Aaron Betsky

Feb 20, 2010 | Essays

Architectural Constructions

The return to the primitive hut

Frank Havermans makes primitive huts. They exist in the middle of urban as well as natural forests. They are made out of plywood, rather than tree branches. They are abstract and at times even militaristic in their appearance. Yet, they remain embodiments of the primitive hut as a way of making ourselves at home in the modern world. In more than a decade of experimentation, Havermans has continued to find ways in which he can inscribe his and our bodies into our environment through architecture in such a way that we can frame a relationship with other human beings and the world around us.

The primitive hut has remained a central concern in architecture for the last three centuries, since it was first posed by the Abbe Laugier and other theoreticians during the Enlightenment (Essay on Architecture, 1755). It is the discipline’s origin myth, and in the various kinds of ‘first structures’ theoreticians have proposed over time one gains, as Joseph Rykwert points out in his seminal book, On Adam’s House in Paradise: On the Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History (1971) an understanding of the uses to which architecture was being put at the time. The primitive hut can be a temple, representing the simplest version of classical architecture’s hallmark, and thus can serve to validate the uses of that style throughout time. In contrast, it can be that which comes before style, which is to say, before any self-conscious attempt to form buildings. In this latter interpretation, it can be the semi-automatic production of shelter that emerges out of and is one with its surroundings. In Rykwert’s reading, the primitive hut is more than that: it is a mandala or, as Sir John Summerson called them in his ‘Heavenly Mansions’ (1962) aedicula, a way of placing one’s self consciously in the world. The goal is to define one’s self as human, in relation to, but different than both the world around one and other human beings.

This last definition emerged at roughly the same period that the architect Robert Venturi was writing his equally influential Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), and that the members of the Team 10 group were attempting to define the contours of a humanist architecture. Collectively, the formulations they and many others at the time articulated were attempts to answer the spread of what they perceived of as the alienating, technologically defined and large-scale structures of control that led to both the welfare state and global capitalism, and to an international aesthetic and a standardized building practice. Against the apartment block and office tower, they posed individualized and localized forms of dwelling. Against the gridded city, they proposed organic urbanism that would grow like a tree or a plant and rise up in harmony with its surroundings. Against glass and steel, they proposed modern adaptations of brick and wood. Against rationalized arrangement, they proposed place for ritual. Against the image of the system, they proposed the re-inscription of the human body into human-made landscape.

In the decade following the appearance of both Rykwert’s and Venturi’s manifestoes, architecture developed a more or less coherent style that was the embodiment of many of these propositions. Charles Jencks, already in the title of his 1977 book (The Language of Postmodern Architecture), called it postmodernism, and the word became a catch-all for forms that ranged from rigorous neoclassicism to warped and convoluted modernism. At its heart, though, postmodernism was an attempt, as Jencks pointed out, to speak in dialect, rather than general language, and was thus closely related to Raymond Williams’ attempt, also in the early 1960s, to recapture the lost world of labour through its site-specific artefacts (Culture and Society, 1958). Certain techniques became key in these efforts: borrowing and pasting together fragments from the past; breaking down the scale of buildings without affecting their financial or structural logic; designing through literal representation, rather than through abstract and allusive, means, were but three of the most prevalent.

As postmodernism progressed it fragmented and finally disappeared as a recognizable formal language, but some of its core values endured in a particular set of attitudes towards the making of architecture. These included the interest in architecture as a self-conscious attempt to inscribe the human body into the modern city; the use of collage and the reuse of existing forms or materials; and the persistence of the notion of the primitive hut as a humanist place-maker.

This last trope became especially important in the work of a group of architects who were always on the fringes of postmodernism and, in fact, of architecture as a profession. They were educators and experimenters who made small artefacts. Though Venturi and some of the members of the Team 10 were at first part of this movement of experimental architecture, they soon abandoned its quest after what is, after all, small-scale and highly personal, meaning an architecture in favour of getting things built.

