The city as a regulated industry: Cornelis van Eesteren and urban planning

Umberto Barbieri
Urbanista revista
№ 8, June 1989

to be completely elementarily experienced again, and only by elementary means can beauty be attained again. In the first place it is a question of proportion, not of form. (…)

The drawings only indicate an idea of the form, the embryo of the form.

Cor. v. Eesteren, “Moderne Stedebouwbeginselen
in de Practijk,” De Stijl, vol. VI. № 10/11 (1925)

Cornelis van Eesteren won the 1921 Prix de Rome award for architecture with his design for an Academy of Sciences, Literature and Arts in Amsterdam. This design, made while he was still a student, has a classical layout, characterized by symmetry, monumentality, and decorative elements. His prize was a bursary to travel to Germany and Scandinavia in order to study the use of brick in architecture.

Van Eesteren’s stay in Berlin, one of the stops on his European trip, provided his first confrontation not only with the reality of the big city, but also with the culture of the avant-garde.

He met Hans Richter and Adolph Behne, who advised him to continue his studies at the Bauhaus in Weimar. That is where he met Theo van Doesburg for the first time, marking the start of a “relationship” that was to last until 1925. Van Eesteren’s interim report to the Prix de Rome commission for the purpose of extending his bursary demonstrated his interest in the subject of urban construction: his reflections on Berlin, for instance, revealed his specific observation of that city, focussed on the way traffic functioned and on city zoning.

In 1923 a number of parameters could already be observed in van Eesteren’s work pertaining to ideas about urban planning such as the differentiation of residential and working districts, a redefinition of the historical center, the links between the various functions and the regulation of the use of land. A start to putting this approach to the urban phenomenon into actual practice was made in 1929, the year van Eesteren was given a job at the recently-established Department of Urban Development in Amsterdam. In the meantime he had experimented on various scales and in various situations with constructing and deconstructing architectonic material.

His collaboration with van Doesburg was of crucial importance for this examination.

As stated above, the Weimar encounter of May 4th 1922 between van Eesteren and the founder of De Stijl marked the  start of an intense association in theoretical and design matters. Together they developed the famous Stijl models (the Rosenberg house, a private residence and an artist’s house) which were exhibited in 1923 at the Stijl show in Rosenberg’s Paris gallery. They composed manifestos for the occasion, heralding the second, constructive period of De Stijl. The first declaration proclaimed the end of destruction and the beginning of the great age of construction. It was folio wed by the manifesto Towards a Plastic Architecture, published in 1924, in which van Doesburg announced the new architecture to be elementary, i.e. developed from elements of construction in the widest sense. These elements such as: function, mass, plane, time, space, light, color, material, etc., are also plastic elements.

Granted that these elements, or constructional components, could be used to determine architectural style, it meant the end of pre-established, fixed elements of form and the aesthetic laws governing them. In that case the only coordinates to be defined were those on which constructions (the organization of building components) were set out. In the first place it is a question of relation, not of form.

Parallel to his Stijl investigations with van Doesburg, van Eesteren attended classes in urban planning at the Sorbonne, and examined with the Frenchman L.G. Pineau the roads and traffic structure of the French metropolis. The result was a drawing of an imaginary section of a business district in a modern city.

Van Eesteren’s association with van Doesburg came to an end in 1926, after submitting a design for a shopping arcade with a restaurant in The Hague for a competition (1924-1925). Prior to that he had only entered two other big competitions: in 1924 he had submitted a design for the reorganization of the Rokin in Amsterdam, and in 1925 for the rearrangement of the Unter den Linden area in Berlin. In his notes to the Rokin project, van Eesteren wrote:

Look at reality — the only basis for solving the Rokin puzzle. I call the design reproduced here “elementary” because it is constructed from the elements of the district in question. The entire expansion and renewal of Amsterdam ought to be studied in such an elementary fashion. Is it not foolish to argue about questions of detail for years, when the development of the whole city is left to chance?

In his accompanying notes to the entry for the Rokin competition, van Eesteren had referred to Elementarism. He went into the subject in greater detail in a number of theoretical treatises on urban construction. His writings, but more particularly his designs, demonstrate how closely his work dovetailed with Van Doesburg’s theories.

There is no need for complicated arguments to make it plausible that van Eesteren’s work for the Amsterdam development plan was inspired by a series of principles established during his Stijl period. Despite the rupture between van Eesteren and van Doesburg — in 1926 — the article “Ten Years of ‘Style’: Art, Technique, and Urban Construction” may be seen as a calm, consistent continuation of elementarism in urban construction as formulated in the “Principles of Modern Urban Construction in Practice” in connection with the Rokin competition and which could be described as the transformed application of van Doesburg’s architecture manifesto Towards a Plastic Architecture.

Whereas van Doesburg’s observations on aesthetics in the early years of De Stijl were a cultural and aesthetic source of inspiration to Oud for “evolving” a tradition of Dutch architecture and urban construction, after 1922 it was an instrument which van Eesteren employed to “revolutionize” architecture and urban construction from the inside. He based his revolution on an adequate, productive implementation of elementary principles in a de-compositional and compositional sense. The methods of elementarism which van Doesburg taught van Eesteren did not originate so much from the early Stijl days as from van Doesburg’s thorough work on constructivism in 1921-1922.

In 1921 Raoul Hausmann, Hans Arp, Ivan Puni, and László Moholy-Nagy published a manifesto in De Stijl, the Aufruf zur elementaren Kunst. The ranks closed at a gathering in Düsseldorf in May 1922 where EI Lissitzky and Theo van Doesburg were also among those present. De Stijl published Proun in 1922 and later the story Van twee Kwadraten (Tale of Two Squares), both by Lissitzky. Between these two publications, De Stijl issued the Manifesto of the Constructivist Internationale: “This Internationale does not have an emotional basis (humanistic or the like; a “general love of mankind”), but owes its existence to the same amoral conditions as science, technique and trade: the necessity to act in a collective-plastic way, instead of an individual-intuitive way.”

Less significant than the recognition of the avant-garde’s programmatic amorality here is the ideological link between the elementarism of artistic activity and of science, technique, and trade, and the radical division between style and intuition, or collective and individual.

Van Doesburg’s dadaist activities were complementary to his elementary De Stijl investigations and and his experiments with van Eesteren in Paris, in my opinion. They were two faces of the same coin. On one side he tested new communication techniques (Dada); on the other he experimented with the laws of composition. Communication becomes possible when series built up of elementary form-signs are traversed. This is the process of designing. He wrote:

Van Doesburg’s method is elementary and universal, a compilation of all possible objects which are just themselves. These are the preeminent basic features of “design.” In natural construction, the homogeneous orthogonal neo-plastic style, elementarism adopts a heterogeneous, contrasting, unstable means of expression. (…) Elementarism aims at disrupting the systematism of signs by organizing them in an arbitrary code.

Van Eesteren ‘s designs for Unter den Linden, Rokin, and even the Amsterdam Expansion Plan (AEP) may be regarded as a series of urban constructional elements. They are macrosigns of a spatial organization of architectonic micro-signs fulfilling scientific, technical and economical (trade) conditions as well as the communicative requirements of the design. The pragmatism of this constructive practice is fundamental for plan polities, the endeavors to govern and control social and spatial developments on an “amoral and technical basis.” Such practices became polities when van Eesteren entered the employ of the Department of Urban Development in 1929, set up a year previously by the Amsterdam City Council with the objective of preparing and coordinating the expansion of the city along scientific lines.

Both the new director, K. Scheffer, and his first associates, T. van Lohuizen, and G. Delfgaauw, were social scientists; only van Eesteren having any practical background in urban design. A survey was started with the aim of obtaining an urban design with as scientific a basis as possible.

The coordinates of the future size and organization of the city were based on extrapolated calculations of the present, with a maximum capacity regarding dynamic development. Aspects to be determined such as institutional restrictions and liberties as to the exploitation of land, were defined legally by means of establishing and distributing functions and their common links. Parcelling and architectural style were free.

The first phase of work on the AEP took four years. In 1933, after publication of individual studies in the field of population increase and industrial growth, the complete report was presented to the councillor for Public Works. In 1935 the definitive text, a General Expansion Plan: Fundamentals for the Urban Expansion of Amsterdam, was published, and accepted by the council. The plan and charts were underpinned by extensive chapters dealing with the history of the city, the expansion possibilities in view of the anticipated population increase and the geographical facilities. It was accompanied by detailed reports on soil conditions, traffic, the size and type of the city in future, working areas, recreation areas, etc.

From that moment onwards, the city began to acquire “style” it started to be “styled”…Does it automatically follow that De Stijl became the city?

5 thoughts on “The city as a regulated industry: Cornelis van Eesteren and urban planning

  1. Pingback: The CITY as a regulated INDUSTRY: Cornelis van Eesteren and urban planning | Association Concert Urbain

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  4. Hi, cool blog/website thing. those city planning sketches/models are awesome. know how i could take a peek at a copy of that book you mentioned….General Expansion Plan: Fundamentals for the Urban Expansion of Amsterdam?



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