Archis 1998 #12

Met het oog op de negentiende eeuw. De waarheid van de architectuurhistoricus / Focus on the nineteenth century. Truth and the architectural historian

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Dutch art historical research, at least as far as publications are concerned, is seen by outsiders as lacking a capacity for synthesis as well as guts.2 Hundreds of articles and collections of articles are published every year, many of good quality, but books, especially books that demonstrate a more comprehensive sweep or even present a challenge to the discipline, are largely absent. With the odd exception, the genre, or so it seems, breathed its last back in the fifties.

Complaints about the lack of a good survey of twentieth-century Dutch architecture were already voiced some time ago in a special issue of Archis on architectural history in the Netherlands (June 1986). The heavily criticized study by Fanelli – Modern Architecture in the Netherlands 1900-1940 (Italian edition 1968, Dutch translation 1978) was followed in 1995 by the no less critically received attempt by the American Joseph Buch (A Century of Architecture in the Netherlands 1880-1990, Rotterdam 1994; Dutch edition Rotterdam 1993). In the meantime, the Dutch professors of architectural history are reportedly writing a joint publication on this century.
The yield for the nineteenth century was even poorer – enough interesting monographs but not a single survey.3 Upon taking up the chair of the history of architecture in Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit in 1993, Van der Woud made it clear that he intended to change this situation. The study of the nineteenth century must be tackled thoroughly, and the picture as it then stood was in need of drastic revision. In terms of both method and content, there was work to be done. ‘Truth and Character’ is a demonstration of what Van der Woud meant.
It is an important book for the Netherlands in many ways, but especially because the author’s erudition and ambition force one to take up a stance and debate the nature of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Dutch architecture and its study. In this respect the book is in line with Van der Woud’s long-standing fascination with Dutch modern architecture. His work can be read as a major attempt to demonstrate that (functionalist) modernism is much less obviously the central line of development in Dutch architecture than has often been assumed; it even forms a direct assault on that modernism as a historical discourse. In catalogues on Americanism in the Netherlands (Amsterdam 1975) and on CIAM (Otterlo/Delft 1983) he raised for discussion the origins of modernism, its profundity and the actual influence it has had. Van der Woud’s dissertation, whose title translates as ‘Empty country; the spatial planning of the Netherlands 1798-1848’ (Amsterdam 1987) laid bare the forces and interventions that literally shaped the Netherlands during that period. It marked not only the opening up of new areas of study for art historians, but also called into question an art-historical research that focuses on Big Names and Big Buildings. ‘Truth and Character’ entails a return on the part of its author to architecture itself, to tackle the roots of the mythical Dutch modernism.
Van der Woud claims that what he has written is a postmodern history of architecture. This is not a reference to either Jencksian architectural concepts or structuralist ideas, but simply the wish not to view the history of the nineteenth century from a modernist perspective and to subordinate it to twentieth-century formal concepts like functionalism. Van der Woud is certainly interested in the modernizing of architectural theory, but then seen from the perspective of contemporary discussions and notions of architecture. This makes it possible to emphasize the long maligned and misunderstood eclecticism as a mainstream movement and an attempt at modernization, at the expense of Cuypers’ historicist Structural Rationalism or Berlage’s essentialism with its symbolist trappings. Concentrating on concepts of architectural theory wielded today also makes it possible to move beyond the debate on style and thereby escape from the antithesis between a nineteenth century trapped in style and a liberated ‘style-less’ twentieth century.
In this respect the book satisfies at least one of its objectives, for ‘Truth and Character’ has a multiple programme. It is presented as a manual for the study of Dutch nineteenth-century architecture; it sets out to rewrite the history of that century; it attempts to demonstrate a different way of writing architectural history; and it defends the validity and currency of a conception of architecture that disappeared from the discussion long ago.
It will certainly be used as a manual, although it fulfils that role only to a limited extent, as it refrains from discussing  architectural production. The detailed text concentrates on the architectural-theoretical discourse inasmuch as this can be followed in the periodicals, books, lectures and reports of the time, and is centred on the scene in Amsterdam and The Hague during that period. This means that non-verbal and provincial architects are absent, and so is the bulk of built work. Yet there is enough to say on these subjects in terms of method, for instance the implicit primacy of theory over practice. It would seem reasonable to assume mutual exchanges between the two. In the event, Van der Woud himself regards this book as part of the spectrum, so that complementary or at least parallel histories still need to be written. In fact, the ultimate handbook on ‘Nineteenth-century Dutch architecture’ can only be realized as the outcome of that longer-term project. Perhaps then it will be possible to do more justice to a statement like the following: ‘The long line running through the material is the process in which the theory of architecture lost its authority and importance, because it could no longer keep up with the increasingly dynamic state of society in general, and of architectural practice in particular’ (p.6). What, for instance, are we to make of the fact that Van der Woud incorporates many more economic considerations into his argument than is customary, but has no qualms about summarily bringing to book architects whose theories are influenced by economic factors?
