Interview with Alejandro Campos Uribe
Architect and researcher Alejandro Campos Uribe explains his project on multiculturalism in post-war architecture, in which he focuses on the work of Aldo van Eyck, and particularly the home he shared with Hannie van Eyck. He approaches the house as an extension of their characters. In addition, he studies the Van Eycks’ friends and contemporaries, including Herman Hertzberger, Piet Blom and members of Team 10. Alejandro Campos is currently a fellow at TU Delft and a visiting scholar at the Jaap Bakema Study Centre.
Today there is an increased interest in diversity, inclusion and multivocality – which Het Nieuwe Instituut also shares. How do you hope to contribute to these discussions as a researcher?
I’d say that my research also comes from this same interest. However, I am particularly interested in how inclusive architectural practices were born in the 1950s and the 60s, informed and inspired by anthropological texts by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, or Marcel Griaule – the latter was especially important within artistic circles, thanks to the role of Michel Leiris, a surrealist poet. Moreover, the development of communication networks – which I think is the main characteristic of our modern society – and the post-war tourism industry allowed architects to start travelling to different places far away from Europe to find inspiration, at a time when modern architecture was being subjected to a profound revision.
After the war and due to the negative consequences of the urban-scale implementations of the Athens Chartier, modern architects were looking for new stimuli. Good examples are the Smithsons’ work within the Independent Group, Italian neorealism and its connections with history and tradition, Archigram’s focus on technology and household appliances, and even Le Corbusier’s immersion in his own cosmological ideas and autobiographical experiences. Most historians – Frampton, Cohen, Curtis – have already recognised that, within these new sources of inspiration, non-European cultures played an important role in the fifties and sixties. We can see this is in the works by ATBAT, Jorn Utzon, Bernard Rudofsky, Christopher Alexander and, of course, Aldo van Eyck. Coming back to your main question now, by travelling, these architects were trying to find the essential qualities of human beings and of space, and they were doing it in a similar way to ethnologists, who tried to find the essential qualities of human nature – for instance, the structural cultural patterns in Levi-Strauss’s work. Namely, they resorted to Other architectures as valid outputs, as-valid-as-ours, I mean, and sometimes better adjusted to human needs, listening to their previously neglected voices.
However, this episode of the history of architecture has yet to be thoroughly analysed and clarified. From today’s perspective and following current debates on multiculturalism, post-colonialism and de-colonial thinking, the interest in non-European architecture could also be seen as architects exoticising the Other: a matter of cultural appropriation, of exploiting these other cultures to use them for their own work. But it might also be the case that they were really committed to an inclusive approach, following anthropologists and ethnographers such as Boas or Benedict. My research project will try to disentangle this problem, to identify the grammars of identity /alterity that were at play. I think it is interesting from today’s perspective, because we live in a globalised world where multiple voices coexist, and understanding these differences and ‘making use’ of them is a key to unlocking our contemporary challenges. I want to see if this specific episode of post-war architecture can still teach us something about that.
So these architects of the 1950s and 60s were interested in finding the essential qualities of human beings and space. Isn’t that another kind of universalism, another Modernism?
Yes, but it was also a different universalism. Early Modernists were not trying to find the essential qualities of humanity, but they were saying that they were the essential humans – of course this is an oversimplification–, they had a limited view of function. What anthropologists and ethnographers do is to admit that their own culture is not the only one, and certainly not the best one. They travel to foreign cultures with modesty and, by understanding their perspective (the so called emic approach), they try to find clues to be able to generalise about human nature. Is that a new universalism? Well, maybe, but a more humble and careful one. There are even those who completely reject the notion of human nature per se, and there is a very interesting debate going on about that (Michael Brown’s article ‘Cultural Relativism 2.0’ is a good starting point). Actually, this discussion is not very far from the Modern versus Postmodern debate. Postmodernists will probably reject the notion of essential architectural qualities, but modernists such as Van Eyck still thought that there were still some fundamental qualities to look for and learn from, although he was more conscious of the complexity and ambiguity of notions such as human nature or human scale than early Modernists. He consciously avoided giving them a fixed and limited meaning from a sole European perspective.
I am currently finishing a translation of Van Eyck’s only book, The Child, the City and the Artist, into Spanish, that will be published later this year by Arquia Foundation. What I find fascinating about the book, something worth retrieving for today’s architectural era, is precisely this tremendously hard intellectual journey to reinstate meaning and truth from a modern perspective (after Nietzsche, Joyce, Tzara or Dali). Van Eyck is constantly fighting absolute and abstract notions (Platonism or Cartesian thinking, for instance), and defending relativity, but without falling into relativism, which was not the same for him. He is constantly in an in-between where he could strongly criticise modern architects, sometimes mercilessly, but simultaneously mock and insult postmodern thinkers. I find this very refreshing and that’s why I mentioned Brown’s article, I think it has some strong similarities. Moreover, Van Eyck ends the book precisely with the example of the Dogon, a non-European culture, which helps him gather up and conclude the text. This is how important ethnography and anthropology were for him. The book is mesmerising, a true labyrinth.
Let me also say that it’s a difficult book, that’s maybe the reason why no editor wanted to publish it when it was written, in 1962. But I still think it beautifully anticipates the debates of the late 1960s and 70s with Venturi and Rossi’s books and Eisenman’s articles. Van Eyck offered a different path which resembles, at least for me, Habermas’ famous discourse about ‘Modernity as an Unfinished Project’, and also his lecture ‘Modern and Post-Modern Architecture’. I don’t know if he later read these articles, but I’d say that Van Eyck was indeed trying to continue the project of Modernity, or that’s what I get from The Child, the City and the Artist. He later said that what we need is a “better, more sensitive, functionalism”.
What do you mean by Eurocentrism?
I use Eurocentrism and universalism strictly from an architectural perspective, and I am referring to the prevailing attitude of the early Modern Movement, of how architects were creating this ideal human being: a person who works eight hours per day, and who rests eight hours per day, who owns a car, who has a standard height, like the Modulor of Le Corbusier. It was for this ideal human being for which they designed their minimum dwelling and their functional city. I am of course pointing to the Athens Charter, but also to Alexander Klein’s diagrams, for instance. However, this was a very slanted or biased view of humans. In the end, they were trying to generalise their own pattern of culture. They were designing for this ideal man and they were hoping the solutions they developed for Europe would be used all over the world.
Aldo van Eyck and his contemporaries, for example the Smithsons and members of Team 10, were against this attitude. With the help of the anthropological texts I mentioned before, they became aware of the existing differences and the need to reconsider the modern approach. And what I want is to explore how this happened; how they learned from non-European cultures to improve or revise modern architecture.
What would you like to investigate in the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning? During my own studies in the 2010s, the architectural canon that was taught at TU Delft was still mostly focused on architecture from Europe and the United States. Did Aldo van Eyck attempt to broaden the field of architecture in The Netherlands and how did he do this?
Why do you think Van Eyck did not work on history in a systematic way?
I think in the end he was an architect, not a historian.
Do you want to explore these 'affinities’ by looking at the house?
Yes, I want to try to understand why he collected all these things, and why he talked so much about them in his conferences. A lot of researchers have written about Van Eyck and the Dogon and these other cultures he talked a great deal about. But few seem to have attempted to understand why he had this specific interest in ethnographic art and why he collected these particular objects and placed them so carefully inside his house. I mean, nobody that I know has taken these objects one by one and written about their plausible connection to Van Eyck’s architectural work.
I went to visit the house initially, because I was trying to understand why van Eyck was interested in poetry books. When I went to the house – trying to find the books, to analyse his library – I got inside and I thought I was completely mistaken! Because it was not only about the poetry books, it was about so many more things. It was a complete accident I discovered his house.
Do you know the Otterlo Circles? This scheme says we should take into account three dimensions: classical architecture, modern architecture and also vernacular architecture. I think his house is a physical manifestation of these Otterlo Circles, an embodied version of the diagram that shows how Van Eyck was opening up the canon, as we were discussing earlier.
I am approaching the house as the closest thing we now have to him. I want to interview the house as it were and ask: “Why are you here, little mask? How did you get here? Why were you so important to Van Eyck?” During my PhD, I analysed the house as an architectural design, a place where Van Eyck tested many of the architectural strategies that he was also using in his other buildings. I’ve interpreted the house from six different perspectives: as a piece in a set of four houses inhabited by the Van Eycks; as a polycentric composition of architectural elements such as stairs, podiums, fireplaces, doors, cupboards; as a transmutation of an existing historic building where both “times” still coexist; as a sequence of charged spaces in-between walls and things; as a device that, through its imaginary windows – paintings, masks and so on – can contain the whole world; and as a place that slowly fused with the group of places that I can call home. These perspectives were all strongly related to Van Eyck’s writings and theoretical proposals, and his readers will quickly identify them!
Now I am focusing more on the house as the Van Eyck Collection, not so much as a building. As I said, I will also collaborate with experts from the Research Centre for Material Cultures (RCMC), which will be very valuable to support my analysis of the ethnographic objects.
Another thing I want to start thinking about is the role of Hannie in the works that they did together, which were attributed to Aldo van Eyck only. It is very difficult, because little is written about it and you have to rely on oral histories and people’s memories. In the case of these ethnographic objects, I know for instance that they didn’t like the same objects and Hannie also collected things. In the house there are things of Hannie’s and of Aldo’s, and maybe it is interesting to try to identify them and see why they are different and how this impacted the work they did. But again, is it about self-positioning? I am thinking about non-European art but I am western, I am talking about Hannie’s role but I am a man… so I have to see how to somehow cross these cultural and gender boundaries.
Interview: Soscha Monteiro
Alejandro Campos is an architect and holds a PhD in Architecture (Polytechnical University of Valencia, 2018). He is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellow at the Department of Architecture, TU Delft, with the research project ‘Multiculturalism in Post-War Architecture’. His research focuses on the history of post-war architectural design, particularly the work of Team 10 and Aldo van Eyck. Alejandro Campos is currently translating The Child, the City and the Artist to Spanish, together with the Arquia Foundation. He has worked as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Architecture at Aalto University, Finland (2018-2019). In 2018 he cofounded Arqtistic, and architecture+research atelier.
Alejandro Campos is also co-organiser of this year’s Jaap Bakema Study Centre conference: The Observers Observed, Architectural Uses of Ethnography.