The International Style

A new architectural language of forms was the result of the impact of mechanization. Three forces can be isolated as driving this development in Europe after the First World War; the group called De Stijl in Holland, the Bauhaus in Germany, and Le Corbusier in France.

The influence of modern movements such as De Stijl extends even to popular recent culture. Here’s some examples of how far the influence of the idea that “less is more” has extended.

Gerrit Rietveld and De Stijl The movement known as De Stijl was founded in 1917 in Holland. The painters Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesdurg, and the designer and architects Gerrit Rietveld and J.J.P.Oud were the leading figures in this group. Their work shared an emphasis upon basic forms… the rectangular, vertical and horizontal lines.

The role played by Cubism in suggesting these types of form was crucial. De Stijl meant “the Style”, in the sense that it identified and applied an essential language of forms that were the basis of design.

The painters progressively reduced their paintings from initial observed subjects to formal simplifications of these...

...and finally to the arrangement of the forms completely independently of a subject altogether. The result was a new visual language of form, colour and rhythm that supposed to function in much the same manner as music.

This new formal language, or “Neo-plasticism”, as they called it, was more easily applied to architecture. It related well to the developments already seen in the Fagus Shoe Factory by Gropius, and the new structural focus of Perret, Behrens, and Wagner. Especially evident in the work of Rietveld is the move away from the idea of a building as a mass penetrated by voids to a more fluid interaction of space and forms.

Gerrit Rietveld, SchroderSchrader House, 1924

The Schroder House of 1924 is the perfect early example of this, with its intersecting rectangular planes and linear structural elements creating a more open collection of spaces. The form of the building was now more spatial in conception.

The idea of interlocking volumes, which related to the surroundings of the building by extending spaces into the outside by using open forms, had two major sources. Key Influences… The paintings of Mondrian extended the discoveries of Cubism by exploring the shifting relationship of forms and spaces. The dynamics created by the arrangement of these visual elements became the focus of the paintings, rather than representation of a subject. This was extended by the architects of de Stijl into the three dimensional spaces and forms of furniture design and building.

In architecture the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in America was making a similar exploration of the relationship between forms and spaces. Wright was opening the traditional cell-like structure of rooms in domestic houses and office buildings to create more fluid and interactive spaces.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Floorplan of The Robie House, 1908-10

Frank Lloyd Wright, Robie House, 1908-10 The interaction was the movement of people in the spaces and the idea of creating a link between interior and exterior spaces. (What modern real estate agents call “inside-outside flow”).

The floor plans of Wright’s houses bear a resemblance to the paintings of Mondrian, and they were available to the European architects in the publication of the Wasmuth Volumes in 1910-11.

Oud spoke of Wright’s work as “…a new plastic architecture…in which masses slide back and forth and left and right”.

Frank Lloyd Wright, The Robie House, 1908-10

The Schroder House In combination with the preceding European developments in architecture these influences resulted in works like the Schroder House. In the Schroder House there is the suggestion that each element is floating independently of another, all of them hovering in a tangible and continuous space. The forms are simple. The volumes and planes relate to each other along grid-like horizontal and vertical lines, arranged asymmetrically to suggest extension into the surrounding space.

Gerrit Rietveld, Schroder-Schrader House, 1924 These ideas were suited to the possibilities of cantilevered concrete construction and the transparent effects of glass and steel structural materials.

Schroder House floorplans The idea we accept as obvious now is that …the simplification of the shapes and forms and the emphasis on the straight line seemed an appropriate expression of the new “machine age” and its industrial, mass-produced materials. But this is a style like any other… the operation of a series of conscious choices rather than simply uncovering a hidden truth.

The artists of De Stijl wanted a plastic language that expressed the spirit of the times. The needs for number and measure, for cleanliness and order, standardization and repetition were social desires after the disaster of the First World War and the accelerating technological and social change of the early century. The opportunity to apply the ideals of the painters and the language they used to express them to a functional social object like a building was a means of creating a better world out of the ashes of the old.

Gerrit Rietveld