Monday, April 1, 2013

VAN DER VOLE: The Forgotten Modernist

The death of architect Ruud van der Vole at 109 last week was met with resounding silence. Though his contemporaries Mies, Le Corbusier, and Gropius have earned prominent places in the architectural pantheon, Van der Vole, a Modernist of equal conviction, has been largely ignored. His seminal publications of the 1920s and 30s are long out of print, and astonishingly, he has no biographer. The following is an admittedly belated attempt to acknowledge his great contribution to Modernism.

Ruud van der Veer der van der Vole was born in Dåg, Holland in 1904, one of nine children born to a wealthy family in the cough-drop manufacturing business.  He attended a private school until age 13, when he was expelled after the headmaster declared him “a doodling imbecile.”  

His influential parents quickly found him a position at the nearby Dåg Works For Belt-Driven Machines. Although clumsy with tools, van der Vole found a niche in preparing catalog illustrations of the firm’s machinery. Eventually the work of drawing blueprints for plant expansions fell to him as well. His Boring Machine Annex of 1920, designed in conjunction with the plant’s painter when he was just sixteen, reveals the germ of what was to become his early style: White plaster, white-painted concrete, white window sash, and in a brilliant, unifying stroke, white-painted glass to diffuse the low winter sun.

Van der Vole completed several subsequent designs for the Dåg Works. The Sand Bin of 1921, the Worker’s Commodes of 1922, and the Flywheel Foundry of 1924 all refined the grammar of the Boring Machine Annex. Further commissions seemed assured when disaster struck: Financially overtaxed by its expansions, the Dåg Works closed.   

Van der Vole returned to work in his family’s cough-drop factory, and it was there he met Laçzlo Turnep’, a Hungarian immigrant employed as a stirring-boy. Turnep’, later to found the school of painting known as De Schreck, or The Shock, introduced van der Vole to the works of Mondriaan and van Doesburg. 

In his own work, Turnep’ sought to further simplify Mondriaan’s ideas by limiting himself to one dimension rather than two.  Intrigued, van der Vole attempted to integrate this concept into his early designs. The use of one-dimensional form in architecture remained elusive, however, and van der Vole was never able to produce a truly one-dimensional design to his satisfaction.  

In 1925, a large addition to his family’s thriving cough-drop works provided van der Vole a welcome opportunity to return to architecture. The building consisted of a single enormous bay containing retorts in which cough-drop syrup was prepared.  Particularly evocative was its brutal concrete facade, which carried a bas-relief cough drop beneath the stark inscription HÅKBONBONFABRIK.       

During the mid twenties van der Vole began writing for the French art review LeCucu. Widely read by the avant-garde, it brought him numerous commissions and a forum in which to experiment. Intrigued by Le Corbusier’s technique of elevating his buildings on piers or pilotis, van der Vole expanded upon the concept in a series of houses for wealthy French clients. At LeSpideur, a villa near Charleroi (1927), he placed the house atop pilotis nearly twice as tall as the house itself.  

The same year, in his Cottage for Msr. Bufaleaux outside Paris, the pilotis were similarly tall and were carried through the roof an additional 3 meters. Van der Vole’s use of the Modernist device reached its highest expression in the Villa Logjam of 1928, where the pilotis stood entirely independent and the house was built elsewhere.

Never content to repeat himself, van der Vole began postulating a concept he termed gegenverstand, loosely translated “against reason”, which rejected the use of building forms based upon architectural evolution. He elaborated upon these ideas in his 1925 German-published manifesto Das Uberschreitendes Gewaltungsvertrieb mit Ungeheuere Einwohnergesellschaftsmeinungen (“What I Think About Houses”).      

His finest residential commission of this period is the Villa Soleis-Beaucoup of 1929, outside Nimes, known locally as the Burning-Glass House. Here he ingeniously designed the windows and shading in such a way as to admit the summer sun and exclude the winter sun. Of the Villa he wrote:  

“We must make every effort to break away from the tyranny of established knowledge. If an architecture is to be truly modern, it cannot, by its very definition, be composed of evolutionary forms. We must begin with fundamentally new and radical forms, and invent knowledge to explain them.”

Van der Vole turned to public housing in 1930 with the Frickenschnecken Complex, a bold concept for the renewal of a venerable district of Rotterdam. Under his plan, the old neighborhood was cleared and its rubble cleverly utilized to fill an adjacent portion of the harbor. In the center of this new area was constructed a single enormous ten story tower which housed the entire population of the former district. Of the Frickenschnecken Complex van der Vole wrote,

“You may ask me, what is the secret of this place? It is plentiful light and fresh air. At Frickenschnecken, the willy-nilly disposition of houses, the shadows, the trees, the narrow lanes, have all been swept away and replaced by light and air. Everywhere is light and air—air and light. Abundant light, and fresh, plentiful air.”

