Theo van Doesburg’s “Notes on L’Aubette at Strasbourg” (1928)

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

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

• • •

The architect Francois Blondel, who was born in Paris in 1717, was given the task by the government in 1764 of creating new roads in Strasbourg to contain the traffic that had been increasing as a result of tourism, and of constructing on the main square a building that would serve as an example or the style of that period.  On 15 July 1764 Blondel arrived in Strasbourg with his assistants, the surveyor Lothe and the engineer Boutter.  The enormous building, which filled almost the whole of the northern side of the Place Kléber, was completed in 1767.  Blondel was called the straightener and, in fact, he had reduced to a more or less straight facade the building that encroached too much upon the square.  The whole of the building was used for military purposes (officers’ quarters, guard room, armory, etc.).  The name ‘aubette,’ originally ‘obet’ derives from ‘aube’ (dawn), because orders were issued from here at dawn.

In 1840 the Kléber monument was inaugurated.  In 1845 the most fashionable cafe, the Café ‘Cade,’ was opened in the aubette and in 1867 one of the rooms, now a cinema ballroom, was transformed into a concert hall.  For a long time the city’s School of Music was established here.  In 1869 the aubette became the property of the City of Strasbourg.  A number of rooms were arranged as an art gallery.  They contained works by Schongauer, Memling, Perugino, Correggio, Ribera, da Vinci, etc.  In 1870 the whole gallery was destroyed by fire.  Before the war, in 1911, the city proposed a radical remodeling, not only of the aubette, but of the whole square.  Forty-six architects were invited to collaborate, but the plans, which are in the municipal archives, were never carried out.  The aubette remains a building of mediocre appearance.

In 1922 Messrs Paul and Andre Horn and Ernest Heitz took a ninety-year lease of the right-hand wing of the aubette, but the city made a condition that no modification should be made to the facade, which is regarded as a ‘historical monument.’

One of the lessees, Mr Paul Horn, himself an architect, had the foundations restored and inserted a number of small rooms, to his own designs.  All that remained of the old aubette were the facade, roof and columns.  Consequently, the aubette no longer has it’ definitive form.  At first, no one knew what to do with this colossus and the plans, which were made [233] during the first four years by several architects and interior decorators, were not carried out.  The aubette traversed on paper all the variations of style from Empire to Biedermeier.

In September 1926 I entered for the first time into direct contact with the aubette through Mr Arp as intermediary.  The Messrs Horn invited me to Strasbourg and I found there the possibility of executing on a large scale my ideas in the field of the construction of interiors and of transforming one of the finest rooms into the modern idiom.  Mr Paul Horn, in whom I found an advocate of my ideas, persuaded me to set up an office on the Place Kléber.  I first had to make new plans which would, in the nature of things, correspond with the uses of the different rooms.  These plans were agreed by Messrs Horn and Heitz without any fundamental changes.

These preliminary plans, in which the function of the whole building was established, bore the stamp of a large-scale establishment of the kind to be found in large cities.  I imagined a kind of ‘house of passage,’ in which the use of the various rooms would not be too strictly defined.  On the first floor I wanted to link the large hall with the cinema-ballroom by means of a foyer bar.  In this way the public would be able to follow the film in the cinema-ballroom without having to remain in the room itself.  This fluidity, as I imagined it, was already given by the arcade on the ground floor [234] which connected the Place Kléber with the Rue de la Haute Montée To the left of the entrance I had a location plan erected which enables the visitor, by means of words and signs, to orientate himself more easily. The same location plan has also been put up in the different rooms.

Arrangement of the Rooms

On the ground floor there are: 1 arcade, 2 café-brasserie, 3 café-restaurant, 4 tea room, 5 Aubette Bar, 6 stairs leading to telephone booths in the basement, 7 ladies’ and gentlemen’s toilets, 8 cloakrooms, 9 American Bar, 10 cellar for dancing and cabaret.

A large staircase leads to the upper floors.

On the mezzanine floor there are: 11 toilets, 12 cloakrooms, 13 billiard rooms.

On the first floor: 14 the large hall, which is also used for dancing and cabaret, 15 large banqueting hall, which is connected by a foyer to 16 small banqueting room.  The kitchen and refrigerator are located in the mezzanine, while the kitchen offices are at the back, towards the Cour de l’Aubette, where there is also a service lift.

The other floors are used for offices and staff quarters, as well as for pantries, etc.

Materials

My original intention was to use exclusively durable materials, but because of expense I was obliged to restrict myself and use instead illusionist materials, such as color, as a means of expression.  The following are the materials which were used for fitting up the building:

Concrete, iron, glass, aluminium, electro-plating, nickel, hard rubber (for door handles, handrails, etc.), terrazzo, rabitz, linoleum, parquet, lincrusta, ripolin, frosted glass, leaded windows, rubber, leather, enamel, etc.

