Compelling Reticence

Denkmal 9 and the Ghent University Library


Placez-vous devant tel monument, telle façade, tel meubel, telle pièce d’orfèvrerie au devant telle porcelaine, devant tel appareil d’éclairage et efforcez-vous de rapporter exactement ce qui d’offre à vos yeux.

J’affirme que si, jusqu’à ce moment, vous n’avez âs eu de doute sur la Beauté de l’object de votre déscription, ce doute va s’éveiller au fur et à mesure de cette description. C’est que vous aurez tant à dire au sujet du monument, de la façade, de l’armoire, de la soupière et du milieu de table que vous serez infailliblement amené à vous demander: mais enfin si ce monument, cette façade, cette armoire sont tout ça; si cette soupière et ce milieu de table et ce lustre et cette applique sont tout ce que je dis avec des mots, mais alors ce monument ne peut convenir au but pour lequel il fut édifié, cette façade ne peut convenir à aucun monument, cette armoire n’est pas une armoire et rien de ce que j’ai trouvé beau jusqu’à présent n’est tel que cela devrait être.

Henry Van de Velde, 1917.


In the 1917 essay La Triple Offense à la Beauté, Belgian painter, theorist, architect, graphic and furniture designer Henry Van de Velde proclaims that beauty is a matter of few words.[1] Any artefact that calls for a lenghty description, doesn’t deserve to be labelled beautiful. For Van de Velde, widely considered as one of the pioneers of the modern movement in architecture and a protagonist of Art Nouveau, formal beauty equals discursive economy. The splendor of an object should be so ‘articulate’ that the object is allowed to ‘speak for itself’. Van de Velde’s concept of vernünftgemäße Gestaltung or Schönheit stems from the conviction that beauty is solely the product of rational and functional design, comparable to modernism’s most famous mantra that ‘form follows function’. An object can only emerge as beautiful, if it is marked by a strict obedience to the purpose that the it serves and by a subsequent rigorous abstention from all superficial forms of decoration. It nevertheless remains surprising that Van de Velde equates the esthetic significance of an object with the need for hardly any words, if none at all – as if there’s never ‘much to tell’ about well-designed objects. An understanding of the esthetic nature of an object is not so much the product of objective description but of critical reading. While the former strategy suggests – following Van de Velde – that the beauty of an artefact is a measurable quality, the latter may imply exactly the opposite. Beauty is far from an objective value, but fluctuating over time. It is continuously ‘negotiated’ and therefore relentlessly ‘discussed’. Furthermore, if there’s one object type that doubles this idea of negotiation, it is one of objects that Van de Velde surprisingly lists as being resistant to discursive treatment: the monument. As reticent as monuments may emerge, they never speak for themselves, but always in the name of the public figure, the collective value or the historic event that they represent. Although they claim a commonly shared presence and a public legitimation, they always remains objects of contradiction and conflict, civic battlegrounds.[2] Therefore one of the most significant features of a monument may be that it elicits many instead of few words, that it succeeds in making people to converse, dispute and disagree, regardless of any sort of verbal ‘efficiency’.


From January to March 2004, Jan De Cock installed a large sculpture in the central reading room of the Ghent University’s main library building, designed by Henry Van De Velde [1863-1957] and better known as the ‘Boekentoren’ or ‘Tower of Books’ [1933-1942]. De Cock did not receive the commission, but made the sovereign decision to install a work in this specific Henry Van de Velde building. He managed to convince the University authorities and subsequently took up the space for three months.[3] The work, entitled Denkmal 9, entirely occupied the imposing reading room, neatly wrapping every reading table and bookshelf with an elaborate and sculptural skin of green fibreboard and plywood plates. At both sides of the entrance, the work detached itself from the furniture and emancipated in two spatial, pavilion-like structures. The combination of plasiticity and subtle linearity delicately referred to the formal vocabulary of Van de Velde’s design. Modernist simplicity and classicist monumentality converge in the ‘Boekentoren’ and convey a both spacious and solemn building. But Denkmal 9 offered more than a stately tribute to Van de Velde’s library design. Its taciturn presence was only phenomenological. On both an historical and discursive level the work – as befits a true monument – resonated radically with its context. It sought for a meaningful dialogue with the institution, the building, its architecture, and lastly, with its designer – all mediated by an obstinately ‘beautiful’ appearance.


In its total seizure of the space, Denkmal 9 willfully revived a particular episode and aspect of the building’s history. In his memoires, rather grotesquely entitled Geschichte Meines Lebens, Van de Velde labels the building process of the Ghent University Library as as a ‘true agony’, a project that almost ‘brought his office to ruin’.[4] Van de Velde received the commission – his first official one in Belgium – at the age of 70, after a long and acclaimed international career. The site was a rundown working-class area – De Vreese Werkmanskwartier or Cité Ouvrière – on top of a small hill in the city center, the Blandijnberg. The building complex not only had to comprise of the Central University Library, but also the Institute of Art History. The planned Faculty of Veterinary Medecine was never built. After Hamburg, it was the second library tower in Europe, and a revolutionary concept in library-techical and constructional terms. It was to become a landmark, an icon for the university, a symbol of science, wisdom and knowledge. Van de Velde designed the building to the tiniest detail: the black steel window frames, the floor patterns, the door knobs, the heating elements and the furniture. The harsh economical situation at the beginning of World War II however made the building process last about seven years and prevented project to be realised in its totality. Only a small part of the envisioned furniture was realised and Van de Velde was forced to alter some finishing materials – causing the nowadays almost inconceivable move from rubber to marble as floor covering. Moreover, only a fraction of the artworks that Van de Velde had commissioned, were actually accomplished. The murals with an allegorical synthesis of Flanders that the eminent Flemish artists Constant Permeke, Frits Van den Berghe and Gust De Smet were meant to paint on the three blank walls of the central reading room, were never carried out, neither was the sculptural nameplate by graphic designer Jozef Léonard – leaving the library until today without an inscription. Only a sculpture of a kneeling and rune-reading woman (1948) by Karel Aubroeck in the center court and a frieze with an allegorical representation of Sculpture, Architecture, Visual Arts and Art History (1950) by Jozef Cantré on the façade of the Institute of Art History were installed after all. The Gesamtkunstwerk that Van de Velde had in mind was ultimately never accomplished, a fact that the architect justifiably deplored until the end of his life.