As far as the rewriting of nineteenth-century architectural history is concerned, this book mainly provides us with a more detailed and complete picture of the intricacies of architectural theory at that time. We can now follow them year by year, instead of having to make do with samples. It is a pity that Van der Woud is so hypercritical of the Dutch art-historical community, presenting it virtually as blind and stupid, and almost entirely neglects placing his own research within a national and above all international perspective. That would have tempered somewhat the imperious tone of complete originality in what is otherwise a most convincing performance. One of the most striking parts of the argument (and the one that received most attention in the reviews in the dailies and weeklies) is the lambasting Cuypers and Berlage get as the patriarchs of Dutch modernism. Van der Woud knocks these self-proclaimed messiahs of the modern age down to size by presenting them as conniving representatives of their own interests. In their place, he focuses on C. Oudshoorn and more particularly  W.R. Rose (and the eclecticism they represent) as the real protagonists of the century. The rhetorical violence that Van der Woud deploys here shows that he had to score very emphatically indeed on this point.
Yet on reflection it is not that strange – this was the only way to attain the third and fourth objectives of the book. The mythical figures of Cuypers and Berlage not only blocked the genuine nineteenth century from view, but they also stood in the way of getting the present century in focus. Their elimination is essential if modernism is to be read not as the next stage in the development of architecture, but as one of the transformations, albeit a dominant one, undergone by nineteenth-century architecture. The architectural concepts of the mid nineteenth century have never left us, and even formed the undercurrent of radical modernism, an undercurrent that now, in our contemporary pluralism, can become a mainstream current again. This then is the (partly implicit) thesis.
The professor of the history of architecture not only tries to convince the architect fraternity that beauty, truth and character were theoretically grounded concepts, concepts with a by no means static content that enabled debate on architecture; he also argues that the modern discussion has been reduced to conceptually feeble notions like architectural quality and resonance. The upshot, he claims, is that every norm of architectural theory has vanished from present-day practice, every architect has been thrown back on his own personal theory and as a result the foundations of architecture have been effectively swept away.4
This approach of Van der Woud’s is interesting, but not without its risks. The theoretical swathe of demolition perpetrated by modernism and the subsequent critique of that tendency have ceded to a pluralism that is appreciated and historically legitimated by Van der Woud (what was it that Giedion was accused of?), as well as provided with the conceptual framework that he considers necessary. It is like Baron Von Münchhausen trying to pull himself out of the swamp. More crucial than the question of whether a historian can make and break reputations – estimating the importance of a person’s historical presence seems to me a normal part of the writing of history5 – is that of his bringing historical notions and concepts to bear in the present-day debate. The limitation of the historian is that although able to explain or correct historical concepts, he does not have the tools (in terms of guidance) to actively make proposals. Of course, every book, every text of substance is an intellectual intervention. In that respect Van der Woud clarifies a great deal in our notion of nineteenth-century Dutch architectural history, but he creates confusion too. By taking one true condition, modernism, and substituting another in its place, eclecticism, he is displaying a remarkably Modern intellectual trait. And wasn’t deflating the modernist claim to truth the whole point of the exercise?

1. Auke van der Woud, Waarheid en karakter; het debat over de bouwkunst 1840-1900, Rotterdam, NAi Publishers, 1997, 484 pp., NLG 65, ISBN 90 5662 044 4.
2. This has become a regular point of criticism within the ranks of the Dutch art historians themselves. For example, see the complaints on this score aired in the bibliographies of Dutch art-historical publications of the last ten years in the visual and applied arts (1998) and architecture (1995), both published by the Netherlands Association of Art Historians (NVK).

3. Now that Dutch architectural history has been chopped up (in the early nineties) and portioned out per period among the universities and research schools, it once again becomes likely (whether we like it or not) that a professor will be in a position to leave his mark on our historical understanding of a particular period.

4. See for example: ‘…’.

5. See the review of ‘Truth and Character’ by Umberto Barbieri in de Architect, no. XX, 1998, pp. XX-XX.