Moderne architectuur, passie en de dood. Over de nalatenschap van de jong gestorven architect Gert Jan Willemse (1957-1987) / Modern architecture, pas

`The woman turns. Mascara all over her face. However, she has not been crying. She appears jovial. One sees her tits through the T-shirt and her apron is wet. She wears a skirt with hearts all over it. She smiles in a frozen way diagonally across the room at no-one in particular. A man sneezes and pushes all the dishes off the table with a swing of his arm. The table cloth is swept up and out by a wire. The woman remains smiling. She bites a capsule in her mouth so that her mouth floods with what appears to be blood, which runs down her chin. The man falls over sideways.’

J. Kappetein and G.J. Willemse, graduation report, Eindhoven University of Technology, 1980

With almost deadly precision, the graduation report explains that the originals are scaled down. `The ratios involved are, respectively, 1:7368.42, 1:1842.10 and 1:736.84′. The precision is that of two students, Gert Jan Willemse and Johan Kappetein, who hope to make their mark with the term `stiletto architecture’. Their graduation work was charged with considerable irony. However, its intention proved to be to hone the seriousness of their manifesto. Architecture was not something to be trifled with. It was too precious an intellectual heritage to allow it to be compromised by the world. The truth inherent in architecture seemed to them to be a matter of radical erotics – a pure passion that had to be defended as a down-to-earth part of life itself.

Ultimately Gert Jan Willemse’s sense of impotence in the service of architecture could lead only to sacrifice. His suicide at the zenith of his short career amounted to a final invocation of architecture while definitively depriving it of its actualization, through one and the same act. The exhibition that was devoted to his oeuvre some years ago has become, in a macabre fashion, his legacy. No splashes of blood on the wallpaper, no morbid confrontation with an act of despair. No, it was a serene withdrawal into a place far from the act itself, where architecture, rather than being laid out on a bier, seemed to be manifesting itself in all its perverse glory. The exhibition took place under the auspices of the Rotterdam Arts Council in the spring of 1987.
That same year, in the autumn, Gert Jan Willemse’s work occupied a special place in another exhibition, `The Eindhoven School’ in Kunstcentrum deSingel, Antwerp. Amid the raucous context of the living work of his fellow students, one of the books he left to posterity, Der Prophet, was displayed. It lay open at a single page. The glass case did its work in simultaneously revealing and concealing this precious relic.
Now, at the beginning of August 1995, the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) has opened the `book of the dead’ once again as part of a series of exhibitions in which the NAi’s archives will yield up some of the many oeuvres they contain. The archives can in a certain sense be read as a mausoleum. One could, after all, describe the collection in the closed volume above the gallery along the Rochussenstraat as having been `interred’. It is a building that enfolds a cemetery within its vivacious play of forms. Les Champs Elysées, a place of the spirits. John Hejduk designed such a place in Venice, a Cemetery of Ashes for the world’s great. Ever since Adolf Loos accorded architecture the title of `art’ only when it took the form of a sepulchre, many, such as Aldo Rossi, have followed in his footsteps. Only in that way would architecture be a `monument’ and be able to survive by the roundabout way of its memorial capacity. It is the way that takes architecture away from its purposeful existence onto the narrow path of inutility: a `purposeless purposefulness’, as Adorno might put it. After all, there would be room for true enjoyment along that detour, whereas the strictly utilitarian rules out or perverts enjoyment.
We can only wonder how the work of Gert Jan Willemse may be understood within this line of reasoning. Perhaps it will be possible to do so by suspending judgement on his course of actions and his ponderings. We can simply accept his fate, and this attitude may well offer us some perspective.
