Thoughts of a Dutchman in Poland Harm Lammers, Warsaw


Unravelling and reconnecting Aldo van Eyck in search of an approach for tomorrow

Eindhoven University of Technology, January 2012
Thesis for the master Architecture, Building and Planning, specialization Architecture
Graduation committee: Prof. Dr. Bernard Colenbrander, Dr. Ir. Kees Doevendans, Prof. Dr. Petran Kockelkoren (University of Twente)

download full thesis as pdf   (second update, 24 June 2012)

After three decennia of architectural theory focussing on autonomy, formalism, image and communication, architects and urban planners are now searching for ways to broaden their perspective and to re-establish the relevance and significance of their work. This thesis is meant to be part of that search for a broader approach, which translates into the question how to understand the relation between man, society and built environment from the perspective of an architect or urban planning. This question is obviously a very broad one and it is impossible to answer it – convincingly – in the scope of one year of working at a graduation project. What this thesis provides is thus a first step.

To be able to broaden the perspective, the first chapter begins with an analysis of where the rather difficult distinction between man and society – the world of psychologists, sociologists, et cetera – as something separate from the built environment – the world of architects and urban planners – comes from. It is traced to the early history of Modernity at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and the dichotomy between objects and subjects – as absolutely different entities – which has dominated our worldview ever since. More holistic worldviews, although they never disappeared entirely, became increasingly rare. In order to understand the relation between man, society and the built environment, however, the object–subject dichotomy is problematic. It is therefore that I introduce one of the rare twentieth-century architects that actually have tried to develop a more holistic approach and that I furthermore suspected to have done so in a way that today may still be a valuable point of departure. This architect is Aldo van Eyck (1918–1999).

The second chapter is devoted entirely to a study of Van Eyck’s recently published collected writings. Although he seems to have been a great lecturer and he definitely had a talent for aphorisms, short statements and polemics, he was not such a great writer of essays and books. This may have been an important explanation why hardly any of his critics and followers has understood the coherence of Van Eyck’s theoretical body. That there is such coherence is not a new conclusion – it is also one of Strauven’s conclusions –, what this coherence is, however, was not studied yet. Therefore this chapter presents the unravelling of Van Eyck’s theory.

Three key concepts are identified at the core of Van Eyck’s theory, all based on the idea of relativity: ‘twin phenomena’, ‘the in-between realm’ and ‘interiorization’. By studying – almost close reading – how he used these notions in different text passages, their intended meaning, their development and the ways in which they relate to other concepts in his theoretical body are reconstructed. In a similar way other important notions, which could all be related to these three core concepts are identified and described: ‘duration’, ‘memory’, ‘anticipation’, ‘association’, ‘place’, ‘occasion’, ‘identity’, ‘identifying device’, ‘right-size’, ‘labyrinthian clarity’, et cetera.

The relation between Van Eyck’s theoretical notions and his approach to architectural and urban design is illustrated starting from two versions of his own ‘Otterlo Circles’ diagram. Finally another important aspect of Van Eyck’s approach is discussed: the role of imagination. It is showed to be understood as a well-informed way of speculation, being an inevitable aspect of design praxis.

The aim of this thesis, however, is not to study Aldo van Eyck as such, but to make a first step towards a possible approach for the problems of today and tomorrow. That is the subject of the third chapter. It begins with an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Van Eyck’s theory. One of its strengths is showed to be its openness and inclusiveness, making it possible to interpret, adapt and extend it (even though Van Eyck as a person was not always so tolerant towards people interpreting his ideas). Another one of its strengths is its abstractness in the sense of not being too specific and too much dependent on a certain context and thus making that the core of his theory does not get out-dated easily. A third of its strengths – very much related to the previous two – is that it does not provide a strict and rigid framework expecting himself or other architects to follow, but a frame of mind, thus, though not giving ready-to-apply answers, potentially being useful also in never expected and anticipated situations. The most important strength, however, is that Van Eyck’s theory is not so much an example of structuralism (in the philosophical and scientific sense), but of constructivism: it does not consider relations as mere connections, but as acting relations – i.e. connections in which things happen. The key notion to see this in Van Eyck’s theory is ‘potential’ – e.g. ‘place potential’ or ‘association potential’.

It is this aspect which allows showing a possibility to reconnect Van Eyck’s theory to contemporary theoretical developments – be it not in architectural theory, but in philosophy of technology and industrial design: mediation theory. A brief introduction is given to several of the different currents making up this theory, thus introducing perspectives of mediated experience, mediated action, a mediated co-evolution of culture and technology (i.e. the material world, including the built environment) and mediated ethics. What is showed is that Van Eyck’s theory can be understood in terms of mediation as well. Mediation theory, furthermore, provides a solution to the most important weakness of Van Eyck’s theory: the too abstract character of some aspects of it – in particular the notion of interiorization. Replacing Van Eyck’s entire theory by mediation theory, as it has been developed so far, can however not be the solution, as it would introduce problems of a similar kind: having its roots in research and debates that were not, or hardly, related to architecture and urban planning, many of the mediation concepts developed so far are difficult to be integrated into architectural praxis. It is precisely therefore that the combination of the theory of mediation and the architecture and urban planning based concepts of Aldo van Eyck make up a promising combination as a first step towards an approach to understand the relation between man, society and the built environment from an architect or urban planner’s perspective.

read more  and  see also my philosophy master’s thesis

published: 27 August 2014