In 1968, architect Aldo van Eyck created an installation for the Triennale di Milano, a work that can be seen as an ecological manifesto and a plea for the imagination. On the basis of historical material, curator Suzanne Mulder of Het Nieuwe Instituut reconstructs this work, which almost no one saw because it was destroyed during student protests on the opening day. What was Van Eyck’s message, and what role did he see for design in the connection between humanity and nature?
‘Qu‘il nous est difficile
De trouver un abri
Même dans notre coeur’
[Aldo van Eyck, The Enigma of Vast Multiplicity, wall text at entrance to Aldo van Eyck’s Triennale di Milano installation, 1968.]
As with this year's edition, the 1968 Triennale di Milano focused on concern for the earth and the limits of growth. Whereas now Broken Nature is the main topic, the overarching theme in 1968 was the Greater Number. At that time, the Club of Rome report was an important catalyst. The Vietnam War and the student protests were also major influences. The present day has many statements, but for this 2019 Milan Triennial, the statement by curator Paola Antonelli is significant: “The world is dying due to the lack of connection between man and nature, but design can sometimes turn the tide by putting its restorative power to work.”
Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck’s installation, The Enigma of Vast Multiplicity, is regarded as the most radical and experimental exhibition he ever created. Scarcely anyone saw the work, however, as the Triennale was occupied by students on the opening day and the exhibitions were destroyed. All the more reason, then, for Het Nieuwe Instituut to focus attention on this historic exhibition. What did Aldo van Eyck show in this installation, and what was his message back then? What role did he see for design when it came to the connection between people and nature?
The Greater Number
“Face to face with a greater number, society – our magnanimous kind – behaves like a half-wit with two left hands.” [Aldo van Eyck, The Enigma of Vast Multiplicity, wall text at the entrance to his Triennale di Milano installation, 1968]. Van Eyck’s contribution cannot be seen in isolation from the debate about ‘the greater number’ as it was conducted among architects from the 1950s. The Italian architect Giancarlo de Carlo, the curator of the 1968 Triennale, raised the issue of the world’s population increase, the conquests of modern science, and the discrepancy between Western abundance and poverty in the Third World.
In the 1950s, the discussion about the greater number had a different accent. Together with Aldo van Eyck, among others, De Carlo was one of the founders of Team 10, an international group of architects, who was at the forefront of the debate on modern architecture and urbanism in the 1950s and 1960s. Within Team 10, the theme of the greater number had been on the agenda since the 1950s, and especially in relation to the post-war housing challenge. The architects of Team 10 criticized the harsh efficiency and rationality with which many modern architects approached the reconstruction of Europe. They explored new concepts to give the big city expansions a human face, despite the massive scale. The relationship between the individual and the collective, or between part and whole, was central to this. Opposite the then prevailing ideas of the ‘functional city’, they posited the idea of the human ‘habitat’, which took into account cultural traditions, existing living patterns and the specific character of the environment. With ‘habitat’, they searched for a broader approach beyond functionalism. In 1956, they organized the tenth CIAM meeting under the title ‘Habitat pour le plus grand nombre’. Here too they introduced the concept of ecology into architecture.
The research installation Habitat: Expanding Architecture thus highlights one of the earliest moments when ecological thinking was introduced into architectural discussions, at the 1956 CIAM congress in Dubrovnik. Against the background of the structure of the welfare state, housing issues, and the large-scale modernization of cities, architects put the concept of habitat at the centre. The current focus on sustainability was still lacking, but the criticism of technocratic thinking was associated with this ecological concept. At the 1968 Triennale di Milano, we see a change in thinking about the greater number, also within Team 10. The initial optimism about the welfare state turns into worry about, and criticism of, the degeneration of that same welfare state. Team 10 is also critical of the emerging consumer society that brings with it a new pessimism in regard to the environment, increased individualization and inequality.
