The practicalities of Oud

The Spangen municipal housing
project in Rotterdam, 1920-1923 

Image: Construction site for Oud’s
Spangen municipal housing (1920)


J.J.P. Oud, the pioneering Dutch modernist briefly associated with the journal and artistic movement De Stijl, is seldom mentioned alongside the other “great masters” of classical avant-garde architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Yet many of the themes that other modernist architects would only come to later — standardized mass housing, the industrialization of the building process, and the use of modern materials to create modern forms (apotheosized in the flat rooftop, hitherto unachievable) — Oud grasped already during the years of the First World War. The renowned Soviet architect Moisei Ginzburg later speculated  that this had something to do with Holland’s neutrality throughout the conflict, writing in his 1926 article “The international front of modern architecture” that

Holland, not having participated in the world war, found it possible during this time to carry out far more of their projects than other countries. In recent years, there have been erected not only many separate buildings, but also a whole range of new settlements. While the European architect dug trenches, the Dutchman [J.J.P.] Oud built 3,000 inexpensive apartments in Rotterdam.

The following are hi-resolution scans of plans, sketches, and photographs from Oud’s Spangen municipal housing project, begun in 1920 and completed in 1923, succeeded by the Jaffé translation of Oud’s 1918 essay “The monumental townscape,” originally published in De Stijl.

The Spangen municipal housing project:
An image gallery

“The monumental townscape”

by J.J.P. Oud

Translated from the Dutch by Hans L.C. Jaffé.
In De Stijl. (H.N. Abrams. New York:1971).

• • •

The concept ‘monumental’ is of an internal and not an external nature. It can manifest itself in small as well as in big things. Material factors play no part in this respect.

It is, therefore, superficial to maintain that a small country cannot have a monumental style. In the Netherlands there is a place and a need for a monumental style. Evolution in architecture, as in painting, is moving in the direction of the universal and monumental. In this it follows the line set by the Berlage School and is opposed in principle to the Amsterdam School, in which the monumental has been corrupted into what is essentially decadent.

Photo of Oud's Spangen municipal housing scheme, block 9 (1923)

Oud’s Spangen municipal housing, block 9 (1924)

In order to achieve style, only the universal is of importance. Acting through purity of means, a monumental style will be able to arise through the cooperation of the different art forms, because cooperation a possible only where each art form moves within its own field and admits no impure elements. The characteristic feature of each art form then becomes apparent and the need for cooperation is clearly felt.

The characteristic feature of architecture is relief. Architecture is plastic art, the art of the definition of space and, as such, is most universally expressed in the townscape: in the single building and in the grouping of buildings and the setting off of one building against another. The town plan is generally dominated by two elements: the street and the square. The street as a string of houses; the square as a focus of streets.

The townscape is mainly determined by the street picture.

Sketch of Oud's Spangen municipal housing, block 8 (1920)

Sketch of Oud’s Spangen municipal housing, block 8 (1919)

In determining the character of the modern street picture, the starting point will have to be, for theoretical and practical reasons, the street picture as a whole. On theoretical grounds, as has been shown above, on practical grounds, because in modern urban development private enterprise will play an increasingly small part and building in blocks or large groupings will take the place of the building of the individual house.

In sharp contrast to the old street picture, therefore, in which the houses are arbitrarily grouped together, the modern street picture will be dominated by building blocks in which the houses will be placed in a rhythmic arrangement of planes and masses.

Accordingly, the most important task for the modern architect is the block of dwellings. This task, in the fulfillment of which the authorities will have to play a part, demands its own appropriate solution, one not yet found in the blocks so far erected, where traditional influences have been maintained.

Photo of Oud's Spangen municipal housing scheme, block 4 (1923)

Photo of Oud’s Spangen municipal housing, block 4 (1923)

The beauty characteristic of the modern building block will be expressed in a strong emphatic rhythm and in the acceptance of modern materials.

A prominent feature will be a radical break with the pitched roof, resulting in the acceptance of the flat roof and all that it implies: the solution of horizontal spans by means of constructions in iron or concrete, the treatment of wall surfaces and wall openings with modern materials.

In this way, the architecture of the building block will determine to a large degree the character of the modern aesthetic in architecture.

Leiden, Netherlands; July 9, 1917
[De Stijl, Vol. I, No. 1, pp. 10-11]

5 thoughts on “The practicalities of Oud

  1. Thank you for this. Oud gets mentioned in the standard histories, but not much! Good to see lesser-known work and some writing by him.

  2. Thank you for sharing this information. I am an art teacher from a highschool in the Netherlands. I used your images to explain more about JJP Oud and de Stijl movement.
    This year JJP Oud- Spangen is one of the subjects of the art exam in the Netherlands. This part of modern history is very complex. The way to the endresult was not as plain as it was from the beginning. What started as a project where all Stijl artists where involved in, ended with de ending of friendship between Theo van Doesburg and JJP Oud. After that JJP Oud ended with, as he called it: cubistic experiments.

    De idea’s of de Stijl to deconstruct within de structure was for JJP Oud to radical.

    I found on the internet pictures of van Doesburgs colourdesign for Spangen.

    He tried to creat a dynamic structure within a static structure. The yellow had the radicality from itself. With blue and green het tried to break with the standing structures.
    Here he tried to implement the roll of painting in architecture.

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