This remarkable historical evidence sheds a particular light on Jan De Cock’s artistic intervention of 2004. His Denkmal 9 not only commemorated a particular historical feature of the building, but concretely engaged with it. It apperently filled in the artistic gap or partial incompletion that riddled the design ever since its inauguration. But what does the work exactly achieve, besides doing, from an historical point at least, a rather conceited gesture, an idiosynchratic form of pro-actif preservation of monuments and historical buildings?[5] What’s the use of reinstating a scheme that was planned but never carried out? Does De Cock’s Denkmal ‘restore’ an unfulfilled originary situation, a building state that never existed? And if so, how are we to interpret this? As a postfactum historical correction or even improvement?


Henry Van de Velde is generally associated with Art Nouveau, the pan-European architectural movement that caused a furore at the turn of the 19th century with its plea for the ultimate blending of all the arts – sculpture, painting, graphic design, applied arts, and architecture – in one all-embracing enterprise, creating the first truly international and ‘modern’ style. Alongside such figures as Victor Horta, Paul Hankar in Brussels, Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, Otto Wagner and Joseph Hoffmann in Vienna, Joseph Maria Olbrich in Darmstadt or Hector Guimard in Paris, Van de Velde designed all kinds of objects, from entire interiors, furniture, book covers to the coat worn by the mistress of the house. He started of with the design of his private house Bloemenwerf in Ukkel, Belgium (1895), exchanging painting for la voie sacrée or ‘the holy path’ of architecture.[6] His obsessive design of hand-crafted, one-off environments made him into a prime target of the Viennese architect and critic Adolf Loos. Loos’s critique stemmed from his aversion to the appealing mask that Art Nouveau, as well as Jugendstill, spread over all things of modern life, and therefore all its conditions too. In his sardonic fable Von Einem armen reichen Mann, published in 1900 in Neues Wiener Tagblatt, Loos depicts the fate of a wealthy business man that commissions a “famous architect” to redesign his house and “Bring Art into it,” in “each and every thing.” The ‘poor little rich man’ is not only forced to wear the slippers in those rooms that they are assigned to, he is no longer allowed to bring anything into the house if it is not designed by the architect, who furiously tells him: “Did I not design everything for you? Did I not consider everything? You don’t need anything more. You are complete!”[7] While Loos doesn’t name the anonymous tiran of his parable – it could be Joseph Maria Olbrich of the Wiener Sezession, as well as Van de Velde – reassures the reader of his 1919 essay An Den Ulk that “the time will come that the design of a prison cell by Professor Van de Velde will be regarded as a intensification of one’s sentence.”[8]


Although Van de Velde is often – by Siegfried Giedion a.o. – depicted as the ‘evangelist of Art Nouveau’, his artistic and intellectual achievements largely surmount his early engagements with the movement.[9] Van de Velde was not only a versatile designer, a gifted teachter, but a fierce theorist as well; no less than a man with a mission.[10] In the revelatory essay Henry Van de Velde, de onbekende of 1963, the vigilant belgian postwar design critic K.-N. Elno pleads for a more distinguished approach of ‘the case’ Van de Velde, from both critics and admirers. After putting that the belief that “Henry van de Velde should [be] considered the pioneer and epitome of twentieth century design is a myth that contains more truth than the most accurate legal document,” Elno asserts that one must admit that his realizations often fail to convince.[11] Elno blaims it to the “unusual combination of strenuous pioneership during the incubation period of modernism and the obligatory materialization of his original statements and profecies.”[12] As many of his contemporaries, Van de Velde’s life and work is marked by a relentless artistic and above all humanist drive to align himself with the contemporary condition, an endeavor that inevitably results in an highly miscellaneous series of both discursive and material answers, or as it were, words and buildings – one must only think of Le Corbusier’s journey between his first house in La Chaux-de-Fonds (1905) and the cloister of La Tourette (1957-60), or between his Vers une Architecture (1923) and Poésie sur Alger (1950). Throughout his whole career Van de Velde however never gave up his belief in the possible reformation of society by an all-inclusive design of the environment, the creation of an esthetic continuity between all things, between the urban design and the teaspoon – a credence he put into practice by trading painting for ‘socially useful’ art. Art never lost for Van de Velde it’s moral dimension: beautiful forms would bring about better people. Ugliness, he believed, not only corrumps the eyes, but heart and spirit as well.[13] Industrial capitalism, and its predilection for profit instead of the well-being of the workman, had deprived man of his contact with Beauty. Van de Velde’s artistic agenda thus stemmed from a double preoccupation. While on the one hand he rejected the 19th century bourgeois historicism in art and architecture, he tried to cope with the pernicious effects of industrialization on the other. The program of the radically utopian aesthetic of the Gesamtkunstwerk – as it was initially formulated by William Morris and John Ruskin of the English Arts & Crafts Movement, and later developed as a project by such avant-garde movements as De Stijl and the early Bauhaus – was a compensatory reaction to the general fragmentation of existence that was caused by the dynamic of industrial revolution and its triumph of specialization, division of labor and standardization. Van de Velde yet distanced himself overtly from the religious moral of Ruskin and the plea for social egalitarianism within the production process by Morris, and, first and foremost, from both men’s attempt to anchor the present in a medieval framework. In Triple Offensive à la Beauté, Van de Velde deems Ruskin “as a figure that mounts the stage of a theatre, rather than that of the world.”[14] After describing Ruskin’s resolute refusal of modern phenomena such as trains and factories, Van de Velde asks: “Can the disapproval for reality be driven any further?”[15] Morris too, gets his share of denunciation. Van de Velde discards Morris’ alternative for the capitalist division of labour – a return to the medieval system of guilds and the craftmanship – as “anachronistic,” since it is based upon a sterile notion of tradition: “tradition is sterile if it is not fed by new elements and the cold that radiates towards us from everything we revive and imitate, must warn us of the fatal advent of death.”[16] In contrast to Ruskin and Morris, Van de Velde outs his fascination for industry and the machine. At the end of Triple offensive à la Beauté, he praises the work of the engineer and the machineconstructor as true examples of the idiom of rational design: “(…) nothing [is] ugly on this domain of the constructions of the engineer, of the machines and of the thousands of appliances that fulfils needs, [which are] no less important than those that are satisfied by architecture and industrial art.”[17] In his seminal work Pioneers of Modern Design, Nikolaus Pevsner thus ranks Van de Vele among “the first architects to admire the machine, and to understand its essential character and its consequences in the relation of architecture and design to ornamentation.”[18] But Van de Velde’s pioneersheep remains dubious. Despite his lyrical appraisals of the machine as the stimulus to the achievement of a new beauty and his enthousiastic embrace of the possiblities of industrial progress – long before the apologetic statements of the futurists – Van de Velde never totally identified with modernity in all its facets. Like Frank Lloyd Wright – another on Pevsner’s list of early champions of the machine-esthetic – he kept longing for the ever more disappearing nature. The former landscape painter Van de Velde belonged to an anti-urban intellectual tradition that coupled beauty and nature with physical and moral health and posed an alternative for the degrading living conditions and moral decline of the city. Although Van de Velde profiled himself as a radical modern man, he never really reconciled with one of modernity’s most paradigmatic exponents: the metropolis. Paradigmatic urban programs such as the theater, the museum and the library, make up only a small part of Van de Velde’s – mostly late – oeuvre, while the need for decent social housing for the citoyen – a question that precoccupied the majority of his modernist contemporaries – never really drew his attention. The program that lies at the crux of Van de Velde’s esthetic and humanist mission, is domestic.[19] Both Van de Velde’s social utopianism – to produce a better world through design – and his worship of new technologies – the advent of the machine-age – were first and foremost ‘interiorised’. In the end, the best place to grant people a more rewarding life through beautifully designed objects, was the interior of the individual house. Van de Velde earned his early fame with exquisite private-utopias, houses that – as the sardonic fairytale of Loos so brilliantly evoked – had to protect its inhabitants from the brutal forces of modernity by means of a total estheticization of the interior.