Opening the archive of Gerardus J. Willemse is tantamount to opening a grave, a mausoleum. Folding open the documents he left behind on his demise is like entering into the architecture to taste its `sublime inutility’. A return to the world of the normal, i.e. to the self-satisfied real world, seems impossible. Gert Jan’s death was not, after all, that of a happy man. He killed himself. He left the world behind him; and he also left behind an oeuvre in which architecture appears in its highest raptures and in its deepest morbidity. Someone who fears death, or so we can sense from the work of this short-lived architect, will never be party to these extreme potentialities of architecture. The juxtaposition of extremes goes further than an aesthetic ideal in which pure relationships are celebrated by the intellect. Edmund Burke’s research into the opposing poles of the sublime and the beautiful made it clear to us as early as 1757 how the sublime occupies a position between boundless amazement and deep awe. The sublime throws down a challenge to our imaginative powers; it is an image that goes further than the ideal of beauty and is associated with ecstasy.
Gert Jan placed high demands on his architecture, and this necessarily entailed demanding the utmost of himself. Architecture seemed to him to be incarnate. If architecture were to demonstrate its autonomy, it would also have to be freed from the corporal body – both from that of its makers and from that of its own physical realization as building. His production remained confined to models and drawings: the furthest permissible compromise with a visible world, intended to reveal architecture all the more clearly as an inner experience.
Gert Jan had probably not read Bataille, although his conception of `inner experience’ shows resemblances. Crossing the border between life and death was, according to the philosopher, a way of reaching the ecstasy that architecture will only divulge if one bids farewell to the sterile existence and seeks out the volcano of the emotions.
Without recklessness, but rather with painful precision, Gert Jan pursued his fate. We are confronted, however, with a question that is equally painful. Did he make a conscious issue of architecture? Or was his talent only capable of coming to grips with architecture by the roundabout way of death? The precept of order seemed to leave no other way open. Distance, irony, appeared to play a significant part only at an earlier stage. I am thinking here particularly of his collages. The radical aspect transformed what was a grin into a determined expression.
I am standing in the archive of the NAi. I open the first envelope. It divulges its contents, `meta-sciences’, the subject of a course at Eindhoven University of Technology. A folded sheet of paper is tucked into the cover of a lecture notebook. It bears among other things the inscriptions `self-fulfilling prophecy’ and `suicidal prophecy’. Is this pure chance or am I being guided by an unseen hand? Were these not, after all, the two poles between which Gert Jan and his view of architecture were situated? Did his phrase `unsuccessful predictions’ refer to himself? What is certain is that for him failure was a concomitant of the striving for perfection. His brilliant architectural drawings not only profess his own guilt (or innocence) but amount to an indictment of the world that will not permit that architecture ever to succeed.
Another envelope proffers a number of signals. I try to avoid facile interpretations, but read the following in the series of copies that he left behind as a kind of personal manifesto (a prescription for subsequent life?): `Away with art, the means of escaping a life that is not worth living’ (from the writings of Rodchenko). This originally referred of course to the dead academic art, just as Gert Jan was concerned for a `conscious and organized life, the capacity to look and to construct (…)’ (Rodchenko’s words again). A case of identification, perhaps?
An offprint made from a book titled Prison Architecture turns up. I read: `Stripping the prisoner of all possessions when he enters solitary is significant. The man becomes naked even if he is still dressed’. It is a quote that demonstrates the inexorability of architecture – the rigidity with which many, from Serlio to Laugier, have taken the naked person as point of departure in order to discover (or rediscover) the core of architecture.
A copy from Japan Architect: `Seven kinds of Catastrophe’. I note `Deformation of a meaning-system distortion like Dracula’. It seems bizarre, but when I think of the term he used in his graduation project, `stiletto architecture’, there is still the same fundamental principle involved. The destruction of closed systems to re-instate the experience. An urge to put up an effective if romantic defense of sensibility. Some would call this phenomenon hedonism, but by this characterization we put up a boundary fence around its essence and risk distancing ourselves from it.
The confrontation with dusty documents is thus not without strings attached. It is cold material, but an explosive charge slumbers in these archives. Gert Jan was more than a young man with a passion. Not a fighter from some ideal already recognized. More than a Don Quixote. Not an inept courtly lover, but someone with a radical commitment to offer up everything for a profession which in the end was to be his undoing.
