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Architecture as spatial artdoor: Richelle Wansinggepubliceerd op: 3 juni 2015

Architecture as spatial art

Het Schip, detail Zaanstraat. (Foto: Museum Het Schip)

Architecture as spatial art

In 1916, the Belgium architect Hub. Hoste ‘congratulated’ Holland with the great honor that the Dutch architects of the Amsterdam School were the first to explore a new direction in architecture – surpassing France and England. Hoste’s understanding of the Amsterdam School as an expression of non-materialist idealism, stresses a spiritual striving similar to the members of the De Stijl movement, founded in 1917. De Stijl distinguished itself as an intellectual movement, defining itself in theoretical writings. According to De Stijl, the difference between the arts could be understood in terms of the unique qualities (or possibilities) of representation by each art. As opposed to De Stijl, the Amsterdam School distinguished itself as an anti-intellectual, intuitive movement, based on the notion that artistic creation springs from feeling instead of being based on ratio. Notwithstanding the lack of theoretical explanation, the Amsterdam School was unmistakably grounded in a strong sense of artistic awareness. Architecture, as Michel de Klerk stated in 1916, had to do no more than to return to its roots in art. It is to say that such artistic awareness can only exist when being firmly grounded in a notion of the nature of the arts.

When the Amsterdam School is taken into consideration in relation to contemporary (1910s-1920s) theoretical reflections on the nature of the arts, this opens up the question to the nature of the arts, more specifically to the meaning of representation in the arts. The Amsterdam School’s notion of the nature of the arts, is commonly understood as a notion of the nature of architecture as a ‘total work of art’ (Gesamtkunstwerk). Architects of the Amsterdam School had a natural understanding of the concept of a total work of art, rooted in the nineteenth century concept of ‘communal art’. The Amsterdam School members supposedly believed in a future society in which all the different disciplines would merge. Interestingly, in the writings of Amsterdam School members ‘merging’ does not appear as a quality of communal art. As opposed to ‘merging’, the historic discourse about the Amsterdam School concentrated on the new values of the architecture, namely of ‘individualism’ and ‘artistic devotion’, which resulted in an architecture of plasticity, of sculptural effect. If the merging of disciplines is not fundamental to the ideas of the Amsterdam School, we should consider the idea that architecture in itself had the full potential of becoming a new communal art.

This opens up the question as to the relation of the different disciplines in the design of the third building block (nicknamed Het Schip) by Michel de Klerk at the Spaarndammerplantsoen. More specifically it opens up the question to the meaning of autonomous detail and symbolic motives. Mainly there are two contemporary (1910s-1920s) readings of the work of De Klerk, a negative reading which makes mention of unhealthy, perverted use of ornament or detail, and a positive reading which stresses the new value of individualism and the effect of plasticity. It seems as if contemporary critics have conceived of the Amsterdam School architecture as a plastic art, but without the representational potential of sculpture. While stressing the great importance of detail in the works of De Klerk, no attention is directed to the meaning of autonomous detail or symbolic motives. A significant omission in contemporary (1910s-1920s) value-based criticisms is thus the direct meaning of ornament and detail. While in recent literature interpretations have been given of certain iconographic and abstract motives in the design of Het Schip, no attention has been paid to the meaning of representation in Amsterdam School thought. An understanding of the different representational meanings of the arts, could thus give insight into the Amsterdam School’s notion of the relationships between the arts, and contribute to the understanding of autonomous detail and symbolic motives in the work of De Klerk.