Piet Mondrian’s “The Realization of Neoplasticism in the Distant Future and in Architecture Today: Architecture, Conceived as Our Total [Non-Natural] Environment” (1922)

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

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

• • •

‘Architecture’ is progressively becoming ‘construction; ‘handicraft’ is dissolving into ‘industrial design ; ‘Sculpture’ has become mainly ‘decoration’ or objects of luxury and utility; ‘Theatre’ is displaced by the cinema and music-hall; ‘music’ by dance music and the phonograph; painting’ by film, photography, reproductions and so on.  ‘Literature’ by its very nature is already largely ‘practical,’ as in science, journalism, etc., and becomes increasingly so with time: as ‘poetry’ it is increasingly ridiculous.  In spite of all, the arts continue and seek renewal.  But their way to renewal is their destruction. To evolve is to break with tradition. ‘Art’ (in the traditional sense) is progressively dissolving — as it already has in painting (in Neoplasticism).  Simultaneously, outward life is becoming fuller and many-sided thanks to rapid transportation, sports, mechanical production and reproduction, etc. One feels the limitation of spending a ‘life’ in creating art, while the whole world is going on around us. More and more, life commands our attention — but it remains predominantly materialistic.

Art is becoming more and more ‘vulgarized.’  The ‘work of art’ is seen as a material value — which drops lower and lower unless ‘boosted’ [164] by the trade.  Society increasingly opposes the life of intellect and feeling — or employs them in its service.  Thus society opposes art too. Its predominantly physical outlook sees only decadence in the evolution of life and of art: today, feeling is now society’s flower, intellect its power, art its ideal expression.  Our surroundings and our life show poverty in their incompleteness and stark utilitarianism. Thus art becomes an escape.  Beauty and harmony are sought in art because they are lacking in our life and our environment.  Consequently, beauty or harmony become the ‘ideal,’ something unattainable, set apart as art,’ separated from life and environment.  Thus the ‘ego’ was freed for fantasy and self-reflection, for the self-satisfaction of self-reproduction: creating beauty in its own image.  Actual life and true beauty were lost from attention.  All this was inevitable and necessary, for in this way art and life became disengaged. Time is evolution, even though the ego’ also sees evolution as an unattainable ‘ideal.’

Today the masses deplore the decay of art, while they nevertheless oppress it.  The physical predominates or seeks to dominate their whole being: thus they oppose inevitable evolution — even while it is nevertheless accomplished.

In spite of all, both art and reality around us show this precisely as the coming of a new life — man’s ultimate liberation. For although art is created by the flowering of our predominantly physical being (‘feeling’), basically it is the pure plastic expression of harmony. A product of life’s tragedy — due to the domination of the physical (the natural) in us and around us — art expresses the still imperfect state of our innermost ‘being.’  The latter (as ‘intuition,’) tries to close the eternally unbridgeable gap that separates it from the material-as-nature: it seeks to change disharmony to harmony.  Art’s freedom ‘allows’ harmony to be realized, despite the fact that the physically dominated being cannot directly express or attain pure harmony.  The evolution of art in fact consists in achieving the pure expression of harmony: outwardly, art appeared as an expression that (in time) reduced individual feeling.  Thus art is both expression and the (involuntary) means of material evolution: of attaining equilibrium between nature and the non-natural — between what is in us and what is around us. Art will remain both expression and means of expression until (relative) equilibrium is reached. Then its task will be fulfilled and harmony will be realized in our outward surroundings and in our outward life.  The domination of the tragic in life will be ended.

Then the ‘artist’ will be absorbed by the fully human being. The ‘non-artist’ will be like him, equally imbued with beauty.  Predisposition will [165] draw one to the aesthetic, another to the scientific, or to another activity — but the ‘specialty’ will be an equivalent part of the whole.  Architecture, sculpture, painting, and decorative art will then merge into architecture-as-our-environment.  The less ‘material’ arts will be realized in ‘life.’  Music as ‘art’ will come to an end.  The beauty of the sounds aroused us — purified, ordered, brought to the new harmony — will be satisfying.  Literature will have no further reason to exist as ‘art.’  It will be simply use-and-beauty (without lyrical trappings).  Dance, drama, etc., as art, will disappear along with the dominating ‘expression’ of tragedy and harmony — the movement of life itself will become harmonious.