Gert Jan did not stand alone in this. He was part of a tightly-knit threesome consisting of Tony Goossens, Johan Kappetein and himself. Together with Tony Goossens he explored the frontiers of art. Reflections on the geometric ballets of Lucinda Childs formed the basis of Tony Goossens’s graduation project. He drew his audience into a spatial installation. Endless movements around strict, architectonic notations. Free and relaxed movements. His graduation project is marked by the same precision as that of Gert Jan. The angled projection of his subject, for all its impossibility, appeared to be complete in every detail. Tony knew Gert Jan as being `very religious’. Born and brought up in Apeldoorn, he was a catholic among protestants. `Hence just a little stricter religiously. He still always said a prayer before and after meals. Always wore a crucifix. Once, when he admitted to no longer being a believer, it seemed as though he had given himself over to other kinds of certainty.’ To architecture?
Was architecture thenceforth a projection of anxiety, as Freud had once defined religion? The extremes of life and death united within a single system of heaven and hell? Was that why Gert Jan always felt attracted to designing a sepulchre during his student years? And later a prison?
Johan Kappetein was in some ways his opposite. Gert Jan, having cut off his long hair and wrapped himself in an overcoat and stetson, was the dandy. But Johan always remained the `rocker’; with his broad grin and clothed entirely in worn-out leather, he would sit sprawled over his Harley Davidson. Both clad in black, they looked like the modern heroes from Baudelaire’s Salon de 1845: `erotic death-worshippers’ with `the symbol of eternal mourning’ around their shoulders.
Gert Jan revealed his aspirations towards rock music in his collages, which he initially saw as the ultimate presentations of his design projects. Glamour girls in boxing shorts and boxing gloves were placed in museum-like spaces in which the architectural oeuvre seemed to have found its destination as a document. These fantastically beautiful women would prove to be apocalyptic angels. They radiated an air of sweet revenge: the last judgement. The announcement of a revelation. Clad in a rustling outfit and wearing headphones, or naked and sensual, these erotic creatures took on the status of architectural allegories. Architecture appeared in this context almost as a divinity. Perhaps it was the erotic ideal that Baudelaire foresaw in Les Fleurs du Mal: the woman who emanates hardness and masculinity. Architecture was thus given the manifestation of an androgynous being, which in turn displayed an almost merciless rationality. It was a skeleton whose logical grammar was disrupted and which had sacrificed this logic in countless parts for the sake of a spontaneous interpretation of its content: the fickleness of woman. It related to a passion for surrounding woman, as the mysterious source of ideas, with a sublime rationality or irrationality. Owing to his still-innocent intuitive approach, this eventually proved to elicit total submission.
The collages in fact constitute the first signs of an undiminishing passion for the modern. It is a passion that was already tied up with ideas of suicide in Baudelaire. Not as an `act of acquiescence’ but as `a deed that sets the seal on a heroic struggle, that makes no concession to an inimical disposition’. Years later, Gert Jan noted, `The only defence against being trapped in someone’s idea of your intention is to keep changing your field and work very hard, so that the face of your creation, which will always be the most important thing, always overshadows its interpretation.’
Just as every enthusiastic architecture student possesses a kind of small library, Gert Jan build up a frame of reference by collecting copies of architecture articles, and also countless slides of buildings by Quist, who was professor at that time, Terragni, Melnikov, Tschumi and many others. Besides being a collection, it was a chronology of inspirational sources and reflection. The collection opens with among other things a crucial text by Geert Bekaert, `The right to architecture’ from 1981 (although by then Gert Jan had already graduated). Or, seeing the year of publication, is this actually the concluding item? Is it an accumulation of arguments that leads by way of inspiration to the thesis, and through the thesis to the moral?
