Cosmic and Theatrical

Hendrik Wijdeveld is presented as a man of the cosmos in the exhibition ‘Plan The Impossible’ at the NAi. He was an isolated romantic who opposed the city as a machine for production and consumption and who returned to elementary systems found in the universe and in nature. An agreeable subject, since it’s wonderful to see how chaos is eliminated with simple models and all-in-one diagrams.

Although Wijdeveld (1885-1987) was persuaded to take on earthly commissions (for housing, interiors and graphic work) during his long life, the exhibition shows only his utopian work, and of that, just the highlights of this somewhat forgotten architect. The exhibition design itself underlines the cosmic and theatrical side of Wijdeveld the person and his creations. Occupying the centre of the dark space is a luminous core that takes the form of a round stretched projection screen, probably intended as the embodiment of the illuminated brain of the visionary. Wijdeveld orating in intoxicating fashion, cosmic impressions, shell structures and utopian design sketches all slide by on the screen to the accompaniment of passion music. Grouped all around are projects illuminated to make it look like they’re floating. This audio-visual immersion reflects Wijdeveld’s exhaustive discourse on exhibitions (included in the catalogue) in which he states that exhibitions shouldn’t be a static affair but, rather, ‘a joy forever’.

The Cityless City

The theatrical is apparent in everything – in the designs for theatres and decors, in the programmes for his monumental multi-purpose buildings, and in his animated way of communicating, but most of all in his designs for town and countryside. He made his most theatrical drawings in his search for the cityless city, a project to which he devoted more than 40 years of his life. He was way ahead of his time in how he looked beyond the city at the region. With his all-embracing approach he heralded the end of the city. The new ‘city’ was a huge open zone where people were free to develop as they wished. Towers in the form of crystals formed a dramatic décor in an endless landscape of distant vistas. These are drawings of a collective world seen from the sky, from the ground, and in the moonlight. In the background of that expansive landscape one can still make out the chaos of earlier eras in a cluttered city neatly encircled by a wall of tall houses. The design of Wijdeveld’s new city started with the landscape in which existing towns were scattered like crowned monuments or so-called Stadtkrone. On top of this landscape he laid a network of motorways and boulevards, and he also added new city monuments in the form of concentrated all-in-one structures.

A concrete example of such a cityless city is the National Park between Amsterdam and Zandvoort in which boulevards lined by residential towers connect the capital to the coast. He planned a Peoples’ Theatre in Amsterdam and a pier in Zandvoort to terminate the huge park. This huge mega-structure formed a centre of coastal pleasure: a beach, dwellings, theatre, shell museum, aquarium, fishermen’s’ island and infrastructure in one.

Chaos and Order

As early as 1920 Wijdeveld was experimenting with the gradual dissolution of the city into the landscape in his alternative expansion plan for Amsterdam entitled ‘Chaos and Order’. More than 40 years before planning legislation was enacted, Wijdeveld wanted to protect the city from the approaching chaos of the Randstad. Outside the existing city, which was closed off again as a monument, he started afresh. He let the city dissolve permanently into the landscape in a perfect star-shape featuring identical green wedges. Chaos and clutter would disappear along the radials in an endless repetition of residential towers. ‘Chaos and order’ in fact represented his search for a universal model of urbanisation. To his American students he presented it as ‘a way to world planning’.

Realistic Dreamworld

The beautiful thing about Wijdeveld’s drawings is that, no matter how utopian and infeasible the projects, they were always drawn with the utmost precision and accuracy. The plan for the Vondelpark and the pier complex are shown extensively: the Vondelpark theatre with a number of splendid atmospheric images and the pier complex with numerous plans, sections, elevations and bird’s-eye perspectives, each drawn more enthusiastically than the next one. You just wonder whether these were intended simply as utopian proposals. Or were they perhaps made in the conviction that they might very well be built one day?

The question is to what extent is Wijdeveld’s work relevant again today. Although his order theory and urbanisation models were a response to the urbanisation problems that stemmed from the increasingly mechanised and expanding city, his way of thinking took him back to the most elementary level of making cities and landscapes. The results were timeless designs that were relevant then and remain so today – that is, as long as we have to deal with urbanisation, mass recreation, infrastructure, and threatened nature.