In this image of the future, life will not become static.  On the contrary: beauty can never lose by its deepening.  But it will be a different beauty from the one we know, difficult to conceive, impossible to describe.  Even Neoplastic ‘art’ which remains to some degree individual) still expresses this — its own realization — imperfectly.  For it cannot directly express the fullness and freedom of life in the future.  The Neoplastic conception will go far beyond art in its future realization.

Just as the contours of the human figure cannot be straightened except by clothing, there are some things that do not permit the most extreme intensification, and to force them would lead to rigidity.  In contemporary architecture, for instance, a dinner-service does not require a specifically prismatic form: a centered round form will suffice.  These details will be automatically absorbed by the strength and completeness of reality as a whole.  In any case, such utensils need be kept in sight only when they are in ‘use.’  Simplicity will make everything more convenient.  This will come automatically through the quest for efficiency in machinery, in transportation, etc.  Man will then become free: labor makes him a slave.  He will also be more free, both inwardly and outwardly, because of his environment.  Perfection of the outward in opposition to simplification of the inward creates harmony (harmony in the sense of perfect action, not in the old sense of pastoral repose).  (On the new harmony, see my Neoplasticism, 1920).

Will the backwardness of the masses make perfect life impossible even in the remote future? This is of no importance to emulation, which continues regardless, and with it alone we must reckon.

Throughout the centuries art was the surrogate reconciling man with his outward life.  ‘Represented’ beauty sustained man’s belief in ‘real’ beauty; beauty could be experienced perceptibly, although in a limited and narrow [166] way.  Whereas ‘faith’ demands a super-human abstraction in order to experience harmony in life, and science can only produce harmony intellectually art enables us to experience harmony with our whole being. It can so infuse us with beauty that we become one with it.  We then realize beauty in everything: the external environment can be brought to equivalent relationship with man.

The material world around us is gradually becoming transformed to this end.  This ‘transformation’ is necessary, for both art and surrounding reality show that in order to achieve actual harmony it is not enough for our humanity alone to become mature.  (Harmony is then merely an idea. Precisely by his ‘maturing’ the individual outgrows natural harmony: he must create a new harmony.) Reality and art show that it is also necessary to reduce the outward around us and, so far as possible, to perfect it around us, so as to harmonize with man’s full humanity (reduced outwardness and intensified inwardness).  Thus there arises a new concept of beauty, a new aesthetic.

In the reality of our environment, we see the predominantly natural gradually disappearing through necessity.  The capricious forms of rural nature become tautened in the metropolis. In machinery, in the means of transportation, etc. we see natural materials become more harmonious with man’s gradually evolving maturity.  Precisely by concentrating on the material, external life is moving toward freedom from material oppression.  The pressure of the material destroys the sentimentality of the ego.  Thus it helps to purify the ego through which art is expressed.  Only after this, can equivalent relationship, equilibrium — thus pure harmony — arise.

Art also evolved from the natural to the abstract; from the predominant expression of ‘sentiment’ to the pure plastic expression of harmony.  Being ‘art,’ it could actually anticipate the reality of our environment.  Painting, the freest art, advanced in the most purely ‘plastic’ way.  Literature and music, architecture and sculpture became active almost simultaneously.  In various ways Futurism, Cubism and Dadaism purified and reduced individual emotion, ‘sentiment,’ the domination of the ego.  Futurism gave the initial impulse (see F.  T.  Marinetti, Les mots en liberie Futuristes). Consequently art as ego expression was progressively destroyed.  Dadaism still aims to ‘destroy art.’  Cubism reduced natural appearance in plastic expression, and thus laid the ground for Neoplasticism’s pure plastic. Materialistic vision was deepened and the plastic of form annihilated.

