Robert Slutzky

PaintingRobert Slutzky is best known for his essay ‘Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal’ written with Colin Rowe written in 1955-56 and published in 1964. My reflection here is personal having studied and worked (briefly) with Slutzky in the 1990s. His influence was significant but then again I was trained by and then worked with many of his former students or alumni of the Cooper Union and the University of Kentucky, School of Architecture. In retrospect, one of the fascinating things about Slutzky was that while he was a painter and architectural thinker (I think theorist is too loaded a word and his written output was not minimal) he was very careful about the differences between the two disciplines. Yes, he constantly drew parallels between the two and often compared the kind of spaces (phenomenal and literal) that each makes, but I think he always spoke as a painter about architecture. By this I mean what I think Le Corbusier meant when he said ‘everything is architecture’. This doesn’t mean that chairs, poetry, mountains, pencil sharpeners, and pictures are architecture, but that anything can inform architecture. Thinking about what film can make one rethink about architecture is different than making architecture-as-film. In this day of the tyranny of inter- and multi-disciplinarity, I think the distinction is an important one. Slutzky could often look at architecture as a painterly composition but this was never meant to be understood that architecture and painting are the same thing. He was careful to say in his lectures that what he was reading in architecture, specifically in the work of Le Corbusier, were a recurrent set of visual and spatial themes that were worth looking at, BUT that architecture, of course, included social, political and economic aspects. It was simply that he wasn’t talking about those things. We have been too quick to dismiss formal, compositional, and other ways of thinking about architecture-as-architecture because of the theoretical blackmail of postmodernist mind sets. Yes, social relations, representations of architecture, political and ideological undercurrents, are all highly significant in understanding a work of architecture but this doesn’t make the formal go away. I have, since the 1990s, become quite vocal about our neglect of the social and political aspects of architecture, but I believe that these have a stake in the formal conditions of architectural space. I never felt the need to renounce my understanding of how architecture works spatially, compositionally and formally in order to probe into its other ephemeral aspects. I can’t say that Slutzky was directly responsible for me thinking in this way but his care with words made me think deeply about what they meant and what his ideas were about.

Another ‘lesson’ I took from Slutzky was the relationship between thinking about something (analysing it) and making or creating work. After completing my studio project with Slutzky, he asked me to help him with a commission for a sculpture he was asked to do (something he had never taken on before). He sent me away with a ‘brief’ – the site, material, and general idea of what the sculpture could be. I came back a few weeks later with a model and some drawings. I based these on some of the many theoretical insights he had about his paintings compositions. Colour oppositions, mathematical relationships, progressions, permutations and so on. He looked at my model and said ‘what if we just move that wall from here to here?’ I said that that would mess up all the various relationships I had carefully set up. He said that it wouldn’t matter and that it would make it better and we’d worry about the arguments later. I was extremely confused and it took me a while to realise he was an artist after all. Making comes first. Theories were a way of trying to make sense of what you made. I later came to a more philosophical understanding of this idea via Hubert Damisch and the idea that works of art challenge the capacity of thought and language and this is what generates theory. This ‘lesson’ must have been behind my discomfort with the way that a lot of published architecture was self-conscious illustration of theory. It also made me suspicious of design processes that simply generated work, that is, where the process was the think designed and the output was simply a result.

Like the best teachers, Slutzky didn’t teach me to think what he thought. He taught me that seeing is a discipline. What he could see in an elevation, section or photograph of a building always astounded me – how was it that I didn’t see that first? This gave me a respect for what is there, the thing, the physical object and its space. Academics would balk at this, but Slutzky’s insights reminded me of Roland Barthes.

“To begin with, we have to look at things very closely, at the ends of our noses, as materially as possible, because only this slight nearsightedness frees us at the outset from the myth of depth. The real flavor is found in the grain, on the surface of things.”