The line, undeniably Van de Velde’s most central and powerful esthetic strategem, did not act as a decorative imperative, but as a moral device to overcome the negativity of the metropolis.[20] It attained its full capacity in the private house, as it was the most receptive to the personal taste and expression of the designer. But precisely the importance Van de Velde awarded to the ‘personality of the designer’, forced him into another dilemma. His early anarcho-socialistic view on society and his belief in an ideal bond between the artist and the world, slightly changed over the years. The esthetic mission of the artist fundamentally conflicted with the modern diktat of industrial progress, where standardization became ever more important. This led to a fierce discussion between Muthesius and Van de Velde on the Annual Meeting of the Werkbund in Cologne in 1914, where the former stood up for standardization (Typisiering) and the latter for individualism. On Muthesius assesment that modern beauty could only be attained by standardization, Van de Velde made an almost pathetic plea for artistic independence: “As long as there are artists in the Werkbund (…) they will protest against any proclaimed canon and any standardization. The artist is essentially and intimately a passionate individualist, a spontaneous creator. Never will he, of his own free will, submit to a discipline forcing upon him a norm, a canon.”[21] The exclusive right of the artist to determine the form and outlook of objects nonetheless bothered Van de Velde throughout his whole career. As early as 1905 he expressed his profound doubts about his right to force such a personal taste and will onto the world. He suddenly did no longer distinguish ‘the connection between his ideal and the world.’[22] But again the domestic program delivered salvation. Artistic idiosynchracy and obtrusiveness didn’t cause an obstacle in the private environment, affirming once more the conformism of the gesamtkunstwerk-utopia. The personal improvement that the young socialist Van de Velde dreamt of, could only be attained in a sheltered and private interior. It made him face, just as Morris, the contradiction between his former political commitments and the inevitable bourgeois descent of his clients.


Van de Velde’s life and work is undeniably marked by a bulky series of contradictions and inconsistencies, on both a personal and professional level. His life-long plea for Vernunft was continuously alternated by severe outbursts of emotion, leading Elno to conclude that “[i]f he had not been such a sensitive, irrationally driven human being, he had not that much contributed to the approach between reason and art.”[23] Retrospectively Van de Velde emerges as an artist who, with all possible means within his intellectual and practical reach, tried reconcile tradition with the massive social, political, economical and cultural changes that capitalist industrialization caused in the late 19th and early 20th century, acknowledging all the contradictory and paradoxical positions he had to occupy to that end. The crux of this attitude resides in Van de Velde’s statement that he exchanged “the tradition of imitation by the tradition of labor, of the intellect.”[24] In their seminal work Modern Architecture, Manfredo tafuri and Francesc Dal Co identified the “intellectual labor involved in dealing with the construction of the human environment” as one of the principle undertakings of modern architecture: “In the wake of the enormous processes socio-economic transformation unleashed in the course of the first bourgeois capitalist period intellectual labor – ‘concrete work’ in ever sense, to use the Marxist definition – was forced to come to terms with ‘abstract work,’ the production of the goods that invade and give shape to the new technological universe.”[25] Accordingly, Tafuri & Dal Co define the “stylistic area” of Art Nouveau as a mere “negative prologue” to their historical account of Modern Architecture and describe it as “[the] final flare-up of romantic Sehnsucht.” While they treat Van de Velde as merely one of Art Nouveau’s main protagonists, he nevertheless deserves their accreditation of a seminal figure of modern architecture, since he was certainly “courageous enough to gaze squarely and without any deforming optic at the reality of the new human condition.”[26] But it took Van de Velde a long way to do so. While he was one of the crucial early figures in the modern architectural movement that recognized the inextricable connection between intellectual labor and socio-economic development, it was only in the later phase of his career that he managed to let that condition manifest itself in his both written and designerly projects. His person and oeuvre not only embody but above all ‘document’ the multifarious and often conflicting lines that marked the early modernist debates in art, architecture, and design: between humanist sensibility and technoscientific desire, personal expression and industrial standardization, tradition and innovation, socialist aspirations and aristocratic ties, public and private values, and beauty and ugliness. If Van de Velde didn’t proffer a coherent and sound theory in the end, he at least could present a rich and versatile trajectory. It resulted in a remarkable diversity that may have prevented him to become a true ‘modern master’. It made him at least into one of the most intriguing ‘pioneering intellectuals’ of early modernism. Consequently, not all of his buildings are true ‘masterworks’ but, first and foremost, sites of condensed history and discourse.


