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Manipulating Modernism

review

Mart Stam's Trousers: Stories from Behind the Scenes of Dutch Moral Modernism Edited by Crimson with Michael Speaks and Gerard Hadders. 010 Publishers, 1999. 300pp. £16

The intriguing title of this book already gives clues to both its subject (Dutch Modernism) and its style (not overly reverent), for Mart Stam was one of the heroic figures of the new architecture in Holland. Co-designer of the Van Nelle factory with the firm of Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, teaching at the Bauhaus, going to work with Ernst May in Russia, he was the epitome of a new generation of socially committed architects.

While the subtitle explains further, the back cover sets out the agenda below a Mondrian composition and quotation from the 1920s. The book examines how the successfully exported image of adventurous Modern Dutch architecture has been constructed by revisiting the early image from which it draws; an image, the authors suggest, artfully crafted by key architects.

The title comes from a tale told here by Peter Smithson, that in the famous picture of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier at the Weissenhofsiedlung, Stuttgart (1927), a trousered leg of Mart Stam can be seen between the two, the rest of his body having been erased. It is such manipulation of the historical picture of Modernism that is the theme of the book: a fascinating and enjoyable series of essays, correspondence and photographs.

It's ironic to have to point out that it was Mart Stam's hat that was touched out from the photograph, surely for aesthetic reasons, and that it's a bit of overcoat that's left. Somehow, 'Mart Stam's hat' just doesn't have the same ring to it.

The opening article by Wouter Vanstiphout sets the scene. Moving at a speed close to bebop, it starts with the controversial purchase of Mondrian's Victory Boogie Woogie to close with the Municipal Heroin Prostitution Toleration Zone - including on the way such gems as Bakema's fascination with the baker's cart, lifted from a 30 year-old photograph of Brinkman's Spangen deck housing and recurring in drawings of his own huge housing schemes as a 'crazy anachronism'.

This is followed by an exchange of letters between Philip Johnson, inventor of the International Style, and J J P Oud, his former idol, spurned after the war, writing to ask for bicycle tyres. It's hard to imagine Johnson walking into a cycle shop. Shocked at this time by Oud's use of ornament on the roof of the 1946 Shell building, Johnson would nonetheless go one better in 1984 with the at&t tower. Oud did not get the tyres.

The title piece, a conversation between Peter Smithson and Vanstiphout, shows the former in fine fettle. On Herman Hertzberger: 'He thinks himself an important architect but I don't ... I think they should really close that Berlage school. It was founded to save Aldo's building and now you've got this lousy bloody institute and the building is finished.' On Rem Koolhaas: 'You know; he is not an unpleasant person. Everyone else thinks he's a shit, but I've always found him very, very nice.'

The next piece, on Hugh Maaskant, reappraises his magnum opus, the 1971 Provinciehuis in Den Bosch. 'Raw Power/No Fun', an interview with dreadful Carel Weeber, is just that. If this is not an example of what Sartre called 'bad faith', then I'm a Dutchman. Michael Speaks' defence of Mendini's Post-Modernism in Groningen is followed by Matthijs Bouw and Joost Meuwissen's masterly summary, 'Disneyland with Euthanasia', before the closing picture story by Vanstiphout and Gerard Fox: five double-page spreads of computer- generated collages wittily illustrating the story of Dutch Modernism from Oud to Ben van Berkel.

This compact paperback, packed with illustrations, stimulating and opinionated, is a beautifully produced Dutch delight. A little tart, perhaps?

David Wild is an architect in London

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