De Stijl meets Time

Re – Quote #2 — CONCEPTS OF TIME
Meanwhile just over the border in Holland, artists of the De Stijl movement also believed the First World War had permanently destroyed the old world order. In November 1918, the same month Germany was declared a republic, the De Stijl magazine launched from the Dutch university town of Lieden, publishing a manifesto in four languages. Here progressive artists from all over the world were encouraged to ‘work for the formation of an international unity in Life, Art and Culture’.1

The manifesto was a brave announcement for a new era full of entirely unconventional ideas. Next to the founder Theo van Doesburg, the group’s principal members included the painters Piet Mondrian, Vilmos Huszár and Bart van der Leck, and the architects Gerrit Rietveld, Robert van ‘t Hoff, and J. J. P. Oud. Their working title: “De Stijl” or as it translates to English, “The Style”, was a set of rules written to define their use of essentials like form and colour in all the art, design and architecture which they approached.

‘It is impossible to breathe any new life into Holland. I am therefore focusing particularly on other countries.’

Theo van Doesburg, 1920
Preceding the Arte Concreto movement just after WWII, or the Minimalist movement of the 1960’s, these artists recognised that only from a set of tightly defined parameters grows unforeseen potential, whilst from unlimited constraints grows mainly chaos and confusion. Some of their reasoning was more spiritual, and some more philosophical. But for Van Doesburg and his friends, he saw art opening up to many possibilities, or as a bridge if you like, from the present to the future. They represented a new breed of artist who saw the importance of theory, structure and design across all facets of life. To Van Doesburg, even life was ‘an extraordinary invention’, suggesting he perhaps believed that it too could be a product of design.

In the decade which followed, the strength and breadth of the output created by the artists of the De Stijl, can be credited entirely to very conscious decisions about the rules and boundaries they would work within. Influenced by the Dutch abstract movement in painting known as Neo-Plasticism, they pushed towards a reduced visual vocabulary of primary colours and very simple graphical elements – limited to the straight line, the square, the rectangle, and later the diagonal.

All with a view to creating what was to become known as an ‘International Style’, and it was to be applied not just to painting, but to typography, architecture and urban planning too. This was a simple system of aesthetics based on a set of very basic common denominators, which they wholeheartedly believed, could affect change in society.

To place such belief in a seemingly limited set of shapes was bold and daring. Yet to an observation made by the designer and human technologist, John Maeda: “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”2 So, to the artists of the De Stijl, whilst limiting their palette of physical elements to simple geometric forms, they united around adding the concept of time as the fourth dimension.

The idea of ‘time’ in art had only recently arrived during the Renaissance period. When the geometric principle of perspective confirmed that any single chosen viewpoint could provide the making of innumerable images – simply by adding the concept of time – in the form of changing light or weather conditions. Whilst this might all seem obvious to the casual observer today. During an era long before CGI (computer generated imagery), all these permeations had to be created purely by hand. Artists had been testing their understanding of these theories through the Romantic period of the 1800’s, into the Impressionist and Expressionist eras which flowed into the early 20th Century.

An Englishman named John Constable had been experimenting with concepts of time since he first started sketching and painting with oils whilst still working as a miller in rural Sussex in the early 1800’s. He was fascinated with the weather’s ability to change a landscape, both in mood and also physical appearance. He later mastered his personal technique through an almost methodological approach to observation, which appeared to come more from the behaviour of a man of science, than the wandering mind of an artist. So much so he once said the composition of one his paintings resembled ‘a sum in arithmetic; take away or add the smallest item and it must be wrong’.3

One hundred years later, the artists of the De Stijl were using a very similar scientific approach of logic to improve their own understanding of the composition of architecture. Adding the concept of time manifested in the De Stijl’s ambition to burst into not just three dimensions, but also the flexible fourth-dimension. There is perhaps no better example of this than the Rietveld-Schröder House, completed in Utrecht, 1924. Whose simple dwelling spaces and interior wall layout were designed to be flexible and changeable depending on the time of day.