What was achieved in art must for the present be limited to art.  Our [167] external environment cannot yet be realized as the pure plastic expression of harmony.  Art advances where religion once did.  Religion’s basic content was to transform the natural; in practice, however, religion always sought to harmonize man with nature, that is, with untransformed nature.  Likewise, in general, Theosophy and Anthroposophy — which, although they already knew the basic symbol of equivalence — were never able to give vitality to equivalent relationship, to real fully-human harmony.

Art, on the other hand, sought this in practice. It increasingly interiorized natural externality in its plastic until, in Neoplasticism, nature actually no longer dominates.  Its expression of equivalence prepares the way for full-humanity and for the end of ‘art.’

Art is already in partial disintegration — but its end now would be premature.  Since its reconstruction-as-life is not yet possible, a new art is still necessary; but the new cannot be built out of old material. Thus even the most advanced of the Futurists and Cubists retreat more or less to the old, or at least are not free of the old.  The great truths they proclaimed are not realized in their art.  It is as if they were afraid of their own consequences. The new seems to remain immature even among those who initiated it.  Nevertheless, the great beginning has been made. From this beginning pure consequences were manifested.  From the new movement Neoplasticism arose: an entirely new arta new plastic. As purified art, it shows clearly the universally valid laws on which the new reality is to be built.  For the ‘old’ to vanish, and the ‘new’ to appear, a universally valid concept must be established.  It must be rooted in feeling and in intellect.  That is why, some years ago, Theo van Doesburg brought ‘De Stijl’ into being: not to ‘impose a style,’ but to discover and disseminate in collaboration what in the future will be universally valid.

Once realized in painting, the Neoplastic concept was manifested in sculpture (Vantongerloo’s prismatic compositions).  Several architects moved homogeneously with ‘the new plastic,’ and tried uniformly to apply its theory in their practice.  Several were truly convinced of the necessity for a new architecture, ‘an architecture consistent with everything our time has to offer in spiritual, social and technical progress’ (lecture by J.J.P. Oud, Feb. 1921).  It speaks well for Neoplasticism that advanced minds outside the movement strive in the same direction — without, however, achieving its consequence.’  The consequence of Neoplasticism is frightening. They doubt that it is possible to realize the Neoplastic idea as architecture today: they create’ without conviction.

[168]

The contemporary architect lives within ‘building practice’ — outside art. Insofar as he responds to Neoplasticism he tries to incorporate it directly in his building.  But if he fails to see that he must first create his building ‘as a work of art,’ it is because he does not fully feel or appreciate the content of Neoplasticism.  Neoplasticism can only be realized as ‘environment’ through the ‘work of art.’

In our time, each work of art has to stand on its own.  Certainly Neoplasticism’s complete realization will have to be in a multiplicity of buildings, as the city. But to reject Neoplasticism because it cannot be realized today is unjustified.  Today, even Neoplastic painting has to stand on its own — but this does not make it individual, because of its determined ‘plastic’ character.

The practice of architecture today is generally not free — as Neoplasticism demands.  Today freedom is found only through individuals or groups who wield material power.  One is therefore limited to the individual building — which opposes itself to its environment — to nature, to traditional or heterogeneous building.  It is nevertheless a plastic expression,’ a world in itself and thus can realize the Neoplastic idea.  The Neoplasticist must abstract the environment, for he recognizes that there can only be harmony through equivalence,’ for him, harmony between nature and the man-made is fantasy — unreal, impure.

But even as a ‘work of art,’ Neoplastic architecture can only be realized under certain conditions. Beside freedom, it demands preparation of a kind unfeasible in customary building practice.  If the founders of Neoplasticism in painting made great sacrifices before they succeeded in fully expressing the new’ plastic, its achievement in the ordinary architecture of today must be close to impossible.