If Van de Velde himself is ‘a case’ that deserves scrutiny, his Ghent University Library is at any rate an equally intriguing one. The building is often considered as Van de Velde’s magnum opus. In a recent hommage to building however, the eminent Belgian architectural critic and historian Geert Bekaert, sheds his doubts on the conviction that the building is a “unique historical monument.”[27] When it was finished, people never reached a consensus on its beauty. Many considered it even a blunder. As already mentioned above, the building process suffered from such an amount of obstacles that it – at least in Van de Velde’s eyes – never attained its envisioned shape and state. Moreover, the owner of the building, Ghent University, never managed to appreciate it and handle it with care. Due to a negligent and mostly respectless management of the buidling, it is currently in a deplorable state. If immediate actions are not taken, within five years the building will suffer from irrevocable damage. [28] But, Bekaert asks, what makes the building so special that it needs to be saved? Does it truly deserve the label of ‘monument’?


The Ghent University Library building dates from Van de Velde’s late and second ‘Belgian’ period, in which he not only made his most mature works, but also made some crucial adjustment to his thinking and formal vocabulary. While Van de Velde became renowned by the almost hysterically designed projects such as Bloemenwerf, Maison de L’Art Nouveau in Paris (1895) or the hairdressers saloon Haby in Berlin (1901), the works of his late and second ‘Belgian’ period, are marked by a more austere approach, such as La Nouvelle Maison in Tervuren (1927-28), House Wolfers (1930-31) the Museum Kröller-Müller in Otterlo (1936), the Belgian Pavilions on the World Fair in Paris (1937) and New York (1939) or the technical school Tweebronnen in Leuven (1936-37). What distinguishes the Ghent University Library in this late series of projects however, is its fundamental urban disposition. The building radicalized Van de Velde’s dialogue with modern times and surpassed his early idiom of beauty.[29] While he radically chose for the modernist paradigm of the tower, it was also the first project in which Van de Velde formalized his pursuit of beauty with the brutalist choice of bare concrete. The building was constructed using rising formwork, and advanced technique that had previously been used almost exclusively in industrial buildings. He exchanged the all-pervading brown bricks of his projects of that period for the raw outlook of bare concrete, and the scenographic dispositon for a radical tectonic manifestation, on both an ontological and representational level: the building resolutely showed the substance and material traces of its industrial production process. Modernity was no longer veiled behind a sensual coat, but allowed to ‘rear up its ugly head’ – on both interior and exterior. Hence the early or Art Nouveau notion of Gesamtkunstwerk thus no longer applies either – regardless of the fact that the design was never realized in its ‘totality.’ The library no longer repudiates the urban metropolis by an overwhelming and protective interior, but identifies radically with the public nature of the institution it houses, offering a series of interior spaces with a distinct ‘urban’ quality. Bekaert lucidly remarked that “the interior of the Ghent [University] Library no longer implies the protection or closure, but the opening, the release, the creation of emptiness in a world that is too complete.”[30] The large central reading room, undeniably one of the most spectacular spaces of the building, no longer resembles the classical study – a dark and dusty room, stuffed with books, heavy wooden furniture and desk lamps. The space measures about … and receives an exuberant amount of daylight through large glass panels in the ceiling and a rythmic series of large window panes facing the interior court yard. Van de Velde did not provide private studiolo’s, but organized the interior by long bands of public study desks.


Upon closer scrutiny of Denkmal 9, it becomes apparent that the Jan De Cock does more than create a belated total work of art, a post-factum rectification of the incomplete Van de Velde building. The particular status of the utopian ideology of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the Ghent University Library and the distinctive position of the building within the overall oeuvre of Henry Van de Velde, puts Denkmal 9 in a specific perspective. Denkmal 9 didn’t cover the walls but the furniture. It didn’t attach itself to those architectural parts of the reading room that were still blank but initially meant to bear the artistic intervention, but wrapped precisely those elements that were designed by Van de Velde, but were never fully carried out. De Cock however didn’t ‘redesign’ the existing furnishings, but enfolded them with a sculptural skin. Hence the work was rather difficult to pigeonhole. It covered all the furniture of the room, but couldn’t be read as mere decoration or supplementary layer; it presented itself deliberately as a distinct sculpture, but occupied the whole space. The sculpture consciously related to the architecural scale of the space, but didn’t become architecture itself. Denkmal 9 thus didn’t ‘complete’ the architectural project of Van De Velde, but ‘reframed’ it. In its conscious alignment with that artistic and architectural movement that sought to change the world through total design – and this within the specific context of one of Van de Velde’s seminal buildings – Denkmal 9 forces us to reflect upon contemporary relevance of the utopian ideology of the Gesamtkunstwerk. The work however did more than simply relaunch the discussion. It ‘adapted’ and ‘restaged’ it, in the theatrical sense of the word. It invited us to ‘revisit’ the historical discussion, but within an specific architectural context that gains particular significance within the discussion – from both an historical and contemporary point of view. As such, Denkmal 9 served as a critical vehicle for a reading of the current relationship between architecture, art, and design.


