projects /1989 The Van Doesburg House

A living laboratory

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Rebel. Theo van Doesburg was a rebel · If his polemical lifestyle offended some, it certainly appealed to others · As a propagandist of De Stijl, the movement he had co-founded, he attracted a few enthusiastic allies; as a polemicist he created his own opponents · His studio house in Meudon still serves today as a laboratory · Van Doesburg was not one to be satisfied with a static visual outcome; he always carried his ideas through to their logical conclusion, from there to pursue further new possibilities · This strategy brought about his rift with the architect J ·J ·P · Oud in 1923 because Oud was not prepared to work with him on a study for a house without there being a given context · Together with Cornelis van Eesteren Van Doesburg made the model and drawings for a Maison Particulière and a Maison d'Artiste · And later, in 1925, there came the rift with Mondrian who refused to depart from the absoluteness of horizontals and verticals · Through his willingness to keep putting achieved qualities into question Van Doesburg found himself more and more cut off from the other signatories of the De Stijl manifesto · The group's efforts to attain a collective state was thwarted by the individuality of its members · During his work on Café L'Aubette in Strasbourg in 1929, a joint project done with Sophie Tauber and Hans Arp, Van Doesburg launched his plans for a shared studio house · However, on completion of L'Aubette the relationship between the three had cooled off to the extent that Tauber and Arp designed their own studio house, which they then had built · Theo van Doesburg bought a site a few streets away and built his studio house at the behest of his wife Nelly Küpper-Van Moorsel · When an inheritance enabled him to do this in 1929, Theo van Doesburg evolved from a painter-poet into an architect-painter · He mastered the art of building and managed to couch and illustrate the essence of the task in a more concentrated form than the functionalists of his day · His artist's house in Meudon is an attempt to achieve a lucid expressive concept · In it two cubes, one empty - the studio - and the other of practical subdivision, are made to interlock · Architecturally the empty space has the greatest impact, Van Doesburg wrote in that same year · The container-like studio space indeed constitutes the central void of the house · From it you can access the roof garden, and the upper floor can only be reached from the ground floor, containing the kitchen and garage, by way of the studio; here all lines converge · The workspace is the natural spatial hub of the studio house, like the living room in a traditional home · Van Doesburg was clearly planning to use the artist's house as the centre of a replenished De Stijl · The collapse of the original movement and Van Doesburg's earlier disappointment at not being accepted by Gropius as a professor at the Bauhaus inspired him to set up a new centre · Tragically Theo van Doesburg was only able to live in the completed house for a month · His asthma forced him to repair to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps where he died in March 1931 · The house was occupied right up to 1975 by Nelly van Doesburg who stayed in touch with the art world as a buyer for Peggy Guggenheim · She was only thirty when her husband died aged forty-seven · The turbulent years between 1921 and 1931 must have been a fascinating experience for her, as in a sort of wide-eyed haze, while her talents as a pianist added lustre to many a Dada meeting · Her last piano is still there today ·


Laboratory. In 1988 we were selected by the foundation in charge of the artist's house (Stichting Het Van Doesburghuis) to work there for a year · Our stepping-off point was to use the studio house as a living laboratory · With a clinical precision - your studio should be like a bell jar or a hollow crystal, you yourself must be in white, your painter's palette must be of glass, your brush sharp, square and hard, always free of dust and as clean as an operating instrument [Theo van Doesburg]- we were to experiment in the borderland between art, architecture and technology in this most fitting of spaces offered to us by the architecture of the artist Van Doesburg · And now, in 1989, we daily climb the impossibly steep and narrow Old Dutch staircase and bang our knees on the concrete tables, while the dust (alas!) keeps settling on all the horizontal surfaces · We have the sense of living in a ship's engine room - with a stair to the forecastle - with the view across Paris denied us by indoor tennis courts and a municipal swimming centre · Since 1931 buildings have sprung up systematically around the artist's house · The garden has become a half-fenced-in patio; a larger house has been built against the blankwalled east side of the house, and a mute development of flats stands across the way, all four storeys of it · The ground floor of the Van Doesburg house now seems more like basement level 2, the study above it basement level 1, and on the roof terrace it is as though we have finally arrived at ground level · Our first exercise in this laboratory is to dissect the house around us into its most expressive and plastic elements · We look right through the functional banality of the cubic building to make our own time-space construction · In the unfathomable digital space of our personal computer the planes loom up one by one · First, the burdensome floating concrete table (XYZ construction!), then the much-discussed large black-and-white swing doors (exact ratio 1:2) in the corridor connecting the studio with the small spaces for music, relaxing and reflecting · Next, the tiled floors in the kitchen and the bathroom, touchingly satirical versions of De Stijl paintings of ten years earlier; the almost self-censoring blue, yellow and red painted colour planes of the front door, garage door and terrace door respectively; the neo-plastic square metre of rooflight in the library; and the tall vertical white plane hiding the stair leading to the house's picture spot par excellence, the landing topped off with the obligatory canopy · The three-dimensional computer drawing symbolizes the relevance of the house today · Theo van Doesburg was ever in search of a visual expression for his times, inspired in his quest by the spectacular structures of engineering · He would have been riveted by the visual impact of digital electronics · The latest advances are rendering technology more and more invisible, yet they are more capable than ever of creating a particular ambience · And that was Theo van Doesburg's concern too · In 1929 he wrote concerning the function of artworks that counter-physical that immaterial values are the most useful values for humankind


Title: The Van Doesburg House: a Living Laboratory

Date: 01/1989

Magazine: AB