Execution in which every detail must be invented and worked out is too costly or impossible under present circumstances.  Absolute freedom for continuous experimentation is necessary if art is to be achieved.  How can this come about within the complex limitations of conventional building in our society? First there must be the will and the power to realize the Neoplastic idea.  A school to meet all research requirements should be founded.  (Note, 1925: I was unaware, when I wrote this essay, that the Staatliches Bauhaus at Weimar, transferred to Dessau in 1925, was already working in this direction.) A specially designed technical laboratory is needed.  This is far from impossible; they now exist, but they are academic — superfluous because they merely reproduce what already exists.  Today the architect [169] compelled to create a ‘work of art’ more or less hastily and constrictedly, that is, he can only evolve it on paper.

How can he meet every new problem a priori? A plaster model is no real study for an interior design; and there is neither time nor money for a large scale model in metal or wood.  Time will provide what we should be able to do today.  Long and diversified research will finally create the completely Neoplastic work of art in architecture.

‘Building’ and ‘decoration’ as practiced today are compromises between ‘function’ on the one hand and the ‘aesthetic idea’ or ‘plastic’ on the other.  This is due solely to circumstances: for the reasons mentioned, the two will have to be combined.

Use and beauty purify each other in architecture.  That is why architecture through the ages, despite its many limitations, has been the prime vehicle of ‘style.’  Of necessity — being tied to materials, technology, function and purpose — it was poor soil for expressing sentiment.’  That is why it retained a greater objectivity (known as ‘monumentality’).  On the other hand, precisely for this reason it could not evolve as rapidly as the freer arts.

Function or purpose modifies architectural beauty.  Thus the difference between the beauty of a factory and that of a house.  It can even limit beauty: some utilitarian things — such as factory installations and machinery, or wheels — may require a round form, although the ‘straight’ expresses the profoundest beauty.  Roundness in such cases usually takes the form of the pure circle, which is far from nature’s capriciousness.  The architectural design can nevertheless control everything, but a certain ‘relativity’ always remains.

The deeply rooted belief that architecture operates with three-dimensional ‘plastic’ is why Neoplasticism’s ‘planar’ expression is thought to be inapplicable to architecture.  That architecture must be form-expression is a traditionalistic view.  It is the (perspective) vision of the past; Neoplasticism does away with that (see ‘Neoplasticism,’ 1920).  The new vision — even before Neoplasticism — does not proceed from one fixed point of view: it takes its viewpoint everywhere and is nowhere limited.  It is not bound by space or time (in agreement with the theory of relativity).  In practice it takes its viewpoint before the plane (the most extreme possibility of plastic intensification).  Thus it sees architecture as a multiplicity of planes: again the plane. This multiplicity is composed abstractly into plane plastic. At the same time practice demands a still relative visual-aesthetic solution through composition, etc. — because of the relativity of our physical movement.

[170]

To be a plastic of the plane in this way.  Neoplastic architecture requires color, without which the plane cannot be a vital reality for us.  Color is also necessary in order to reduce the naturalistic aspect of materials: the pure, flat, determinate (Le.  sharply defined, not fused) primary or basic colors of Neoplasticism, and their opposition, non-color (white, black, and grey).  The color is supported by the architecture or annihilates it, as required.  Color extends over the entire architecture, equipment, furniture, etc.  Thus the one annihilates the other in the whole.  But we thus also come into conflict with the traditional conception of ‘structural purity.”  The idea is still current that structure must be emphasized.’  Recent technology however, has already dealt this notion a blow.  What was defensible in brick construction, for example, is no longer so for concrete.  If the plastic concept demands that structure be neutralized plastically, then the way must be found to satisfy the demands both of structure and of plastic Neoplastic architecture requires not only an “artist,’ but a genuine Neoplasticist. All problems must be solved in a genuinely Neoplastic way.  Neoplastic beauty is other than morphoplastic beauty, just as Neoplastic harmony is other, and is not harmony for conventional feeling.