Although his master plan called for virtually all of Rotterdam’s housing to be replaced along the lines of the Frickenschnecken scheme, rising political tensions prevented its implementation. The prototype building was regrettably destroyed by its occupants. 

In 1935, van der Vole returned to Dåg and renewed his collaboration with Turnep’, now the leading exponent of De Schreck.  There, inspired by Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus school at Dessau, they founded their own atelier under the name Dåghaus. At its peak, the Dåghaus was home to nearly five artists, architects, and craftsmen. Van der Vole became a beloved mentor to this talented group, who referred to him simply as “Vole.”  In 1937 a disastrous cooking fire financially crippled the Dåghaus, however, and two years later the onset of war dispersed the remaining collaborator.  

Disheartened, van der Vole moved to Paris in 1939, where he hoped to wait out the war. When Nazi occupation seemed imminent, he fled to London. Within two months of his arrival, his apartment was heavily damaged by a deranged chambermaid. He moved again, this time to Edinburgh, where he remained until the war’s end. He then returned to London and offered his services to the British government. He was eventually assigned to develop a new master plan for the city of Leeds.   

“This dreadful town, now but a vulgar stain on the face of Britain, will soon become a showcase for the triumph and order of Modernism,” he wrote of Leeds in 1947.  “Once again, democracy is free to impose itself.”          

After much consideration, van der Vole concluded that all of Leeds should be demolished. He proposed a sleek new city divided into quadrants: One industrial; one residential, another industrial; and the last, also industrial.  At the axis of the quadrants was to be a massive, diagonally-placed tower which could be rented out for monthly parking. Parliament enthusiastically approved the plan in 1949, but the considerable funds necessary to implement it did not materialize.  Thus the proposal for Leeds was shelved. It became van der Vole’s most painful defeat.

In 1958 Van der Vole, at 54 already an elder statesman of Modernism, was invited by the Dutch chocolate industry to design the first true skyscraper in Holland, the Kakao Turm. Though small by U.S. standards, its five stories would tower over the Amsterdam skyline. Faced with a building somewhat wider than it was tall, he wrestled with the difficult problem of emphasizing its verticality. His solution remains a cunningly  Modernist detail: Applied vertically to the glass facade, continuous from street to roof, is a hierarchy of extruded copper strips of various widths. 

“The largest strips represent the fundamental aspect of the building: Structure,” wrote van der Vole in 1961.  “Between these, subordinate strips further represent structure, yet on a finer scale. Finally, ribbon-thin strips represent structure on the very finest scale. Copper symbolizes the vats in which chocolate is conched.”

Van der Vole’s activity declined markedly following completion of the Kakao Turm.  His last major commission, and his only work in the United States, was the campus for the Nebraska School of Architecture (1965-77), designed when he was well into his sixties. Located thirty miles east of Omaha, the complex is a Modernist tour-de-force. The entire campus is contained within a single huge reflecting pool and is reached by a causeway. The low buildings hover lightly above this pool, supported on delicate, stylized bronze stalks of wheat. At the exact center of the complex, also within the pool, stands a water tower whose single leg is sheathed in bronze grillwork.  Van der Vole wrote in 1969:

 “Water here symbolizes architecture—for both cover vast portions of the earth.  And water symbolizes Nebraska. Without water, nothing could survive in Nebraska.  And so, in equating water with architecture, and water with Nebraska, we have equated Nebraska with architecture.”

By the time the Nebraska campus was completed, no further U.S. commissions were forthcoming for van der Vole.  He retired to his native Holland at the age of seventy-seven, where for the next twenty years he continued to write and take on occasional small commissions.  

Appropriately, his final work was completed in Dåg for his family’s  cough-drop factory. It is the main entrance to the Håkbonbonfabrik:  A stylized Greek pediment supported at each end by three huge cough-drops, stacked edgewise and painted to resemble various flavors.  At first glance, it appears to contradict all that van der Vole believed; and yet it carries his personal stamp of integrity.  Two days before his death, he wrote in his journal:
“And so, I believe, I have brought my philosophy to its ultimate conclusion. Though in the cause of architecture we rationalize and ponder and write and agonize and reconsider and debate, and endlessly ask of ourselves, What does this mean? the end, it means only that which we believe it to mean.” 

Ruud van der Vole, the forgotten Modernist, was buried last week in Dåg, Holland, within a stone’s throw of the house where he was born.

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