The Gesamtkunstwerk is a specter that haunts the theory and practice of art, architecture and design throughout the last two centuries, since it was never wholly exorcised in the era of postmodernism and of electronic production.[31] Where Theodor Adorno could still claim in 1938 that the Gesamtkunstwerk was the esthetical counterpart of the phantasmagorical world of commodities, both have fused today.[32] One no longer needs to argue in favour of a total fusion of the artistic and the functional, of the aesthetic and the utilitarian. This fusion has simply shifted. It is no longer the product of an avant-garde project such as Art Nouveau or the later Bauhaus. It has reached its climax in the ever more aggressive culture industry and found its ultimate form in the most border-crossing discipline of all: design. In design, the aesthetic and the utilitarian are not just fused, but completely absorbed by the omnipresent commercial motives of commodity culture. Just about everything is ‘designed’ these days: not only architectural projects and art shows, but also clothes and genetics – ‘from jeans to genes’, as Hal Foster wittily observed.[33] The dream of the total blending of disciplines, the ‘personalised’ treatment of objects and the omnipresent styling is at last coming true in contemporary or ‘modern’ design. This new ‘creative industry’ is, Foster continues, no longer marked by an avant-gardist resistance: “it delights in postindustrial technologies, and it is happy to sacrifice the semi-autonomy of architecture and art to the manipulations of design.”[34] The different arts no longer united by architecture – or “allied under the protectorate of architecture,” as the first circular of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst declared in 1918 – but are all exuded by architecture.[35] Contemporary architects not only design private dwellings, corporate headquarters or fashion stores, but sporting shoes, logo’s, books, and flags as well. The Swiss Architects Herzog & De Meuron have even launched their own fragrance. For Rem Koolhaas and A.M.O., the think-thank and so-called mirror-branch of O.M.A. or his Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the European community is as good a client as Guggenheim or Prada, all awaiting to have their identity to be ‘designed’, ‘branded’ or turned into a catchy logo.[36] But in this greedy conquest for new ‘forms’ – stirred by the lucrative alliance with global capital – architecture has embarked in recent decades upon a shameless plundering of the artistic legacy of the postwar avant-garde, repeatedly degrading former critical sculptural strategies to merely formal endorsements and idiosynchratic embelishments of precisely those institutions and ideologies that they originally aimed to criticize and dissect. Within the ‘Contemporary Art of Architecture’ architects have reclaimed and recruited almost every new object type and spatial relation that postwar avant-garde artists have explored. Displacing, scattering, minimizing or mirroring have become some of the most successful architectural ‘design strategies’ of so-called sculptural architecture, more than often resulting in a recognizable and money-spinning designer’s ‘brand’. The signature behind Van de Velde’s stratagem of the line – “that bears the force of the one who drew it” – is finally degraded from a moral and esthetic imperative into a market-driven design device – the now ubiquitous ‘signature style’.[37] While some consider the final demolition of the disciplinary borders between art and architecture as a therapeutic blessing, others deplore it as the erasure of the political situatedness of artistic autonomy. The former consider it as a a welcome possibility for architecture “to overcome the problematic dualisms that have plagued it for a century,” the latter conversely plead for a renewed sensitivity for the “historical dialectic of critical disciplinarity and its contestation.”[38] But what is then the critical position to occupy by radical aesthetic practice, now that both art and architecture have ventured into an ‘expanded field’?[39] Must it define itself in a “contestatory relation, if not manifest opposition, to architecture,” as Benjamin Buchloh recently suggested?[40]


Jan De Cock’s sculptures are slick, large, and gloomy, and definitely bear the signature of the artist. But precisely this conscious and laboriously esthetic disposition of De Cock’s sculptures, allows them to counter the current descent into value-free estheticism, in art, architecture and design. They intentionally react against the omnipresent condition of indifference. De Cock’s slick and glossy sculptures do not neatly smooth away or subject their sites to an an appropriate ‘design solution’ or a tailor-made resolution, as all the other esthetic or creative industries might do to every fringe, rough edge, or unnecessary remnant – whether of an interior, a body, or a company – they encounter. All of De Cock’s sculptures somewhat obstruct the space they occupy, whether it is a museum, a library, a gallery, a private dwelling or – undeniably the most problematic program – a fashion designer flag store. They acknowledge that when everything is streamlined, polished, and above all stylized to perfection, there is no margin left for culture, and for art in particular, to distinguish itself. Instead, its only task is to deliver artistic surplus. De Cock’s ‘molds’ refuse to deliver a mere splendid extra, since they occupy their sites in a far too obtrusive and self-important manner. They invade the space in orde to – in the words of the artist – “push away the context” and create an intermediary emptiness.[41] They establish that one cultural necessity that Adolf Loos so fiercely defended in his 1908 essay Ornament und Verbrechen and his fulminations against Art Nouveau: Spielraum or ‘running room.’[42] The intricate constellation of frames, volumes and latices of Denkmal 9 inserted a both sophisticated and massive mould in and around the space of the reading room, generating a certain ‘artistic’ emptiness within it. This resulting ‘vacancy’ was no longer void, but remaining, not the product of a lack but of a precise filling. As such, the lingering space of the sculpture paradoxically engendered – an a metaphorical level at least – some ‘room,’ or that residual space that allows for the ‘concrete work’ of critical reflection. De Cock’s critical attitude towards architecture isn’t translated in literal acts ‘against’ architecture. They consciously refuse to enter the rich tradition of symbolic, confrontational and ever more violent gestures on architecture.[43] De Cock’s works inscribe themselves in a conceited and intense manner in sites and buildings with a rich and profound past and present. Both are not merely represented, but radically and above all sculpturally ‘worked through.’[44]