Yve-Alain Bois on Roland Barthes method from ‘Writer, Artisan, Narrator’

Painting 2

So I’ve written all of this and I haven’t said anything about his work. They are beautiful but you have to see them in the flesh and be willing to work with them. In the tradition of Newman, Reinhardt and others, his work will elude you if you expect to ‘get it’ all in a glance. Slutzky was able to explain his paintings with layer upon layer of meanings and organisational or structural guiding principles. But, because he simply painted, there is never, in the end, anything mathematical about them. In his late paintings he became fascinated by what he called ‘the liquidity of paint’. Slutzky has, perhaps a greater reputation as a painter amongst architects, but it’s important to remember he was a painter first and foremost. We should look at his paintings as paintings and not architectural diagrams or demonstrations of architectural theory. To do so is to misunderstand all that he was about.

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Texts by Robert Slutzky

  • Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal (with Colin Rowe), Perspecta 8, 1964
  • Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal, Part II, Perspecta, Vol. 13, 1971
  • Apres le Purisme, Assemblage, 1987
  • Aqueous Humor, Oppositions 19-20, 1980
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Willem M. Dudok

Dudok willemWillem 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).

catharina06This 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.

Katarzyna Kobro

KompPrzestrzenna_4_1929I discovered Katarzyna Kobro’s work via an essay by Yve-Alain Bois.* Having been interested in De Stijl there was an immediate attraction to the abstract forms and use of primary colours in one of her most well-known work. However, what I learned about and experienced in her work far exceeded the superficial visual similarity. Her sculptures were among the earliest to do away with the pedestal which acts to separate the sculpture from the space of the viewer and render the sculpture ‘pictorial’ – that is, something separate in the world, to be looked at ‘at a distance’, as in a picture. One could say the pedestal makes the space a sculpture occupies virtual as in the painted spaces of a canvas. This is quite radical given that she was producing these sculptures in the 1920s, however, more radical is her understanding of space and what it meant for her sculpture. I had the chance to see Space Composition 4 (1929) at the Pompidou, almost by accident, and observed the following: The nature of the planes and the way the colour is applied meant that you automatically circled the piece, trying to figure it out or put it together in your head. The photographs almost capture the effect – the white planes appear as voids rather than as opacities when seen against other coloured planes. Voids, against a white background, in turn assume the character of planes. All the while the composition evolved as you walked around the work, seeing spaces, places and forms emerge and dissolve.

“The spatiotemporality of the work of art is related to its variability. We call spatiotemporal the spatial changes produced in time. Those variations are functions of the third dimension, of depth, which although momentarily hidden, nevertheless reveals its existence while transforming the appearance of the work of art, the appearance of each form, in creating variability; when the spectator moves, certain forms present themselves, others hide; the perception of these forms changes constantly.”

What is critical about this is the irresistible urge to move around the sculpture – it is produced by the sculpture. And, yet, it is not in order to ‘see’ or ‘complete’ a figurative image (a depicted object). You realise after a while that the sculpture includes the movement, the dance, around the sculpture itself, and as such involves the space you are both in, shared, in the work of art. Kobro wrote about “transforming depth into breadth”, or as Bois put it “to render visible that invisible object which is depth.” Kobro suggested that when we peer into space depth is hidden, we can only infer it. Therefore, to make something truly spatial it is not enough to make it in three dimensions but to make such that it stimulates the movement that ‘transforms depth into breadth’. Movement becomes what spatializes a work of art. But it is also what spatializes architecture. And it is this realisation, incredibly simple and very succinctly put, that popped the illusions of architecture like a tired carnival balloon. So much energy goes into the two dimensional composing of plans, elevations, sections, and even models (when all too often designed pictorially) while all the while banging on about space and spatiality.

Kobro and her partner, Vladyslaw Strzeminski, a painter, ventured some thoughts on architecture which still strike me as the clearest and most important statements about architecture ever written:

The elements of architecture are:

1. a) places where a man stops during any activity;

b) motion when he passes from one activity to another.

2. The aim of architecture is an organisation of the rhythm of consecutive motions and stops, and thereby the forming of the whole of life.

