PROTOTYPE, FROM DREAM TO EVERYDAY LIFE
Years of domination
At a certain moment, every up-and-coming architect experiences the urge to fathom the essence of designing, independent of any specific design assignment. This yearning overcame me a short time after I had realized my first urban planning design at university. While I was working on it, the idea increasingly assailed me that my intuition and my subjective preferences were not sufficient for designing on a larger scale. Up to that point, I had regarded these resources as the basis for the creation of personal, spatially interesting designs. Of course, I was still too young to draw truly lucid conclusions, but I could intuitively sense that something essential was lacking. There had to be more universal values that gave designs their raison d’être, instead of a series of arbitrary decisions taken by an individual.
Looking back on the result of my first urban planning design, it is good to see that I was a true child of my time. In education in the seventies, personal development was the absolute goal, while, by personally choosing the right teachers, you could absorb a great deal of information on architecture, although this information was invariably linked to a compulsive subjective approach to the subject in which qualifications such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ architect were not avoided. One phenomenon was very striking in this framework: as a consequence of the enduring dominance of certain architectural doctrines in education, there was a kind of collective cramped relation to the concept of ‘large scale’. In fact, a large-scale assignment was only good if it could be dissected into series of small assignments that could subsequently be executed personally and specifically. It was even common to study notoriously large-scale designs from architectural history from this angle alone, and to ignore the abstraction that is inherent in this type of assignment.
By choosing as my graduation project the redevelopment of Sluisjesdijk harbour pier, 2200 metres in length in Rotterdam-Zuid, I appeared to have opted deliberately to pick up the challenge of a large-scale assignment, although I did not yet have at my disposal the instruments needed to genuinely take on an assignment on this scale. Some kind of magical solution had to be devised.
The secret lay dormant in the specialist library of the Architecture Department at Delft University of technology. This became my home, I felt that here I would be able to discover the hidden treasures that would answer my questions. Initially, the quest did not follow any scientifically responsible pattern, there was no thesis or research model, I had not given myself a clear assignment. Everything expanded as I browsed, copied and read. While I continued to lean on my intuition, I increasingly realized that I was seeking the reason behind the brilliant, sometimes inconceivably ruthless visions and designs that I discovered in the books. I gave free rein to a kind of affection for architectonic concepts, and serendipity was my comrade. At the start of the daily quest, I could not predict what I would have found by the end of the day.
It was primarily the silent potency of the journal archives – kilometres in length – that surprised me. By reading the original texts of the designers and articles on these texts in the erstwhile magazines, I could transport myself back to the time of the design in order to review the plans in the sober light of my own era.
Nevertheless, the moment always arrives at which a need arises to structure even the most undisciplined quest. It was a given fact that the study had to provide insight into the design of the city, at all levels. Accordingly, all scales had to be represented within the selection of plans. The slogan of Jaap Bakema ‘Van Stoel tot Stad’ (From Chair to City) was indelibly imprinted on my generation. A chosen plan had to contain a ‘universal truth’, even if it was completely time-bound. It had to be possible to abstract the design concept into a model. At the same time, the direct practical usability of the study was of paramount importance. I was at a loss to find models that could directly play a role in the design process, that could influence and accelerate this process, without historical reserve.
It is true that the selection of 22 designs is personal and subjective. It is even so personal that I replaced a plan in the selection ‘posthumously’ because, in my view, its date of expiry had lapsed. I was convinced that no single plan in the study had the right to cause disappointment.
The attractive part of it all was that the apparently most objective basic form – the grid – underpinned the physical shape of the study. The study was recorded on a large panel of thick cardboard on which every plan, regardless of how large it might be, was allocated the same surface area to present a series of functional or design aspects. This strict starting point made the plans directly comparable, with regard to every component. None the less, Dolf Dobbelaar, my comrade in research and design during our graduation, and I independently introduced an ‘emergency exit’: not in the length or breadth of the panel but in the depth. Because we realized that extra information could sometimes be invaluable, the panel was repeatedly carved out to subsequently conceal a harmonica with information under a hatch: reality demanded subjective rationality. This finding was actually the basis of the entire study. The fact that I was homeless during the study period lead to the fact that the large panel was made foldable so that it could be collapsed into a self-made blue A1-size suitcase. This enabled me to continue the research anywhere, at any time.
The Blue Suitcase, as the study soon became known, contained a series of plans that partially belonged to the canon of modern urban planning. I was satisfied with cherishing the definitive selection as a personal choice. There is no objectivity in these kinds of situations. During a presentation of my selection, Aldo van Eyck, probably the greatest of all the architects who had a stranglehold on education in the seventies, yelled at me that I must have been mad to retain the criminal Oswald Mathias Ungers in my selection while Van Eyck’s plans were not represented. At that moment, I was not yet capable of stating that it was exactly his influence that had prompted me to seek an escape from the stifling small scale, regardless of the fact that I found, and will always continue to find, his work and vision genuinely exceptional.
During this study, I made a number of remarkable discoveries. L’Eixample de Barcelona by Ildefons Cerdá and Une Cité Industrielle by Tony Garnier stole my heart with their humane, socialist approach to urban planning although, in both cases, it is actually the power of pure abstraction that made these plans such prototypes. Also during my study I realized that it was not the early architectural ideas of Le Corbusier that were classic examples of extremism but rather the body of ideas of Ludwig Hilberseimer, an unassuming-looking intellectual who preferred to operate in the shadow of the architectonic giant Mies van der Rohe.
The cycle of urban designs that Hilberseimer produced with Vorortplan, Citybebauung, Hochhaustadt and subsequently the two most renowned Siedlung studies is unparalleled in modern architecture. Every proposal is a prototype of the purest sort. No other architect can reason so stunningly consistently toward the most extremist architectural proposal. And further surprise lies in the fact that he was later capable, with the same absolute consistency, of replacing his original idea by an equally extremist concept that was radically opposed to his previous scheme. All his designs are accompanied by comprehensive elucidations, books that invariably demonstrate that we are dealing with a designer who has a very humane view of mankind.
A feeling of liberation radiated from the principle of actually deploying the urban planning models from the Blue Suitcase in everyday practice. It cost me little difficulty to switch from years of study to the architectural design. Mechanical projection was the ideal method for doing so. The 22 concepts were projected directly on to the location, regardless of any conflict with zonal boundaries. The numerical material was then accurately specified. The housing quantities, average construction height, typologies, built/unbuilt surface areas, built volume and density were directly linked to the specific urban planning concept.
In the period in which we were very busy with the projections on the Sluisjesdijk, I came into contact with Rem Koolhaas, who was almost entirely unknown in the Netherlands at that time. With a fanatical group of students, we succeeded in setting up an enclave for him within the university where he could share his unprecedentedly fresh ideas with us in all anonymity. It formed an oasis in an educational situation that had degenerated into an endless tribal war as a result of the prevailing doctrines. In this period, Rem Koolhaas conceived the idea of establishing an office in Rotterdam because he was about to receive a number of assignments in the Netherlands. The most substantial assignment was the urban planning design for the IJplein in Amsterdam-Noord.
For us, the transition from theory to practice occurred astonishingly quickly when Rem asked us if we would apply our projection method on the IJplein. Because this involved an urban renewal commission, the work was performed at record speed and directly presented to all parties involved. An earthquake seemed to have taken place: suddenly an atmosphere arose in which civil servants, residents and other interested parties were discussing the desirability of concepts such as the Unité d’Habitation, the Marina Towers, or the Vorortplan. Seldom had the academic world of architecture come so close to everyday reality. The result of this action was that the IJplein became a repository for urban planning ideas, as long as these corresponded to the usual preconditions that have such a stifling effect on Dutch architectural planning, of course. Looking back on the results of the IJplein and the Sluisjesdijk, I can conclude that there is a danger in a direct translation from projection to design. Due to the many possibilities, both plans became bogged down in a collage of concepts, and the natural evolution to a fully-fledged design with a specific identity was not able to occur. This lesson has been very valuable for the way in which I have reintroduced the projection method into our urban planning work once again after so many years. After projection, there is now an interim stage in which a number of prototypical models are investigated. These form the impulse for a fully-fledged urban planning design. Nevertheless, the naïve directness of the projection method never ceases to surprise.
Book about to be published
After the unexpected intermezzo in real-life practice, there followed a lengthy period in which I attempted to convert the Suitcase into a regular publication, accessible to everyone. The irony was that, when I was working on the original Suitcase, I was proudly convinced that this study would be so impossible to reproduce that I would be the only person to fully comprehend it. But the many visits to the Suitcase, even from foreign instances such as the AA or Lotus, and the encouragement of Rem and others persuaded me that I would ultimately have to change my mind. Some foreign editors said: ‘It is already an about to be published book!’ Unfortunately, the story took another twist.
With a subsidy that was quite considerable for a new office, I began enthusiastically on the work. The fascination for prototypical designing had not abated in the meantime. I believed that the publication would offer me the opportunity to examine everything afresh. Years had gone by in which a wealth of new information had become available. Moreover, as an independent architect I was now capable of visiting all Blue Suitcase projects in real-life. Of course, many projects had remained unrealized, but even then, a visit to the locations where they had been planned was still meaningful.
The elaboration period developed into a period of obsession. For the Blue Suitcase, I bought every book in every language, including the necessary dictionaries in order to decode the texts. Nothing could hamper ultimate perfection. Only the constant questions about the date of publication were worrisome. None the less, this period also brought much insight. Whenever I had the opportunity, I enhanced my knowledge of the Blue Suitcase prototypes with the aid of an incessant flow of new information in which I continually immersed myself, and I went searching for all possible traces of the projects at the locations in question. I once even managed to convince friends such as Jeroen Geurst to verify the dimensions of an Eixample block in Barcelona with a tape measure, whereas young people at the office such as Rianne Makkink and Maurice Nio tenaciously drew the revised projections manually, checked the definitive numerical data, and made new calculations. Time and again, the material, including the 1000+ manually coloured mini-illustrations, did not seem quite good enough, so that the time required to convert the Suitcase into a book expanded to 18 years. Ultimately, I managed to visit all the projects that had been implemented (to varying degrees): the five Unités d’Habitation, the location of ARU’s unrealized Autostroj in Nizhny Novgorod, the Ciudad Lineal in Madrid – now completely overgrown by new-build –, the Siedlungen by Stam and May in Frankfurt, the crumbling Dom Narkomfin in Moscow, the Quartier des Etats Unis by Tony Garnier (based on Une Cité Industrielle) and the villa district of Adalberto Libera in Ostia. The only realized design abroad that I have not seen is Lafayette Park in Detroit, and even now that I know that the book will never be published, I am still upset that I have not managed to see this classic example of prototypical urban planning in real-life. Due to this single-minded travelling to all the locations in the Blue Suitcase, I discovered that it is hugely interesting to visit a prototype in its realized form. In the harsh light of reality, a brilliant theory or a seductive drawing no longer provides sanctuary and everyday life seizes control.
Sense for prototypes
Down through the years I have developed a kind of sixth sense for realized prototypes. As a consequence of this extra sensitivity, I have unwittingly entered a prototype on several occasions on my travels. In the second half of the eighties, I travelled through France in the summer, on my way to Unités, still with a blue suitcase in my hand. This time it was an old KLM airlines case, full of dictionaries that I needed when I had a Blue Suitcase working day during the trip. The brief descriptions in a tourism atlas informed me that I was close to a minor wonder: a completely preserved prototypical village called Richelieu.
In 1631, the cardinal of the same name had commissioned the architect Jacques Lemercier to construct a totally new village in the middle of the featureless French countryside, into which his parental home had to be integrated. It became a geometrical town plan with the precision of a razor. Exactly enough elements were deployed to give the design the purity of a prototype: a symmetrical perimeter wall with monumental gates – three for a connection to the outside world, one for the symmetry –, a monumental mini-axis that links two square plazas – one for religion and the other for the market. In the south, outside the gate, the axis extends as a tree-lined lane that provides a view of a disproportionate landscape park. The implementation was executed in a very reserved manner. Everywhere, the buildings consist of sandstone volumes with anthracite roofs so that the geometry is never diluted. A euphoric Jean de la Fontaine once referred to Richelieu as ‘the most beautiful village in the universe’. When I was walking through the streets, I could understand this utterance, because the village scale of Richelieu assigns the radicalism of the design a human character. For the very first time I though that living within a scheme can be very pleasant.
My visit to the village of Raimat was of a different nature. The village appeared to be an insignificant hamlet on a dried-out hill in north-west Catalonia, in a landscape scarred by many wars. There was no scrap of information anywhere. However, I did suspect that Joan Rubió i Bellver, the brick virtuoso of the Catalan Modernista, might have had something to do with this village. After all, he was also the author of the renowned Modernista bodega around the corner, and the architect of several workers’ colonies. At first sight, an urban planner seemed to has skipped this village altogether. Nevertheless, a tour around the centre of Raimat confirmed my conjecture: Rubió had been here, there was actually a complete design. Raimat as conceived by Rubió had a formalist street pattern based on a hexagon, with a circular plaza at the centre. Rubió designed the first 100 workers’ houses, the church and the Fonda, originally destined to be used as temporary housing for the workers and later as a theatre, infant school and medical centre. The typical Rubió style is evident in these buildings with their brickwork, occasionally in combination with white stucco. This unity gives Raimat the character of a garden town, even if time has worked its usual ravage. To me, Raimat signifies architectonic archaeology where, as a reward, the prototype gradually emerged from under the dust.
