Theo van Doesburg’s “From the New Aesthetic to its Material Realization”
Translated from the Dutch by Hans L.C. Jaffé.
In De Stijl. (H.N. Abrams. New York:1971).
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Building is not the same thing as creation.
Nor is the gradual relinquishing of the superfluous and of the usual decorations in color and form the same as creative building: it is underrated building. Creative building is something more.
Nor is the piling of living-hutches on top of each other, or the stringing of constructional units one after the other the same as creative building.
That kind of building is a process of mechanical repetition, like the process of photography, or the use of historical architectural styles.
The (apparent) economizing in the organization of space for communal living (normalization) is a hindrance to creative building.
Nor is creative building, in the Neoplastic sense, a simple matter of straightening out curves and flattening diagonals, of laying bare the skeleton of the building’s joints and girders. This kind of building is anatomical, like naturalistic painting.
All these things are prerequisites for further progress towards creative building.
Constructivist building is not necessarily the creation of plastic form.
One could perhaps say that to think of building as piling things on top of each other is a visual’ conception.
This is on the same level as the primitive, principally southern, idea that the principles of form relate only to three-dimensional sculpture. For modern man, building and creation can be identical with form, expression (even formless expression, e.g., using color alone), synthesis and organization.
Obviously, creation needs a medium. In the modern sense (as opposed to the exclusively constructive’ sense) creation is organization of the medium to form an unmistakable, real unity.
I call space and materials the media.
Anything which disrupts this unity reduces architecture once more to the subordinate level which it has occupied till now.
Only in our time has the leading art form, painting, shown the way which architecture must take in order that it may, like creative painting and sculpture, with mechanical means and disciplines, realize in material form what is already present in the other arts in imaginary (aesthetic) form.
Nobody should be put off by the fact that the art which took the lead at the beginning of the twentieth century, painting, created a posteriori an ideal aesthetic. Our new consciousness of life demands the destruction of duality, feels the need for unity, for an indivisible, universal reality and has the will to realize what has been indicated by the ideal aesthetic of the ‘free arts’ in material terms, in architecture.
Not only in Holland but also in Russia (after 1917) this new movement ‘from the aesthetic to its material realization’ proceeded from the consequential development of painting (in Holland Neoplasticism, in Russia Suprematism and Proun).
Now at last architects are gaining confidence in the use of their expressive medium.
The dualists’ firm but one-sided belief in an architectonic balance of spirit and matter is medieval in origin and made it quite impossible to organize materials soberly and clearsightedly, to form an unmistakable, real unity. Only when a predominantly religious view of life had been replaced by a more scientific view (during the Renaissance) were materials and material contrasts recognized as expressive media.
In the Middle Ages matter was used symbolically, in the Renaissance it was used, most of the time, sensuously, as decoration. Thanks to advances in physics, our age has seen not only the shattering of the belief in matter as a solid body, but also, in art, the acceptance of matter as, in essence, energy.
It is fundamentally important for the creative architect to recognize the differences in energy between different materials, so that he can use these differences to realize what painters have indicated in the basic material of creative art: Color.
In the lectures about color which I gave in Germany, I made the first attempt to define color (from the point of view of the visual arts) as ‘matter’ and matter as different intensities of energy. In my expositions of  the basic materials of creation, my rejection of color in the visual arts, as the result of light passing through a prism (even though arranged more or less metrically) or as a medium of literary symbolism, aroused hardly any opposition. And yet, starting from the postulate that color is the fundamental material of the visual arts, I was laying down important principles for the development of architecture.
The creative painter has to organize contrasting, dissonant or complementary energies in two or three spatial dimensions to produce an unambiguous harmony, and the creative architect has to do the same with his material. Not decoratively, to produce an effect which makes an easy’ appeal to the senses, but creatively, exploiting the contrasts of energy inherent in the materials. In creative painting, yellow and blue, for example, express two contrasting energies; in architecture this is done by two contrasting materials, e.g.:
Wood — compression.
Concrete — tension.
On the other hand dissonant materials are, for example:
Concrete — rigid tension.
Iron — elastic tension (a pulling quality).
Only those works in which the creative forethought of the builder has allowed the force of energy a maximum of expression are created works.
An iron bridge is good, i.e., it has been created, when the various materials are so organized and unified that a maximum of energetic force is obtained.
A building is good, i.e., created, when the various materials (including light) are so organized and unified that a maximum of energetic force is obtained.
It is not possible in a short article to list all the extraordinary potentialities of expression opened up by this. Starting with the most extreme of contrasts — vacuum and mass, the open transparency of glass and the closed opacity of stone — the constructor will be able to assess the relationships, not only of site, position and proportions, but also of the contrasting, dissonant and complementary energies, and organize them in unity.
In this way the ideal aesthetic of one art is realized in the materials of another, and ideal and mechanical aesthetics, theoretical, artistic creation and utilitarian construction, are united in a perfect balance. This balance is ‘style.’
Creative form will thus be made available to all. The organization of materials and, when necessary, the creation of new materials will be a task for everybody. If the architect produces a challenging design (without an aesthetic precedent) the engineer must find the material in which to execute it. Architecture will never by an expression of the creative consciousness of the age if architects timidly, passively, content themselves with existing materials. If a project demands a particular material, the creative engineer must either invent that material or adapt the material available. Only those who are now learning their way in the world of materials as a result of the ideal aesthetic, will discover by mechanical and technical means the materials (including color) which will make the new creative style in architecture possible by their contrasting, dissonant or complementary energies.
If we look at the way materials are used in present-day building we cannot but see that nearly all this so-called architecture is stifling the material under layers of sentimentality. It is exactly the same in so-called painting, where, again, layers of sentimentality murder the energetic force of the basic material (color). This criminal misuse of the material as something dead (wood, stone, color, glass, iron) has its origin in the grotesque, distorted glorification of the dualistic concept of a spiritual never-never and a material here-and-now.
When material is used to give reality to aesthetics an attitude will be created which will do away with the separation of the ideal from the real.
The re-creation of life as a unified whole draws nearer the new culture.
Weimar 1922 [From De Stijl, Vol. VI, No. I, pp. 10-14)