Aldo van Eyck

Architect, the Netherlands
Advocating a new set of architectural concerns for postwar society, Aldo van Eyck
belonged to the long tradition of Northern European experimentalism characterized by an
attention to detail and craftsmanship coupled with a profound social commitment. His
oeuvre comprises a vast array of tectonic ideas worked out within the programs of
socially relevant structures, contributing greatly to modern architectures moral core.
Van Eyck was born in Driebergen, the Netherlands, on 16 March 1918; spent his
primary and secondary school years in England; and took his architectural training at the
Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zürich. After a stint in the Dutch army, he
returned to the Netherlands and found employment in the Public Works Office (then
under the direction of Cornelius van Eesteren), charged with the task of refabricating the
war-ravaged city of Amsterdam. In 1952, he began private practice in The Hague and
Amsterdam, in partnership first with Theo Bosch and later with his wife, Hannie van
Eyck-van Roojen.
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Aldo van Eyck’s introduction to the architectural community at large came during the
eighth meeting of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) at Hoddeston,
England, where his playground projects in Amsterdam caught the attention of Siegfried
Giedion, the organization’s secretarygeneral and one of its founding fathers. Giedion
reacted enthusiastically, writing, “These simple elements are grouped so subtly—with a
background of the De Stijl movement and modern art which injects some kind of vitamin
into the whole thing… (they also) fulfill another function. A formerly useless piece of
waste ground has been transformed by an extremely careful layout into an active urban
element. One need only provide the opportunity and we—the public, who are also maybe
children of a kind—will know how to use it” (see Giedion 1952).
Giedion’s comments confirmed the duality of van Eyck’s architectural paradigm;
namely, the coalescence of avant-garde form and a humanistic concern for the ethos of
environment, a combination that van Eyck called “labyrinthine clarity.” Not incidentally,
van Eyck’s interest in the fine arts was cultivated throughout a long friendship with
Giedion’s wife, Carola Giedion-Welcker, a prominent art historian and a champion of
Klee, Miro, Mondrian, and others. Through her tutelage, van Eyck maintained a lifelong
attachment to aesthetic ideals that would continue to inform his work. His Sonsbeek
Pavilion (1966–) in Arnhem, a temporary space for an exhibition of modern sculpture,
was a successful use of orthogonal and curved planes used to create a small city within
which to literally traverse the presented artistic landscape. Putting architecture in the
service of art, van Eyck drew attention to the interrelatedness of the two practices, using
contextuality and contiguity to point to the potential enrichment of life through aesthetic
means.
The years immediately following World War II saw a radical shift in the direction
charted for contemporary architecture. Taking action against the devastation and
destruction delivered on European nations necessitated a move away from Utopian
functionalism and toward a revitalization of associative perspective and a sense of
belonging, and a younger generation of architects, known as Team X, were charged with
reorienting CIAM toward these goals. However, whereas key members such as Alison
and Peter Smithson maintained strong ties to the formalism of Le Corbusier and Mies van
der Rohe, van Eyck advocated an approach to architecture that sought to underscore the
eternal and immutable realities of humanity’s relationship to built form. By reconciling
“twin phenomena,” such as inside and outside, that denied the possibility of easy
dialectics, van Eyck sought to identify an “in-between” realm that would, in the
architect’s own words, “reconcile conflicting polarities.”
The property of “in-between” was best exemplified by his most celebrated
building, the Children’s Home (1957–60) in Amsterdam: what van Eyck
called “a home for children in the context of architecture.” Playing with
the notion of the module, the orphanage dispenses with traditional
organization of space by creating a set of pavilions pinwheeling around a
central axis; the resulting plan borrows heavily from De Stijl’s modularity
while providing strong diagonals that challenge orthogonal ordering.
Surprising occurrences of semiprivate spaces within the confines of the
building bring a sense of the outside indoors,

van Eyck, Aldo (Netherlands)
Hubertus House, Amsterdam (ca.
1959), designed by Aldo van Eyck

and the privacy of living quarters is ensured by their location at the periphery of the
building, away from heavily trafficked areas. The result is a series of intimate spaces that
adhere through a nonhierarchical yet clearly articulated modular program.
Although the school of Dutch structuralism, to which van Eyck’s name is often
attached, never really resolved its relationship to the larger conditions of structuralism as
obtained in literary criticism and anthropology, van Eyck’s own career drew from both of
these disciplines in a more coherent fashion. Throughout his life, he maintained a vital
attention to writing (especially during his stint as editor of the Dutch journal Forum from 1959
to 1963), his ideas developing within the fundamental framework of his notion of
“relativity,” or the belief that human history unfolds in a way not subordinated to
preordained principles but rather through the multivalency of reciprocal relations among
people, things, and ideas. In 1959, van Eyck and his wife traveled to Sudan to study the
habitats of the Dogon, having already visited the Sahara earlier in the decade. It was there
that his notions of the perpetuity of humanity’s customs of existence found their
inspiration and justification. Many of the themes arising from his ethnographic research
recurred in later projects, such as the Hubertus House (1975–79) in Amsterdam, a home
for single mothers and their children that underscores van Eyck’s responsiveness to social
needs. A functionalist glass-and-steel recessed entryway ties the new polychromatic
structure to an adjacent older building, maintaining the sense of historical order while
insisting on the need for growth. Within the structure, lodgings presented as a set of
scaled-down row houses provide a sense of familiarity as well as reinforcing the
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architect’s conviction that functionalism is not the enemy of history but rather has the
capacity to expand and enrich one’s understanding of time and place.
In 1990, van Eyck was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British
Architects, an award fitting his significant contributions to 20th-century architecture.

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