We now interrupt…

You could call it a vanity project. In any case, I don’t get any revenue from it. You see, I thought it would to try my hand at writing a short story. As it happened, Richard Polt (the mind behind what is known in certain sectors of the Internet as the “Typewriter Revolution” – check out his entertaining and well written site with that name) had a plan of collecting and publishing stories about the goings on after the collapse of digital civilisation with a special role for typewriters. This was just the incentive I needed. So over Christmas I started writing (Tracy and I own a few typewriters ourselves). My story was called “S. T.” — and I’m afraid you have to read it to find out what that stands for. It was, rather to my surprise, accepted. But that didn’t mean I was done. A big hurdle loomed: the prerequisite that the text to be published had to be typewritten – taking the “type” in “typewriter” awfully literally. I had to become, in fact, my own typesetter, proofreader and printer. And I am not a good typist.

The result can now be appreciated in the book “Paradigm Shifts” – look for the characteristic “Quadrato” typeface of the Olivetti Praxis.

Paradigm Shift” can be ordered from Amazon (amazon.de has the best shipping rates for Holland). Thanks should go out to Richard Polt who masterminded it all, but also edited and managed the book, and Frederic Durbin and Andrew V. McFeaters who selflessly read through all those reams of typewritten pages and took the time to provide helpful critsism.

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In praise of Buitenveldert: prequel

Amsterdam always has been lucky with its city planning. The famous canals (the “grachtengordel”) were designed as part of a comprehensive plan that provided the city with new defence works and made the city four times as big as before. The canal belt was devised and built in two stages, the first part in 1611, the second in 1660. My father would marvel at the fact that the strict geometric scheme of the canals was continued across the river Amstel. Which is something to stop and think about. There are innumerable cities that owe their existence to a river, yet that river nearly always presents itself as an insuperable barrier. The Rive Gauche looks nothing like the Rive Droite. But for the Amsterdammers of 1660 there was no doubt that the canals should continue on the other side of the Amstel in perfect alignment with the earlier ones. And they built it exactly as planned.

Amsterdam Zuid, seen, high up, from the Amstel bridge

Three hunderd years later the Amsterdam city council agreed on another plan. After a period of decline and half-hearted attempts at planning the next ring around the city, the city had expanded piecemeal, and these expansions quickly became infamous for their shoddy building and congested housing quarters. The plan for a the new extension, on the south side of town, was designed by H. P. Berlage. Berlage was what you could call the “National Architect” of the Netherlands. He is the only architect to have earned his own public statue. When my grandfather learned that I was going to study architecture it was perfectly natural for him to wish that I would become “a Berlage” – the byword for a good architect. Berlage provided Amsterdam with an Ideal City. Grand boulevards – borrowed from the Paris of Hausmann – ended in vistas of great public buildings. In a radical gesture, a new station on the South side would give Amsterdam a new entrance on the other side of town, and the boulevards went stubbornly east to west, ending in a bridge over the Amstel and leaving the old city by the wayside. The tree-lined boulevards defined large irregular areas that were layed out in a more picturesque manner, with ensembles gathered around squares, enlivened with curved streets, gates, shopping streets – a kind of lay-out derived from the writings of Camillo Sitte, whose “Der Städtebau (…)” Berlage read and admired.

Academy of the Arts or Hilton Hotel?

Amsterdam Zuid was never built as Berlage had it in mind. The “plan Berlage” (as I new it when I was a kid) turned out to be a city of masks. Berlage didn’t care for masks – his architecture strove for rationality and transparency. The architects that actually built the housing blocks of the new plan had other priorities. They didn’t look for a rational connection of a facade with the living quarters that it protects. Instead, the facades became actors on the stage of the city and the story they told was of streets and squares, not of the humble little apartments they hid: like masks on the Greek stage.

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But what masks you’ll find in Amsterdam Zuid! They seem to be taken from a fantastic dream made up of images from colonial Indonesia, bits of Wiener Secession and Macintosh, medieval fantasy, and an astonishing handling of the humble brick. The streets are lined in symmetrical arrangements of rhythmically ordered windows, lanterns that indicate communal staircases, balconies. At the street corners it all erupts – there has to be a tower, or a stack of billowy curves, or an embroidery of enmeshed balconies or bay windows. It is so constently present in Amsterdam Zuid that this kind of architecture became known as the “Amsterdamse School”. Architects like Johan van der Mey, Michiel de Klerk, Piet Kramer (who did the building in the photo above), J. Staal, H. Th. Wijdeveld lined the streets with their fantasmagorical designs. Wandering through Zuid – which I loved to do as a kid – you’ll find in every street its own treasure of fun and ingenious details that shape entrances, porticos, window frames, house numbers, post boxes.