Despite its massive presence, Denkmal 9 didn’t act like a fremdkörper in the reading room. It enjoyed an almost self-evident presence in the building. It had adjusted itself discretely but emphatically to the architecture of Van de Velde’s library. But the monomorphic fit between Denkmal 9 and the architecture was again merely phenomenological. Upon closer look, it was doubled by the sculpture’s material disposition. Despite the sleek, shiny and apparently seemless surfaces, all of De Cock’s sculpture’s are marked by a plain tectonic presence. This is not only due to the peculiar origin of the term tectonic, since it is Greek in origin and derives from tekton, signifying carpenter or builder. De Cock’s elaborate wooden sculptures are, upon closer look, marked by a radical disclosure of their constructedness, their assembled nature. They poetically manifest their structure. The notion of tectonics, which stems from architectural theory, not only refers to the structural component of an artefact in se, but to the formal amplification of its presence in relation to the assembly of which it is a part as well. In his 1990 essay Rappel à l’Ordre: The Case for the Tectonic, Kenneth Frampton addresses the issue of tectonic, stating that it offers an alternative for what he calls ‘the triumph of scenographic architecture,’ in both the historicist pastiche of postmodernism and the superfluous proliferation of sculptural gestures.[45] He makes a case for a type of architecture that returns to its material base, acknowledging the fact that architecture must of necessity be embodied in structural and constructional form. The significance of the term tectonic is however not limited to the discipline and practice of architecture. Both architectural and artistic artefacts always remain ‘constructions’, whether mental or material. The fact that there’s no longer anything ‘specific’ about art – neither its medium, material or subject matter – doesn’t rule out the artistic necessity to reformulate a ground for contemporary artistic practice, to identify the difference, if any, with other cultural practices. De Cock shares the conviction that a truly ‘opposing’ artistic stance is not merely a matter of recapitulating worn-out avant-gardist tropes, but might imply, as Kenneth Frampton suggests for a architectural practice, “a turn to a certain rear-guard position, precisely in order to recover a basis from which to resist.”[46] De Cock recognizes that the beaux-arts tradition of artistic craftsmanship is passé, but nevertheless asserts that, within the total destitution of commodity culture, it might again become meaningful to depart from one specific material and the craft required to handle it, instead of choosing whatever material or craft might do to get a satisfactory ‘product’. De Cock however doesn’t make a nostalgic return to traditional craftmanship, materials and its procedures, but adapts it to the current cultural-institutional and socio-economic conditions – on a conceptual, material, as managerial level. He consciously remains a sculptor but his material constantly consists of industrially produced plywood and fiboard plates. While the Atelier Jan De Cock on the one hand functions as a medieval workshop – one master that instructs a group of craftsmen – he directs and runs it as an executive manager, generating its own funds and opportunities. Hence the tectonic temper of De Cock’s sculptures is not solely ontological, but above all, representational. The sculptures do not claim any ‘structural honesty’ or ‘functionality’. They are marked by a cognisant materiality that symbolizes the way in which they want to position and manifest themselves in the world: as a contemporary form of concrete work, or above all, reversing Tafuri and Dal Co’s assessment, as present-day ‘intellectual labor’.


When Jan De Cock installed Denkmal 9 in the Ghent University Library, the institution was plagued by a big public controversy in the media about the dreadful state of the building. Many deplored the fact that this seminal ‘monument’ of Belgian architectural history didn’t receive the conservational care that it deserved. Although this temporal concurrence was initially coincidental, it turned out highly significant in the end. Denkmal 9 held up the mirror of history to the debates about the future restoration and renovation of the building, by touching upon several crucial aspects and features of the building’s history, and simultaneously revealing how these still resonate today. First of all Denkmal 9 exposed that any restoration enterprise is always about much more than simply restoring the building in its original state, since the latter, as Van de Velde’s building quite literally demonstrated, never truly exists. Furthermore, given the position and significance of the commission within Van de Velde’s oeuvre, Denkmal 9 stressed the importance of the ‘investment’ in public buildings, whether by designing, erecting, maintaining or renovating them; from an historical, present-day and future perspective. Since corporate and private capital have abrogated almost all of the last remnants of what was once experienced as public space, it has become ever more important to construct and maintain those public places and institutions that our society still possesses. The library, together with the museum, the theater and the university turn out to be of the few remaining places where a society is not subjected to the self-confirming and conciliatory operations of a dominant culture, but is able to create a critical realm, a vital space to put itself and its issues up for discussion, in all public visibility. These institutions are the prime spaces to host the indispensable reflection, negotiaton and dissensus that any culture deserves, or in other words, to provide it with Spielraum. Hence they deserve an architectural appearance or ‘mold’ that pays tribute to the tradition that they protect, collect and preserve, but first and foremost equals the current socio-economic and cultural conditions in which they arise – the ‘terribly beauty’ of our modernity. Only for this reason does Van de Velde’s Ghent University Library deserve to be preserved. Its both elegant and massive, brutalist and sensual, dynamic and weighty, rigid and playful, tectonic and plastic structure still befits such a worthy institution as a library. It delivers, as Bekaert remarked, a radiant “embodiment of an intellectual and cultural treasure as embedded in a collection of books.”[47] The personal rendez-vous with the designer that Denkmal 9 contained, revealed that this accomplishment was more than just a lucky shot, but the outcome of an elongated and laborious proces on the one hand, and a rich personal and intellectual trajectory on the other. In an era where all importance is laid on ‘innovative’ or ‘smart’ design, it is of extreme importance to stress that any project – in art, architecture, or ‘design’ – always remains a crucial intellectual work. While it is never certain nor very important whether such an enterprise will provide beautiful results, it is however beyond doubt that it will elicit many words, sooner or later.

[1] Henry Van de Velde, La Triple Offense à la Beauté (Conférence donnée à Berne, au Palais fédéral, au cours de l’hiver 1917-18), in: Henry Van de Velde, Pages de Doctrine, Cahiers d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme, Bruxelles, 1942, pp. 33-34: “Stand in front of a particular monument, a particular façade, a particular piece of furniture, goldplate or china, in front of a lighting device and try to tell precisely what you see. I dare to claim that, if you had never before doubted the Beauty of the object of your description, this doubt must arise depending on how your description proceeds. Because if you have so many things to say about the monument, façade, closet, the soup bowl or table middlepiece you will undeniably ask yourself: well, if this monument, this façade, this closet are all this; if this soup bowl and this table middle piece and this chandelier are all hat, which I say with these words, then that monument cannot serve the purpose for which it was erected, neither does that façade fit the building; then that closet is no closet, and all of those things that I thought were beautiful so far, are not like they ought to be!”

[2] Bart Verschaffel, Monumenten, resten, herinneringen, in: Figuren/Essaysv, Vlees en beton, 28-29, Mechelen/Leuven/Amsterdam, aa50/Van Halewyck/De Balie, 1995, pp. 121-127.

