THIS IS A FAR CRY FROM ADORNING PUBLIC BUILDINGS WITH 'SOOTHING' ARTWORKS
In an essay in the March 1929 edition of Het Bouwbedrijf, the avant-garde artist Theo van Doesburg described his approach to transforming l'Aubette in Strasbourg (see pages 23-35). His approach stands as a challenge to the attitude that architecture can be enriched or enhanced by the addition of artwork, but also to the opposing view that the co-existence of art and architecture is most successful when there is a seamless integration of the two.
Van Doesburg insists on the need for 'mutual checks on the visual disciplines, whose means of expression should not be mixed', but if art should be clearly distinguishable from architecture, it is every bit as powerful. Far from enhancing architecture, van Doesburg's art was conceived as a means of presenting parallel and potentially contradictory readings of the same space.
When he notes that the Cinema-Dance Hall at l'Aubette 'was very amenable to the application of an autonomous, diagonal colour arrangement capable of resisting the tension of the architecture' the tone of approval is clear.
But if van Doesburg's work is determinedly challenging, it is executed with a decorative exuberance which is decidedly popular. It is a far cry from the instutionalised habit of adorning public buildings with art which is soothing, calming, or gently educational: a 'people's radicalism' which questions the distinction between high and decorative art.
From the start, the artist complained that 'much of the plastic unity was lost because of economising and too much haste'. Once complete, his work was swiftly 'impaired by the total lack of maintenance and by the rough ways of the Strasbourgers' before being obliterated altogether. If the painstaking restoration of l'Aubette is a mark of respect for the importance of van Doesburg's work, it is also a reminder that its significance was not necessarily appreciated either by the client or its users.