A 21st Century

De Stijl meets Time

Re – Quote #2 — CONCEPTS OF TIME
Meanwhile just over the border in the Netherlands, the artists of the De Stijl Movement also believed that WWI had permanently destroyed the old world order. In November 1918, the same month Germany was declared a republic, the De Stijl magazine was launched from the Dutch university town of Leiden with a manifesto published in four languages. 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 ‘The Style’, represented a set of rules written to define their use of essentials like form and colour in all the art, design and architecture that 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 and the Minimalist Movement of the 1960s, these artists recognised that only from a set of tightly defined parameters grows previously unseen forms of innovation, 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, they 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 itself was ‘an extraordinary invention’, suggesting he perhaps believed it too could be a product of design.

In the decade that followed, the strength and breadth of the output created by the artists of the De Stijl group can be credited entirely to conscious decisions about the rules and boundaries they would work within. Influenced by the Dutch abstract movement in painting known as Neoplasticism, 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.

These principles came together with principles also established at the Bauhaus, to form part of what came to be known as the ‘International Style’, and it was to be applied not just to painting, but to typography, architecture and urban planning too. It involved a simple system of aesthetics based on a set of basic common denominators, which its advocates wholeheartedly believed, could effect change in society.

To place such belief in a seemingly limited set of shapes could be misinterpreted as daring or even reckless, yet as the designer and technologist John Maeda points out: ‘Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.’2 So the artists of De Stijl, whilst limiting their palette of physical elements to simple geometric forms, united around adding the concept of time as the fourth dimension.

The idea of ‘time’ in art had only arrived during the Renaissance period of the 15th and 16th centuries, 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 continued to test their understanding of these theories through the Romantic period of the 1800s, into the Impressionist and Expressionist eras that flowed into the early 20th century.

To give you an example, an Englishman named John Constable had been experimenting with concepts of time since he first started sketching and painting with oils whilst working as a miller in rural Sussex in the early 1800s. He was fascinated  with the weather’s ability to change a landscape, both in mood and in 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.3 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.’4

One hundred years later, the artists of De Stijl were using a similar scientific approach to improve their own understanding of the composition of architecture. Adding the concept of time manifested in De Stijl’s ambition to interrogate the flexible fourth dimension. There is perhaps no better example of this than the Rietveld-Schröder House completed on the outskirts of Utrecht in 1924, whose simple dwelling spaces and sliding partition walls were designed to make the interior layout changeable depending on the time of day.

Considering the needs of her three children following her husband’s death, Truus Schröder-Schräder collaborated with De Stijl furniture maker and architect Gerrit Rietveld on a home free from internal walls that would fulfil a variety of flexible roles from daytime to evening and night. She played an important role throughout the design process, following a logic that would lead to a building that was less rigid, with more natural light, catering to the needs of the ‘worker within the home’.

This modern house embodied the idea that architecture also had to exist within the passage of time. It was such a fundamental shift from what had come before that the family were considered eccentrics within their own community. Yet a wealth of small details revealed its two creators were thinking innovatively well ahead of the curve, simply by staying true to a set of unique and rigorous core principles.

Hot-water pipes were routed to run underneath a built-in shoe rack to help keep boots warm, tables folded out from the walls thus saving space, and a basic ‘speaking tube’ formed an early version of ‘intercom’. The distinctive De Stijl colour scheme was not without practical considerations too – black rectangles were painted around door handles and over light switches so that grubby fingerprints would be rendered more or less invisible. An exploration of the additional dimension of time had in turn created entirely new ways of thinking about how a space might be designed and used.

The De Stijl group’s fascination with this relationship between time and space had more than a little to do with the impact of Einstein’s theory of relativity, developed between 1905 and 1915. (Van Doesburg and Richter both expressed their interest.) Perhaps it is in the midst of this blend of science, art, physics, engineering and theory, where some of the most meaningful breakthroughs are yet to be made?

So here, with a view to the formation of a ‘Sustainable Movement’ today, we find many meaningful takeaways from a niche scene that once sprouted from a small town in southern Holland. For one, the collective energy slowly coming together to form the Modern Movement was a very international wave, connecting multiple disparate groups and individuals. 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 within architecture known as ‘Dutch Functionalism’, Gerrit Rietveld pushed these concepts to an entirely new level with Truus Schröder’s home. Here the De Stijl group’s most valuable breakthrough was their understanding of the flexibility of time.

This leap in thinking offers us fertile ground from which to pick up our own forms of progress this century. For designers working today, a much more thorough investigation of the fourth dimension has already become a top priority. It is simply no longer acceptable for any object to live only once, or for our processes to continue to work in their mindless and wasteful linearity. Thus a much fuller understanding of the passage of time, with a view to creating greater returns of circularity, will help to ensure the things we design and build in the future continue to work over many lifecycles.

Despite the De Stijl group’s intuitive ability to recognise the needs of time from multiple points of view, almost all Modernists failed to understand that the needs of nature were also delicately intertwined with our own needs. Up until the early 1920s, art had previously been a game which involved nature, largely by celebrating it through ornament, particularly through Georgian and Victorian times. Van Doesburg was one of the first Modernists who saw art changing to a game which would celebrate the machine. The overriding consensus was that nature could sadly step aside, 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 needing to return 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 of course the ever-changing parameters of time – is very much the compositional challenge of this 21st century.

Next ︎
Chapter 5 —
The Role of the Magazines

Credits & Notes

Theo van Doesburg,
Robert van ‘t Hoff,
Vilmos Huszar, Antony Kok, Piet Mondrian, Georges Vantongerloo, Jan Wils
Manifesto 1 of De Stijl (Nov 1918)

John Maeda
The Laws of Simplicity
MIT Press (2006)

3 – 4
Peter Moore
The Weather Experiment
Vintage Books (2016)


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