Has the path become ever narrower as free association makes way for an accurate formulation of the architectural conscience? We may assume most of the texts served as identification or as the legitimation of a search process. The collection also clearly indicates how the struggle towards architecture as an autonomous discipline grew in importance. Was Bekaert’s warning against `an architecture devoid of shadow’ for naught? The Italian rationalism of Terragni and others, the studies of Peter Eisenman that later became associated with it and the work of Aldo Rossi nonetheless made an impression. It would be going to far, however, to interpret such references as the only reasons that Gert Jan suffered a headache on so much as hearing the word `architecture’. Around this personal searching that had previously always been dismissed as narcissism, there was a general tendency in the eighties to answer the accusation of ideological failure with an appeal to architecture’s autonomy.  The `game’ that in Eisenman’s view still remained was tolerated by Tafuri, in Mies van der Rohe among others, as at most `sublime inutility’. Gert Jan marked the following quotation from Eisenman: `the injustice, following the holocaust, of still talking about a meaningful, human environment’. In fact there seemed to be no other way out than to console oneself with a shadowless architecture, and in that roundabout way also to justify the rising hedonism.
The collection of architectural references is incidentally a snapshot in time. They all date from the region of his graduation year and range from Tafuri’s 1975 article `European Graffiti: Five x Five = Twente Five’ to Bekaert’s text of 1981. As to content, the collection is strongly inclined towards rationalism. Architects and authors tumble over one another, such as Portoghesi over Rossi, or Dal Co over Meier. Gert Jan’s interest in publications by Tschumi is noteworthy, especially Tschumi’s statement `To really appreciate a murder’. The interest in Tschumi seems comprehensible in the light of earlier notions. A number of Tschumi’s statements make matters clearer here: `Architecture is the ultimate erotic art’ and `If you want to follow architecture’s first rule, break it’. Probably these manifestos, in particular, developed into the bedrock of Gert Jan’s way of thinking. It is in a 1979 issue of Architectural Design that the synoptic term occurs: `Desire’, preceded by `It is not the clash between fragments of architecture but the invisible movement between them’.
`Transparency in Architecture’ by Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky, a work that was compulsory reading for Gert Jan as for his whole generation of students, seems to have been taken by way of Tschumi towards a sensuality that goes far beyond the `literary’ capacity of architecture proposed in that book. `Sensuality has been known to overcome the most rational buildings’. Tschumi again, clearly.
This proved to be the prelude to the final phase of Gert Jan’s oeuvre. Like most students, he went through a period in which unlimited ambition collided with the hardness of reality. His friend Johan found a job with the Urban Development department in Rotterdam (he had been noticed when his graduation design was honoured by Archiprix), but he resigned in disillusion after a year. In a letter dated 1982, he wrote the following: `I think that (…) the main aberration was started by the architects of the modern movement (…) the white interiors of asylums and hospitals (…) meant to calm people down by suppressing sensory stimuli (…) In this, modern architecture was taking a stand against the awareness of death and decay.’
He also wrote, `Architecture, which has recently given a warm welcome to liberal arts that had never previously heard of architecture, has thereby abandoned its uniqueness and disciplined character and has taken up a position within a general ideology.’
Johan subsequently shut himself up for years in a farm labourer’s cottage at the back of his parents’ estate in Zeeland. Gert Jan found work in America with Helmut Jahn during the same period. But he, too, was to return after a year in a similar mood. Most acquaintances observed him gradually becoming more and more isolated in this period, `at home by the stove, penniless and unable to explain his thoughts to society’.
It is around this period that his most intriguing work resulted.
Previously the drawings provided the legitimation for the design; now the tendency was the other way round. The design remained architecture, not meant to rescue the world but as a way of seeking personal happiness. Architecture became a narrative, an illustration; a means to an end in the search for a personal morality, a perception of the world. Included as they are in a book in which there is barely any text, these drawings become emblematic. They are still pure icons that invite contemplation and impose a silence on the words. It is the moment at which architecture coincides with its maker and reveals the imaginary world of the hermit. Architecture thrusts itself forward as asceticism and points towards a life that accepts an earthly existence only as a means of transforming sensory experience into the transcendental.
