Maaskant. Architect van de vooruitgang

article by Michelle Provoost
English Summary
16 June 2003

Hugh Maaskant (1907-1977) is best known as the architect who made the biggest mark on the post-war reconstruction of Rotterdam with such buildings as the Groothandelsgebouw, the Hilton Hotel and the Lijnbaan flats. Beginning his career in 1937 as the partner of Willem van Tijen, Maaskant embarked on his most prolific period after setting up in independent practice in 1955. He produced the lion's share of his work in the 1950s and '60s, the very period architectural critics generally regard as a time of crisis, when architects worldwide fell prey to confusion and lack of direction. The overriding factor in this criticism was the close link that had grown up since the war between architects originating with the modern movement and the economic-political leaders of that time. The upshot, according to the critics, was that the utopian quality that had originally informed the modern movement had ceded to an empty formalism.
This critical stance on post-war modernism was also directed in part at Maaskant. The year 1971 marked the point in his career when the long-smouldering dissatisfaction with the abstract, large-scale, anonymous and 'inhuman' aspects of architecture erupted. This was part of a broader cultural about-turn in the Netherlands in which '60s policy, which was largely directed at material growth, came under critical review. The openness and spatiality of modern architecture that for a decade had served as metaphors for the 'open society' fell from favour and came to be perceived as an emptiness that needed programming if existential needs for visual stimuli, security and the 'human' scale were to be met. The great scale that had invaded every terrain of social reality and had been accommodated by the architecture of practices like Groosman, Van den Broek & Bakema, Van Embden and Maaskant, was longer read as an optimistic sign of growth and advancement. Indeed, their buildings were regarded as the degrading products of antisocial architects. Add to that the widespread discontent with the quality of mass-produced housing - built by Maaskant among others in tens of thousands of units at a time - and it was inevitable that in the 1970s Maaskant would be quickly toppled from his illustrious position at the crest of Dutch architecture.

This book, who title translates as 'Hugh Maaskant, architect of advancement', shows how his buildings were an almost perfect reflection of Dutch society in the 1950s and '60s, which progressed steadily from the frugal reconstruction period to an affluent consumer society. When the tide of Dutch society began to turn at the close of the '60s, Maaskant found himself carried along with it as an epigone of a bygone era. This was driven home in around 1970 when the baby-boomers, architecturally enlightened by Aldo van Eyck and others of Team X, made their entrance into the municipal departments and government institutions. From there they contributed to a colossal shift in architectural policy on the reconstruction period and the prosperous '60s. 'Small-scale' became the new watchword after the spaciousness and large scale of the previous decade. Needless to say, Maaskant was more inclined towards the latter.

With the critique of modernism gaining ground since the 1970s, Maaskant's canon was one-sidely looked upon as functional, rational and technocratic, clouding the view of other themes in his work. Since then, however, the dogmas of the '70s have themselves become outmoded, ushering in a fresh appreciation of Maaskant's buildings as examples of a fascinating metropolitan architecture. This has to do with the renewal of interest in typical '60s design themes now back in play such as mass, scaling-up, infrastructure and designing for industry. Meanwhile faith in architecture's utopian claims, its capacity to improve the world, has dwindled dramatically if not disappeared altogether. An 'antisocial' designer like Maaskant, who had always been aware of architecture's limitations, could then return to the stage; more than that, his amoral attitude devoid of a patronizing undertone was construed as a 'modern' stance, meaning in tune with the 1990s. Ideas that had been regarded in the '70s as cynical were now looked upon as realistic. The optimism conveyed by his buildings, his acceptance of social trends as the architect's programme and a faith in the future, have made his work popular again. Unquestionably, his image as a no-nonsense businessman also has its appeal; to say nothing of the flipside of that image, Maaskant as the society architect who with un-Dutch audacity succeeded in making grand gestures. Neither image is entirely true of course but they did make him a cult figure.

