In 1928, Theo van Doesburg formulated the most transgressive and consistent review on neoplasticism. The design for the interior rooms of Café Aubette exposes the patterns of elementarism, a representation that progresses the neoplastic idea to a spirited dynamic against the orthodoxy of horizontal and vertical dualism. This decision of Van Doesburg produced a confrontation between the most prolific members of the group that ended up tearing down the intellectual unity of the De Stijl movement and the definitive rupture of its relationship with Mondrian.
The Café Aubette is part of a structure located in the Place Kléber. It is a remnant construction of a 13th century monastic complex, after one part was demolished and the rest adapted to military use. In the middle of 1700 the French architect Jacques François Blondel received the order to reconstruct the set with a structure that represented “the style of the time”. This complex was called Aubette, and derives its name from “aube” (sunrise). In 1845 Cade coffee was established there, which later served as a music school. In 1869 it was acquired by the city to be used as a museum, but a year later it was burned, an attack on which only the facade designed by Blondel survived. In 1911 a process of renovation began that did not advance much, until finally the brothers Horn and Ernest Heitz, real estate developers, took charge of the building. The facade did not undergo major changes, but inside, the different interventions resulted in a fairly eclectic architecture
In 1925 the administrators of the building complex proposed to Jean Arp to intervene in the interior to turn the structure into a leisure center. The program included a cafeteria, a restaurant, a brewery, a tea room, a cinema and other rooms, spread over the four floors of the building. Arp summons Theo van Doesburg to solve the architectural problems arising from the intervention and also adds his wife Sophie Taeuber to intervene in some of the rooms.
Theo van Doesburg understood that the design of the Aubette coffee was not only the opportunity to advance in his concept of total art, it also allowed him to produce a turn in the neoplastic conception, dogmatized by a strict orthogonal dualism that was still influenced by the Renaissance discourse. Its design proclaims the elementarist culture, which, in contrast to the orthogonal statics, represents the dynamism of the spirit as it happens in life itself.
The interior of the Aubette was conceived as a space of great fluidity. A route where the boundary between one space and another could not be established with precision. Each artist took care of designing a particular space, but Theo van Doesburg reserved for himself the most important rooms: the great ballroom and the cafe restaurant.
In these spaces, Theo van Doesburg reacts to the orthogonal layout of the room to compose a diagonal contraposition of planes. In this way it promotes a spinning and centrifugal effect in the space that is accentuated by the displacement of colors and relief, to achieve a high degree of visual dynamism. In this intervention, the influence of El Lissitzky and his Proun was decisive, as Frampton pointed out:
“The interior of Theo van Doesburg in L’Aubette was similarly dominated and deformed by the lines of a huge diagonal relief or counter-composition that passed obliquely over all the internal surfaces. This fragmentation through relief – an extension of Lissitzky’s Proun approach to his 1923 room – was complemented by the fact that the furniture was free of any elementarist piece”.1
The plan module -1.20m x 1.20m- is defined by the height of the radiators. The chromatic range maintains the neoplastic color palette: Red, Blue, yellow, black and white, and the union of shades of the same tone allows to accentuate or attenuate the brightness according to the circumstances. The elements placed in relief achieve a more strict definition of the planes and avoid visual fusion. This arrangement benefits from the strong orthogonal accent presented by the openings of doors and windows, as well as the layout of the rooms themselves, promoting a “counter movement” to the presence of architecture.
“Theo van Doesburg’s designs for Sophie Taeuber-Arp‘s large party room and coffee restaurant and tearoom conform to the neo-plastic conception of interior design: color planes aligned with the horizontal / vertical elements of the architecture, without crossing the limits established by the corners. Each wall is treated as a distinct composition, thereby reinforcing the integrity of discrete surfaces and subordinating color to architecture. In other designs, such as that of Sophie Taeuber-Arp for the first floor bar, there is a greater pictorial continuity to the interior space by making the color planes cross the corners. Color and architecture play equal roles, in a stijlian approach of merging both into a total wor”.2
On the occasion of the inauguration of the room, Theo van Doesburg publishes his theory about the elementarist project in a special issue of De Stijl dedicated to the Aubette. Due to the scarce money allocated for the materialization, low quality materials were employed that undermined the expressive force of the project and attenuated the forcefulness of the plastic unit that Theo van Doesburg was looking for. This circumstance and the restlessness caused by the owners to a work too avant-garde subjected to the work to several modifications and later its destruction at the end of 1930. In 1994 the coffee was the reason of a partial restoration and in 2006 the first plant was completely restored according to the original project.
In this exercise, Theo van Doesburg expresses his “supra material” thinking in three-dimensional space, assisted by the communicative potential of color and form. However, even assuming the revisionist position with respect to the original theories of neoplasticism, the design of the Aubette renews the artistic spirit that mobilizes the De Stijl group: the close unity between painting, sculpture and architecture.
“The course of man in space (from left to right, from front to back, from top to bottom) has acquired fundamental importance for painting in architecture …. In this painting, the idea is not to lead man along a painted surface of a wall, in order to make him observe the pictorial development of space from one wall to another; the problem is to evoke the simultaneous effect of painting and architecture”
Theo van Doesburg3
Marcelo Gardinetti. Architect
La Plata. Argentina. January 2019
1 Kenneth Frampton, Historia crítica de la arquitectura moderna, Editorial GG, 1981, pag.149
2 De Stijl, 1917-1931. Visiones de una utopía, Alianza Forma, 1982; pág. 191
3 Kenneth Framton, op. Cit. Pag. 149
Fotografias: © Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons