A street scene somewhere.
Cars, a pedestrian, apartment buildings with shops at ground level. The road in front seems broad, the prospect might be inviting or intriguing, for this scene seems a little untidy. Parked cars seem scattered across the roadspace.
The buildings seem quite new, they have a modern, fresh feel. Above the shops are the windows of apartments. People are living in them, and the lights are on in some of windows. We can see into some rooms.
The shops are small. These businesses are small town or from the edge of the city centre. Although their lights are also on, perhaps the workers have all gone home.
The sky is an evening sky, not quite dark yet, perhaps a summer evening. There is a watcher on one of the balconies.
Across the street, and reflected in the windows is an illuminated hotel sign.
So a mixed neighbourhood, homes, shops, hotels. Parked cars and a broad road. The city at night, inhabited and full of life and promise. If we use our imagination a little, we can picture ourselves as the watcher on the balcony, perhaps enjoying the view, living in the city and enjoying its benefits.
In fact this is Brussels in early August. Its between nine and ten in the evening. The air is still warm after a dry, sunny day. I was eating in a restaurant across the street and saw this. How different to my home town of Dumfries. There, houses and shops are more separate. In the evening the town centre is mostly silent and empty.
The Flagey building, Place Flagey and the nearby lake are worth a visit.
Place Flagey itself is a big irregular, informal, open public space. Many roads meet here. On two sides are apartment blocks with shops at ground level.
The apartments are carefully composed facades of yellow brick, as is the Flagey building itself. The south west corner of the square touches the northern tip of the lake. The square has an intermittent spouting fountain area which locals braved with nonchalance. Trees are scattered round the edge, and there are two more modern public sculptures which which challenge the ’30s atmosphere.
On our visit a truck and PSVs were scattered across the square. This casualness hides a vigorous and contested re-development made between 2002 and 2008.
Place Flagey is situated south of central Brussels and at the top end of a little lake, about 15 minutes bus ride from the city centre. You arrive at a big glass-covered bus and tram stop situated to one side at the north end of the square.
We visited on a warm sunny morning, and had the immediate feeling of being in a good place. Why is that? It’s harder to define, we were enjoying the sun after a rainy day (it rains on average 200 days a year in Brussels).
That was one thing but we were also feeling relaxed. We had planned our route, and how it might fit in to the rest of our day. We had done some checking out on- line. We thought it looked interesting, that there might be quite a lot to see, but we weren’t sure as it seemed quite low-key. We had seen the lake on the map and thought we might enjoy walking round it to see the Cascade apartments on the other side. It seems to float above the lake like some medieval castle, yet at the same time, indisputably modern Art Deco.
But when we got there, we realised that we weren’t just looking at the Flagey building, were were experiencing a living built environment- square, buildings and lake. Each part revealed something of the rest, and that invited movement through the space. In general it also offered a small glimpse into ordinary suburban life in Brussels. It hadn’t been primped for the tourists. Flaws and untidiness were allowed exist alongside things which were beautiful and interesting.
To begin with, we walked round the lake. We could see glimpses of buildings with mixed styles on the other side. Towards the far end, there was a man-made rocky grotto in the shade of trees, complete with broken classical columns.
The Cascade apartment building is a strong draw. We noticed couples from other countries drifting by, taking photos and smiling, happy to be there.
It is a large and beautiful example of Art Deco. Curving volumes, nice surfaces and simple detailing make a good mix.
But there were other interesting buildings, an apartment block and a modernist house to discover as well.
The lake appeared well cared for, with several duck houses spaced out along its length.
At the top end, swans, geese and ducks queued for breadcrumbs from local children. This activity served as a link with the public space and re-entry to the square.
In this complex space, life continued. People moved back and forth across it. Trams and buses came and went. Delivery vans blocked shop fronts. A man unloaded a trolley load of goods into a shop. A cafe couldn’t serve coffee because their machine had broken! A shop was being re-fitted.
There was even an external elevator moving furniture into an apartment building, and passers-by watching the little drama. All this in the morning sunshine while we looked and lingered.
The Flagey building, formerly the I.N.R. (Institut National de Radiodiffusion), the name previously given to Belgian radio and television, is now subdivided and re-purposed. It is not particularly beautiful, but it is striking. It’s probably the reason visitors would initially go there. Unlike a monument or museum, it has limited public access at specific times. Perhaps it’s in transition, and sometime in the future will become just another restored museum, but for now it’s still a collection of working spaces. At the time of our visit, the only part we could find our way into was the cafe on the north-west corner.
Its has a genuine ’30s interior, much used and worn but very real. It’s also a popular, busy space. We liked the cafe tables,
the ceiling fans and lights, the little tubular wall lights. There was a nice bar area as well.
The bar staff were all young men, apart from a girl at the counter which served food. The whole atmosphere was easy, relaxed and in no way challenging. As outsiders we felt completely unnoticed, we just blended in.
That’s what was nice about it all, the way it was. It has the charm of the old, and the everyday. Explained by the small comfortable changes which we see as we pass through it.
An article about something exquisitely beautiful, but with a sting in the tail.
“If you decide to visit it, remember to bring your suitcases, as you’ll want to move in straight away!”
The Sonneveld house
The Sonneveld house – by Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, Rotterdam, 1933
The building has stylistic links with Le Corbusier, De Stijl and German modernism. It is also has an industrial link. Sonneveld was a director of the Van Nelle factory which was used to produce metal components for the building.
A compact, private detached town house for the family of a wealthy industrialist which includes living space for servants.
Perhaps not so well known here, but a real gem of European modernism.
The fabric of the building and the contents have recently been restored and appear as they did in 1933. Throughout the building there is evidence of great thought as to the suitability and provision of each convenience. Extraordinary care has also been taken during the sensitive and painstaking restoration
The Sonneveld house is essentially a rectangular box shape with additions. It is over three floors and it also has a small basement and roof terrace. It has a flat off-white exterior surface with silver coloured metal detailing, black exposed steelwork and extensive tiling to ground floor. Those facades facing the streets nearby are mainly blank and offer privacy while those facing the garden have generous windows. There are separate service and owner entries. There is a lovely exterior spiral staircase which leads down into the garden.
Metal detailing is prominent in the rear elevation. Window and door modules are carefully fitted almost flush with their facades. Each window module has an external blind cassette incorporated for shade. Most noteworthy is how the parapet rail to the first floor terrace becomes the spiral stair handrail.
The simple exterior hides a fairly rich and complex interior subdivision. There are an entry, office, service areas and a garage on the ground floor. Living and bedroom spaces are on the floors above. These spaces are beautifully detailed.
More on-line images of the Sonneveld house can be seen here.
Here are a few more of our own photographs.
Colour is a an important feature of this house. Rooms are colour themed. This is the the yellow dining room. It has red accents.
There are individual architect-designed room colour schemes throughout. Most of the furnishings are also original.
So most unusually, one can see the entire original colour scheme, and one can see how extensively the architect used of colour as part of a modernist design scheme.
The glasswear included in the dining room display cabinet was also locally produced. Examples of similar wares by these manufacturers appear occasionally on the present day Netherlands second hand market for modest prices.
Here is a servant’s bedroom
Notice how the same bed, table and chair type is used by all the house inhabitants.
Work areas are red Here is a kitchen detail.
Gispen manufactured much of the furniture in the building including these beds in the background . A similar version of this chair is still in production. Today the Delft factory still produces furniture and it is possible to buy examples of the some models shown in the Sonneveld house.
The garden is as was established in the early 30’s. It is simple with quite a lot of lawn and bushes used for perimeter screening to the rear, and as a lower boundary definition to the front.
Because the construction methods and materials date to the 1930’s, a great deal of renovation has been done. In the book produced by the Netherlands Architecture Institute a telling detail is the nationality of enormous number of firms involved in restoring and refurbishing Sonneveld house, These include Project management, Supervision, Providing public information, Advising on Restoring, Advising on Refurbishing, Restoration work Main Contractors, Restoration work Sub Contractors and Suppliers, Refurbishment work and Suppliers and finally Lenders and Donors. All of these, with one exception, are Netherlands firms or organisations with Netherlands addresses.
To the thoughtful person, this building is an example of many things. Foremost, is an example of true modernism at work, linking ownership, manufacturing, design and utility.
This building also reveals the Netherlands in microcosm.
The entire project from its origin in the 1930s through to its renovation is an example of Dutch confidence and competence. In it’s own way this building shows how the people of the Netherlands think about themselves and their place in the world. It’s clear that they are quite capable doing these things themselves, that they have the resources, skills and training to manage and complete such a project with little, if any assistance from other nationals.
