De Stijl and the neoplastic architecture
De Stijl was born 100 years ago and celebrations are taking place all over The Netherlands. The movement brought innovation in the arts, painting, architecture and design.
by Luigi Coluccia
In the early decades of the 20th century, Futurism has not been the only artistic movement to influence Architecture. Neoplasticism was already spreading in the Netherlands, a new artistic trend formally established in 1917 with the first publication of the magazine De Stijl.
The magazine, whose name translated into English means The Style, was founded by Theo Van Doesburg who was also Director. The editorial staff included many prominent elements of the artistic world of that time, but without doubt the most representative of them was Piet Mondrian, the main promoter of the ideas of this new current.
The Neoplasticism, whose name comes from the Dutch word Nieuwe Beelding, aims at counterposing Art Nouveau decorative redundancy, by simplifying forms and volumes and leaving perspective aside. Going also beyond the cubistic vision, this new art is promoting rationality and formal purity. In the neoplastic vision of arts the traditional distinction between the various artistic disciplines hate been overcome. As Giulio Carlo Argan states: “In the neo-plastic poetic aesthetic the mere act of conceiving is considered aesthetic: combining vertical and horizontal lines or two primary colors is already an act of creation. Painters like Mondrian, Sculptors like Vantongerloo, Architects like G. T. Rietveld, J. J. Oud, C. van Eastern, all kind of artists were sticking to this, unique principle. “
In painting, the neoplastic vision is that of the geometric abstraction, which means the use of few, basic geometric elements, such as the line and the right angle. In the color scheme and composition the use of only primary colors – together with black, white and gray – is predominant. Straight angles and colors are designed to form simple geometric shapes – rectangles and repeated chromatic blocks – as in the famous Mondrian’s paintings.
“What do I want to express with my work? Nothing else than that every artist seeks: to achieve harmony through the balance of the relationship between lines, colors and planes. But only in clearest and strongest way”. (Piet Mondrian)
The new theory is therefore applicable also in architecture, where colored areas correspond to solid and the non-colored (neutral) areas match the empty.
The main expression of neoplastic architecture is to be found in the work of Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, carpenter first, then architect and designer, who in 1919 formally joined the De Stijl Group. Already in the years prior to his joining to the Group, Rietveld had designed the Red and Blue chair, referred as the first design object, simplified structure and linear in shape, which expresses the new aesthetic criteria promoted by the De Stijl. Design objects are the prelude to his works as an architect.
The same play of rectangles and color blocks is translated in the design of the Schröder House in Utrecht (1924) – the icon building of the De Stjil architecture – in which Rietveld achieves the perfect synthesis of the movement theories and conceives the furniture elements and the architectural design basing on the same aesthetic principles. The house is located in the Prins Hendriklaan 50 in Utrecht and is on two levels, ground floor and first floor. From the design point of view, it is based on four main elements:
- White primary elements to shape the house and its structure;
- Gray or white plain elements to define the relationship between inside and outside;
- Linear elements, vertical and horizontal – lintels, pillars, drainpipes – colored in yellow, red and blue combined with white, gray and black;
- Functional elements – windows, doors, railings, exterior staircase and skylight – colored in black and white.
In the first conception of the house, the interior spaces have been organized according to the function they are intended to: on the ground floor there are the rooms to eat, study and work, bounded by walls. On the upper floor, in a unique environment, definable through the use of sliding walls, there are the areas to sleep and for intellectual activities. All the furnishing inside the house has been design by the Architect as well.
The neoplastic movement suffers its first setback as Mondrian and Van Doesburg didn’t agree on the introduction of the diagonal line both in painting and in architecture.
In 1921 Van Doesburg moved to Germany and a year later held a course on De Stjil at the Weimar School, thus influencing the Gropius’school. Van Doesburg’s experience with the Bauhaus lasted some years, however he wasn’t satisfy with it and started to work on a new avant-guarde movement which unfortunately never materialized because of his death in 1931. With his death Neoplasticism came to an end as well. Theo van Doesburg will e referred as the main representative of this artistic movement.