Gerrit Rietveld, “Utility, Construction: (Beauty, Art)” (1927)
Translated from the Dutch by Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, et al.
From Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology
of Original Articles. (Whitney Library of Design. New York, NY: 1975).
• • •
In my opinion, there is no reason why anyone should provide a justification for making something; on the contrary, the need for concrete expression is removed if one has been able to express that need in words first. And there is no need to explain work which has already been carried out.
Efforts are now being made by a great number of people to determine the direction in which architecture is going.
Some artists want to do away with art, replacing it by pure, economical construction; yet, at the same time, they are seeking to achieve particular forms. They consider the straight line and the right angle as truly universal, while the acute angle is arbitrary, and therefore individual.
Their admiration for the products of modern technology — railway bridges (the biggest), locomotives (the fastest), airplanes and cars (the latest) — and of most mechanical products is so great that they describe the ideal house as a machine for living in…
I want to try to determine the relationship between beauty and art, as well as the relationship between these two and utility and construction.
It seems just as wrong to me to accept or reject constructional forms for aesthetic reasons as to accept or reject aesthetic elements on constructional or economic grounds. It is frequently difficult to decide whether an element introduced on apparently aesthetic grounds does in fact offend against the more essentially constructional aspect. This explains why the uninitiated sometimes find it difficult to understand why decorative elements are the result of purely technical considerations current at the time of manufacture; in chairs dating from the time of Louis XV, tor instance, the curvature of the wood is explained by the fort that it was cut with a bow-saw, which tended to produce  a slightly curved line rather than a completely straight one, and by the fact that the grain of most wood is slightly askew. A leg or length of wood which was slightly curved was more easily smoothed and hollowed with a gouge (a concave-bladed chisel), than with a file or scraper. The hollow profile of the leg was often best interrupted at the joints by a little ornamental work, because of the different directions of the grain of the various sections; the addition of a little scroll or rosette in the context of the sober curving lines of the chair give an effect of gracefulness which looks as though it had been dictated by totally aesthetic considerations, rather than by a necessary constructional consideration. This is why the so-called cushion-panels and hollow profiles on the doors of Dutch Renaissance cupboards are in fact quite necessary — to protect its half-inch thick panels against warping.
Art and beauty are quite different. In the first place, art is not concerned with beauty. It is unavoidable that even the most prosaic construction should have more to it than mere outward appearance. Things become real (perceptible) to us through their appearance (form, color, sound, smell and hardness or softness).
Whether we find this reality beautiful or ugly is a question of attitude and opinion; it is, in any case, a matter of personal preference and dislike. Art makes visible the individual characteristics of each object as they are perceived by the various senses; it takes the idea of beauty to a more general level. Art is creative, by its very nature, because it makes reality and recognizes it.
Tagore says: ‘By the limitation of the limitless the truth becomes reality.’ When construction goes against physical and chemical laws, it becomes unacceptable; but does it follow from this, that construction must become entirely ‘natural’? After all, it is essentially anti-natural in the sense that it implies the willing of things into existence. In so far as the appearance of a building is against the rules of building, it is unacceptable, but does it follow from this that the most well-built building is the most significant one? A solidly-built artifact will sometimes have an insignificant appearance.
Is the sound of the life of a large city, for instance, the finest music or the most meaningful sound-expression of contemporary life? I do not think so. It is, however, quite possible for such a phenomenon to be made to appear beautiful. The same goes for carefully calculated constructions, which in their positive correctness, display a kind of unified efficiency which excludes contradiction. The object can only appear true if its form expresses unity. This unity can be expressed through decorative elements, through form, through color arrangements, or through the interpretation of the object’s function in its form. Regardless of the aesthetic value of these arguments, I find them objectionable as far as art is concerned. A work of art is a free and creative act. By the same token, all that we can create is a delimitation of space, and no more (even the materials which are used take on more significance by virtue of their position in space, than by their individual form). The precise need to protect oneself against nature gives practical validation to the creation of such space artifacts. In other words, the practical application of art (applied art, functional art, etc.) does not exist.
Bolland says: ‘Being is essentially only appearance.’ Tagore says: ‘Art has no other explanation except that it appears to be what it is.’
A few works of art are sufficient to convey the essence of things for centuries; no one can escape from this. The meaning of art is an unspecific quality; constructions which are meant to be objective often appear in a pure form. Because art expresses the essence of things, it will often be found surprisingly to provide for unrecognized needs.