It also shows how successful people in European cities may be able think differently to their British or Scottish counterparts.
This may seem like the country house in the town, but couldn’t be more different from the British Imperial Model of a country house. There are no Classical porticos, no fake grandeur. It’s beautiful, practical, modern and usable. It was the first house in Rotterdam with a fully equipped, built in garage. So this is no-fuss high quality private domestic architecture in the city, right there on the street, with easy public access. The building’s position included the owner in society rather than excluding him from it and hiding him away in a private estate in the countryside. A statement of belief in the city, the individual, aspiration, success; an example of the successful citizen in society- engaged in and part of the modern world. Of course this quality of private architecture in the heart of a great city enhances the standing and the status of both.
It is also an example to we Scots as to how how we could do better. How we could contribute to revival of run down Scottish towns centres and the attractiveness of Scotland’s cities. Where are the projects in the pipeline or recently constructed which do just that?
Then there’s the house’s furniture and manufactures.
Are our education systems, designers and architects and the Scottish business world able to produce to this quality without reaching beyond Scotland’s borders to do so?
When can we expect reasonably priced home-designed and mass-produced examples made in Scotland, which we can accept and be proud of, made by present day Scots and which will astonish and delight the world? Where and how will these people receive the craft and organisational training to enable them? And if you said to me that in various forms, these things exist in Scotland, how do we pull them together to make it all happen?
After all, if you like the look of a Gispen side-chair in the Sonneveld house, you can nip along to the nearby factory and buy one for yourself to take home today.
This building can cause me to think about many things. What can our response be to a proposition like this? Should we just move in because its so agreeable?
Can a different response be made? One which looks towards a better Scottish future?
Gropius was also the founder of the Bauhaus at Weimar in1920, when it took over the Van der Velde building.
Mies van der Rohe was its last director from 1930 to 1933.
The Bauhaus school was established in Weimar in 1920.The name signifies “Construction house” or “Building House”, but its about much more than that. Its meaning is more like “The House and Everything in it”. It occupied a building designed by Henry van der Velde where, from 1907 until the outbreak of the first World War, Van der Velde sought to reform design and handicraft and architecture teaching. When the school transferred to Dessau, Walter Gropius designed a purpose built school in1926. There is a good video here. It was variously a Design, Architecture and Craft School with an evolving curriculum partly caused by political pressure. There was a focus on Design for Industry. The location of the Bauhaus in Dessau was because Dessau saw itself as an aspiring industrial city, thought to have good prospects for new designers. Dessau was also located in an area of similar towns forming the central German Industrial Zone, also an area of new industries, south of Berlin.
Both Mies and Walter Gropius were members of the Deutscher Werkbund, a movement in Art and Design in Germany which had seen explosive growth prior to WW1. It had also evolved from its late 19th Cent origins as a craft guild with a strong Gothic influence-similar to the Arts and Crafts movement in the UK, with its emphasis on individual hand crafted production. By the early 1920s, all be it with strong disagreement from some members, it had become a strong advocate of designing for industry- Industrial Design as we know it today. This change in approach also took place in the Bauhaus at about the same time. Almost co-incident to the building of the Bauhaus, the 1927 Werkbund exhibition at the Weissenhof Siedlung in Stuttgart explored an important theme – “Die Wohnung (How Should We Live?The Dwelling)” It looked at how people lived, what sort of housing was most suitable for them, how these ideas were evolving. It was one of a number of Werkbund exhibitions during the 1920s and is an example of how active, powerful and well organised the Werkbund was at the time of the building of the Bauhaus. Because of this, and its good professional reputation, the Bauhaus it was able to draw on the services of some the best and most influential designers, architects and artists when it came to appointing teaching staff.
The complex layout of the Bauhaus sits on fairly flat ground in a generous grassy area. It has a flat roof and is of steel, glass and concrete construction.
For the most part the building is set out in distinct blocks with three floors over a more rustic ground floor/basement. One wing has five floors over a ground basement floor. These blocks are linked by access corridors. (see a diagram of the building layout here)
As the examples shown above illustrate, there are unexpected vistas in the corridors and stairwells as you move through the building.These inside/ outside views give you a powerful sense of integration, of being part of the building as you go through it.