In a certain sense the drawings started displaying the technique of Tadao Ando. However, they were not able to expand on the vitalism, which in the play of light and shadow recalls Louis Kahn, in a way that was capable of overcoming his isolation. The contrary became visible. The drawings grow both in inapproachability and in subtleness. They are translations of snatches of phrase suggestive of the thought world of Rilke – translations in which the drawings try to express that which the words themselves can only approach with difficulty. Drawings, in other words, that accompany the inexpressible and, more than anything, approach the quiescence of architecture as an inner force. They are neither illustration of the text nor expressions of it. They are vehicles of the mind that confirm the motto adorning one of Gert Jan’s books: cogito ergo sum. This maxim of Descartes recalls his doubts about the whole of existence, with the exception of that of himself: the inner way. It is the expression of a longing to reach that which is described as `sich ein Loch zu graben um so dann nur noch unter den Wolken Ausschau zu halten, Ausschau nach seinen glückselige Inseln’. The fact that the drawings were eventually bundled for publication as a series of books underlines more than anything the notion that architecture is a story, which can come to a perilous conclusion. Gert Jan’s architectural drawings show all the signs of inescapable fate. Meanwhile, they have become so small that an explanatory note about their scale would not contribute to their clarity. It is rather a question of an alienating absence of scale in which every human point of contact is lacking. We can only guess at his message. Friends and people he respected received copies of these books without realizing they were parting gifts. They were confronted with the question that Gert Jan seemed to have solved.
What do the drawings represent? We see fragments of buildings. They show architecture as a form of neutrality. The desert-like character of the surroundings seems to blot out yet at the same time intensify all emotion. There is a purity of form in which the volumes emerge as sharply articulated, the frame as hollowed out and the shadow as translucent. They seem to have become icons. In other words, these drawings are calls to mediation. To call them invitations would be going too far. The titles of the books indicate their contents, and an introductory text then provides some entry to the drawings. The successive titles were Von der Glückselige Inseln in the summer of 1983, Der Prophet in November to August 1984, Querfeld ein in autumn 1984 to spring 1985 and Finale in autumn 1985 to spring 1986.
The end was approaching. A few close friends received a visit; some of them receive a copy of an architectural tractate that, only in retrospect, proved to be a final testament. The heaviness of a tombstone. The lightness of a banner. The curtain had fallen.
To those who were prepared to understand, Gert Jan had followed a logical path. `I saw it coming long beforehand’ said one of his teachers. Others come forward with predictable rationalizations during the mourning process. Some unblushingly pointed a finger of blame. There were also those who remained silent. Did these last, perhaps, grasp how architecture reveals itself by way of the death of its maker?
Let us look at the drawings again, particularly the last series. Do they form the expression of a calvary, a prophecy, a blissful consummation? Is architecture the way to a better life? Is it a faith?
If we consider the poems of Gerrit Achterberg and of Paul Célan, or Reve’s unwritten book about the Viollet and Death, it is clear that all had death in their eyes. Their works never cease to intensify the sense of death approaching. They strive towards the only frontier that is inescapable. For Gert Jan, concrete experience ceased with his voluntary death. Anyone who opens his testament is enticed into contemplation of an approaching end. We evade the thought. We look aside. We seek an escape.
One possible escape route, which Bekaert considered in his paper `The right to architecture’, was formulated as follows: `That architecture must be fought with architecture. One may declare architecture dead (…) but that will not stop architecture from living on and sliding ever further down the slippery slope (…) that it is left increasingly in the hands of charlatans and daily takes on more oppressive forms, for architecture is not innocent.
If there is a way out (…)’
Heidegger’s term `Sein zum Tode’ lent this escape route a special dimension, in that he preferred to view death as one of the options of life, the option that seeks escape in delay: the shifting of the boundary.
Gert Jan, both in his personal life and in the field of architecture, sought recognition beyond that frontier. Just as Boullée conceived a grave for Newton in which the scientist was entombed within his own invention, Gert Jan Willemse chose the architectural drawing as his grave: an eternal passion.

Oedipus gesublimeerd. OMA’s voetsporen. Volgen of ontwijken? / Oedipus sublimated. OMA’s footsteps. Follow or avoid?