J.J.P. Oud’s “Orientation” (1919)


Translated from the Dutch by Hans L.C. Jaffé.

In De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York:1971).

• • •

When, spurred on by the expectations expressed on every side of an approaching unity in architecture, we try to arrive at the result of the various trends determining the picture of contemporary architecture, the outcome is less satisfactory than might appear.

We may thankfully note that formalism (the architecture of styles) has come to an end, and that architecture has again become a manifestation of creative life, but we must immediately add that this manifestation of life bears witness neither to an individual nor to a universal understanding of life.  For, if we suppose the results of the various trends away from formalism synthesized into a single architectural manifestation, it will at once be apparent that this manifestation is no unfolding of the same attitude to life that is realized in early Classical purity in our daily life (and this comparison is permissible because technology and clothing, like architecture, arrive at beauty by way of utility), in locomotive and motor car, in electrical and sanitary goods, in machinery, in sportswear and men’s clothing, etc.  On the contrary, the old attitude towards life still appears to predominate and to be expressed in a romantic and baroque manner, while the necessity for the new form is recognized, but is not accepted in its practical consequences.  The latter fact is very closely related to prevailing ideas about beauty in architecture.  For as long as even in the most favorable instances beauty is equated with ornament and the slogan all ornament founded upon construction’ has not been supplanted by its corollary that construction itself must achieve aesthetic form beyond its material necessities, for so long will the artistic beauty of the expressions of the socio-aesthetic spirit mentioned above continue to be denied and architecture will remain as something apart from the general impetus of the spirit of the age.  For it is beyond all doubt that the motor car, machine, etc., correspond more closely to the socio-aesthetic tendencies of our own age and the future than do the contemporary manifestations of architecture.  It is not [141] a question of denying their aesthetic value on the grounds of the fortuitous element in these expressions of social necessity, for the new concept of style itself is based upon the abolition of all separateness, in this instance, of art and utility.  I quote in this connection from a technical article [in De Niewe Amsterdammer, 8 Nov.  1919] by J.  Rozenraad: ‘A worthy “pendant” of these prehistoric biplanes are the beastly, ugly Blackburn “Kangaroos.”  It is almost inconceivable that these visually offensive monstrosities should have seen the light of day in England, the country where they otherwise (in the technical field, too) have a good eye for line and form.’  From this it appears, without prompting, that aesthetic considerations enter a priori into the determination of form and line of technical products.  It cannot, therefore, be otherwise than that where precision of execution so greatly determines the final result, where each detail is there for a reason, and where feeling for relationship and form is a necessary element (consider, for example, the determination of the line of the hull in ships), a very pure understanding of form and relationship must be present.

The comparison made in one of his essays dealing with a visit to a Greek theater by Henry van de Velde, the Belgian architect who abandoned his earlier baroque ideas in favor of more purely socio-aesthetic concepts, is therefore comprehensible and applicable to every age: Tools may say that the spirit from which Greek art arose is dead.  The spirit that produced this theater, with its surprisingly logical conception, seems to be even more logical today when all ornament is lacking.  It is the same spirit that produced this wonderfully perfect object, the port-hole on the steamer that brought me here; the same spirit that invented the electric light bulb and the glass globe covering the gas lamp, the same spirit that made it possible to produce the butter knife we use on board, etc.’

It is indeed no longer the technical imperfection, ‘the small imperfections of all works of man,’ as one of our architectural journals recently stated with approval, which brings about the aesthetic emotion, but precisely the miracle of technical perfection (‘the grace of the machine’) in bringing the aesthetic to determinate beauty.

Life and art have acquired in the present age a different, more abstract, accent, so that a more intimate contact exists between them than one might superficially be inclined to think.  This can be seen in technology as well as in clothing.  With regard to the latter, it is generally reputed to be ugly and lacking in aesthetic intention.  Both assertions are superficial.  It may be demonstrated on a cultural historical basis that the emphasis of beauty in [142] clothing has been displaced from the sensual attraction of jabot, ruff and frilly cuffs to the more spiritual attraction of severity of form and line.  It speaks well for the value that is attached in clothing to this aesthetic intention that, after the quality of the material, it is especially the cut, i.e., the aesthetic accent, that determines the price.  That the aesthetic intention is not recognized in these and in so many other expressions of modern life is no proof, therefore, that it is not present.  It might be said, with a variation on Nietzsche, that we live ‘with the optical illusion that, where nothing is seen, nothing exists…’

Thus, in general, the accent no longer falls upon the sentimental, the clouded, the sensuously pleasing, but upon the internalized emotion, the clear, the spiritually moving, which is more difficult for the complicated man of today to comprehend.  It is no longer sensuous values such as tone, ornament, etc., but more spiritual values such as relationship, clear form and pure color, that must become the artistic means.

This heralds a beauty of a higher order in which, for example, the aesthetic value of a vase is determined by the purity of its relationships (within itself and in relation to the space enclosing it) and the tension of its bounding surfaces, and not on the basis of externally applied decoration, artificial technical imperfections or quasi-accidental mottling of the glaze; the aesthetic value of a building from the purity of its relationships, the clarity of the spatial expression by its masses, planes and lines, finally, by the tension of its constructional relief, and not by its ornament; the aesthetic value of painting, interior and exterior, by relationship in position and dimension of color, finally, by the painterly conception or architecture (ceiling, wall, floor), and not in the painting of trees, cows, windmills; the aesthetic value of sculpture, as an object of use, interior and exterior, as chair, vase, stove, lamp-post, and not as ornament.

Seen in this light, the contemporary concept of art as a whole and that of architecture, in particular, is seen not to be keeping pace with socio-aesthetic development in general and to be in need of radical reform.

[From De Stijl, Vol. III, No. 5, p. 46]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 18, 2010.

2 Responses to “J.J.P. Oud’s “Orientation” (1919)”

  1. […] Oud, J.J.P.  “Orientation.”  Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé.  De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York: 1971).  Pg. 140.  […]

  2. […] Oud, J.J.P.  “Orientation.”  Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé.  De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York: 1971).  Pg. 140.  […]

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