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All the contents of a magpie mind

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Aldo van Eyck once gave a lecture at Clare Hall College, Cambridge. In the course of his long ramble ('very self-indulgent', my source remembers), he made passing reference to Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Up sprang Brian Pippard, the college's first president and a distinguished physicist: 'I worked with Heisenberg, and there is nothing uncertain about his Uncertainty Principle.'

When I finally reached mention of Heisenberg on page 413 of Francis Strauven's new biography of van Eyck, The Shape of Relativity, I remembered this anecdote. What was niggling me about this outwardly worthy and comprehensive book came into focus. For even before his illustrious career started, right back in his childhood, van Eyck has collected little bits and pieces of large ideas from friends and acquaintainces, customised them and fashioned them into his own world view.

These magpie pickings started very early. A year after his birth his family moved from Holland to Golders Green as his father became the London correspondent for the Rotterdam newspaper Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant. It was apparently not onerous, for P N van Eyck had plenty of time to indulge in his passion for transcendental philosophy - especially Spinoza - and writing tender poetry in his Golders Green study. Aldo drank shallowly from the flask of his father's intellectual achievement (pn ended up as professor of Dutch literature at Leiden), and with the touchingly ineffective liberal education he received at King Alfred's School in Hampstead, set the pattern for his working method.

Why did it take me so long to come to this revelation? Partly that is due to Strauven's literary style: leaden, and unlivened either by humour or significant insight. It's a mind-bogglingly thorough catalogue of projects, teaching programmes, journeys and endless meetings of de 8, ciam and Team X (which seem to have had about as much variety as traditional C of E church services). Strauven, poor man, has lived with the project for ages: footnotes show that interviews for it started back in the early 1980s. In effect it occupies an uncomfortable gap between bibliography and biography. Never entirely escaping the shadow of the former, it falls short of the latter.

My misgivings are also due to the working methods of van Eyck himself. New meetings or trips to exotic places would immediately bring forth some insight which would be wrested from its context and used in justification of something I suspect he wanted to do anyway. So in voyages through the Sahara desert in the 1950s he came across some stunningly beautiful primitive buildings. Their elemental qualities were called into service in the magnificent series of playgrounds he built in Amsterdam: this is obvious, but it might have been more illuminating to add some context about their passage through the planning and funding process.

Art is another subject where something similar happens. Without doubt van Eyck has a great sensitivity to twentieth-century art: he and his wife Hannie own some superb examples including work by Miro and Mondrian, and he has designed some fine exhibitions. While in Switzerland he became friendly with Carola Giedion-Welcker, wife of the redoubtable ciam secretary- general Siegfried Giedion. She, 'one of the first classically-trained art historians to concentrate entirely on the essential meaning of contemporary art', according to Strauven, added a polish to the intellectual fields his father opened to him. From this he used perceptions about modern art - formalist and metaphysical - to inform his designs.

Of course this is one of the central tenets of modern architecture - albeit engineered by Giedion himself - but when combined with a fascination for the elemental architecture of North Africa as the basis of a design approach, it has its dangers. These are many, but one of the most important is that neither modern art nor primitive architecture have any engagement with the physical infrastructure of the modern city; transport structures, and all those pipes and wires we depend on for modern life. They, too, are powerful forms and architects ignore or relegate them at their peril. The coincidence of finding architect-contemporaries who in different ways also fashioned idiosyncratic world views, such as the Smithsons and Giancarlo de Carlo, could well have blinded van Eyck to those dangers. As they fretted about what they meant precisely by doorstep or threshold, cluster or household, and plastered their drawings with pop-art images, they allowed the guts of the city to go to ruin.

Van Eyck is obviously an important architect and a worthy subject for a biography. But can we not first clear out the attic of architectural thought of the selected and self-indulgent pickings which he and his generation piled into it, and which - kidnapped from their context - are little more than junk?

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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