In recent years architecture critics have been keenly re-examining post-war modernism, particularly the many variants and the wide diversity covered by the term. The heterogeneity of the modernist canon, evident as far back as the early 1930s through regional differentiation and the reintroduction of a whole host of forgotten or displaced design themes, became so extreme in the post-war years that there was no longer any question of a movement with shared formal or stylistic premises. This multi-faceted presence, the disbanding of the architects' associations (CIAM in an international context, 'de 8' and Opbouw in the Netherlands) and more generally the departure from the original social ideals were expressed from the '70s onwards in the literature as a profound scepticism about the very existence of 'the modern' and as a demystification of all the constructs assiduously assembled in the writings of, say, the theorist Sigfried Giedion or the architects of Team X. At the end of the day, this demythologizing failed to yield a new 'narrative' to replace the old; nor did it erect a new framework in which to better understand architects like Maaskant, who after all had had their roots in pre-war modernism. This book seeks to advance criteria, perspectives and arguments with which to analyse Maaskant's work, distinct from the received traditions of existing architecture criticism. This it does in the first place through his designs and buildings and the relative autonomy of their visual form, and in the second place through the close ties his built work enjoys with today's social trends and themes.

A number of benchmarks in his work and career are clearly linked to pre-war modernism. First, there is his rejection of tradition as a source for a contemporary architecture. This emerges not just from his dismissive response to the contribution made by the 'traditionals', or from his exclusion of traditional methods of composition and the use of decoration and ornament, but most importantly from his attitude to history. He saw history as a closed chapter, something that needed to be surpassed. This is why when working in a historical context he invariably opted for contrast, for introducing a new scale and visual form that made the 'contemporariness' of his design stand out from the existing fabric. Uninterested in picturesque townscapes, he saw the city as a dynamically changing organism that was permanently in need of improvement. The Tomadohuis, the Neude flats and the first designs for the Provinciehuis are clear examples of buildings that infuse a new metropolitan quality into what he regarded as shabby urban areas, elevating these to modern city status. Historic monuments of outstanding quality he saw as isolated objects that needed preserving for both their architectural and cultural worth. Culture, and more specifically architecture culture, for him consisted of a few peaks and a mass of mediocre offerings. Seen in retrospect, Maaskant was forever searching for chances to manipulate the conditions of programme, production and client in such a way that he himself was in a position to add such a peak to the culture of his own time.

Maaskant's faith in technology was another aspect to link him with the pre-war modern movement. Like Van Tijen, Maaskant saw building technology and the industrialization of building construction as an expedient for achieving a high-grade mass production of architecture. More generally, he regarded industrialization as the key to material progress and as the way to attain a fair division of commodities across all classes. Not that he felt that architecture's formal vocabulary needed to symbolize the triumph of technology and nothing else. Technology for him was simply a means for achieving things, not an end in itself. Take the Euromast and the Pier at Scheveningen: while both are technically complicated structures, their architectural image is not one of ingenious or state-of-the-art technology. Solving technical problems, Maaskant felt, was the architect's work and of no concern to the public. Only occasionally do we encounter in Maaskant the International Style with its emphasis on technical perfection and purity of form. He considered this architecture inappropriate to the Dutch climate (with a few exceptions) and preferred to use solid, heavy concrete forms.

