Blurred Trees

“Making a house like a tree”, says Erick van Egeraat.
“A building that appears out of focus”, says William Alsop.
The work of both architects is connected in an unexpected manner and demonstrates a possible direction for a modern version of the Baroque.

The Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat develops in his architecture in essence ways to avoid borders and to blur the definition of faces. He develops this theme in a multitude of manners throughout his oeuvre. The most intriguing part of his work personally I find the reference to natural elements, such as rocks and trees.

“Yes, that is one of the most intriguing things off course. There are probably people that find that I am classifiable with a sort of antroposophical architecture. Let me say this very clearly; I am not a tree hugger. Don’t put me in a wood or something; I am not really comfortable there. A lot of things that crawl, and animals… for me it doesn’t need to be like that. But it is like this; although we find things that are made artistically very interesting, there is a very big need, certainly for me personally, to find things that besides being imposing or impressive also can radiate a certain softness – things that solicit some plausibility. Something that you can touch, that you can also desire. I find that rather logical in quite natural elements.”

Erick van Egeraat - Avant-Garde Moscow (Copyright EEA)
Erick van Egeraat - Avant-Garde, Moscow (Copyright EEA)

“One tries to design a house like a tree. That is off course terribly difficult, because a tree has so much formal elements in itself. And in the building practice there is obviously the tendency to systemize that as far as possible. If I dislike anything, it is to systemize thoughts. The interesting part is that you try to find techniques to make the largest possible variety.”

“With me you will never see something with a crazy form that has been pushed into boxes, like it fits, in such a way that it can be build. I ask the opposite question; how can I make, with a simple thing, a lot that all looks different, has a different form. That’s why I find a rock interesting. That’s not to say that I might not make at times a smooth wall, or a box. But boxes are terribly overrated. And for the most people they are all ugly. Making a beautiful box – a box with glass-lines and a piece of hanging concrete – I obviously love to do. Most of the people find that obviously – and rightfully so – just hideous.”

“It is almost to sad for words that there are whole tribes of architects awfully proud about the fact that they have found the most essential and pure detail in its most essential form. What is so pure about a tree, what is so pure about a rock? It comes only from an impulse to define a complex world in very simple thoughts. It is off course fantastic when you’re able to do that, very pleasurable. But when you start designing it is useless, because then you do the opposite; you have to make from nothing something. And you can off course make a line and put a lot of ideas in there and say; ‘that line is so special, all my thoughts are in there, everything is in there.’ Then I prefer something, at which I can see at least something. Then at least I can do something with it. Then at least I can see what the architect has conceived. That simple I would like it to be.”1

Erick van Egeraat - Surgut Siberia (Copyright EEA)
Erick van Egeraat - Surgut, Siberia (Copyright EEA)

That is clear language. You take a boxy volume or another geometric form and get to work with that. A volume can be locally turned (Residential tower Capital City Moscow), slanted (ING Office Budapest), beveled (‘t Brewinc), perforated (ABC Utrecht), rounded (Sydhaven Kopenhagen), wrapped (City Hall Alpen aan de Rijn), and so forth.

That Erick van Egeraat starts with a geometrical volume seems to be a heritage of his time as partner with Mecanoo, now already 10 years ago. The Teachers-Modernism (Onderwijzersmodernisme) that Mecanoo still builds everywhere looks back at the early Modernism of the twenties of the 20th century and produces buildings that look like collages of geometrical volumes. In the Teachers-Modernism all floating, abstract volumes have a different color and texture. At the campus of the TU Delft we have the Central Library by Mecanoo. But the Faculty for Industrial Design of Fons Verheijen/VVKH is an even better example of this architecture.

The next step in the design process by Erick van Egeraat is to cloth the chosen volume with a decorative skin. The box becomes by vertical and horizontal lines of the decorative elements less sharp – softer.

Didn’t the architects in the Baroque work in the same manner? A modest church was decorated after it was build. Existing churches, including the St. Pieter itself, were without objection in different phases enriched with decoration. Which architect is today so bold to suggest enriching an existing building with decoration? Besides Erick van Egeraat anybody?

