Willem Marinus Dudok (1884-1974) is one of the lesser known modern architects although he is referenced in nearly every history of modern architecture book for his town hall in Hilversum, Netherlands. Kenneth Frampton refers to him as ‘Wrightian’; William Curtis calls him a competent stylist and producer of ‘watered-down’ modernism; Manfredo Tafuri calls him ‘craftsmanly’ in his interpretation of Wright’s architecture and practitioner of ‘domestic romanticism’; Leonardo Benevolo suggests he did away with romantic and utopian tendencies and took ‘account of relations with the outside world’; nevertheless, Benevolo considered him a bit ‘stylistic’ though he was careful to note that the importance of his work did not lie with the outside of his projects. Though Tafuri and Benevolo are mildly complimentary and balanced on the whole it isn’t a glowing assessment.
It’s true that Dudok’s work appears Wrightian and it’s true that Dudok’s work inspired a lot of pale copies of his interlocked brickwork compositions. But my interest in him has come from studying the entry sequences into his buildings and after visiting over two dozen of his buildings in Hilversum and elsewhere. Particularly in the schools there is a kit of parts that Dudok continuously manipulates and evolves as a way of bringing people into the building and orienting them towards its various internal parts. The parts consist of rows of windows, partial or full window-walls, canopies, opaque and often brick walls, paving stones or tile, stairs and transparent doorways. These are composed so as to provide a transition from the perimeter of the site through to its internal organisational structure. If each is a sort of variation on a theme, the theme is the way in which a dark exterior sets up a light interior with a stair carefully placed and lit so as to make the directional choices in the interior clear. And these sequences operate both on a functional level (they make clear entry and circulation choices) and architectural levels (the play of light, surfaces and transparencies along with an orchestrated relationship among various elements).
This concern for surfaces, light and an understanding of the sequence and ritual of entry and arrival is also evident in the way Dudok detailed some of his windows. Whereas window-walls or transom windows are used to bring light in the entry spaces a composite window is often used in rooms or along corridors. The composite window consists of a lower window portion set back from the face of the exterior wall surface topped by a window portion in line with the external skin. The two portions are sometime used separately and sometimes stacked with a deep shelf set in between them. The effect is that the upper window, exposed to wind, rain and dirt ‘clouds’ over and after a short time acts like a translucent surface. This provides a glowing lighted effect at a high level on the interior. The lower window, set back and protected from the elements remains cleaner, and with the addition of a shadow cast by the shelf or thickness of the wall provides a clear view outwards.
In some buildings Dudok also incorporated projecting windows, so that a rich vocabulary of window types and window spaces was evolved. Though some of this experimentation can be found in the Amsterdam school work of de Klerk and others it is less whimsical and sculptural in Dudok’s work. That is, there are often considered effects produced by them rather than adopted for compositional purposes.
When you begin to look at his work in this way the ‘Wrightian’ massing of his work or ‘de Stijl-like’ language starts to look less like quotation and more like an original adaptation and meaningful contribution. This begins to raise questions about the way historians have come to their conclusions about what is original and important in the history of architecture. Did Dudok’s work need to be more visibly original and avant-garde for it to be taken more seriously, for it to be looked at for what it does rather than what it looks like? Or perhaps, adopting a ‘style’, i.e., Wright’s language, was a conscious decision in that he know what the spatial benefits were – or perhaps it allowed the aesthetic result to become secondary, something of less concern than the spatial, experiential and organisational propositions of his buildings.
Not all of Dudok’s buildings are great, but other architects have been canonised for fewer and less original contributions, but that is not the most important issue here. Dudok’s work stood out when I visited them – even though I went to see them not knowing much about them. In fact, not knowing that he was behind what some called a ‘Dudokian’ style, I thought I was looking at someone in the ‘style of Dudok’. I was struck by things that were beyond the ‘style’. For me, the buildings raised questions about history, the way in which architectural works are valued and about the relationship between image and spatial experience. For me Dudok’s work remains important because it questions the idea of visual or apparent newness. It is also about the careful and slow development of ideas rather than the conscious search for innovation. Yet his works are innovative because they propose something – not something that has never been seen before but a unique way of carrying out spatial propositions, in his case the sequence of arrival, orientation and the potential of light in a building. Concerning the last, it is also important that light is not treated as poetic material but as something that is instrumental and useful. This separates his work from everyone else that made work ‘in-the-style-of’ Dudok (e.g. Greenwich Town Hall).
Below are a series of images illustrating some of the above and also introducing other aspects that make Dudok a worthwhile architect to study.