It was those who never built anything, or very little, from Aldo van Eyck to Massimo Scolari, who were most successful at creating primitive huts Whether it was Van Eyck’s Orphanage in Amsterdam (1961), with its core aedicule, or Scolari’s fantastic drawings of brick huts and flying ships, they had the quality of being reduced, but evocative building blocks that implied much larger structures. These architects built a kind of perversity into that work, in that it was often not just unbuilt, but unbuildable or at least not meant to answer to prevailing standards of function and appropriate form – a quality that echoes in Havermans’ structures. Thus Peter Eisenman, in his House I through Eleven Odd of 1967 to 1980, consciously undermined everything the primitive hut was supposed to accomplish, creating homes that frustrated not only use, but also the inhabitants’ ability to know where they were. The project was a profoundly and deliberately anti-humanist one that had the ironic effect of affirming the designer’s own anxiety about his humanity and thus served as a kind of therapy.

In a similar manner, the educator John Hejduk during roughly the same period produced a set of ‘masques’. These were objects between buildings and monsters that re-enacted social fears (and some hopes) as if they were stage plays and sets simultaneously. Hejduk wrote quasi-poems or fables around these designs, but the best of them were evocative collages in which parts of buildings, parts of human and animal bodies, and abstract fragments of architectural history came together into what he thought were poetic condensations as well as answers to modernity. For both Eisenman and Hejduk, architecture as an act of resistance had little of the humanist optimism of an earlier era. Instead, it was a dreadful leap of faith into the construction of a defensive mechanism that would give one the ability to survive the war on humanity they saw all around them.

Such military overtones became explicit in the work of Lebbeus Woods, whose work most closely resembles Havermans’. Beginning in 1987, with his Centricity project, Woods set about imagining a mythic world existing either in some other time and place or, in projects such as Underground Berlin (1988) and Aerial Paris (1989), under or over us. In these projects, Woods imagined fractured cocoons, seemingly made out of plywood or steel, which re-inhabited left-over tunnels or floated in the air. They were part of what he called an ‘anarchitecture’, a confluence of anarchism and architecture in which the main aim of construction, he said, was to figure out where and what we were. Over the years, the architecture became more and more set into bulbous shapes that seemed perpetually in danger of shedding pieces of their pasted-together skins; long, arcing lines that came out of and merged back into the earth or cliffs; a confluence of organic and human-made forms into tectonic plates; and the sense that these were cocoons, control posts or cantilevered watchtowers from which one could observe nothing more or less than the emergence of this new architecture.

Havermans continues this work directly, but he does so in a manner that also makes it part of his own background. Specifically, he is Dutch. Creating primitive huts in the Netherlands might seem like a slightly contradictory effort, as the whole country is already made by human beings and all construction is a specification of this artificial space. Yet Havermans mines a particular attitude towards that human-made world by drawing on the tradition of those designers for whom architecture was an extension of the framing and articulation of daily life. In particular, there seems to be a strong affinity between his work and that of the furniture designer/architect Gerrit Rietveld. Like Rietveld, Havermans creates three-dimensional realizations of geometric forms that do not so much delimit as contain and activate the human body. This is especially true of Rietveld’s earliest work, most notably the 1923-1924 Schröder-Schräder House in Utrecht, in which the planes and lines of both his furniture and his buildings seem to intersect and indicate places for the body, rather than congealing into fixed form. Rietveld was in this manner recognizing the profoundly contingent nature of Dutch architecture, which is almost always a reuse of existing space and form, and must reconcile itself to the fact that it might be no more than temporary.The most recent expression of this attitude, and the ‘school’ out of which Havermans emerged, was that formulated by the various members of the Droog Design collective and developed in architecture through the ‘autarkic’ architecture of Tom Matton, Lucas Verweij and 2012. In this movement, the primitive hut was a cocoon one could create by gathering together the bits and pieces of urban detritus around one to create a collage of forms whose worn and decorative patterns were intrinsic to their appeal. Droog was a form of retro-postmodernism that gained its force by integrating what was a semiotic stance into form and practice. Instead of a reuse of architectural motifs from the past, it reused actual elements, and instead of trying to speak in a familiar tongue, it adapted what was around it, reusing existing forms, materials and ideas. Thus Droog was no longer ‘high’ design, nor was it neo-primitive. It just tried to make things out of what was there, instead of inventing something new.

