminds me that in the 1950s the Dutch capital “was a very poor city” where inner-city slums were commonplace. Van Eyck designed over seven hundred of these play areas devoted to children’s recreation, developed from his writings. Max Risselada talks of one book in particular, The Child, the City and the Artist, which stems directly from this work. For van den Heuvel, these playful voids inserted into the city were like “a pattern of snowflakes of temporary events.” The colourful compositional interventions that van Eyck experimented with in Amsterdam were microcosms of the larger projects he and his fellow advocates would construct over the latter quarter of the 20th century.
Many buildings constructed by architects of the Structuralist movement still exist. In Rotterdam, Piet Blom's famous Cube Houses and residential tower of Oude Haven are a peculiar architectural oddity for tourists. Next door, Rotterdam’s Central Library designed by Van den Broek en Bakema, remains an important civic hub. Although both sit well in the urban fabric of the city, building in Amsterdam for Structuralist architects meant something very different. Within the knotted weave of canals and slender brick merchant houses Aldo van Eyck and Theo Bosch constructed the Faculty of Humanities for the University of Amsterdam (1984), a building which is also a piece of the city, sat within an urban cavity. The large format drawings presented in the exhibition give you a unique sense of its size and stepped form. Voids and staircases climb up through the spaces which line an internal avenue topped with glazing. Although its position on Spuistraat has been brought into question in recent years, it seems that the general consensus is in favour of adaptive reuse rather than demolition.
One part of the exhibition you might be forgiven for missing is a small library of paperbacks positioned along one edge of the central furniture installation. Following the discovery of one of Joop Hardy’s reading lists, who was himself one of the editors of Forum magazine in 1959, van den Heuvel went about assembling the collection in print. From an abundance of texts on psychoanalysis to the writings of Nicholas Pevsner, browsing the books becomes a very tactile window into Hardy’s (and by proxy the Structuralists') mind. Most interestingly, a book by Margaret Meade - a cultural anthropologist from the USA - made the list. Looking back it is clear that for a Dutch Structuralist who is occupied by architecture's relationship to social space, children and families, Margaret Meade is very important. And, as van den Heuvel considers, “it is also the kind of interdisciplinary notion that you never hear from architects today.”
An Installation of Four Acts sits alongside an exhibition of Herman Hertzberger’s works, curated by the man himself, entitled Making Space, Leaving Space at the Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Both exhibitions are available to see until the 11th January 2015. You can also see ArchDaily's coverage of the Dutch Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale, an exhibition also curated by Dirk van den Heuvel entitled Open: A Bakema Celebration.
Thanks to Dirk van den Heuvel, Lada Hršak and Max Risselada.