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History meets the Body. Re-enactment as a mode of architectural inquiry.
Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment
Although we normally think about ideas and discourses as disembodied entities, the truth is that tacit architectural concepts, specific ways of understanding history, time, and space, are inscribed into our built environments, and they can only be disentangled with the help of our own bodies, by performing actions within, in, and around buildings. This paper explores the use of re-enactments as a method for architectural historians, using Aldo and Hannie van Eyck’s own house as a case study. The researcher’s body informs the reflections and findings, from materiality to meaning, through the continuous and embedded experience of the space, a seventeenth century building were the Van Eycks lived from 1965, which was diligently remodelled by themselves into their treasured family home. Almost hidden from the street hustle, yet open to the outside, the place lights up as soon as the threshold is crossed. Both literally and metaphorically, the changes and additions to the building reveal their architectural thinking and ways of inhabiting. In the house, layers of temporality, materiality, everyday living and lived experience mingle with design solutions and worldviews affecting them. However, while re-enactments allow for an embodied understanding of how architectural ideas take material form, they also hold the potential to show the situatedness, partiality and contingency of the re-enacted practices, questioning the same values that they unearth. keywords.
Out of the many contributions to Team 10 Primer, first edited in 1962 by Alison Smithson and still a compelling journey into the work and ideas of Team 10, the fragments by the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck have always captured my attention for their conceptual depth and poetic language. Van Eyck, who had a strong impact on post-war European architectural discourse, saw the architect as an artist whose role was to go beyond practical reality and come to a poetic experience by means of architecture. In these and many other essays, his references to poets, artists, philosophers and anthropologists demonstrate the changes he felt were needed to renew the modern architectural discourse. Among many theoretical contributions, Van Eyck proposed a redefinition of the concepts of space and time into the experiential notions of place and occasion, phenomenologically charged, and resorted to the ideas of play and imagination as bridges to connect external and internal realities, which he believed were one and the same thing, ‘an enormous in-between realm where all legends, myths, passions, birds, fish, worms, flowers, witticisms and people come, and to which they return’ 1 Aldo van Eyck. Collected Articles and Other Writings 1947-1998, ed. by Francis Strauven and Vincent Ligtelijn (Amsterdam: Sun Publishers, 2008), p. 70. . These seemingly metaphysical notions came to be realised in buildings and urban interventions, together with Hannie van Eyck, that have long found their place in the canonical histories of European architecture.
Nonetheless, when one reads historical accounts of architects or architecture, there is often the impression that such ideas and life-worlds are not pertinent to the present, that they belong to the past. This is even more noticeable with architects whose understanding of space strongly relied on experiential notions and whose writings often referred to things, artworks, atmospheres and places that ought to be discovered with our own bodies. In Lucien Febvre’s words, what historians need to do is not to clarify, simplify and reduce history to a perfectly clear logical diagram, but to understand. For Febvre, to understand means ‘to complicate, to enrich and deepen, to expand step by step, to mingle history with life’,
Lucien Febvre. Combats pour l’Histoire (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1992), p. 76.
suggesting that historical accounts could be more vividly brought to the present.
Following this recommendation, I’ve tried to explore ways in which, as a researcher, I could help bring works or ideas more intensely to the present, on how to approach the architectural knowledge not easily conveyed with conventional historical accounts, that which remains tacitly contained in the places architects design and dwellers inhabit. In the case of the Van Eycks, I’ve found that a livelier narration of their thinking could start from a cloistered house in Loenen aan de Vecht, the seventeenth century building where they lived from 1965 that was diligently remodelled into their treasured family home (Fig. 1). Both literally and metaphorically, the changes and additions to the building reveal the Van Eycks’ architectural thinking and ways of inhabiting. Thus, this house has given support 3 This research follows what started with my Ph.D, Aldo van Eyck, le Musée Imaginaire. Doctoral Dissertation: Universitat Politècnica de València, 2018. to an attempt to get the Van Eycks back to life, since they could potentially be found there, in between their things, with the family keeping most of the objects where they left them.
But, above all, this house has led me to reflect on how historians approach places and how these can potentially be interviewed and rediscovered with our bodies. Do ideas get incorporated into the places in which we dwell? Are they/are we shaped by them? These are the sort of questions I’ll try to briefly address in this paper, exploring the method of re-enactments as a mode of architectural-historical inquiry. This paper focuses on the method, its advantages and drawbacks, while the oral presentation explores its yields in a narrative and embodied visit to the house.
Re-enactment as a mode of architectural inquiry.
Performative Design Research.
“The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene.” 4 Judith Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’, Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 519–31, p. 526.
Although there were always discrepant voices, conventional approaches to the past —including seminal architectural history works— have often offered linear and distanced accounts, preoccupied with finding evolutionary threads that aligned with the totalising narratives of modernity. This logos-oriented historicist project, which ultimately led to a widespread skepticism in the appropriateness of subjective experiences for theoretical thinking, has nonetheless been challenged by postmodern philosophy, postcolonial thinkers, and feminist critical theories. Particularly over the last decades, architectural scholars have started to introduce ‘alternative modes of knowing’ 5 Lara Schrijver, ‘Introduction’, in The Tacit Dimension. Architecture Knowledge and Scientific Research, ed. by Lara Schrijver (Leuven University Press, 2021) <https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1mgm7ng>. that offer richer and more vivid accounts of the past, non-linear, subjectively informed, in recognition that historians do not only document, but also produce history. This is especially important considering phenomenology and feminist analysis, both committed to grounding theory in lived experience and revealing ‘the way in which the world is produced through the constituting acts of subjective experience’ 6 Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’, p. 522. .
