When Modernism Was Young
Historian Kenneth Frampton points to the architectural significance of two early 20th-century industrial buildings.
Two striking factory buildings, one in England and the other in the Netherlands, have long served as exemplars of the abstract purity that design solutions based on technology and function brought to industrial architecture in the early 20th century.
When the Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam by architects Brinkman and Van der Vlugt and the Boots factory in Beeston, England, by the engineer Sir E. Owen Williams were completed, record published each in its pages, in 1931 and ’33, plus a feature on the Van Nelle Factory under construction in 1929. In honor of its 125th anniversary, the magazine has turned to the eminent architecture historian Kenneth Frampton to discuss the two influential structures he has long admired and written about. In comparing the still extant landmarks, Frampton takes an approach similar to one he exploited in A Genealogy of Modern Architecture: Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Forms, published by Lars Müller in 2015. In that book, Frampton closely scrutinizes the similarities and differences in pairs of selected examples according to: building type and context; the disposition of public and private areas in plan and section; the treatment of circulation and spatial procession; and the structure of the buildings and their enclosing walls. Genealogy provides a salient starting point for examining these two early modernist structures.
Architectural Record: What makes the Boots factory (now known as Building D10) and the Van Nelle Factory so significant in the history of modern architecture?
Kenneth Frampton: In the Boots factory, Williams was able to employ structure in an expressive way that was essentially rational; it was the generation of engineering form out of combining poured-in-place concrete and glass with plastic effect. At the same time, the Boots building is not as compositional, nor as expressive as Van Nelle, even though they both employed mushroom column construction. The two buildings also made a pioneering use of floor-to-ceiling curtain walls. Nevertheless, the Van Nelle building was more compositional—above all for its sweeping, curved form at the entrance to the complex, which served to terminate the long, multistory structure.
What about their reliance on poured-in-place concrete?
Although both plants are predicated on mushroom column construction, the sheer size of the columns in Boots totally outclasses those of the Van Nelle structure. In both instances, the mushroom columns support a flat slab system first developed by Ernest Ransome in a factory in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in 1902 and by Robert Maillart in a grain warehouse at Altdorf, Switzerland, in 1912.
How does this framework compare with the early reinforced-concrete system developed by François Hennebique for integrating column-and-beam construction?
The Hennebique concrete system is monolithic and consists of flat slabs bearing on concrete beams, which in turn are connected to piers.
Could you comment on the innovation with glass?
The Boots is interesting for its circular glass lenses held in place by a thin, wire-reinforced concrete network. This was very audacious, and you find much the same in Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre in Paris (1932). The sad fact is that we have virtually lost the technique of combining glass lenses with concrete in this way. Both buildings have expansive curtain walls with cleaning tracks, but Williams treats them as an architectural element—as a dematerialized cornice with the edge of the track floating free of the building.
Both Van Nelle and Boots had similar programs: how well do the functional solutions represent new industrial methods of production?
The Van Nelle factory packed tea, coffee, and tobacco, and Boots did the same for drugs. What is interesting is that they are both quite literally machines. The central packing hall of Boots has chutes that deliver pharmaceuticals to various points on the packing floor. In Van Nelle, a continuous chain of hanging platforms runs through the building and eventually goes from the packing plant to canal-side storage across the road. It is telling about each country’s geography that the Van Nelle relies on a canal system of transport, while Boots feedsinto the universal rail system. Incidentally, you might note, there was no insulation in the Boots factory, only a continuous ring of heating pipes—entailing, by today’s standards, a profligate consumption of energy.
The historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote two essays in the April and May 1928 issues of RECORD, when he was a contributing editor. In the first, “The New Traditionalists,” he discussed those architects (Eliel Saarinen, H.P. Berlage, August Perret, Willem Dudok) who adhered to Wrightean or humanist principles, and in “The New Pioneers,” he focused on those who owed more to engineering developments and to cubism (Le Corbusier, Gropius, and J.J.P. Oud). While the two articles formed the basis of his book Modern Architecture: Romanticism and Reintegration (1929), Hitchcock only mentions Van der Vlugt (and not Brinkman) in passing in “The New Pioneers.” Yet this firm, because of Van Nelle and other modernist works, would seem to merit particular attention for its pioneering architecture.
It is interesting that for the piece on “The New Pioneers,” Hitchcock includes a photo of Karl Schneider’s Ceramic Factory in Meimersdorf, Germany, which is little-known even now. However, as the essay reveals, he was very fond of J.J.P. Oud. If you look at Oud, he was a rather conservative architect compared to L.C. Van der Vlugt.
Furthermore, Schneider’s tautly planar Ceramic Factory seems quite modest in comparison with the more structurally innovative and expressive Van Nelle and Boots factories. Certainly these factories now dominate the reputations of their architects. What happened to Brinkman and Van der Vlugt and to Owen Willams after designing such architecturally influential works?
At the end of his career, Williams was confined to building bridges and aircraft hangars, but throughout most of his life, he designed remarkable works—including other industrial structures for Boots, plus the Empire Pool, now known as the Wembley Arena (1934), and the Peckham Health Center in south London (1935). In all of these, he continued to explore the integration of engineering and plastic concrete form. After Van Nelle, Brinkman and Van der Vlugt also had promising careers but designed mainly houses.
In 1927, they also completed a meeting place in Ommen, the Netherlands, for the Indian mystic and Theosophist leader Jiddu Krishnamurti. [Later, the Nazis incorporated it as part of a concentration camp.] As with many leading Dutch intellectuals of the time, the client of the Van Nelle, Cornelis (Cees) Hendrik van der Leeuw, was a Theosophist, and he, like others, saw a connection between this spiritual, cosmic philosophy and the abstraction of modernist architecture and art. Even now, there is an exhilarating spirit about both buildings that transcends their functional programs.