One of the key factors defining the course of Maaskant's career was his outlook on society: he believed in democracy as a political system and capitalism as an economic system. He neither adopted a critical position nor tried to reform the system. In the 1950s his affirmation of the status quo made him a social democrat; in the '60s he shifted slightly towards a more liberal way of thinking in line with industry, which was where most of his commmisions came from. Although he had no truck with utopian society ideals - he was too much of a realist - Maaskant's texts and buildings of the '50s, especially his factories, were permeated with the idea of social justice. He strove to improve the working conditions of factory workers from both the human and productive viewpoints. In hitching social responsibility to economic awareness, he came close to the pre-war notions that Kees van der Leeuw had given form to in the Van Nelle factory as well as to those of the human relations movement after the war. Yet his ideas were fully in step with the government policy of his day.
Maaskant's star had been rising since the Second World War and the Groothandelsgebouw or Wholesale Building, the first design that was entirely his own, established his status as a modern architect and down-to-earth entrepreneur. The network he had built up during the war kept him moving in the higher social circles, and he was a frequenter of chic lunches and cocktail parties. If one can speak of a jetset in the reconstruction years, Maaskant certainly belonged to it. His influential position was confirmed by the many committees he sat on and by his directorship of the BNA (Royal Institute of Dutch Architects). He managed to expand the connections with industry he had first established before the war, generally through Van Tijen, into a portfolio crammed with prestigious commissions from American factories and famous Dutch companies. He also succeeded in obtaining sundry commissions for new programmes heralding the arrival of the welfare state such as Scheveningen Pier, the Euromast and the Hilton Hotels in Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Engaging in joint ventures with architects in other parts of the country helped him to considerably increase both his radius of action and his production capacity. By the end of the '50s, Maaskant was a successful and prosperous architect. This was due to his ability to combine his artistic interests with a business instinct, something that certainly paid dividends: as early as 1960 he had invested a considerable sum as a shareholder in the Rotterdam Hilton and by the end of his life he had amassed a fortune. His buildings were not just solid and workmanlike, they imparted an explicitly monumental air to factories, offices and government buildings. So the organizations representing the post-war economic and political order were themselves represented in worthy fashion. This brought about close links between Maaskant's modernism and the democratic-economic system, nurtured by a mutual need for prestige and continued status.
During the expansive '60s, scaling-up, which made inroads into social life on all fronts, led to the construction of very large schools, vast hospital complexes and giant office buildings. Maaskant's firm was central to this development and produced not only more but also bigger buildings. Besides working for companies, he was increasingly being commissioned by property developers and governmental bodies. This led to a string of buildings including the Clothing Centre in Amsterdam, several shopping centres and banks, and offices such as Rivierstaete in Amsterdam and Adriaan Volkerhuis in Rotterdam. Social themes like the improvement of working conditions had been struck off the agenda, as Maaskant argued that these buildings were ideal. The dark unhealthy factories of before the war ceded to spacious production halls with good lighting and airconditioning, and well-kept cafeterias that provided the workers with healthy meals. Maaskant's Tomadohuis was the last word in technically perfected office environments, graced with the latest and handiest gadgets for an ideal working environment. Of course, a building like Rivierstaete was never intended to improve working conditions. This did not mean – as the critics felt – that Maaskant was blind to such social ideals as making decent workplaces or emancipating the workers. On the contrary, the building above all else radiates contentment with the advances made in the 1960s on the social, technological and economic fronts; and so also with the alliance between modernism and democracy.
To Maaskant's thinking, there was every reason to feel content with what modern architecture had achieved, as many of the goals set before the war had been realized: the drive to workers' emancipation and social justice were expressed in the improvement of working and living environments, new techniques and materials had gained acceptance, a modern formal idiom was being shaped - in short, it was a major triumph. Celebrating this triumph reached a peak with built offerings like the Provinciehuis, the government headquarters of Noord-Brabant province, and explains the aversion this building held for those who had set out to overthrow the status quo in the early '70s.

Typical of Maaskant was the professional conception he had of his job as an architect. He regarded the architect as the captain of a team entrusted with carrying out social programmes. Architecturally, he was less than satisfied with the colourless social housing units that his firm trotted out in their thousands in the south of the country. But he fought tooth and nail the accusation that the shabby state of such housing was the fault of their architects. Surely it was society which decided the sum it wished to bestow on housing as well as the requirements this housing was to meet? He saw the architect's task to be designing to a given social programme buildings which meet all the practical and functional demands and preferably come under the heading of Architecture as well.
The 'controversial' team-based designs - wholeheartedly supported in the post-war years by many including Walter Gropius and opposed by a few, J.J.P. Oud among them - took on an exceptional form in Maaskant's work. The Groothandelsgebouw from his years with Van Tijen was his initial acquaintance with a 'bureaucratic' design process which besides the architect involved a whole host of experts. Here he learned to organize the building process and bring in all the disciplines involved at the right time, gather advice, circulate questionnaires, forge links between disciplines and master many other tasks besides. This way, Maaskant managed to dominate the process on each occasion and hold on to the form once it had been chosen. He would work this way in his own practice too: no single building, not even the Provinciehuis, was brought to fruition by Maaskant alone. He likened himself to a bad conductor of a good orchestra. Conductor, director, organizer - all are applicable to the authoritative and sometimes authoritarian lines along which Maaskant led his firm.