It was in the mid-nineties that I first heard of Tolyatti. At an architecture seminar in the Russian city of Samara, Massimo Yori, the Italian architect, told me excitedly that he had been taken to ‘La Ville Contemporaine’ by some of his Russian colleagues. He was very emphatic about it: La Ville Contemporaine did exist, but it was situated in Russia. Tolyatti had it all: the historical city, the strict geometrical grid with the hierarchical street pattern, the broad green zones, the immeasurable residential districts with meandering housing complexes on pilotis amid the greenery, the exemplary isolated industrial zone and the hydro-electric power plant. His impressions seemed to have confused him, and he insisted that I should see the miracle for myself. That became possible the following year. With Samara as the basis, I undertook the long trip to Tolyatti over an abominable road surface, along with a number of determined seminar participants. Eventually cruising over the main axes of the New City of Tolyatti, I imagined myself to be in the middle of Le Corbusier’s line perspectives, and my eyes became increasingly moist from so much beauty. I had never thought that I would be wandering around in one of the most influential icons of modern architecture and an indispensable part of the Blue Suitcase. At the same time, I was shocked by my own state of mind. My self-image at the time was that of a serious researcher of urban prototypes, who always remained aware of human dignity during the performance of his profession. There was something perverse about my tears, evoked by the beauty of this architecture. After all, didn’t I know where this architectural style had led to? Had I ultimately become an unbalanced nerd who had lost all sense of reality in embracing architectural extremism? However, I did have questions.
Togliatti Avtozavodsky, or the New City, was constructed at a record speed in the sixties, at the same time as the gigantic Volga factory that was later transformed into the largest Lada factory complex in Russia. The city respected all the urban planning doctrines of Soviet architecture. During my visit, I sought out some city inhabitants to whom I put various questions, although I knew I could predict the answers. They were simple questions such as: Have you been living in Togliatti for a long time? Were you born here? What is it like to live here? Are you happy here? Do you find it a pleasant city? The answers were, in summary: Yes, I come from here; No, I am certainly not happy; Yes, I would like to leave. I got what I deserved: prototypes such as La Ville Contemporaine have had consequences that have been disastrous in real-life practice, primarily due to their lack of scale and the erroneous interpretation of their body of ideas.
Living in a prototype
After many meanderings, I decided 13 years ago to settle in Barcelona for at least a large part of the year, so that I can bring a substantial part of my life in the largest realized prototype in the Blue Suitcase: ‘L’Eixample de Barcelona’. In the meantime, the qualities of the plan have been exhaustively outlined and, in the professional world, there is much consensus about the exceptional value of this plan for modern urban planning. Nevertheless, I cannot help but notice that this value is primarily found in the consistent elaboration and realization of the plan. Where the rules are not followed, it seems to go wrong somehow. I wander through Eixample almost every week, and during all these walks, the moments at which I find the concept the most successful are becoming increasingly clear to me. Within the ongoing structure of L’Eixample, I seek out precisely the places where reality has caused ‘flaws’ in the pattern. Projects that display an extraordinary wealth in terms of programme and elaboration arise at such locations. The project of the Coll-Leclerc office at the corner of Calle Londres-Villaroel and various recent projects in the modern media district 22@ are good examples in this context. They are the architectonic discoveries by means of which L’Eixample genuinely comes to life, where the grid is repeatedly tested, so that the prototype can demonstrate that it can justify its raison d’être far into the future.
From my first hours in the library until my daily wanderings through Barcelona, I have always remained fascinated by the phenomenon of the prototype. The adventures with books, suitcases, projections and unexpected discoveries have changed my fascination for the phenomenon from an almost ascetic view of the pure, laboratory-like prototype to fanatical curiosity about the confrontations between the pure, prototypical design, and grubby, imperfect, everyday reality. I can hardly wait to pick up my Blue Suitcase and seek out a new, totally unknown prototype in the most illogical location.
Paul de Vroom, Rotterdam 19-3-2013