3. The final goal of architecture is not the building of convenient houses; it is also not the blowing up of abstract sculptures and calling them exhibition pavilions. Its aim is: to be a regulator of the rhythm of social and individual life. Strzeminski, 1931

“The union of man and space is the action of man in that space. We come to know space through our actions. The vectors traced by the actions of man in space are: the vertical station of man and every object, the horizontal of the environment that he encounters on both sides, and the depth, before him, of forward movement.” Kobro, 1931

These are fascinating in that they demonstrate that we did not need postmodernism to make us realise that inhabitation, agency and actions in space are critical aspects of design and the built environment. Kobro proposes a way of thinking about architecture through inhabitation, through routine, activity, in short, through acts of living, while also critiquing the dominance of the visual, the pictorial and the monumental in the spatial arts. And they did this as modernists, utopians even – those same two characterisations that were so demonised for their abstract formalism and autonomous and detached ways of thinking about objects, space and society.

o_webcomposition41929005_1_0*’Strzeminski and Kobro: In Search of Motivation’ in Painting As Model, MIT, 1990

De Vylder Vinck Tallieu

The work of De Vylder Vinck Tallieu has been occupying my attention now for some time. Initially drawn to their simple drawings and sober architectural resolutions, I have found that the work operates along a series of recurrent themes that are approached with utmost seriousness. Or so I think. It may be that they are having fun and simply following what interests them. This ambiguity is one of the fascinating things about their work. One of the recurrent themes is an interest in the roof as a space defining element (House Alexis at GB; Ordos 100; OVO II; Retirement House at H; House H at SML). There are various sub-strands within this particular investigation. One is an interest in the vernacular pitched roof along with the Flemish tradition of roof tiles. Drawings often refer to the pitched roof as a starting point for transformations that lead to non-traditional solutions. But most significantly, it is the way they use the underside of the roof to scale and articulate spaces on the interior that makes their work fascinating.

Another recurrent theme is the play of transparent walls (House BS at S; House DVH at G; House Jef at GB). The glass facade or glass wall is too often used as a default solution or one that simply bypasses the problem of exterior language, relationship to context or exterior material exploration. In DVVT the glass wall only appears when necessary – either when connecting to significant exterior spaces or in order to spatially open up a tight interior. An exception to this is in Ballet C de la B where a glass skin floats in front of brick walls, a stair and openings into the interior. It’s a trope that’s been used elsewhere but here the dialog between the normally abstract glass wall and the presence of ‘traditional’ brickwork fuses modern and traditional expression.

These two types, the roof and transparent wall, point to another recurrent theme – the interplay of new and old (the roof referring to tradition and the glass wall to contemporary). This is played out in projects, small and large, where new interventions are surgically inserted into existing buildings that take advantage of the contrast between old and new. Even in project where houses are gutted the resulting projects rarely erase the old in its entirety. The idea of adding layers to the existing built fabric as a way of contributing to the build up of memory or history is replaced by a strategy of juxtaposition and counterpoint. Their approach sidesteps the fashion for narratives in favour of stark contrasts that communicate the idea of the new, of the present, in a way that is non-linear, non-story like, and more direct and emphatic – more a kind of simultaneity of space, time and history. The projects are not stage sets; instead they question this common and oft-used notion of architecture and urban space.

The drawings of DVVT also operate in a direct and non-theatrical manner. Matter of fact, old-school, and sometimes deliberately naive, their drawings are fantastically ‘full’. They are never images but statements. The practices website also avoids the more commonly used tropes – there is no flash (in the technological and fashion sense). Projects are described in sequences, but avoid faked coherence and forced narratives. For me, the most significant aspect of their drawings is that they return meaningfulness to drawing. Drawings are never no more than what they are – they don’t create worlds, attempt to be complete or all-encompassing. They are also not about process in the way that many practices (at least those that publish in the extreme) wear process on their (drawing) sleeves. Drawings and process have become, too often, about process itself rather than about something ‘thought about’.

An interesting parallel and contrast suggests itself here with respect to process, self-referentiality and certain kinds of rationalism. A set drawings brought to mind the work of Peter Eisenman. The elevations of DVVT’s project, IVO:

The play of subtle grid shifts and structural misalignments are reminiscent of some of Eisenman’s earlier work. This recollection, however, highlights the uniqueness of DVVT in that the play is neither a game nor self-referential (though it may be playful). To understand we need to look at the way DVVT rationalise design decisions. For example, in their use of brick and block a relationship is found between the use of differently sized modules and the generation of a visual and finished wall surface. In the Veterinary Clinic Malpertus DVVT economise on both finishes and cut blocks by combining differently sized blocks that result in a constructed wallpaper effect.