This is an important point. The Teachers-Modernism advances from contrasts. A new building should look modern and should contrast with the city. An addition to an existing building should also contrast with what was already there. From this perspective the Dutch architect Benthem Crouwel designed a white steel bathtub for the 19th century brick building of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Starting from this form-logic there have been build several red ‘pieces of furniture’ at the Faculty of Architecture of the TU Delft. Enticingly red, so you can clearly see that these additions to this building from the sixties are new.

This over-explicit architecture now gets a counterweight in different practices, such as that of Erick van Egeraat. Typical for his approach is that he starts a design with a compact idea, and lets others within and outside his office subsequently add ideas to that.
More is more beautiful.

This approach differs greatly from the approach of for instance Rem Koolhaas/OMA and the ex-OMA-architects like MVRDV, where everything serves THE CONCEPT. Not surprisingly Rem Koolhaas and Erick van Egeraat can barely stand each other. In his lecture at the Bacinol in Delft Erick van Egeraat openly criticized the work of MVRDV. Those architects focus, according to Erick van Egeraat, too much on the making, the process, and this negatively affects the finished building, the effect.2

The position of Erick van Egeraat gets clearer with the way that he designs additions to existing buildings. Take for instance the design that he made for a larger stage tower for the Stadsschouwburg Haarlem. Instead of contrasting the new stage tower with the existing old brick building in form, material and texture, Erick van Egeraat chose to build upon the existing building. The new stage tower begins in its basis with the same brick as the old building and subsequently works in its own way further on that. The façade dematerializes towards the top from closed to open, from brick to steel and glass.

This is a ‘Baroque’ attitude. A new architect can add value to a given idea or an existing building. It is a flexible approach that subverts the idea of the architect-as-genius, whose work has to be protected by law in all possible manners to any adjustment in the future whatsoever.

Erick van Egeraat - Stadsschouwburg Haarlem (Copyright EEA)
Erick van Egeraat - Stadsschouwburg, Haarlem (Copyright EEA)

A house like a tree
The ‘Baroque’ approach of Erick van Egeraat in which the addition of extra layers is seen as something positive finds its larger metaphor literally and figuratively in the idea of the tree. A tree can always grow a new branch. This means for instance at the Stadsschouwburg Haarlem that the addition figuratively ‘grows’ out of the existing building.

‘Building a house like a tree’ is also developed literally by Erick van Egeraat in his dematerialization-theme, as also seen at the Stadsschouwburg Haarlem. A tree dematerializes towards its periphery; thick stem, big branches, smaller branches, even smaller branches.

Erick van Egeraat places the ‘tree’ sometimes also upside down, or on its side. In his design for an office building in the Mahler 4 at the Amsterdam South-Axis development the façade above is closed and stone, and downwards dematerializes to answer the light conditions of the location.

Erick van Egeraat - Mahler 4 Amsterdam (Copyright EEA)
Erick van Egeraat - Mahler 4, Amsterdam (Copyright EEA)

A literal proliferation of a ‘house like a tree’ we find in the Dutch Embassy in the city of Warsaw, Poland, which Erick van Egeraat designed. The necessary high steel fence is designed as a bush with leaves, and is placed in the plane of the façade so it is an explicit part of the Embassy building.

The dematerialization-theme appears in all architectural styles and is itself not Baroque. Erick van Egeraat however puts the theme to use in a Baroque manner with an excess of variation, the stratification of the façade, and the metaphor of the tree and rock. The lavished decoration and layered facades of the Baroque are a metaphor for the natural, and this reappears in the Modern Baroque.

In the work of Erick van Egeraat a lot of themes play their role – also non-natural themes. It is however distinctive that, besides the sometimes quite literal representation of the tree, the theme of the rock also continuously reappears in his oeuvre. The pop-podium Mezz in the city of Breda is called popularly ‘the peanut’, but refers more to a large boulder. And if Erick van Egeraat would have it his way, we in Holland will dwell in the 21st century in enormous Dutch Mountains that rise high from the polder-landscape. And the proposal of EEA for the central district of the redevelopment of the formal harbor areas in Hamburg, Germany, shows even two apartment buildings that look like a cut amethyst.