Maaskant wished the visual form of his architecture to express the rise of the modern metropolitan city in the wake of the welfare state. In that process his buildings are active instruments that tell an optimistic and glorious tale about the emergence of a large-scale, spacious city, one that is pleasantly anonymous, full of possibilities for every individual to choose from, and where all functions and facilities are arranged thoughtfully and with every comfort. It is clear from his work and his writings that he wholeheartedly embraced and even helped power the project of the post-war city with its aspects of traffic, business district and bigness. These processes of urban restructuring, which he familiarized himself with during the rebuilding of Rotterdam, were then exported to other Dutch towns: Utrecht, 's-Hertogenbosch, Amsterdam and further afield to Meppel, Best and Winschoten. These processes fired Maaskant to develop new urban typologies and a new architectural formal syntax that sat well with the phenomena of production, technology and industrialization, and from which he distilled an eloquent, often monumental architecture. Openness and transparency - also in the metaphorical sense of an international border-defying architecture - can be found throughout Maaskant's work as the reflection of an open society. Yet the striking thing about his work is its combination of modernist openness with massive, solid forms in compositions of mass and space and an emphasis on the tectonic rather than on spatiality. The output of Maaskant's firm was driven by the latest international developments in architecture and technology, developments which Maaskant followed closely, indulging in excursions and study tours. This international slant to his work is reflected in the lightning speed with which he absorbed the influences of such foreign masters as Mies van der Rohe, Nervi, Le Corbusier and Saarinen. Often, though, it is unclear whether it is a question of influence or of simultaneous discovery.
In Maaskant's oeuvre, where utilitarian and signature commissions rub shoulders, the twin poles of Architecture and building, of an Architecture of Genius and an Architecture of Bureaucracy are inseparable, influencing each other in an endless game of tag. This exposes the traditional division made in Dutch architecture between the 'individualists' of the Forum group (Van Eyck, Hertzberger, Bakema) and the 'mass-product architecture' of men like Maaskant, Van Gool, Lucas and Niemeijer, as a rhetorical inaccuracy.
Despite the quirky path followed by Maaskant's architecture and despite the fact that he was never the only designer of a building, we can still speak of an unmistakable Maaskant style; this unquestionably derives from the shared origins of all the work in his firm's ideas on structure and construction. Maaskant's conception of architecture culture was diametrically opposed to that of, say, Van Tijen, who urged his colleagues to exercise patience and 'steadily give form' to the social programme. Maaskant regarded architecture as a series of climaxes in which brilliant designers had succeeded in capturing the Zeitgeist, with the rest of the built output 'just lapping around it'. He himself was perpetually searching for the combination of programme and client that would give him the opportunity to build a monument to his time. In this desire undoubtedly lay the grounds for applying himself mind and body to factory architecture, for it is here that the social justice that he regarded as an essential hallmark of his day gained expression. His Tomado factory in Etten-Leur can be understood only as an attempt to give a simple building like a factory the status of a monument. And this holds equally for many other building types, where the monumentalization of the everyday is clearly the motive force. Maaskant built the Pier and the Euromast as robust stage scenery for such fashionable activities as tourism and entertainment. He designed uncynically and with a great understanding of the needs (and the condition) of the common man.
Maaskant figured prominently in developing new urban typologies for contemporary briefs for traffic and slum clearance, for the creation of business districts and the setting up of businesses. His architecture was less directed at therapeutically administering to the city than at questing for 'signs' that were to mark urban modernity. Aided by 15 portraits of selected buildings, this book paints a picture awash with complexities and contradictions, in a dual bid to showcase the fascinating work produced by Hugh Maaskant and to help chronicle a multiform reading of Dutch post-war modernism.

This is the English summary of the book: Maaskant. Architect van de vooruitgang , 2003