The great public buildings of Berlage never materialised. The academy of arts became the Hilton Hotel, whose only claim to fame came when, exactly 50 years ago, two artists decided to stay in bed for a few days.

John and Joko got it right: why not stay in bed?

In Praise Of Buitenveldert

When I think of Buitenveldert, I think of continuity. We have lived here for more than three years now. I did my last entry on this blog a few months before we decided to move here. Does it mean anything if I say that the world has changed since then? Meanwhile, we are here, in Buitenveldert, and it feels incredibly good – things can, indeed, sometimes change for the better.

Moving to Buitenveldert, when you have lived in the picturesque old center of Amsterdam, was something that needed explaining. Buitenveldert is modern – in the progressive, revolutionary, sense of the word. It’s outside the ring road that encircles the older part of Amsterdam, and is therefore often seen as somewhere out of town, not really part of it. It Buitenveldert! “Buiten”: outside, “Veld”: field. Out in the fields. It’s true, in one way. We are only a short bike ride away from the actual fields, cows and all.

But otherwise, Buitenveldert is very much part of the jolly old metrop. Going from the center to here is an uninterrupted, rather pleasant, bike ride (which I do every work day; my work place is still in the old centre). The buildings change from the white and dark green of the canal houses, to the brick-lined avenues of 1920-ies Zuid, to the large glass windows and tree lined streets of Buitenveldert. The A.U.P – the development plan that is the origin of this area – was established in 1935, and it meant to expand the existing city, not to build a new series of satellite towns separate from it.

Another aspect of this plan, which surprisingly still defines the shape of this city, is that the extensions reach out from the center like the fingers of an open hand. The spaces in between are a catalogue of what defines Amsterdam: the river Amstel, the IJ (the body of water that was the origin of the wealth of the town), the Noordhollands canal and the fields in the North, the Amsterdamse Bos, a wood-like park. Which means that, out here, you’re never far away from the aforementioned pastures and those cows.

So what about this thing with continuity? It is there, in the way Buitenveldert is connected, and part of, the city. It is also in the way that people here seem to have no urge to move to elsewhere. In our apartment block (the photo above shows how it looked when it was just finished, in the mid-sixties) there are a surprising number of people who got a place in, say, 1974, and never moved. This is reflected in the permanence of the buildings and the public spaces – there are some new additions, but overall the buildings are the same as they were when Buitenveldert was finished. The wispy branches of the young trees have all grown into reverend canopies.

There’s another instance of continuity, more subliminal. It’s in the way the whole of Buitenveldert is a clever weave of interlocking patterns, made by the repetition and shifting of groupings of building blocks and court yards. Walking in our neighbourhood, as we often do, we are impressed by the way Buitenveldert is a whole, not a archipelago of isolated neighbourhoods.

I’d like to more fully explore the things that make me delight in living here: a good subject for a next blog post. Let’s hope it won’t take another 4 years to write it. Meanwhile, to end, another wonderful instance of continuity. I remember feeding the squirrels, when I was a child, in the Amsterdamse Bos (some ten minutes walking from here). Then they disappeared, for a long time. It was a disease, or maybe something else, I’m not sure. But in Buitenveldert they still are here.

It isn’t easy being Charlie

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With the shooting rampage at Charlie Hebdo. I felt something different than what I felt with earlier acts of atrocity. Every single one makes me sick, but why was this one so particularly shocking to me? There was an “us-ness” that i felt – these people were my people – I felt a deeply held common value that was trampled here. I thought that this was something worth investigating.

That cozy “us” wasn’t there at all for the longest time. Only a hundred year ago there seemed nothing more insurmountable than the difference between the French and the Germans. A particular example is provided by the postcard that circulated as a result of a picture exhibition in Munich (1). It shows a Gothic church, over which hovers a giant man, one big hand crashing down, the other hand ready to grab the delicate structure. This painting won a prize in an exhibition, and the French were aghast. Clearly this was an evident sign of the inflated self-assumption and never ending will for destruction of the Germans. After all, hadn’t they trained their big guns at the gothic cathedral in Reims, to shoot it entirely to pieces?

The misunderstanding was monumental: the image, in Germans eyes, showed a fellow countryman protecting the venerable monuments of culture (and Germany had a claim on Gothic architecture ever since Goethe discovered the beauty of the cathedral in Strasbourg – then a German town). It was crystal clear, in their eyes, that the “Grosse Brummer” held a protective arm around the cathedral. It clearly showed the divide between “us” and the other, and no doubt it would have provoked the outrage in the men in the trenches. Yet another cause for war.