“Building in bricks – but maybe different to what we are used to; but just laying bricks…so that it will maybe be like wallpaper. As if it was ornamental.”

The ‘as if’ is decisive. There is always an ambiguity, no, that suggests that things are fuzzy; instead there are always indirect and multiple reasons for the choices DVVT make. This is despite the appearance of a dry and pragmatic approach to problem solving. This is where a distinction can be seen between the grid games of Eisenman and DVVT. Although Eisenman was never a believer in functionalism or pragmatism his grid games were based on a strict and legible set of rules. And through these rules and the game Eisenman hoped to attain something beyond language, something that challenged the presumed notions of what architecture was supposed to be. After Eisenman’s Chomskian phase the deconstructivist work sought to destabilise architectural meaning and purpose. Again, a curious parallel with DVVT emerges. See for example:

In some of their details DVVT destabilise solid mass or expected limits of space. But these are not philosophical games or illustrations of theory – the latter of which Eisenman’s work too often succumbs to.

There is therefore rationalism in Eisenman’s work which is not about rationalism (and which seeks to transcend it) but also in DVVT’s work. But here the similarities end. DVVT’s ideas and games (I prefer ‘play’) is always based on how things are made, rooted back to place, and always with reference to space rather than image.

The reason for bringing up Eisenman is that, whatever one may think of Eisenman, his work has always been a paradigm of seriousness with respect to the foundations of architecture and architectural thought. I believe DVVT to be no less serious despite a deliberate absence of theory or layering of words, ideas, content or philosophy on their work. This is significant because the highly challenging aspects of their work and its inventiveness come not from extra-architectural concerns but from its most basic premises (e.g. construction).

I’ve suggested elsewhere that DVVT are the most avant-garde practice today and I suggest that because they innovate by understanding that innovation does not mean that process or drawings have to be innovative. It is what results that matters and perhaps the most important aspect of their work is that this result is architecture, that is, built things – not drawings, not models, not books, not philosophy. At a time when I have nearly given up hope that architecture as such could exist, DVVT have made it evidently clear that it has legs in it yet. If only anyone were listening.

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De Vylder Vinck Tallieu can be found here. It’s an unassuming site, frustrating at first but ultimately refreshing in its straightforwardness. Projects are listed by (cryptic) name tags and you have to click an image to get to the next – no jumping to the end. Impatience is not rewarded.

Henry Matisse: Matisse’s Tactic

The edit at the end of my entry on Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art…’ reminded me of how the work of Matisse changed the way I thought about the role of abstraction and figuration in art and architecture. I spent a great deal of energy becoming acquainted with and understanding the importance of painterly abstraction on architecture. Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky’s essay ‘Transparency’ makes clear the fruitful relationship. We also know about the relationship and important of Le Corbusier’s painting on his architecture. We could add the work of the Russian constructivist painters, de Stijl and so on. This history had led me to consider that the most abstract means produced the most worthwhile results. Following this line I ended up studying and appreciating the early work of Peter Eisenman – the so-called ‘cardboard’ projects, in particular houses I-IV. But something was troubling about this work and perhaps it came from having read Benjamin and his distinction between how art and architecture differ, primarily in the way that they are ‘absorbed’. Eisenman’s work, as an example, started to seem more like a work of art or pedagogical exercise rather than a proper work of architecture [1]. I went back to the history of modern painting to examine the problem. Cubism, though now accepted, was originally seen as degenerate, not painting, and such. The reaction was the same for abstract expressionism, minimalism, colour-field painting, to name a few key abstract movements. In each case what the artists were doing was questioning the status, definition, and meaning of painting. This was done to such an extent and at such a level that it was natural that the general public would not, at first, understand the premise. In the process we have then some great abstract painters – Picasso, Gris, Mondrian, Malevich, Pollock, Johns, Albers, and etc.