[3] When Jan de Cock graduated from the Ghent Academy of Fine Arts in 1998, he set up an exhibition with some of his fellow students in the Ghent University Library. He installed the work The Industry of Huma Happiness in the belvédère on top of the tower. Due to his personal unsatisfaction with his ’contest’ with Henry Van de Velde, he decided a few years later to install a new piece in the building, but now on his own initiative and with financial funding that he raised himself. The inauguration of Denkmal 9 on January 23 2004 was paired with the launch of his first artist book Jan De Cock. Denkmal ISBN 9080842419.

[4] Henry Van de Velde, Geschichte Meines Lebens (herausgegeben und übertragen von Hans Curjel), München, R. Piper & Co Verlag, 1962, p. 439: “Das jammervolle System der tropfenweiser Subventionen, die, kaum bewilligt, von der Maschinerie der Bürokratie noch gekürzt werden, machte den Bau der 1936 begonnen Bibliothek der Universität Gent zu einem wahren leidensweg.” Van de Velde however recalls with a certain pride that Herbert Hoover, former president of the United States, when asked what he remembered most of his trip through Belgium, immediately answered: “of course, the tower of the Library in Ghent” See, ibidem, p. 437-438. For a detailed account of the building history and construction process of the Ghent University Library, see: A. Van den Brande, F. Van Tyghem, & N. Poulain (eds.), Een Toren voor boeken, 1935-1985 : Henry van de Velde en de bouw van de Universiteitsbibliotheek en het Hoger Instituut voor Kunstgeschiedenis en Oudheidkunde te Gent, Gent, Centrale Bibliotheek Rijksuniversiteit Gent, 1985.

[5] Since 1992, the Ghent University Library is included in the Belgian list of ‘protected national monuments and historical buildings.’

[6] ? . In Space, Time and Architecture, Sigfried Giedion

[7] Adof Loos, Poor Little Rich Man (1900), in: Adolf Loos, Spoken into the Void. Collected Essays 1897-1900 (Introduction by Aldo Rossi; Translation by Jane O. Newman and John H. Smith), Oppositions Books, Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, pp. 125-127.

[8] Adolf Loos, An Den Ulk (1910), in: ? “Und ich sage dir, es wird die zeit kommen, in der die einrichting einer zelle vom (…) professor Van de Velde als strafverschärfung gelten wird.” Olbrich : mostly targetted by Loos : see Kenneth Frampton, Moderne architectuur: een kritische geschiedenis, Nijmegen, Sun, 1988, p. 114.

[9] Siegfiried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture. The growth of a new tradition (4th edition), Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1962, p. 296.

[10] Steven Jacobs, Henry van de Velde. Wonen als kunstwerk. Een woonplaats voor kunst, Leuven, Van Halewyck, 2005, p. 49.

[11] k.-n. Elno, Henry Van de Velde, De onbekende, in: k.-n. Elno, Ruimte en Beelding. Beschouwingen over architectuur, plastische kunsten, fotografie en typografie, Hasselt, Heideland, 1965, p. 68: “Dat Henry van de Velde als dé pionier en exponent van de twintigste eeuwse vormgeving dient beschouwd, is een myte waarin meer geloofwaardigheid steekt dan in de nauwkeurigste notariële akte.”

[12] ibidem, p. 77: “Kan het verschijnsel worden uitgelegd uit wat men zou kunnen noemen: zijn ‘geval’, dat ongewone samenspel van afmattend pionierschap tijdens de inkubatieperiode van het modernisme en van obligate materializering van zijn oorspronkelijke beweringen en profetieën?”

[13] Henry Van de Velde, Déblaiement d'art (1894) , Bruxelles, Archives d'architecture moderne, 1979.

[14] Henry Van de Velde, La Triple Offense à la Beauté (Conférence donnée à Berne, au Palais fédéral, au cours de l’hiver 1917-18), in: Henry Van de Velde, Pages de Doctrine, Cahiers d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme, Bruxelles, 1942, p. 11: (…) serions-nous pas tentés aujourd’hui de considérer Ruskin comme un personnage évoluant sur une scène de théâtre plutôt que sur la scène du monde?”

[15] Ididem, p. 11: “Peut-on pousser en effet plus loin le dédain des réalités?"

[16] Ibidem, p. 26: “(…) la tradition est stérile dès qu’elle n’est pas alimentée par de nouveaux éléments et le froid, que dégagent tous les recommencements et toutes les imitations devrait nous prévenir de l’approche fatale de la mort.”

[17] Ibidem, p. 39: “Non seulement rien n’est laid dans ce domaine des constructions de l’ingénieur, des machines et des mille des choses usuelles satisfaisant des besoins qui ne sont pas moins importants que ceux que satisfont l’architecture et les arts industriels!”

[18] Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design. From William Morris to Walter Gropius (4th edition, with an introduction by Richard Weston), New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2005, p. 19.

[19] For this argument, I’m highly indebted to Steven Jacobs’ brilliant analysis of the domestic program in Henry Van de Velde’s oeuvre. See: Steven Jacobs, Henry van de Velde. Wonen als kunstwerk. Een woonplaats voor kunst, Leuven, Van Halewyck, 2005. Van de Velde designed nothing less than four dwellings for him and his family: Bloemenwerf in Ukkel (1895), Hohe Papeln in Weimar (1907), De Tent in Wassenaar (1920) and La nouvelle maison in Tervuren (1927). Jacobs demonstrates how these houses not only represent the different periodes in his stylistic development, but allow to gain insight in Van de Veldes life, thougts and formal vocabulary.

[20] Dirk De Meyer, Henry Van de Velde, in: Mil de Kooning (ed.), Horta and After. 25 Masters of Modern Architecture in Belgium, Ghent, Department of Architecture and Urbanism, 2001, p. 68.

[21] Henry Van de Velde, Zehn Leitsätze (1914), in: Henry Van de Velde, Zum Neuen Stil (Aus seinem Schriften ausgewählt und eingeleitet von Hans Curjel), München, R. Piper & Co, 1955, p. 213: “ Solange es noch Künstler in Werkbunde geben wird und solange diese noch einen Einfluβ auf dessen Geschicke haben werden, werden sie gegen jeden Voschlag eines Kanons oder einer Typisierung protestieren. Der Künstler is seiner innersten Essenz nach glühender Individualist, freier spontaner Schöpfer; aus freien Stücken wird er sich niemals einer Disziplin unterordnen, die ihm einer Typ, einen Kanon aufzwingt.”

