The exhibition design is a tribute to Bakemas Architecture: It resembles the Lijnbaan shopping center in Rotterdam, which was built by Bakemas office, "Van den Broek en Bakema" between 1949 and 1953. Photo © la Biennale di Venezia
The dream of an open society
By Adeline Seidel
Jun 20, 2014

The word “Open” is written in large white letters on the Dutch Pavilion, and over the entranceway we are enticed by the slogan “A Bakema Celebration”. Yes, the Dutch pavilion is celebrating, but not a century of Modernism with all its national protagonists, ideas and national edifices-cum-landmarks. No, the Venice show is devoted solely to the oeuvre and influence of Jacob Berend “Jaap” Bakema (1914 to 1981).

Suffice it to say, the curators, Guus Beumer, Director of “Het Nieuwe Instituuts” in Rotterdam and Dirk van den Heuvel, Head of the “Jaap Bakema Study Centers”, are really honoring the architect! The very exhibition design is an homage to Bakema’s architecture. Meaning you find yourself standing underneath a porch, looking here at a store window, there at a bench or kiosk. The exhibition installation made of bright, untreated wooden slats is reminiscent of the Lijnbaan shopping center in Rotterdam, which Bakema’s office “Van den Broek en Bakema” masterminded from 1949 to 1953. And so you wander from one display window to the next, each of which presents new aspects of Bakema’s oeuvre. You enter a “store”, watch a film, sit down on a bench or stool, all of them apparently stereotypes of post-War Modernist buildings. And it is amazing just how well this model architecture or this architectural model functions as seating or shelving.

Jaap Bakema was, or so the exhibition indicates, full of energy, forever driven by the wish to use architecture to lay the built foundations for an open, democratic society. He loved discussing this idea passionately and there is a correspondingly in-depth body of communications with his colleagues, with politicians, and with the general public. Among other things, in his own TV show “Van Stoel tot Stad” (from chair to city) he sought to familiarize his audience with the ideas. He debated with colleagues both as a member of “Team 10” and (alongside Herman Hertzberger and Aldo van Eyck) as one of the editors of Dutch architectural journal “Forum”. Bakema’s personal archive (in particular the correspondence on the “Post Box for the Development of the Habitat”, which he launched in 1959 at the end of the “Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne” or CIAM for short) proves to be a treasure trove of information that thankfully awaits discovery in the show.

In a letter Siegfried Giedion sent Bakema we read, for example: “(...) The constant distortion of the facts of CIAM and the way TEAM X heroicized itself in various articles, and here I concur with Sert and Gropius completely, is unacceptable in the long run. (...).”Gropius was also annoyed that the post-War Modernist architects claimed to have invented an architecture that assumed social responsibility. The “first” Modernism, the avant-garde, or so we can see from Bakema’s estate, argued with the champions of the post-War variant about the commercialization of Modernist ideals and ideologies.

By contrast, Bakema himself succeeded in combining and reconciling avant-garde and mainstream ideas. Sure, he was an idealist, but also realist enough to ensure his ideas were brought to bear in an array of buildings. “He was always knee-deep in the mud,” is how Guus Beumer describes the situation the architect found himself in. Jaap Bakema’s express goal was to enable an “open society”, and to that end it was crucial that the board masses accepted his ideas.

Bakema himself viewed his designs for buildings and housing estates not just from some formal aesthetic perspective, but felt they were a contribution to a society without hierarchies, in which everyone could realize their personal notions of the good life. However, and this is critical to an understanding of Bakema’s architecture, this is only possible if you place your own personal living conditions in the social context. Or, as Frans Hooijkaas, one of Bakema’s staffers, puts it: “Democracy does not mean that you get what you want. Democracy means you work as part of a framework which allows everybody to fully develop optimally.”

In this case, as so often the celebration is followed by a hangover. As you exit the show asking the painful question whether post-War Modernist buildings (and thus an architecture informed by welfare-state institutions) didn’t actually advance the commercialization of architecture. When viewing the images and films, reading the texts in the exhibition, you will now and again invariably wonder whether these guys didn’t just seduce their public with the mandatory, unchanging promise we usually encounter with lifestyle products: This architecture lets everyone lead an even more individual, even freer life. A promise that property funds and developers use in their ads today. If personal self-expression were really the only common denominator in society, then it would be quite the enemy of what Bakema describes as the “Open Society”. It would be a hermetic and exclusive concatenation of monads. Not that architecture hasn’t developed the corresponding monadological solutions.

Read more about the 14th Architecture Biennale
Rem Koolhaas’ foundations
Architecture Know-How in Museum and Archive
Italian affairs
If you want to understand Modernity you need to have fun with it
Germany’s Ex-Top Models
Please touch
A Clockwork Modernism
Modernism and its uncle
Import – Export
Charles Brooking’s world of windows

With the letters "Open" the Dutch pavilion welcomes the visitors. Photo © Het Nieuwe Instituut
Shopping window on Lijnbaan, Rotterdam, n.d. Photo © Steef Zoetmulder / Nederlands Fotomuseum
Jaap Bakema at Team 10 meeting in Bonnieux, 1977. Photo © Smithson Family Collection
Housing scheme Lekkumerend in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, 1962. Drawing © Het Nieuwe Instituut
Photo of the model for the Town Hall in Marl Germany, 1957. Photo © Het Nieuwe Instituut
Photo of the model for the Town Hall of Terneuzen, the Netherlands, 1962. Photo © Het Nieuwe Instituut
Correspondences of "Post Box for the Development of the habitat." Photos © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark
The exhibition architecture looks like an abstract model of the Lijnbaan shopping center in Rotterdam. Photo © Adeline Seidel
Each "shopping-window" presents one aspect of Bakemas work. Photo © Het Nieuwe Instituut
The exhibition architecture acts like stereotypical building of post-war modernism. And it's amazing how well this model architecture or architecture model can be used as a seat or shelf. Photo © Het Nieuwe Instituut