Piet Mondriaan
But architecture is not a tree or a rock, so the decoration remains abstract and never becomes too literal. The abstraction of this Modern Baroque does recall the early abstractions of the Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan. In the twenties of the 20th century Mondriaan began to make more and more abstract representations. Landscapes and other representations became slowly but surely more abstract, flatter, and less colorful. On a composition like ‘Composition No. 11’ from 1913 a horizon can still be seen, and maybe something like a tree. Fourteen years later his work has become so abstract that there is no reference readable any more to the world outside the painting. Take for instance the ‘Composition of Red, Yellow, and Blue’, which has no more to it than a couple of colored lines on a white painted canvas. At the time an architect like Gerrit Rietveld stucced his building white, before he set some colored lines in front of that surface, as in his famous Rietveld-Schröder House in the city of Utrecht.

The early work of Mondriaan however appears baroque. Striking is again the element of the dematerialization; the representation ‘dissolves’ towards the edges of the painting. If the baroque architecture of Erick van Egeraat is an abstract representation of rocks and trees, should we then interpret the Stadsschouwburg in Haarlem as an abstract painting comparable to the early Mondriaan?

If that is true Erick van Egeraat has gone in the course of his oeuvre back in time. From the Modernism of his Mecanoo time with abstract forms and a lot of white and primary colors – the late Mondriaan – to the Modern Baroque with a representation of rocks and trees – the early Mondriaan.

Jackson Pollock
What is more beautiful; the original Villa Savoie of Le Corbusier, or the ruin of the villa after World War II?

I think that most people find the ruin more beautiful. Why? An explanation could be that nature added to the easily legible building an apparently random pattern that ‘softens’ the box-form. The natural ‘decorated’ Villa Savoie is more beautiful than the original.

“Pollock showed that there was beauty in randomness”, says computer-artist Joshua Davis, “There was chance, because the brush he used to drip the paint was above the surface of the canvas.”

The same apparent randomness is what is so beautiful about nature, about a tree or a rock. And just as the randomness of the form of a tree is bound to parameters, so is the randomness of the drip-paintings of Jackson Pollock not fully coincidental.

Just as with architecture, painting is limited in its representation by the ‘resolution’ and technique of the medium. A building has to be made from building-elements and the form of the building is limited by the state of the technique. A painting is (mostly) made with a brush and is further determined by the technique of the painter. Where Vincent van Gogh uses his pencil to define the ‘resolution’ of his paintings so uses Erick van Egeraat in for instance his design for Capital City in Moscow the width of the window-band as ‘resolution’ for his decoration.

The technique of a painter is so specific and stable that mathematicians in the United States have developed models through which the technique of a specific painter can be mapped.

“After scanning Pollock’s works and analyzing them at increasingly fine magnifications, [Mr.] Taylor found fractals - the naturally occurring geometric patterns, like the branches of a tree, that repeat over and over at every level of magnification.”
With this technique a real Pollock or Rembrandt can be distinguished from a forgery.

The variation that is bound by rules in nature, painting, and baroque architecture we find beautiful. It is the randomness that is determined by parameters, and so it can be designed. Isn’t that why we find the old European inner cities so beautiful?

William Alsop
The British architect William Alsop would like to see a project from his office, as for instance The Fourth Grace in Liverpool, as a “[…] form-less building that appears to be out of focus and always moving.”3

The work of William Alsop and Erick van Egeraat overlaps significantly here. The design of William Alsop for the Fourth Grace in Liverpool resembles the design of Erick van Egeraat for Capital City in Moscow. In the Netherlands both architects have not by coincidence designed a pop-podium that looks like a boulder – Erick van Egeraat designed the Mezz in Breda, William Alsop designed the Muzinq in Almere.

There are of course also lots of differences. William Alsop is a painter, and he works this attitude out in his architecture in a very explicit manner, for instance in his articulate coloring. But despite the differences between them here the overlap in architectural concept is relevant and informative.

