Optical Spectacle

The Ciné-bal that Theo van Doesburg designed for the Aubette leisure centre in Strasbourg in 1926 was way ahead of its time. The hall not only offered space for various forms of entertainment such as dancing, dining, films and music but also created a fitting atmosphere. Van Doesburg deployed colour in particular to enhance the mood because ‘without colour, architecture lacks expression and is blind’. The colours practically jump off the pages of the original design drawings for the Ciné-bal and the Salle des Fêtes, now on show at the NAi along with a number of historical photos and scale models.

From 1926 onwards Van Doesburg worked with husband and wife Hans Arp and Sophie Täuber. They were initially commissioned for the project but asked him to assist in renovating the interior of the eighteenth-century Aubette. The barracks, converted into a concert hall and café in the nineteenth century, was completely gutted by fire during the Franco-German War in 1870. Van Doesburg took on the task of heading the restoration and handling publicity. Although he probably also worked on the circulation through the whole building and designed the transition between the different halls, he particularly left his mark on the two above-mentioned halls. He designed these spaces as complete entities, from plan and façade articulation to lighting and radiators.

The halls offered Van Doesburg a unique opportunity to demonstrate his ideas about visual architecture. Up until then Van Doesburg had mostly made colour schemes for buildings by other architects – is collaboration with Cornelis van Eesteren in particular was intensive and ended in disagreement about authorship of the projects. As a founder of De Stijl Van Doesburg saw colour as an intrinsic part of architecture. Instead of deploying it for decorative purposes as had often been done in earlier centuries, or simply eliminating it as many modernist contemporaries did, he deployed colour to make the spatial effects of architecture more ambiguous. The application of colour could optically distort a space to such an extent that the observer is no longer able to perceive and understand it from one vantage point. Van Doesburg thus hoped to capture the fourth dimension, time, in his designs.

This principle is visible in his design for the Ciné-bal. While the pattern of the linoleum floor supports the clear plan arrangement, the diagonally arranged colour planes on the walls and ceiling cause confusion about the real dimensions of the space. Because the pattern on the walls doesn’t continue seamlessly on the ceiling but, rather, collides with it, the planes appear to continue infinitely. The relief of the planes – they literally protrude a few centimetres – and the optical effect of the applied colours put the visitor on the wrong foot entirely. The only wall without coloured planes is on the street side of the Aubette. But here the pattern of windows and mirrors creates another spatial effect.

The Ciné-bal was therefore one big optical spectacle that expressed the dynamism of modern life in form and colour. Although the design may not appear so dizzying to leisure-seekers who’ve grown accustomed to the spatial distortion in theme parks or on disco projection screens, the citizens of Strasbourg found it all rather strange and disconcerting. Just a week after the opening in 1928, the slender chairs made way for darker, more typical Alsatian models, flowers turned up on the tables, and the ceiling was decorated with paintings of clouds. Van Doesburg was furious about the changes and reproached himself for ever having believed his work was respected in Strasbourg, ‘the most backward corner in all Europe’ (1). Ten years later the entire interior was replaced and nothing remained of the coloured planes.

At least, that’s what people thought until 1984. That year a number of original layers of paint were discovered, and a faithful restoration of the two halls became possible. The restoration of the Salle des Fêtes was recently completed, and that prompted the NAi to spotlight the designs by Van Doesburg. The earlier restoration of the Ciné-bal had been celebrated back in 1996 with the release of a documentary about the Aubette by Frank Alsema. Included in the exhibition, the documentary features designers – among them Wim Crouwel, Anton Beeke, Benno Premsela and Carel Weeber – talking about this ‘virtual shrine that you only knew from pictures’ (Weeber). But more hilarious than their stories are the scenes in which the designers experience the space as it was intended: dancing. Oh yes: the gentlemen guide the hired dancers with at times consummate skill (Weeber) and bravura (Peter Struycken), and sometimes somewhat shyly (Ger van Elk) across the dance floor of the Ciné-bal.

The documentary alone makes the exhibition worth a visit. In addition, the colourful drawings with precise instructions from Van Doesburg for the contractor – an earlier design, inadvertently carried out back to front was probably still fresh in his mind – are worthy of attention. After all, these are some of the few working drawings from the oeuvre of Van Doesburg, because most of his designs were never built. What’s more, the drawings give a palpable sense of what has become an iconic space. And that brings me to the following reason to visit the exhibition: the NAi petition that appeals to the Mayor of Strasbourg to open the restored halls to the public. These have remained closed to this day, despite various attempts from the Association Theo van Doesburg, also located in Strasbourg. So anyone who wishes to wrap his arms around the waist of a beautiful dance partner Weeber-style in the total experience offered by the Ciné-bal, sign the petition!