Havermans was educated at the St. Joost Academy in Breda, not exactly at the very centre of Dutch culture. It is, moreover, an art academy, and thus his training placed him from the start at the intersection of art and architecture. It is a particular Dutch tradition to have makers who operate in different fields, and Havermans has worked as (and been rewarded with both prizes and commissions in these areas) a sculptor, an interior architect and an architect. What has remained constant in these various endeavours is a certain approach or set of concerns that hews to the notion of the making of a place in which, from which and through which one can figure out where one is. His work is, like that of the Rotterdam-based group Observatorium, concerned quite simply with viewing from, rather than being only viewed. This is true whether his work is an interior module placed within a former monastery that is now an art centre (KAPKAR/TAW-BW-5860), or whether it is a bunker-like look-out in the middle of fields along a canal (KAPKAR/TO-RXD).

Before he could start this experimental place-making, Havermans had to develop building blocks. His first work was more or less standard for a designer just starting out: renovations to a house in his native Eindhoven, a reception and post room in nearby Vught, and a cabinet for an architect’s office in Den Bosch. All of these projects had one seemingly trivial, but important thing in common: Havermans made them out of plywood and scrap wood. Instead of finishing this material, moreover, he used it in as raw a state as possible, at least on the outside. In this manner he made it clear that these were building blocks and bits and pieces, not products. The additions to existing buildings also had a modular quality, which is to say that they were fragments of larger series that might have begun before this place and time and could extend far beyond it.

In this early work is already evident that Havermans was creating constructions that were not meant to be subservient to the making of containers of space, but was trying to find a way to merge planar and columnar systems to create integrated shells. His work owes as much to aircraft or boat building as it does to the traditions of architecture, in which structure is either subservient to form or is a way to show off the conquest of space. The integration of form, surface and structure is never complete, as it would be if he used a plastic material, but is rather one of continual dependence, as if he were a hunter-gatherer pulling together what existed in nature to create a shelter – a primitive hut. In this manner, Havermans built the sense of a vessel that is also a specification of its surroundings into his work from the very start.

Havermans has continued these early commissions in such recent works as the KAPKAR/REX-40, a set of cabinets in Den Bosch, and KAPKAR/SE-D2E, a similar reception area and storage structure for a pop podium in Eindhoven. These structures look as if they are assembly lines that have merged with a Sol LeWitt installation. They are the modules of modernity, white boxes that thus critique the very mass production, seriality and anonymity of such constructions. Their diagonal deformations and hexagonal ends only serve to point towards their completion somewhere else. They are fully functional, but their insistent geometries and repetitions make their formality persevere in use and their rhetoric of containment contains what they are meant to house.

While these works are more or less functional, their boxes do break open the boxes in which they find themselves. This has been one of Havermans’ consistent concerns. In his 2003 KAPKAR/TCM-656 project in Montreal, he made this desire literal by constructing a double lever that looked as if it wanted to push the walls of the gallery out to the point of collapse – perhaps a reference to Bruce Chris Burden’s 1985 Samson, in which visitors entering the space could literally put more pressure on the walls by triggering a machine at entrance that would put further pressure on the lever overhead.

In 2007, Havermans made a place to figure out how to break open the box and measure the results of this fragmentation. His TOFUD was an ‘urban think model office’ in which he sat in a black box inside of the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven for the duration of the exhibition. There he produced three-dimensional collages out of plywood and wood that he eventually extended out over the box’s roof and out in to the main gallery space. These objects were spatial experiments without a particular scale or function. They were attempts to locate particular kinds of forms and compositions in space that had their roots not only in the work of Lebbeus Woods, Zaha Hadid and other members of the experimental generation of the 1970s and 1980s, but also in the constructivist work of the period immediately following the Russian revolution, when artists and designers believed that they could build a new world that would not only evaporate class hierarchies, but would challenge gravity and every other physical constraint under which human beings operated. These spatial compositions – both Havermans’ and his predecessors’ – pointed the way towards a new world of freedom. They were also small ‘proofs of concept’, models for constructions he wanted to make, but that had no easily discernible function or site (yet) beyond the reinvention of the urban field.

