Architecture Critic #1

Through the Wide Angle PART 1

B y S i g u l a r N e w m a n

Critiquing Theo van Doesburg: Towards a plastic architecture

While in Paris during the spring of 1924, Theo van Doesburg is at the forefront of the De Stijl movement 1) again. An exposition of the new architecture is organized by him with the scope of show casing the new concepts of modern design termed by him as Neo-Plasticism.

In light of world war one and the spread of industrialization, the human attitudes towards established order change with lightning speed. Most new thoughts on a new architecture and a new art seem to emerge out of Germany. Germany reaches the epitome of industrialization during this time faster than any other nation, closely followed by France and England. The social engineering of the political nomenclature provides a growth medium for new rationality. The new man, the break with religion and traditionalism, a god man, a self reliant all powerful self shaping destiny man. This new man necessitates a new house naturally and a new city as well, a new painting in his new kitchen perhaps and a new car in his garage. This new man does not dress like his father did and he does not even need a bedroom to sleep in, he sleeps when he is tired and where he wants to lay his head that’s where the bedroom is. While these factors are fascinating, I will not digress any further from this exercise.

In this manifesto 2) Theo van Doesburg make is clear that the times are a changing. Out with the old in with the new. The new envisioned by van Doesburg consists of, naturally a theory on everything architecture and art. Tradition gets in the way of the purpose. Buildings should not be based on anything yesterday, unless it helps define a better today. The new architecture should be elemental, plane Jane, all function and economics, statues and corbels give way to bare steel beams and glass panels. Light and shadows replace curtains and bronze statues. “These elements – such as function, mass, surface, time, space, light, color, material, etc –are plastic.” 3) (78). Pure elemental forms unhindered by old norms and definitions of beauty. The new plastic architecture is composed of material art, the art is inherent to the surfaces and position of the building materials. The house, the structure itself is not defined by concrete roles from the start. It is defined by functionality and not by the models of the other houses down the street.

Due to the new materials available for construction an entire new level of creative freedom has been opened up. The wall does not have to be the wall anymore than the window needs to be the window. The inside and the outside merge into one elemental transfusion of space and time. The inside becomes the outside and the outside can exist inside. The space has always existed in five dimensions or more, that of up, down, left, right and time. The added dimension of time. The concept illustrated by van Doesburg, “The new architecture takes account not only of space but also of the magnitude of time. Through the unity of space and time the architectural exterior will acquire a new and completely plastic aspect.” (79). Therefore time is of the essence towards a plastic conceptualization of architecture.

The way to go about the new way of thinking and being is by changing all old ways of thought. One should even change the math that has been used in the past, the Euclidian geometry is no longer relevant. Exact constructional calculations should be used to define the overall shape of the concept, something I agree fully with, “…a calculation by means of which the supporting capacity is restricted to the simplest but strongest supporting points.” (79). Light yet strong, the inherent ability of steel as a building medium, also that of reinforced concrete.

Practical and economical attitudes towards the whole spectrum of construction. In this short yet very condensed passage van Doesburg delights in function over form. The overall balance of creation becomes plastic, a medium that can be light and movable. The rigid and terminal have been passed off as ancient and irrelevant. The new plastic architecture is simplistic, yet it is all encompassing, placing emphasis on the entire building as a whole, the front, back, sides, top they are all one, not only one together but they have become one with the outside world, a prism to infinity. The building becomes part of the builder and the material of which it is born.

One interesting concept I found in this document is that, “The new architecture is anti-decorative. Color (and this is something the color- shy must try to grasp) is not a decorative part of architecture, but its organic medium of expression.” 4) (80). This is a refreshing way to look at things. If I understand correctly van Doesburg is referring to color as well as texture and material. What he is inferring is that color is part of the process of the new plastic architecture. It is not an after thought, a last part in a series of combinations. It is part of architecture, closer to its core rather. Color is what many times gives meaning to a structure, many times in the past color has been treated with less respect than the other parts of architecture, say for example window size or entrance access. I like this idea and I shall attempt to use it as an architect in the future.

The second idea that stands out for me is the notion that “The two-dimensional spatial composition fixed in a ground-plan will be replaced by an exact constructional calculation…” 5)(79). As we enter a 21st century world of computers and cybernetics, robotics and quantum nanotech it is easy to see how correct this is. Having the foresight to conceptualize this back in 1924, that is somewhat harder to accomplish. The Egyptians and the Greeks gave us geometry and then calculi fallowed. The future of architecture belongs to exact sciences. The microchip has turned this vision into reality. Today we are building higher, stronger and safer than ever before in the known history of mankind. I can only hope that construction will only get safer and easier to accomplish as we embark on a quest to find alternative solutions to the ecological disasters of the past generations.

Another idea from the text that I agree with is that, “In place of symmetry the new architecture offers a balanced relationship of unequal parts… The equality of these parts rests upon the balance of their dissimilarity, not upon their similarity.” ( 80). The new plastic architecture does away with symmetry, with classical structure of forms and orders. Its forms and orders are derived from functionality and economics. A strategic placement of forms as needed. Form follows function as we discover the reality of space and time as relating to the dweller. As to where the ancients looked to build along imaginary lines of perfect geometry, the new architecture is dynamic, it has real structural lines defined by the person living throughout its boundaries. A house is no longer a temple to the unseen but a temple to the logic, mathematic, structural and functional economic. A well tuned orchestra of function and logical beauty. Beauty and art therefore become byproducts of the constructed medium. They are a part, not leading apart to an imagined point but a static moment in space and time that can and is fully realizable by the dweller within or without. Perceived as art in the long run. A great architect is not afraid to challenge the present order.

The concept of plastic architecture at first sounded foreign to me. I recall now that in the country where I was born, the term Plastic Arts as used in the pedagogic system encompassed Architecture, Art, Music, Sculpture, and Theater and so on. Therefore the term is similar and defines a certain flexibility, freedom of thought and action. It is not concrete like Mathematics or Chemistry. The essence of the word plastic defines it as a material that has a built in ability to move easily, melt, bow, stretch or melt, flow and become a different shape. It can be recycled constantly. Like a plastic washer, that retains most of its shape if enough elasticity was built in from the start, architecture has the built in elasticity to survive the many outside forces that have come against it over the ages. It simply changes shape and evolves with time. Therefore, Architecture should always stay plastic, the danger is that too many architects today try to define architecture as modernism, or as a science or something that is learned, as concrete and unchanging. I am of the opinion that architecture should perhaps become even more flexible, taking on the qualities of natural rubber, the reason I say natural is because the rubber tree is a naturally ecological and sustainable. Plastic comes from dubious sources and the future may hold grim outlooks for this material, therefore rubber is more suited as a material to be compared to architecture. Modern architecture should be rubberized, able to flex its muscles and stretch its imagination, taking on the tough issues facing our world in these uncertain times.

Architecture should strive to become a more encompassing discipline. What these early entrepreneurs have realized is a great start, focusing on the present, they realized that the present economic conditions did not afford them the ability to change the world, however they still managed to leave a tremendous impact on the 20th century and the reverberations of their work can still be felt some eighty years later. Fortunately we live in a freer world, a more advanced world, a world where the sun shines brightly for the future of Verum Elastica Architectus6).


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