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A claim to a shared culture, a world wide culture of enlightenment and the tolerance that comes with it, is problematic. We like to be the defenders of wit, because we understand the imagery of wit, and take it for granted that everyone else in the world does as well. But the visual language isn’t simple and unequivocal. An image won’t be understood equally by everyone, because images are shored up by other images, a frame of reference, a history. The problem immediately comes up when an image that is meant for a specific audience crosses the border (as with the picture mentioned above); and nowadays there are no borders for images. An image, appreciated by “us”, is easily and completely misunderstood by the “other”.

But when that happens, it can result in something dangerous; as a reaction to this misunderstanding, the rift grows deeper between us and the other. Which is what I felt – complete unwillingness to understand what moves these killers, and at the same time exasperation at the lethal unwillingness of the killers to try to understand something like irony or humor – that is: our humor. For now, the rift is huge. I only can hope that people on either side will do the effort to understand, so that there is a chance the rift will close. European history has shown that both is possible.

(1) the picture is from the book “Cathédrales 1789-1914, Un Mythe Moderne”, the catalog to the exposition with the same name in Rouen that gave a fascinating overview of how the cathedral was taken up in the imagery of modern France, England and Germany.

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We get in the car. Everything is loaded up, our summer clothes, the inflatable matrasses and the bedding, the tent, the little gas stove and the aluminium pans in their rattan case. Driving off for the holiday is a wonderful moment. There are times, when I get in the car to visit a client or go to a building site, once I’m well on the road, I’m aware of the delightful possibility to just drive on, beyond the location of my appointment, to go on, across the border, not to Nieuwengein or Zeewolde, but to Berlin, Marseille, the seaside at Genova, all these possible destinations that are directly connected to the road I’m driving on. And this time we do just that – new views will roll by, the familiar flat grass lands framed by office buildings and blue and white road signs will change into something wider, into rolling hills and cows lazing under a tree, the office buildings will change into whitewashed houses with tiny windows or buildings with red bricks and grey stones and colored roof tiles. And, at every moment, there is a view that will never make it into the holiday snapshots: the back of a truck.
Usually this is something to avoid, to be overtaken as soon as possible, to be ignored, because it blocks the way to the promise of new vistas. But this time we enjoyed the view, and we made photos. So I’d like to put up our collection of holiday pictures and present a different aspect of the road trip: the geometric rigor of the backside of trucks, the bold graphics, the unassuming compositions of door handles and safety notices.

It is actually rather hard to take these pictures. By necessity they are taken from a riding car and, in order to get a satisfying picture, we had sometimes to get uncomfortably close to our subject. Since I did the driving these photos were all taken by Tracy.
It was amusing to find that in a while a true collectors frenzy began to take hold of us (or rather, me). Still, it was obviously impossible to take a photo of every single truck we saw, so we had to make a selection. Lots of backs were similar, and soon it became apparent that different categories could be applied. The plain utilitarion back, the thoughtful graphic, the whimsical cartoon, the hapless jumble. By the time we arrived at our destination, the coast of Normandy, we felt we had a reasonable sampling, while regretting the ones we missed: an anamorphotic image of the inside of the van, a whimsical pig on a butchers truck, some really succesful bold lettering.
This photo series is unfinished. There are so many more views out there. What will the autostrada on the hills of Tuscany reveal, what beautiful traffic is there in the Harz?

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Do buildings really know how to fly? architecture in photography #2

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The first pictures in the Bauhausbuch #12 are taken from an airplane. An unusual viewpoint for a photo of a building, sure enough. The subject of these photos was the Bauhaus, just finished. An abstract composition of planes, rotated at a 45 degree angle, turns out, at closer scrutiny, to be a white building sitting on the dark earth, a field without any precise definition but for two faint lines that could be roads.

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The book “gropius bauhaus bauten dessau” was designed by Moholy-Nagy. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was an artist who, after WW I, had contacts with people like Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch, and who started working with the precepts of Constructivism and the Suprematism of Maliewitch. In 1923 Walter Gropius appointed him, at 28 years old, as a professor at the Bauhaus and he became the director of the influential preliminary course. His art from that time shows the floating planes and colors of constructivism.

“We renounce volume as pictoral and plastic form of space.
One cannot measure space in volumes as one cannot measure liquids in yards:
look at our space … what is it if not one continuous depth?”
(Realistic manifesto, Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, 1920)

He also became a prolific photographer who transferred the new found constructivist sensibility to the photo paper.