Also in our outward surroundings, another beauty is being manifested quite apart from Neoplasticism.  ‘Fashion’ in dress, for instance, shows the abolition of structure and the transformations of natural form: an annihilation of nature which does not impair beauty, but transforms it.  Today structural and aesthetic purity are merged in a new way. We also see it in art.  Naturalistic expression required that anatomy (structure) be expressed; there is no place for this in the new art.  Neoplastic architecture will take advantage of the latest technical inventions without impairing the plastic conception.  Art and technology are inseparable, and the further technique develops, the purer and more perfect Neoplastic art becomes.  Technology is already working hand in hand with the Neoplastic idea.  For where brick construction needed curved vaulting to enclose space, reinforced concrete gave rise to the flat roof.  Steel construction itself also offers many possibilities.  Is its expense the objection to Neoplasticism in architecture? The cost would be much lower if research were performed by the special institute we mentioned.  And how much could Neoplastic architecture save on ornament and stone carving, etc.  Yet expense is a main reason why this new architecture will for some time to come remain limited to the ‘work of art.’  Nevertheless, many aspects of the Neoplastic conception can already be realized in current construction.

[171]

Ornament is already much reduced in advanced modern architecture, and it is no surprise that Neoplasticism excludes it altogether. In such architecture, beauty is no longer an ‘accessory’ but is in the architecture itself. ‘Ornament’ has been deepened. So too, sculpture has been absorbed in furniture and equipment, etc.  Utilitarian objects become beautiful through their basic form, that is in themselves. Yet they are nothing in themselves: they become part of the architecture through their form and color.

In an interior, empty space becomes ‘determined’ by the so-called ‘furniture’ which in turn is related to the spatial articulation of the room, for the two are created simultaneously. The position of a cabinet is as important as its form and color, all of which are in turn as important as the design of the space.  Architect, sculptor and painter find their essential identity in collaboration or are all united in a single person.

The Neoplastic conception of utilitarian objects, etc., merging into the whole and neutralizing one another, is in complete conflict with certain modern tendencies which set furnishings apart as ‘decorative art.’  Their aim is to make art ‘social,’ to bring it ‘into life.’  In fact, it is nothing other than the making of paintings’ or ‘sculptures’ — but in an impure way, for ‘art’ demands freedom.  Such tendencies can never ‘renew’ our environment.  The attention it receives is dispersed on details.  Efforts of this kind are equally detrimental to pure painting when they adapt pure plastic elements.  For they employ painting decoratively where it should be purely plastic. Neoplasticism seemingly lends itself to decoration (through its planearity); actually the ‘decorative’ has no place in the Neoplastic conception.

If architecture and sculpture have been evaluated from the point of view of painting, this is possible because in architecture they are a unity.  Neoplastic aesthetic originated in painting but once formulated, the concept is valid for all the arts.

[From De Stijl, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 41-47; No. 5, pp. 65-71]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 18, 2010.

4 Responses to “Piet Mondrian’s “The Realization of Neoplasticism in the Distant Future and in Architecture Today: Architecture, Conceived as Our Total [Non-Natural] Environment” (1922)”

  1. […] Mondrian, Piet.  “The Realization of Neo-Plasticism in the Distant Future and in Architecture Today: Architecture, …  Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé.  De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York: 1971).  Pg. 169.  […]

  2. […] Mondrian, Piet.  “The Realization of Neo-Plasticism in the Distant Future and in Architecture Today: Architecture, …  Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé.  De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York: 1971).  Pg. 169.  […]

  3. […] Mondrian, Piet. “The Realization of Neo-Plasticism in the Distant Future and in Architecture Today: Architecture, … Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé. De Stijl. (H.N. Abrams. New York: 1971). Pg. 169. Originally […]

  4. […] Mondrian, Piet.  “The Realization of Neo-Plasticism in the Distant Future and in Architecture Today: Architecture, …  Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé.  De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York: 1971).  Pg. 169.  […]

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