Less rigid, with more natural light, and functional to the needs of the ‘worker within the home’ they believed architecture had to exist also within the passage of time, catering to a variety of different functions from daytime to evening and night time. Commissioned by Mrs Truus Schröder-Schräder, and considering the needs of her three children following her husband’s death, she asked for a home to be designed preferably without walls, and for a building which could create a connection between the inside and outside.

This modern house was such a fundamental shift in design from what had come before, that the family were considered eccentrics within their own community. A wealth of small details revealed its creators were thinking innovatively, well ahead of those working outside of the avant-garde, simply by staying true to a set of unique and rigorous core principles.

From the hot-water pipes designed to run underneath a built-in shoe rack to keep boots warm, to tables which fold out from the walls, thus saving space. And the ‘speaking tube’ – an early version of intercom. The distinctive De Stijl colour scheme was not without its practical considerations too – black rectangles were painted around door handles and over light switches so that the grubby fingerprints that usually accumulate in these places were rendered invisible. An exploration of the added dimension of time, had in turn created an entirely new way of thinking about how we use space.

The De Stijl’s fascination with this relationship between time and space had more than a little something to do with the impact of Einstein’s theory of relativity, developed between 1907 and 1915, and published in 1916. Van Doesburg and Richter both expressed their interest. Perhaps it is within the midst of this blend of science, art, engineering and theory, where some of the most meaningful breakthroughs are still yet to be made.

So here, with a view to the formation of a more Sustainable Movement today, we find many meaningful takeaways from a niche scene which once sprouted from a small town in south Holland. For one, the collective energy which was slowly coming together to form the ‘Modern movement’ was a very international wave, connecting between multiple disparate groups and places. Crucially, people weren't afraid to change location if it meant they could collaborate more effectively, or join forces with like-minds.

Artists were also prepared to embrace the latest scientific theories in order to push the boundaries of their own innovation. Whilst the Netherlands was already embracing the values offered by a movement known as ‘Dutch Functionalism’ within architecture, Gerrit Rietveld pushed these concepts to an entirely new level with Truus Schröder’s home. Here the De Stijl’s most valuable breakthrough was within their understanding of the flexibility of time.

This leap in thinking perhaps offers us one of the best places from which to pick up our own forms of progress this century. For a much more thorough investigation of the fourth dimension has already become today’s priority. Where human-made processes must cease to work in their mindless and wasteful linearity. Newer perceptions of time, with a view to creating much fuller returns of circularity, will help to ensure the things we design and build continue to work over many lifecycles.

Despite the De Stijl’s intuitive ability to recognise the needs of time from multiple user points. Almost all modernists failed to understand the needs of nature were also delicately intertwined with the needs of our own. Up until the early 1920’s, art had previously been a game involved with nature, which was celebrated through Georgian and Victorian times largely through ornament. Van Doesburg was one of the first modernists who saw art changing to a game embracing and celebrating the machine. The overriding consensus was that nature could sadly step aside now, as it did pretty much for the entire 20th Century.

Only more recently have we reawoken to see our constructions not just continuing to involve the machine, (both mechanical and digital) but also returning to wholeheartedly embrace and celebrate the needs of nature too. Nature of course being the original machine (or ecosystem), which we are fundamentally a product of, and rely on for our very survival. Forming ever closer rhythms between ourselves, machines and nature, and finding ways for them all to empower and elevate each other – within the parameters of time – is very much the compositional challenge of this new 21st Century.

Next ︎
Chapter 5 —
The Role of the Magazines

Credits & Notes:
Manifesto 1 of the De Stijl
Theo van Doesburg / Robert van ‘t Hoff / Vilmos Huszar / Antony Kok / Piet Mondrian / Georges Vantongerloo / Jan Wils – Nov 1918
John Maeda
The Laws of Simplicity
MIT Press 
3 – 4
Peter Moore
The Weather Experiment
Vintage Books

The Sustainers — 21st Century Pioneers
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