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Reading Geert Bekaert

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The Netherlands has two new prizes for critical writing about and reflection on design culture: Geert Bekaert Prize for Architecture Criticism and the Simon Mari Pruys Prize for Design Criticism. Initiated by ArchiNed and Design Platform Rotterdam they were awarded for the first time in Amsterdam on March 20th 2014.

Belgium architectural historian Geert Bekaert has quite a few footholds in the Netherlands. To name a few: He was professor at the TU Eindhoven in the 80s and member of the editorial boards of TABK and Wonen-TABK in the 60s and 70s. In the 90s he became Editor-in-Chief of Archis (1990-1995). Architects who met him as students during their education often express being deeply stirred by his intellectual input. The Dutch world of architecture, however, has hardly been touched by his presence. That seems telling for the segregation between architecture and history in the Netherlands and indicative for Bekaert’s connectedness to present-day architecture. This relation is more complex in his own country: it is hard to overestimate his influence on Belgium’s academic intellectual climate. The same can be said about his influence on the position of architecture in Belgium, as far as this was open to influence at all.

No matter these differences, his name and person is synonymous with erudition and initiation in the bottomless depths of architectural history (‘the celebration of erudition’ as it was called by one of Bekaert’s colleagues) on both sides of the border. But his name is also connected to fierce polemics and interventions, in which he tried to expose false prophets and misguiding routes, and support his favorites.

So it’s commendable that the publication of his collected texts and essays (over 1,500 to date) was resumed in 2007 with Volume 3 (1971-1980) after the first two tomes (1950-1965 and 1966-1970) were published in 1985 en 1986 respectively. This review focuses on Volume 4: De Kromme Weg [The Crooked Path] 1981-1985. 560 pages of texts, plus introduction, references and register, printed on quality paper, nicely bound including a ribbon marker, it is a good book in every respect. (1)

Verzamelde opstellen

Within the editorial team of Archis in the nineties, Bekaert ‘a book a day keeps the doctor away’ or ‘a day without reading is a day without life’ had a reputation for rarely spending more than 600 words on a review. It drove the editor of the review section sometimes to despair and made her beg for a little more. Under mild protests Geert would come up with 750 words – this was really all that had to be said. The length was no indication of the content, which could be positive or downright devastating. The latter didn’t happen that often, due to another trait: his efficiency in using intellectual energy. This made him often decide that an author or case wasn’t worth the paper he would be writing on. One has to choose his enemy consciously. Put differently: I’ve never nailed Bekaert on an intellectual investment without clear calculation of the expected yield. But if Bekaert changes from reviewing to viewing, from evaluating to discovering, his concision changes into elaboration, not to say being inexhaustible in his quest for the real nature of the work and its maker. When he reviews his all time favorite, Hotel Torrentius – Charles Vandenhove’s restoration and transformation of a monumental house in Liège dating back to the sixteenth century into his own home – every detail, every spatial turn, every shade and light, every brick and stone, is being picked up, so to speak, to establish weight and value. And even then the author needs to state explicitly that he cannot be complete in his treatment of the project, far from it. He has to do it this way because the text requires so, he will hasten to add. In 1982, the year of this essay, the exceptionality and isolation of Vandenhove’s position in the context of an administration that dismissed tradition completely and a profession that detested postmodernism and clung to modernism dogmatically, could only be forced by showing meticulously that an architect’s design choices and his architecture can be based on other realities and notions. Bekaert’s tribute to the artwork that is Hotel Torrentius becomes a pamphlet against the disinterest, lack of knowledge, vandalism and laziness of a cultural and administrative elite. This is an architectural historian speaking, certainly, but as critique of his time.

Reading Bekaert is a multi-layered experience, whether it is forty pages on Philibert de l’Orme’s importance for and ‘Werdegang’ through architecture, a passionate defense of the Antwerp street Cogels-Oselei (which is pretty kitschy to Dutch eyes), or a lecture in which Piet Blom and his housing project ‘Blaakse Bos’ in Rotterdam are rebuked. Let me make this personal. I’m confronted with a way of thinking and reality that is becoming rarer and rarer. There are more ‘fallen bookcases’ around, but you seldom see that this knowledge is used to make ‘the work’ shine more profoundly, with more color and nuance. Most of the time the guise of knowledge serves to display one’s superiority, to create a sort of inherency or mask one’s inability to formulate an opinion. It is even rarer that the historian and writer/critic makes the necessity and impossibility to write about architecture tangible. One has to speak and write about architecture to let it be part of culture, but what architecture really is can hardly be captured in words.

Bekaert’s passionate embracing of ‘here and now’ is also exceptional for a historian. It is a cliché that history is about the present, but really dealing with the present is rarely practiced by historians. Bekaert’s texts (essays, lectures, critiques) are careful and deliberate interventions, putting current affairs into perspective – even when the text doesn’t deal with them directly – and that are driven by a relentless curiosity about the possibilities now. A colleague of Bekaert reproached him for being obsessively fascinated with the new, but to me it has more to do with an intense desire for life. An intense desire for truth explains a lot of his writings. It encompasses a belief, let me use the loaded notion, in the reality of the work. Au fond Bekaert is not interested in styles and movements, but in the authenticity, the expressiveness, the reality of ‘the work’.