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“Photography when used as a representational art is not a mere copy of nature”
“What used to be a distortion is nowadays an astounding experience! A summons for a re-evaluation of beauty. This picture can be turned around. There are new views from every point.”
(Painting, Photography, Film, Moholy-Nagy, 1925)

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These new viewpoints are celebrated in the pictures in the Bauhausbuch. The Bauhaus appears as a gleaming white object. Building parts like balconies and windowframes are not just functional elements but show up as abstract forms. The photo gives a new justification to a shape by the way it is balanced on the picture plane. The people in a photo of the facade of the living quarters show a death defying attitude towards gravity, perched on the balcony railings and the roof edge. Everything wants to be weightless.

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This stresses the character of the building as a non-hierarchical composition. A composition of weightless volumes in which top or bottom, up or down, are no longer relevant; only the balance of shape and color is. This building has no front or back. In fact, it is hard to find the entrance. Then there appears to be two of them, one on each side of the road that bisects the building. “Clearly defined division of the separate parts of the organism” it says in the caption under a drawing of the plan, but it is more complicated than that. To define these these parts Gropius uses various formal ruses. For instance, the “clearly defined part” of the administration department is structurally part of the construction of the two buildings that it connects. But a false raised roof edge defines it as a separate abstract bar that penetrates the volumes of these buildings. Also, this seemingly weightless bar has to be supported by a concrete beam and posts that are downplayed by their dark grey color – clearly an unavoidable necessitiy dictated by gravity that can’t take part in the play of white shapes. Similary, the volumes sit on a grey base, a humble facade of the servant space (it isn’t shown in the plans in the book) in the basement.

These humble parts get their moment in the book, though. There are many photos that show the building as a construction, a proud display of concrete slabs, columns, cantilevers and fill in brickwork. Further along in the book there are pictures of the mechanism used to open the steel windows, a device to share a telephone between two offices, the light fixtures.

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These photos exemplify the aspirations to a disinterested functionalism – “a functional form is a good form”. This was the decade in which the word “beautiful” was exchanged for the word “good”. There are some charming stills from a movie, made at the same time, properly presented with their guiding holes, that show how Gropius’s wife or a servant girl use various cleverly designed items: a built-in coat rack, a well-organised wardrobe, a set of drawers in the working desk. The sequence of movie images stresses the connection between the use and the form of the design.

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And yes, a typewriter is indispensable.

And yes, a typewriter is indispensable.

Gropius published the book in 1930. By then it was two years since he had left the Bauhaus and the villa that came with it. The photos still show the optimism that carried the Bauhaus. The text stresses the rational choices that underpin the design, but the photos aspire to something more than “good” design: a beautiful and, actually, happy future. Unfortunately, buildings never learned how to fly.

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A shout-out to: Charles Fourier

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Today it is the birthday of Charles Fourier (1772 – 1837), the creator of a philosophy of a communal utopia, and strong believer in the power of architecture. As an alternative to the traditional house, that perpetuated the oppressive traditional household with its inequality of men and women, he proposed the “Phalanstère”: a large communal appartment block in which the inhabitants would share the various resources in the building. Those included a theatre, a stock exchange, a winter garden and other extensive meeting places. The size of this great building would be determined by diversity: 810 different character types (the outcome of 12 common types of character) would be coupled, so that the building would ideally house 1620 people – that would be circa 400 appartments. The architectural model was the most splendid palace that he knew, Versailles (which, by the way, had 350 appartments, besides the royal quarters).

The Phalanstère was eventually built in a modified form in Guise, by Jean Baptiste Godin. Godin was the inventor of a cast iron stove. He went on to establish a succesful business making cookers and heating stoves (a common model is known as the “petit godin”).

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He embraced Fouriers ideas enthousiastically, and, in 1856, built a housing project for 900 of his workers, the Familistère. He fitted the buildings not only with a large communal court yard (as an indoor playground of the children when it would rain outside, a rather useful provision in Northern France), but with additional services he called “the equivalence of wealth”: a nursery, a primary school, a swimming pool, a laundry, a theatre, a shop that sold goods at a little over wholesale prices.
A boss providing virtually every amenity for his workers may sound paternalistic. But Godin started out as an apprentice himself, in his fathers foundry when he was eleven, and, as a journeyman, got his share of bad housing conditions. In 1880 he converted the Familistère in a cooperative society. The foundry was owned by the workers. The building and its concept was succesful enough to last until 1968, when the cooperative society was dissolved. In Laken, outside Brussels, he established a second one in 1880, smaller in scale, that housed 72 units.

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There is a short but very nice documentary about the Familistère on the tube:
Familiy lodging in Guise.
And when you’re in the neighborhood of Guise, you can go and visit: Familistère.com.