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Aldo van Eyck, 1918-1999

Obituary

What exactly was Aldo van Eyck? A maverick, an outsider; an intellectual, a poet; an anarchist, a rebel; passionate and reflective; arrogant yet receptive; an actor, a teacher; a sculptor and sometimes an architect.

He was brought up in Golders Green, North London, to which his parents had moved in 1919 when van Eyck was one year old. His father, a poet, who would be professor of poetry at Delft, had become foreign correspondent to a Dutch paper. His mother was raised in the Dutch West Indies, and herself came from a family of intellectual achievement. At the age of six he was sent to the progressive King Alfred's School in Hampstead, and then on to another such school in Somerset. After three tedious years at the Technical School in The Hague, he went in 1938 to the Technical High School in Zurich. Here he met not only his wife-to-be, Hannie, but Carola Giedion-Welcker, wife of Siegfried Giedion, herself good friends with artists such as Arp, Brancusi and Klee. Van Eyck was drawn into this world, and soon began to collect their work.

In 1946 he and his wife moved to Amsterdam, where he joined the Public Works Department, for which by the time he left in 1955 he had designed over 60 playgrounds in the interstices of the city. They set out on a series of travels to Africa, to pursue his lifelong fascination with non- European cultures. He became intimately involved with the Cobra group of artists.

With his highly cultivated upbringing, his progressive education, his liberating entry into the world of the avant-garde in Zurich, together with his innate intelligence and sensibility, van Eyck was already, in post-war Amsterdam, a uniquely informed and aware presence, an outsider ready to become involved.

At this time Dutch architects were polarised between the backward-looking yet mature world of Granpre Moliere at Delft, and the narrow functionalism of the 'de 8 en Opbouw' of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Van Eyck felt neither was adequate. His lifelong aim was to include aspects of the two; an awareness of history, physicality, place, the human presence; yet also of the present, the rational. Expression of the 'dualphenomena', a relativity - the co- existence of both closed-open, inside-outside, light-dark, big-little. constant-variable, centralised-dispersed - became his quest. It was his delight in the wonderful and joyous, his rejection of the banal and inadequate, that drove him, (as provocative outsider, a member of Team 10) to contribute to the bringing down of the orthodoxies of ciam.

He had joined the Dutch ciam group in 1947, an involvement that was to lead to his co-founding of Team 10, with Bakema, Candilis, the Smithsons and J Voelcker in 1954. In that year his commission for the Municipal Orphanage in Amsterdam, completed in 1960, presented his first significant opportunity to practise his ideals. While as a physical architectural experience it falls short of the delight and enchantment one might have hoped for, as a polemical architectural statement, packed with ideas, of ambiguous 'labyrinthine clarity', ingenious, modest yet ambitious, its provocative ripples spread globally.

From 1959-63, van Eyck, with Bakema and Herman Hertzberger, joined a new editorial team of the magazine Forum, which was to become a vehicle for his 'other idea'. From 1954-59 he taught at the Amsterdam Academy, where he developed his thoughts about 'configurative' design - the making of buildings and places out of identifiable parts which came together, as had houses in old towns. Van Eyck saw this strategy as a means of solving the intractable contemporary problem of 'number'. However, developed on a large scale, this 'kasbah' approach, in a view vehemently expressed by his Team 10 colleagues, became as oppressive as rigid functionalism; he decided that the 'problem of number', at least at this point in history, was not soluble by architects.

From 1966-84 he taught at Delft, where he exercised his remarkable ability to nurture a student's own ideas. In 1970 he became involved in the Amsterdam Nieuwmarkt project, the repair of a gash in the old city; for him most interesting for his engagement with the local community. The housing this generated he delegated to Theo Bosch, with whom he had an uneasy partnership from 1971-82. In the Hubertus House, Amsterdam (finished 1978), a home for children and parents in need of help, van Eyck achieved an anarchic yet considered intervention in an old context.

In 1983 he went into partnership with Hannie, his wife. Their major project was the estec complex at Nordwijk (finished 1989). The brief was for a conference centre, restaurant, library and offices to be added to an undemonstrative set of Modernist buildings. The public rooms take the form of an encampment of tented structures, the plan is of intricately intersecting curves, the arched trusses and 11-sided columns are finished in a rainbow palette, copper roofs hover over cedar walls. It is a pyrotechnic display of complexity, invention, joyfulness and provocation. Sadly, it is closed to the public. From the picture it looks as if this was as close as van Eyck, a Gold Medallist, ever got to the physical realisation of his 'new reality'. Yet perhaps it is as a teacher, a conscience to the body of architecture in Holland - and beyond - that Aldo van Eyck will be most remembered.

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