[22] Henry Van de Velde, as cited in: Kenneth Frampton, Moderne Architectuur. Een Geschiedenis, Nijmegen, Sun, 1988, p. 123.

[23] k.-n. Elno, Henry Van de Velde, De onbekende, p. 71: “Ware hij niet zul een gevoelsrijk, irrationeel voortgestuwd mens geweest, hij had niet zoveel bijgedragen tot de toenadering van tussen reden en kunst.”

[24] Henry Van de Velde, Das Neue: weshalb immer neues (1929), in: Henry Van de Velde, Zum Neuen Stil, p. 233: “Wie stellen der Nachamungs-Tradition die Tradition der intellektuellen Aufschwungs gegenüber. Das, was uns die Nachamungs-Tradition zur Verfügung stellt, dient nur denen, die auf Krücken gehen.”

[25] Manfredo Tafuri & Francesco Dal Co, Modern architecture, New York, H. N. Abrams, 1979, p. 7.

[26] Ibidem, p. 13.

[27] Geert Bekaert, Hommage Bibliotheek Universiteit Gent, Gent, A&S/books, 2004, p. 5.

[28] This was the conclusion of a preliminary study of the restoration of the building in 2003, made under the authority of André Singer of Project2, a private real estate company, see: De Centrale Bibliotheek en het voormalig Hoger Instituut voor Kunstgeschiedenis en Oudheidkunde van de Universiteit Gent, Architect Henry Van de Velde, preliminaire studie, Project2, 27 November 2003, Antwerpen.

[29] Dirk De Meyer, Henry Van de Velde, p. 70.

[30] Bekaert, Hommage Bibliotheek Universiteit Gent, p. 9.

[31] Annette Michelson, Where is your rupture? Mass culture and the Gesamtkunstwerk, in: October 56, nr. Spring, 1991, p. 42. For  a discussion of the Gesammtkunstwerk in architecture, see: Mark Wigley, Whatever Happened to Total Design, in: Harvard Design Magazine, nr. 5, Summer 1998, pp. ?.

[32] Theodor W. Adorno, Versuch über Wagner, Berlin, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1952.

[33] Hal Foster, Design and Crime and Other Diatribes, London / New York, Verso, 2002, p. 19.

[34] Ibidem, p. 18.

[35] As cited in: Manfredo Tafuri & Francesco Dal Co, Modern architecture, p. 112. The Arbeitsrat für Kunst was founded by a.o. Walter Gropius, Adolf Behne, Max and Bruno Taut, Otto Bartning, Ludwig Meiner, and Max Pechstein.

[36] Dieter Lesage, Empire and Design, in: Open  4, nr. 8 [ (in)visibility], 2005, pp. 80.

[37] Henry Van de Velde, Die Linie, in: Die Zukunft 49, September 1902, pp. 385-388.

[38] Anthony Vidler, Architecture's expanded field., in: Artforum  43, nr. 8 (April), 2005, p. 144 ; Hal Foster, Design and Crime, p. xiv.

[39] Anthony Vidler’s essay (ibidem) obviously paraphrases Rosalind Krauss’ seminal 1979 essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field, in: October 8 (Spring), 1979, and as reprinted in: Hal Foster, The Anti-aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture, Port Townsend, Washington, Bay Press, 1983, pp. 31-42.

[40] Benjamin Buchloh, Cargo and Cult. The Displays of Thomas Hirschhorn, in: Artforum-International 40, nr. 3 (November), 2001, pp. 109-110.

[41] Jan De Cock in conversation with the author, January 12, 2004.

[42] Adolf Loos, Ornament und Verbrechen (1918), in: Trotzdem 1900-1930 (herausgegeben von Adolf Opel), Wien, Prachner, 1997, pp. ?.

[43] This tradition starts with Yves Le Klein’s Le Vide (1958), Armand’s Le Plein (1960), Daniel Buren’s sealing of the entrance of the Galleria Apollinaire (1968), Robert Barry’s During the exhibition the gallery will be closed (1969), Michael Asher’s removal of the windows of the Clocktower New York (1976), Gordon Matta-Clark’s window blow-out in the New York Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (1976), Chris Burden’s Exposing the Foundations of the Museum in the Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles (1986) to more recent intrusions such as Ingmar & Dragset’s Spaced Out/Powerless Structures, fig. 211 in the Portikus in Frankfurt Zurich (2003), Kendell Geers’ blowing up of a temporary Wall in the Antwerp Museum of Contemporary Art (The Devil never rests … [6 June 2004]) to Santiago Sierra’s removal of all the glass from exterior doors and windows of the Museum Dhondt Dhaenens in Deurle Belgium in 2005. For a critical reading of the latter work, see my The museum dismantled and exposed, in: Open  4, nr. 8 [(in)visibility], 2005, pp. 90-93; For a brilliant historical discussion of the avant-garde ‘against architecture,’ see the last chapter ‘The gallery as a gesture’ that was added to the 1999 edition of Brian O'Doherty’s Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley, University of California Press.

[44] Andrew Benjamin, Passing through Deconstruction: Architecture and the Project of Autonomy, in: Germano Celant (ed.), Architecture & Arts 1900/2004. A Century of Creative Projects in Building, Design, Cinema, Painting, Sculpture, Milan, Skira, 2004, p. ?

[45] Kenneth Frampton, Rappel à l'Ordre: The Case for the Tectonic, in: Kenneth Frampton, Labour, Work and Architecture. Collected Essays on Architecture and Design, London, Phaidon press, 2002, pp. 91-103. For a broader discussion of the notion of tectonics, see: Kenneth Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture. The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture, Chicago, Illinois; Cambridge, Massachusetts, Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; MIT Press, 1995.

[46] Ibidem, p. 91.

[47] Geert Bekaert, Hommage Bibliotheek Universiteit Gent, p. 7.