Walk through The Enigma or Vast Multiplicity
The pavilion can be reconstructed from a series of design drawings, photos and a description by Aldo van Eyck in an article in the Harvard Educational Review from 1969. In particular, the drawing of the final design by Aldo van Eyck is a map with a precise explanation of how visitors had to move through the pavilion, and where and what they would see, read or hear. First visitors had to make their way to the entrance through a forest of tree trunks. Among the tree trunks were quotes on the wall, including: “Face to face with a greater number, society – our magnanimous kind – behaves like a half-wit with two left hands.”
After passing through the narrow entrance, visitors found themselves in a triangular space where the walls were covered with broken mirrors from top to bottom: in these mirrors they saw themselves multiplied, fragmented and distorted. “Yourself in space, multiplied, fragmented, distorted.” Laughter – sometimes loud and sometimes soft – could be heard from the speakers in all the spaces. Next visitors entered a room in which a series of huge photographs made it clear that Western civilization, unlike most traditional cultures, was unable to solve the greater number problem. A large photo of a monotonous, new-build neighbourhood with the text, “So little from so much”, hung beside a photo of a shabby but lively Hong Kong shantytown with the legend, “Much from so little.”
On the next wall an image of an African Dogon village. The following text was written on the wall: “Whether in Greenland, Africa or Italy, people deal with limited numbers accurately and gracefully.” With the addition (among other things) in the Harvard Review: “Taking from the environment as much as they gave, a gratifying balance was sustained.”
In another corner of this room, Van Eyck showed what the development of technology had led to: an aerial photo of the Mekong Delta with a plane spreading poison clouds, and a photo of the bombed Vietnamese city of Ben Tre: “The city we had to destroy in order to save it.” This was a quote from an American general after the destruction of the city during the Vietnam war in 1968, just a few months before the opening of the Triennale. In between these photos was a photo of a jungle, and the text, “From limited total loss to limitless total loss.” And in large letters on the wall next to the photo of the destroyed city: “Mourn also for all butterflies.”
After this disruptive walk through a labyrinth of spaces, through a forest of tree trunks, past distorting mirrors, and after the confrontation with large photos and statements, accompanied by the sound of laughing people, the visitor emerged from a narrow entrance into a final, circular space in which a message of hope was hidden. There was a piece of art by Joost van Rooijen, which consisted of a series of brightly coloured strips of fabric that hung closer together as their length and complexity increased. Accompanied by the wall text: “That more does not have to mean less.” The text on the outside of this round space was a quote from a poem by Dylan Thomas: “The ball I threw whilst playing in the park has not yet reached the ground.” According to Van Eyck, great multiplicity did not necessarily have to lead to catastrophe. With this work of art, the impetus was given for a solution for ‘the riddle’ of the large number.
Van Eyck’s installation is a pessimistic indictment, but it is also a plea for the restoration of the connection between man and nature, through a comprehensive, ecological approach to architecture and urban planning (as he saw in traditional cultures, among other things), and through the commitment of imagination and creativity (as he saw in art and poetry, among other things). A message that is also significant for our time. Van Eyck, like other members of Team 10, was inspired by non-Western living and settlement patterns. According to him, these spontaneous or primitive settlements offered, among other things, insight into the relationship between social patterns, climatic conditions and landscape characteristics.
Within Team 10 from the 1940s, other architects also sought to collaborate with artists in their search for alternative approaches to the city and society. According to Van Eyck, imagination could free architecture from a practice based on efficiency and rationalism.
“Imagination remains the only common denominator between humanity and nature, the only force that is able to recognize spiritual revolutions at their exact moment and to derive meaningful predictions from that. The imagination is the first to discover change. Although architecture – planning in general – is bound to highly tangible functions, its ultimate purpose is in no way different from any form of creativity: namely, to express the natural course of life, through humanity and for humanity.”
[quote from Aldo van Eyck, ‘Statements against Rationalism’, (‘Stellingen tegen het rationalisme’), intervention during CIAM 1947 Bridgewater.]