'Van Eyk' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch
Van Eyk believed that to create architecture meant to ‘build meaning’ and ‘To discover anew’. This grammatical discretion enabled him to reconcile modern notions of newness and progress, with ancient and anthropological ideas about ritual and renewal. It is impossible to appreciate the differences between tradition and innovation if one’s view of the past is that it is inferior and primitive. Ingenuity is the major attribute of modernist creativity, which means of course to be literally engine-like in one’s thinking. What Van Eyk re-discovered is that the ways that humans respond to the world is manifest in our habitats, and to limit the study of architecture to the appreciation of objects - and to value only these manifestations of material culture purely for their aesthetic or technical worth, as art historians do - avoids consideration of the reasons why someone made them at all. One of our least attractive tendencies as human beings is forgetfulness. Which is why, Joseph Rykwert reminds us, we need to keep repeating the same things, since people either weren’t listening the first time or chose to forget. Too many buildings and designed objects simply encourage us further in dumbstruck awe at inappropriate technical prowess and solutions looking for problems.
Memory of child’s play guides the design of Van Eyk’s 700 odd playgrounds built on bombsites in post war Amsterdam, they are stage sets and spaces of transformation in a changing world. At the orphanage Van Eyk designed in Amsterdam (1955-60), ideas of enclosure and casual and ritualistic uses of spaces are held together by the use of a variegated ground and ceiling plane. This topographical metaphor seeks to overcome problems of ‘figure-ground’ dispersal found in functionalist analogies, and instead seeks a pre-architectural history, an image for inhabitation from the children’s memories of their parent’s embraces. The image of a house sits alongside a conglomeration suggesting a city or an ideal of communal life, as if all architectural meaning is really remembrance of Plato’s observation about theatre, which Van Eyk repeats pace Alberti: ‘A house is a tiny city… a city a huge house… the time has come to conceive of architecture urbanistically and urbanism architecturally.’ (‘Labyrinthine Clarity’) The orphanage seeks to fulfil his description of the Dogon dances as possessing unconscious arrangements that structure time and human performances. Van Eyk argued in his wonderful writing and buildings for participatory sensuality to counter the future-obsessions of most modernists, proposing instead of a teleological view of human history, the one liner and the frightened pose:
‘A multiplicity of elements forming a very irregular and disposed pattern … transformed to become a single thing. The singular embraced the plural on the one hand; the plural contained the singular and the other. The one expands and then contracts, the other contracts and then expands (you can start the breathing both ways; you simply choose the best to effect the start.’
These are large and strange concepts to absorb into architecture, and most modernist and post-modernist architects are still full of nostalgia for a simplistic view of history where 1960 or 1650 were high points, and the rest of time disappointing. Van Eyk is an antidote to this pessimism.