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A special iniverse

Richard Weston is professor at the Welsh School of Architecture

Aldo van Eyck: Works

Edited by Vincent Ligtelijn. Birkhauser, 1999, 312pp. £54

Aldo van Eyck was an inescapable presence on the pos-war European scene and a comprehensive account of his work is long overdue. Although he remained active up to his death last year (1999), he never developed a recognisable manner and for most architects under 40 - officially ?young? - the work documented here may well be largely unfamiliar.

Van Eyck made his mark early, at the 9147 CIAM congress in Bridgwater, and became a focus for the young rebels who eventually formed Team 10. Brought up in England, he spent the war in Switzerland where he met some of the ?Great Gang? of Modernist painters and sculptors who populated the ?Story of another idea? which he explored as editor of Forum magazine. Like many of his generation, he visited Africa in search of authentic culture and, inspired by Dogon cosmology and buildings, developed his ideas on ?twin phenomena?, the articulation of ?the in-between?, and the need for ?configurative discipline? which came together in the Amsterdam Orphanage (1955-60) and established his international reputation.

Before the orphanage there were the usual ?small works?: a surprisingly designerly interior in Zurich in 1944 (replete with some wonderfully unstable-looking ?floating? shelves), van Eyck?s own flat, exhibition designs, and literally dozens of playgrounds. After these came projects for churches (one built), more exhibitions (including the splendid, but temporary, Sonsbeek Pavilion), several house (though none of great interest), the kaleidoscopically coloured Hubertus House for single mothers in Amsterdam, and a late exotic flowering of Rococo geometries which yielded another church, The ESTEC conference centre and restaurant, and, unexpectedly, several office buildings.

Van Eyck?s projects and writings are inseparable, and happily the editor has included all the key texts, form the ?Otterlo Circles? to the explanations of the ?curvilinear system building? and ?local symmetries winking? at ESTEC. The project descriptions are base on van Eyck?s. There are also a preface by Joseph Rykwert, short analytical texts by Ligtelijn and Henk Engel, and reprintings of valuable essays by Peter Smithson, Herman Hertzberger and Francis Strauven.

Although not intended as an oeuvre complete, all the key material is here, and a lot that is new as well: the book is a must for all libraries and van Eyck enthusiasts. But I cannot help feeling that it falls slightly between the two, it is neither final testament nor detached critical exploration. Van Eyck was apparently involved in the early planning, but graphically the result is stodgy: the lightness and life he brought to the publication of his ideas has evaporated, and for that one must seek out the precious originals. The writers are all enthusiast of van Eyck and the opportunity for a sympathetic but critical evaluation has been missed. The woeful blockwork exterior of the Hague church, for example, is described as having ?a Loosian stillness?, whereas the beautifully moving interior - which strikes me as van Eyck?s strongest - is prosaically described.

In retrospect, even van Eyck?s seminal work, the Orphanage, now looks an overdesigned and all too literal demonstration of ideas expressed so poetically in words and diagrams. Compared with the major talents who emerged alongside him - most obviously Utzon and Kahn - van Eyck is undeniably minor, but the fascination of his special universe remains, scintillating with gems of insight and originality. I had forgotten, for example, the Moluccan church with its swelling, pale blue walls inscribed with taut, intersecting arcs of white shells: it seems ripe for further exploration. To those unfamiliar with his work, this book should prove a treasure-chest.

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