Matisse, though considered one of the great painters of the 20th century, was never in the same group of the great innovators. The reason is that Matisse’s work was always more figural than that other modern painters. His was a more popular art, pretty; still proper painting with recognisable scenes – though, here and there Matisse would paint a canvas that shocked the establishment. These shocks were always of a different order than say that of Picasso. ‘The Red Studio’ of 1911 is a flood of red space, which almost does away with gravity, floors, walls and ceilings. Another painting was shocking for painting figures with open mouths (‘La Musique’, 1910). ‘The Dance’ also from 1910 was not initially well received. Still, everything is recognisable – there are figures, foregrounds, backgrounds and middle-grounds. Traditional space still abounds.

One painting, ‘The Blue Window’ 1912, on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art stopped me in my tracks. We can recognize a lamp, a vase, a flower, a sculpture sitting on a desk…but wait, why do I think this is a desk. Could it not be the lower part of the window? Well, that would mean that the object are floating in space, and Matisse wouldn’t do that. Except he does – Where is the vase on the far left sitting? It’s roughly in the same line as the other objects. It could be sitting on the floor, unless we are actually looking at an elevation in which case we can see the floor and the objects are, once again, floating. And what is that golden oval object floating in the ‘sky, beyond the window’? It’s a cloud, obviously, but then why is it in such a saturated colour that makes it sit in the same space as the odd yellow sculpture and yellow ‘ashtray’? And just above the ‘ashtray’ is a lamp that just happens to have a tree growing from it, so it’s a vase? And is the black line emanating from the centre of the yellow-gold sculpture a window mullion or anther tree? Is the tree really a tree – if Matisse is deliberately playing with spatial readings, than could that not be a large houseplant, which is in fact indoors? I could go on, and I did, visit after visit, for a couple of years. I found the spatial play more and more shocking, exhilarating, inventive, and ultimately extremely abstract precisely because he was doing it through figuration.

I began to believe that Matisse was doing something incredibly difficult and perhaps more significant, at least for architects, than Picasso and the others. And I think he knew it. Did Matisse reject or not believe in pure abstraction? Was he incapable of doing it? His ‘French Window at Collioure’ of 1914 (the same year Malevich painted his black square) is instructive. It comes as close to a purely abstract, i.e., non-figural, painting as he ever did. He got there gradually, so he knew what he was doing, but then he backed off. I think it wasn’t because it became too difficult, but because it may have, for him, become too easy. The manipulation of space in what he continued to paint is extraordinary.

Now, what about the link to Benjamin? Although I follow Benjamin’s formulation quite literally – that you absorb artworks in a state of concentration, not as background music – I think that there are different levels of concentration. Abstraction was important because it makes you stop and work in front of a canvas, at least, as compared to what came before it, in which you  simply ‘took in the scene’ [2]. Matisse’s work oscillates between the abstract and the figural, between perspectival and abstract space, between the real and the imaginary. His is an art that is pushing boundaries as much as anyone else’s but doing it while maintaining a conversation with the public. This is not at all necessary for a painter or any artist; it was simply Matisse’s way. But it seems, to me, an appropriate approach for architecture. The discourses around drawings, representations, processes and the buildings themselves are too dependent on what they mean for architects. The interest is only in how they push boundaries and critique norms. These are useful endeavours, but have to be understood in relation within a broader understanding and definition of architecture. Could there be an architecture (or for starters, a discourse around architecture) that pushed the boundaries as hard as Matisse did while still managing to engage with issues that the general public still recognises? Would this not perhaps make for an interesting definition of how architecture works?  Think, for example, of how much classicism was smuggled into Le Corbusier’s and Mies van der Rohe’s work or of how Aalto held on to certain phenomenological expectations within is modernist idiom. Who could we nominate today as an ‘architectural Matisse’? [3]

Notes:

[1] The word ‘proper’ here is intentional and meant to piss off the hardcore post-structuralist reader.

[2] This is a very crude formulation. Any painter worth their salt, even the classical painters of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, played with the way pictorial space was presented and rarely was what you saw so straightforward. However, museum and gallery visitors reacted negatively to the early abstract paintings because they could not recognise a ‘scene’.

[3] The end of this entry leads quite naturally into two other entries, not yet written. One is on Neave Brown, whose Alexandra Road may be the most ‘Matessian’ project of the second half of the 20th century. The second architect brought to mind is Willem Dudok who skirted with de Stijl but rendered it with reference to traditional Dutch brick construction.