The notion of the ‘formless, out-of-focus’ building of William Alsop is connected with the ‘soft’ architecture of Erick van Egeraat. In the eyes of Erick van Egeraat Modernism is too simple and too easy legible. Baroque buildings are far more interesting, because they are much less legible, and therefore don’t bore that easily.

Erick van Egeraat - Capital City Moscow © EEA
Erick van Egeraat - Capital City, Moscow (Copyright EEA)

William Alsop - The Fourth Grace Liverpool
William Alsop - Fourth Grace, Liverpool

I think that the amount of recoding4, the amount of expression, the Baroque-ness in the architecture of William Alsop and Erick van Egeraat makes both architectures not easily legible, and therefore leaves the spectator puzzling sometime about what they see. The decoration provides a ‘suspense’, just as film and television leave you wondering, suspended, about how this film or series will end. And is ‘suspense’ not one of the most powerful emotions that one can experience?

William Alsop and Erick van Egeraat are not alone in their realization of suspense. The work of modern artists like David Lachapelle and Jasper Goodall shows the same kind of insistence on the form-less, the surreal, the decorated, the Baroque.

The work of these Baroque architects and artists find their conceptual image in the artwork ‘the Manimal.’5 This is a computer-generated hybrid of a snake, a lion and a human. The multitude of differences in comparison to a human face and the stratification of the image of the Manimal produces a ‘suspense’ with the spectator.

Erick van Egeraat: “Often we find things that we don’t understand beautiful.”2

Feminine beauty
Interesting is that the work of Jasper Goodall, David Lachapelle and Erick van Egeraat also overlaps on an other level. All three have a fascination for the female (sexual) object and claim that they make things that in the first place just have to be ‘beautiful.’ The work of Goodall and Lachapelle is explicit erotic. In the work of Erick van Egeraat feminine beauty plays a more implicit a role. (Erick van Egeraat’s wife is not by coincidence a model.)

Erick van Egeraat states that you can describe (feminine) beauty in ideal measurements and proportions. But in reverse it is never true that if you apply these ideal proportions, a design automatically becomes beautiful. Just look at the ‘ideal’ women that are generated with the computer. Apparently beauty is more complex and maybe imperfections and coincidences are also important.

According to Erick van Egeraat Le Corbusier developed his Modulor so his associates could no longer mess things up with this measurement-system. But not a single building by Le Corbusier follows his system totally. Clearly Le Corbusier knew that beauty doesn’t emerge from ideal measures.2

The question that arises with the work of Jasper Goodall, David Lachapelle, and Erick van Egeraat is whether design that is stripped from every ideology necessarily focuses again on the natural, and in extension of that on the female (sexual) object. If you strive like them to a layered beauty that develops itself from a desire, a suspense, than the desirable female object seems to be the perfect starting point.

This article has been published in Dutch in the architectural magazine Pantheon// in July 2006.

1. This citation is an excerpt of an interview with Erick van Egeraat that I did with Barbara Luns in February 2004 and that has been published in Pantheon//.
2. Egeraat, Erick van; The Value of Beauty, lecture in Bacinol 12 January 2006
3. Jencks, Charles; The Iconic Building, Frances Lincoln, London 2005
4. Raaij, Michiel van, Remix Mies, Pantheon// Projective Landscape, February 2006
5. Berkel, Ben van; Bos, Caroline; Move, UN Studio, Amsterdam 1999


Update 3 march 2007

William Alsop announced this week that it will built a 43-story appartment-tower in the center of London. On top of a public plinth 15 stories of self-storage spaces are hidden behind an artwork of Bruce McLean. More similar to the Avant-Garde project in Moscow of Erick van Egeraat than I could have ever imagined.

I don’t know why the design by Alsop uses so much dark colors, that way avoiding a contextual relationship with the sky. Maybe architects should ‘paint’ more on white canvasses when designing towers.

William Alsop - 151 City Road, London
William Alsop - 151 City Road, London

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