The interior surfaces are white, grey and occasionally black. The studio spaces can be spartan and much less glamorous than the facades. There are occasional red accents both inside and out. The crisply detailed reception area has a buff floor.
You can catch an occasional glimpse of a studio space as you go round.
There’s that famous theatre to see and the building has a very good cafeteria- its well worth a visit!
The Bauhaus shows what a superb architect Gropius could be. Visiting the building is a wow! To move through the building is to be delighted by each aspect you see. Its so good, so well done. For the building is a tour de force, it has a great presence, and a strong sense of mass and order.
Its a big statement visually and the overall effect is of carefully integratedmaterials forming harmonious facades to all elevations.
An obvious difference with more recent buildings is the size and number of panes of glass which make up an individual glazing area and the noticeable black glazing bars which give a rich articulation to the large glass facades. Drama comes from contrasting these facades with white concrete.
The influence of the Bauhaus on design education has been very important. A unified art, craft, and technology syllabus was taught at the Bauhaus. There were artists, designers and architects teaching there. They understood that “It’s all one big sea we swim in” when it comes to Art and Design. Each discipline needs the other. For all students, both then and today, coming to terms with that is part of Art or Design’s great beauty and its difficulty when learning.
The Bauhaus course structure which evolved during the 14 year life of the Bauhaus showed how theory and practise could come together. Social concerns arising from the thinking of the Deutscher Werkbund were also recognised and included as a part of Bauhaus teaching.
The Bauhaus as a Design School only operated until 1932.
The Nazi Party was rising in power in Germany and when they took control of Dessau city council, they forced the then Director, Mies Van Der Rohe, to close the school. He then moved to a factory in Berlin, but was unable to continue there. The Bauhaus closed for good in Germany in1933, and Mies dispersed the students and teaching staff.
This act helped to spread the ideas and influence of the Bauhaus throughout Europe and the wider world. A few came to the UK, built a little, and stayed until the outbreak of war. They then moved to America and post-war, in the USA, the New Bauhaus or Second Chicago school was founded.
In Tel Aviv, there is the “The White city of Tel Aviv”, a very large collection of modernist buildings built by German Jewish architects who emigrated to Palestine after the rise of the Nazis.
Even as far away as Australia, a school was established for a time teaching Bauhaus methods.
The building itself survived the Second World War, but fell into a dilapidated condition. The Communist GDR then operated it as a reorganised Design and Architecture School but not linked to Gropius’s thinking and two restorations took place. Since 1974 the Bauhaus has been the home of “Bauhaus Dessau Foundation”, and teaching continues. Post-graduate programmes have been run there since 1979, and you can visit the building. Associated with the building are a number of “Masters Houses” in a small building development nearby. They have been restored or partly reconstructed and it is also possible to visit them.
Its success in giving its students an understanding of how to to design for production using modern materials is well known. Some of the best known examples of work associated with the Bauhaus are in the field of modern design.
A much employed material was tubular steel. These chairs are examples of its furniture design.It is also well known for teaching typography, and for being a centre of excellence in Graphic Design.
The course was also surprisingly modern in other ways, as well as wide ranging, extending to discrete elements on such unusual and modern topics as Film and Photography, dance, theatre design- including, as in the above examples, costume design. It was this broad and thorough approach which equipped its students to succeed in modern life.
Conclusion and relevance
The admission of social concerns into design teaching, and their expression as either architecture or designed objects, raises a question for or us in Scotland. I’m talking about the aspect of social need in the production of objects for consumption. Too often production is described as good if it merely makes profits or creates jobs. That is not nearly enough. How we live, design and make is just as important today as it was 90 years ago. Today in Scotland we choose to aspire, to dream of a better tomorrow, where all the citizens of our country have their rights respected, and their needs met as far as it is possible to do so. The goals of our educational institutions similarly need to be addressed for they are the engine of desire which will power this transformation in social achievement. The model of the Bauhaus, often misunderstood, is that it successfully harnessed the energy and the opportunities of it’s times. We see the fruits of this labour, but not the nourishment which preceded it. Given the energy generated during the 2014 referendum campaign and the continuing expression by many of a better Scotland via independence, how can that desire for a better life be expressed through design and architecture?
For then as now, the question is “How shall we live?”