One can track down Bekaert’s poetics in his texts, his personal ‘rules of the art’. The many negative characterizations in his texts – ‘it is not a …’, ‘it shouldn’t be seen as…’, ‘it doesn’t attempt to…’ – are needed to liberate ‘the work’ from the broadly cast nets of history and convention. A work cannot derive (I’m doing it too!) its meaning from historic references or an appeal to continuity. These kind of aspects can only add to its efficacy now. Words like ‘real’, ‘reality’, ‘factual’, ‘concrete’ and ‘evident’ are being used to make this point. Perhaps the word ‘affirmation’ is the most Bekaertian one in his texts. Mostly appearing in combination with the word ‘not’ it is being used to explain that the work exists for its own sake, that it has no other purpose than that. It had to be made, it is.

By now we’ve gone far from architectural history and classic criticism. No wonder that Dutch Architectural History doesn’t know its way with Bekaert. For Bekaert it is not his ultimate goal to contribute to the body of knowledge of the humanities, it is just a prerequisite to create the conditions for an intellectual game, just like architecture ultimately can be understood as game; but this is not a shared understanding in Dutch architecture criticism and history. When Bekaert during a conversation all of a sudden exclaims “I don’t care about architecture!”, this is a shocking statement coming from someone dedicated to the subject for over fifty years. But for those that can appreciate architecture as condition humaine, as a source of pleasure too, this statement relates to a middle-European intellectual culture and tradition, not to Anglo-Saxon empiricism. For those that cannot operate from erudition, that have to rely on specialist knowledge only, this is an uncanny confrontation.

It’s easier for architects. Even without understanding all backgrounds, they get that their work is central. They’re presented with a scholarly and sophisticated understanding of history, but one that deceptively resembles their own work and experience. Read Bekaert’s introductions to new editions of Philibert de l’Orme or Viollet-le-Duc and you sit at the same table with these guys. You meet them as architects that wrestle with situations, that make choices and decisions, men with shortcomings, habits, doubts, not as representatives of French renaissance or nineteenth-century rationalism. Bekaert’s texts inform you about their contributions and legacy, makes it real and human. All too human, I’d almost say.

Because of this identification with ‘the work’, the point where architect and historian seemingly meet is problematic at this point in time. In the early eighties, Bekaert could still put his trust in postmodernism, a movement in architecture, or rather in culture at large, that promised a grandiose alliance between history, philosophy and masterful invention. Let me only say this: things went somewhat differently. The liberation from dogmatic formulaic modernism soon led to banal variation. That was Bekaert’s grievance with Blom’s Blaakse Bos and his ‘Spanish Village’ in Rotterdam. Merely lip service and simulated playfulness without any relation with Rotterdam’s situation and condition. No one could suspect that this project was only a first sign of the avalanche of ‘local identities’ to come, but one has to credit Bekaert for acknowledging risks at a very early date.

At present, the chances for an architecture that is rooted in culture are worse than ever. Of course, the individual work will always escape any dogma or restriction. But does it matter? The artistic foundation of architecture, in which Bekaert’s belief in architecture is grounded, has eroded to the extent that architecture hovers in the air. That may seem a wonder, in times full of bubbles this can hardly come as a surprise. By now we know what happens with bubbles. But that is a discussion that takes us far beyond the end date of this collection of essays, 1985.

Right in the center of the book, the essay ‘Imitatie als levensbeschouwing: Over het omgaan met oude teksten’ [‘Imitation as philosophy, or how to deal with ancient texts]. In this text Bekaert explains with great precision how we can read and understand written heritage intelligently, specifically Quatremère de Quincy’s ‘imitation text’, and how Maurice Culot, Léon Krier and Demetri Porphyrios pretty much fail to do so. As discerningly he unwraps an array of colors and shades around the very notion of ‘imitation’, rooted in early Christianity and a core concept in art theory. That is no luxury in the Dutch-speaking world, which primarily associates imitation with cheapness, fakes and actors imitating people. In Bekaert’s hands this concept is used as common threat to connect very distinct productions in art and architecture. Bekaert explains how Quatremère declares imitation theory applicable to architecture too (not to art alone), this way uniting art and architecture; a literally classic problem, since architecture is the only art that doesn’t work ‘after nature’ or ‘from life’. Bekaert writes: “Imitation is nothing else indeed than the ability ‘to create a world of images’ that rivals the world of visible reality. In its fiction, the image is autonomous. It creates its own truth. Coming from the black box of fiction, imitation creates the wonder of existence.” Beautiful! It’s almost presented as a personal motto: invention is imitation. In this way, Romanticism, De Stijl, and even Functionalism can be aligned. Well no, maybe Functionalism cannot. Because beyond Walter Benjamin’s theory of reproduction from the thirties it becomes more difficult. And when we try to extend the threat right to the present it gets entangled in notions like copy, fashion, design, and commercial image production.

And yet, I’m almost certain that Bekaert will find a way out of this maze in his next lecture. Rem Koolhaas, admired by Bekaert, has been called the ‘Houdini of architecture’. With almost equal right, Bekaert can be called the ‘Houdini of architecture criticism’. And for the Netherlands: an outsider involved.

References

Geert Bekaert, Verzamelde opstellen 4: De kromme weg, 1981-1985. (Christophe Van Gerrewey, Mil De Kooning editors) Gent: WZW editions & productions 2008, 596p, ISBN 9077833099, € 53,00.

1. Subsequently, all nine plus one volumes have been published, including one volume of selected essays translated into English: Christoph van Gerrewey (ed.), Rooted in the Real. Writings on architecture by Geert Bekaert (Gent: WZW Editions & Productions, 2008). The first two volumes can also be found online at www.dbnl.be.