In the years immediately before and after this ‘working exhibition’, Havermans has concentrated on creating objects that can act as incubators for this new reality. KAPKAR/TAW-BW-5860 is one of the most elaborate. It is a dwelling for an artist placed inside a barn in what was an old monastery. Its plywood forms hover over the floor, lifting up at its edges as if it is balancing itself around the central entry. A loft extends beyond an existing beam, emphasizing the sense that this is space carved out and given its own shape. Inside, Havermans created a minimal space, a monk’s cell outfitted with only the most basic implements one needs to survive. One large window looks out through the window of the barn into the surrounding landscape, while another pops out the back to survey the scene from a higher elevation. The structure extracts the essence of the barn’s geometry and construction and convolutes them, finds hidden potential within them, elaborates them in new modules and new diagonals, and pushes the inhabitant both inward into this more essential world and out with a new perch on reality.

The idea of a watchtower (with its echoes of John Hejduk’s Thirteen Watchtowers for the Cannaregio, 1978) became more explicit in both KAPKAR/KSV-800 (2005) in Vlissingen, and in KAPKAR/ZZW-220 (2006) in Westkapelle. The former, an installation in an old ship’s wharf, looked like the kind of giant crane that might have once operated there, now turned into plywood and acting, in Havermans’ imagination, as a place for a city planner to take the place of the crane operator as he surveys the muteness and raw beauty of what once had been industry. In the latter, the view was of nature, and one can actually sleep in this sliver of deformed trapezoid hovering over the ground while strapped to two adjacent trees (it is now operated as a seasonal bed-and-breakfast). The object had a somewhat ominous sensibility, as Havermans painted it black and its angular geometry was so at odds with its surroundings, even if it did echo the traditional colour of barns in the area. If the Vught structure was a place for a modern monk, this was a place for a scientist or an entrepreneur surveying an other world.

This challenging of and answering to nature became even more evident in KAPKAR/TO-RXD, in Sint Oedenrode (2009). The project seems like a direct reference to the lines of defence the Dutch built in the nineteenth century to defend themselves against German invasion and the bunkers the Germans built in the Second World War in anticipation of an Allied attack. Havermans here departs from his usual palette to use the same sort of concrete that the bunkers did, though here without the reinforcing, the camouflage or the smooth edges. Instead of rising up into this object, the visitor ramps down into the earth along the bank of a canal or ditch to find a moment of retreat and perhaps safety. Like Hejduk’s masques, this KAPKAR becomes an enlarged, armoured version of the wanderer crouched down in anticipation of what woes might befall him or her.

In KAPKAR/TT-C2P, the disconnect becomes explicit. This is not a machine for viewing out, but for viewing movies. It appears not like a masked human, but like an animal crouched on four legs, with a blank square looking out at, and presenting, nothing. Crisscrossed with reinforcing bars that emphasize its acute angularity, the object has nothing to do with any of the surroundings in which Havermans has placed it, though the surrounding building’s floor is visible from the inside. The viewer enters, as with all of Havermans’ observatories, in the centre, up a ramp, and into a miniature viewing booth in which lounge chairs flank the entrance. After that, the projected media take over.

As Havermans continues his experiments, he emphasizes that these objects ‘can be useful, but they are never accommodating. . . . They are not luxurious.’ Not just building them, but using them is work. Like Woods, Havermans is interested in an architecture (or art) that consists of the making, the observing of the making, and the remaking through that use. The artist emphasizes the importance of making the objects himself, outside of a system in which a maker or designer creates ideas that are carried out by others, become part of a mass production or mass culture consumer process, and then disappear from use as aesthetic objects. Instead, he wants to physically make something, to engage in experimentation through doing. The result should not be something that a viewer can dismiss by reading its functionality from its final form, nor can she or he just look at it. It must be used, inhabited and explored. There are no answers as to what either the maker or the user might be looking for, and this suspension as experimentation is evident in forms that are always cut-off, suspended, and fragmented. Nor can one find any resolution by looking out of these objects, as all one sees is what was there already. If one looks inward, one finds only one’s self, caught in a rough cell.

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