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Book

Hugh Maaskant — Architect of Progress Michelle Provoost nai010 Publishers, €49.50 Review by Thomas Wensing

1 Flora Uitgeverij 2 S.C. Kroos

If you haven’t heard of Hugh Maaskant (1907-1977), you might easily be forgiven. Distinctly unglamorous, his influence might be attested by naming those architects who have chosen to house their own practices in his buildings; the offices of OMA, West8, MVRDV and others have at one time or another taken refuge in the long shadow of his concrete masterpieces. Add to this the naming of the most significant Dutch architecture award — the Maaskantprijs — and you might begin to get a sense of his stature. Striking an imposing figure at 1.95m (6ft 5in), Maaskant was a self-made man, and to this day he is associated with bigness; his out-ofscale architecture and penchant for expressive concrete structures truly befitted his larger-than-life persona. Maaskant was a staunchly modernist architect who, with several others, personifies the reconstruction effort of the Netherlands after the Second World War. Although he engaged in mass house and school building, he specialised in designing buildings designated for industry, for tourism

and for the government. He was keenly aware of the latest technological developments and was especially fascinated by the USA, which he visited on numerous study and business trips. In spite of this curiosity, he was first and foremost savvy, businessminded and pragmatic, not one to lose himself in theorising or writing anything other than succinct, functional justifications for his buildings. This attitude made him the architect of choice for a variety of industries, ranging from confectionery manufacturing to aviation. He cemented his reputation by building the Groothandelsgebouw (Wholesale Building, 1951), a concrete multipurpose mammoth located right next to Rotterdam Central Station, which would house shops, offices, warehouses, showrooms and a cinema and had an elevated access road straight through. This commission led to a string of factory buildings throughout the Fifties and Sixties, of which the Tomado Factory in Etten-Leur (1955) is probably the most refined and sophisticated. He was recently described by as ‘the architect who was most

inspired by American work’, and he undoubtedly exemplifies the Americanisation of Dutch society as it moved from the austerity of the immediate post-war years to the prosperous consumerism of the Sixties. This book is the English translation of Provoost’s doctoral thesis, first published in 2003. Provoost is part of Crimson Architectural Historians, a collective based in Rotterdam and which, together with the recently disbanded practice FAT, was selected to curate the British Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale of Architecture. Crimson’s stance to architectural history is activist and operative. One of the stated aims of the book is to take the work of Maaskant ‘from the dated politicised critique that obscured it’ and to restore it to its rightful place in the history of Dutch modernism. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, just as long as the reader is aware of Provoost’s predisposition. The argument in the first chapter of the book posits Maaskant as an important predecessor and inspiration to the SuperDutch generation,

Maaskant rallied behind the existing political and economic systems...as a way to achieve social betterment and positive personal transformation proposing a modernist genealogy from Maaskant to the present. In 1990, Ed Taverne — teaching at Groningen University, where Provoost earned her PhD — identified some of the blind spots in the historiography of modernist architecture in the Netherlands; namely, that it has tended to focus on individuals and supposed genealogies. Often these are propagated by the architects themselves: Koolhaas used to define himself against Aldo van Eyck, who in turn defined himself against Rietveld, who defined himself against Berlage, and so on. In this sense, research culture in the Netherlands differed from that of Italy, for example, where Bruno Zevi aimed to give a broad spectrum, a ‘storia totale’ while Tafuri and others analysed critical histories and ideological tensions. This book sits somewhere between these two approaches; it gives ample societal context to the work, but the attempt to link Maaskant directly to contemporary architecture feels contrived. It is at its best in describing the Dutch post-war architectural climate and the tensions between the various stylistic and ideological factions, but then aims to downplay their political nuances. Although Maaskant did not regard himself to be overly political, the same

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may not be said of his work. As late as 1993 the heavy-handed monumentality of some of Maaskant’s late-modern buildings was typified by Joseph Buch as ‘rather dubious’. In answer to these critiques Provoost borrows the term ‘consensual modernist’ from Sarah Williams Goldhagen to indicate that Maaskant rallied behind the existing political and economic systems, in this case parliamentary democracy and capitalism, as a way to achieve social betterment and positive personal transformation. Provoost states ‘Maaskant clearly belongs to the consensual group, as do Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Giedion and Giuseppe Terragni’. To describe Wallace K Harrison or Albert Kahn as consensualists would be one thing, but Gropius, Mies and Terragni? The desire to flatten out ideological and political tensions is perhaps a reflection of the Dutch cultural climate in the late Nineties, and does little to foster a critical understanding of the resistance against the work of Maaskant. Nor does it explain why this supposedly non-ideological architect should speak to the problems of the current generation. Hugh Maaskant – Architect of Progress is clearly intended to be the ultimate hagiography of the architect, tracing his development from young functionalist to the architect of the monumental government building in Den Bosch (1962-1971). Stylistically, this brutalist structure sits somewhere between Chandigarh’s General Assembly and the Capitol Building in Brasilia, but its post-1968 completion date meant that the climate had changed, favouring a more inclusive, contextual and small-scale architecture. This building in particular was regarded by the generation emerging during the Seventies as an oppressive expression of anonymous, bureaucratic state power. The physical evidences of Maaskant’s career found themselves shifted, in other words, from being part of the avant garde to becoming unloved symbols of the status quo. 1 – Hugh Maaskant (1907-1977), in his working room 2 – Office block designed by Maaskant for the Progress company in Rotterdam. It was the former office of MVRDV architecture practice and Atlier Star, and is now home to the WEST8 architecture and design practice

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Book review 'Maaskant - Architect of Progress', author Michelle Provoost

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