The use of wood has been avoided as far as possible and concrete has been used in its stead for walls and fixtures such as the bar tables.  All the doors have been made from large squares of glass, framed in iron.  The windows separating the passage from the tea room and the Café rise uninterrupted to the ceiling, giving the maximum light and view to the interior.  The lighting demanded a special study.  It is inspired by the particular use of each [235] room.  I tried to achieve a regular full lighting which, nevertheless, would not dazzle the eyes and would avoid shadows.  Centralized lighting has been abolished completely.  Direct lighting has been installed in the small and large banqueting halls, in the tea room and in the passage indirect lighting in the café-brasserie, the restaurant and the cinema-ball room The direct lighting in the large banqueting hall is in the form of large enamel sheets into which light bulbs have been fitted (16 bulbs in a square 4 ft X 4 ft).  The same dimension of 4 ft X 4 ft is used for the ventilators.  In the cinema-ballroom, the lighting takes the form of reflectors attached to nickel tubes.  I originally wanted to light the rooms with neon but I had to abandon the idea, because this kind of lighting does not yet give satisfactory results for white light.  In the café-restaurant and the brasserie, I also used lighting on aluminium sheets, which, when placed on walls next to the mirrors, gives very lively effects.  The tables, chairs, sofas and other accessories are mass-produced.  In these pieces of furniture, as in the cupboards, etc., there has been no attempt at artistic effects.

Painting

The painting of the ceiling and walls in the large banqueting room on the first floor and in the cinema-ballroom has been carried out in relief.  There were two reasons for this: firstly, because in this way I achieved a better defined surface and avoided clashing of the colors; secondly, because the fusion of the two colors was absolutely impossible.

Large banqueting hall: the surfaces are separated by bands 12 in.  wide and 1 ¼ ft deep.  Light and color were of primary importance here in relation to function.  They have given a form to the ‘fixed furniture’ of the room and are incorporated into it. For the subdivisions I took as a starting point a 4-ft module, this being the height of the radiators and of the grey ‘neutral’ zone of the balustrade.  The smallest color surface here measures 4 ft X 4 ft, while the largest ones always represent a multiple of 4 ft X 4 ft plus the width of the band (12 inches).  (Example: 4 ft X 8 ft + 1ft or 4 ft + 1 ft X 4 ft + 1 ft, etc.)  For a height of 4 ft up from the floor, I employed a neutral zone, which I also repeated in a vertical direction, making it possible to install clocks, batteries of electric switches, etc., without harming the impression of the whole.  The lighting sheets as well as the ventilator grilles have been made to form an organic part of the composition.  (The color composition is based upon dissonances.)

[236]

Cinema-ballroom

It was very difficult to animate this room by the use of colors.  I did not have any unbroken surface at my disposal.  The front wall was interrupted by the screen and the emergency exit, the rear wall by the entrance door, by the door of the small banqueting hall and by the openings for the cinematic projectors, as well as by the reflector.  The left-hand wall was broken up by the windows extending almost to the ceiling, and the right-hand wall by the door to the kitchen offices.  Now, since the architectural elements were based upon orthogonal relationships, this room had to accommodate itself to a diagonal arrangement of colors, to a counter-composition which, by its nature, was to resist all the tension of the architecture.  Consequently, the gallery, which crosses the composition obliquely from the right-hand side, was an advantage rather than a disadvantage to the whole effect.  It accentuates the rhythm of the painting.

The surfaces are raised l ½ in. above the plaster and separated from one another by bands l ½ in. deep and 14 in. wide.  If I were asked what I had in mind when I constructed this room, I should be able to reply: to oppose to the material room in three dimensions a super-material and pictorial, diagonal space.

The painting of the Café and the restaurant on the ground floor has been as far as possible directly harmonized with the fittings, the materials and the light.  Color as pigment will always remain an illusionist substitute for obtaining an effect which is really produced only by the practical and aesthetic qualities of materials.

Signs

In my opinion, it would be out of place to choose an existing script for the signs.  Neither the signs nor the illuminated advertising can be treated in the same way as typography.  I had also imagined for the signs (including advertisements and neon lights) a severe rectangular script, which could be employed according to the uses of the rooms.

In the rooms designed by Madame Taeuber Arp and Hans Arp (except the cellar-ballroom), painting and the straight line have equally been applied.  Moreover, the form of lighting in the tea room, small banqueting hall, staircase, etc., is comparable with that in the large banqueting hall.  Corresponding to the prevailing color of the tea room, which is grey’ is [237] the neutral surface of the cinema-ballroom.  By retaining such factors as lighting, prevailing tone, etc., in adjoining rooms, unity has not been compromised, in spite of the great differences between the rooms.  The ornamental panels in the tea room were originally to have been carried out in mosaic.  These surfaces have been arranged with much taste in accordance with the decorative principle.  There is also much taste in the distribution of colors in the Aubette Bar behind the tea room.

For the floor of the passage, Hans Arp has been inspired by the direction of movement along these floors.  The surfaces have been carried out in white, blue and black slabs disposed horizontally, while the painting of the staircase has a vertical accent.  Arp wanted to emphasize vertical movement in this way.  The two directions eventually culminate in the great glazed window.

Since those of us who collaborated here were people of different orientations, we made it a principle that each one was free to work according to his own ideas.  Thus in the cellar-ballroom painted by Arp, for example, the inspiration was that of an unbridled imagination.  The same was true for the lighting of the preceding room (American Bar), where the round column surviving from an earlier architecture served as a leitmotiv. The walls and, in particular, the long partition at the front were designed, in their turn, according to a ‘premorphist’ conception.

[From De Stijl, Vol. VIII, Aubette number, pp. 2-13]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 19, 2010.

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