Performative Design Research is one of such alternative ‘modes of knowing’, which elaborates upon notions of performativity and embodiment in the form of an examination of tacit knowledge. In The Tacit Dimension (1966), Michael Polanyi asserted that ‘we can know more than we can tell’, referring to notions and experiences that people possess but are not codified and may not be easily expressed. In order to access those notions and experiences, Performative Design Research uses formats such as re-enactments, animations and narratives as appropriate methods to approach history. Conversely, it is strongly connected with Judith Butler’s (1988) understanding of the body as a manner of doing, dramatizing and reproducing a historical situation, an active process of ‘embodying certain cultural and historical possibilities’ 7 Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’, p. 521. . If it is true, as posited by Butler, that the ‘body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space and enacts interpretations within the confines of already existing directives’ 8 Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’, p. 526. , then it must be true that these ‘directives’ are inscribed into our built environments, like scripts that survive the particular actors who make use of them, but still require individual actors to be actualised and reproduced as reality once again. Performative Design Research and its methods are thus of special interest for architecture historians, who deal with places and how these acquire, transmit and reproduce cultural values, spatial ideas, particular ways of doing, making, and living. These values, as shown by feminist scholars and phenomenologists, can only be accessed with the help of our bodies, and here is where re-enactments come into play.
As explained by anthropologist Sarah Pink, re-enactments consist of a performance of a routine and a task that pulls historically accrued ways of knowing and is both particular and abstract at the same time, in the sense that it is a one-off event but simultaneously seeks to stand for the many times the task has been performed before 9 Sarah Pink, Making Homes: Ethnography and Design (Taylor & Francis, 2017), p. 111. . They have been historically used by ethnographers researching homes because the home is a site of the everyday unspoken, sensory, and embodied ways of knowing, those that create meaning and help make sense of specific places and ideas. When re-enactment is an ongoing and regular practice, it produces a corporeal inscription of cultural values and expectations in, on, and through the body. Thus, through performative methods such as re-enactments, former passive sources can become active objects of knowing. The re-enacting body can function, as stated by Katherine Johnson, as a mode of historical inquiry, exploring and extending archival research 10 Katherine Johnson, ‘Performance and performativity’ in The Routledge Handbook of Reenactment Studies, ed. by Vanessa Agnew, Jonathan Lamb, and Juliane Tomann (London: Routledge, 2019), pp. 95-98. and generating knowledge that is consistently overlooked by other methods 11 Schnell, ‘Performative Design Research’. .
A re-enactment of the Van Eycks’ homelife.
Expanding the archive.
My attempt to bring Aldo and Hannie van Eyck’s thinking back to life is grounded within these approaches, from re-enacting to narrating, using the Van Eycks’ family home as a VECTOR by which the architects’ tacit knowledge was transmitted. While my initial approach to the house was close to conventional archival research, using the original drawings, cartographies, newspapers, old photographs, writings, and lectures, I quickly dared to expand the archive and interpreted the house as a ‘field’ in an ethnographic sense. I produced new drawings of the space, photographs, fieldnotes, catalogues of the library and the art collection, and had countless conversations with its everyday dwellers that provided stories of the house and its contents, evidence on how the space was experienced and inhabited. These activities involved long periods of time inside the building, dwelling as a guest for a total of five months since 2015 and 2022 —sometimes continuously for a month, others for daily visits. Hal-way through my research, I unconsciously became a re-enactor of the Van Eycks’ lives. I started to note how the spatial and material arrangements affected my associations, relationships that were conscious and embodied, material and conceptual, spatial and temporal 12 Klaske Havik, ‘Writing Urban Atmospheres’, in The Routledge Companion on Architecture Literature and the City, ed. by Jonathan Charley (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 270–82 (p. 270). , and that emerged from my bodily interaction with the place. As a re-enactor 13 It is important to note that this attempt to uncover the deeper meaning of Van Eyck’s architectural thinking through their Family House in the Netherlands could only use re-enactments because, simply put, the house was still an everyday space where said tacit knowledge had been kept alive, produced and reproduced through the inhabitants’ interactions with the place and its contents. , actor-historian, I was recreating some of the repeated, stylised acts of the Van Eycks’ lives, somatically reproducing the customs, values and practices that instituted their ways of living. 14 Johnson, ‘Performance and Performativity’, p. 172. These re-enactments further expanded the field and helped me to make sense of all previously collected materials, tracing relationships between the things, the place, Van Eyck’s lectures, their buildings and writings. As Tim Ingold has suggested, the process was like ‘that of following trails through a landscape: each discovery will take you so far, until you come across another that will take you further’, what he calls wayfaring 15 Tim Ingold, ‘Against Space: Place, Movement, Kowledge’ in Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description(London: Routledge, 2011), 145-155. .
I have described these re-enacted activities before in The Journal of Architecture 16 Alejandro Campos-Uribe and Paula Lacomba-Montes, ‘Embodiment takes command: re-enacting Aldo and Hannie van Eyck’s homelife’, The Journal of Architecture (2023). , where I’ve used narratives, films, photographs, and drawings in order to capture and convey some of the bodily interactions that helped me make sense of the ideas and values that were inscribed in the house. As re-enactor of the Van Eycks’ everyday life, for instance, I visited the house’s attic to perform a relatively simple act of housekeeping (Fig. 2). The attic’s atmospheric and material qualities triggered unexpected bodily responses. Up in the dark, cold, and dusty room, old memories suddenly acquired a living possibility of being, with the realisation that I needed to approach the house together with the family’s old dwellings in Zurich, Amsterdam and Baambrugge, all inhabited simultaneously as a stratum of temporal layers. Experienced with my body, the objects stored in the attic immediately and very vividly brought distant places and memories to the dark, cold room where I had found them. In short, the visit to the attic made me physically aware of the presence of the past, vision permeating matter, thus helping throw light into the Van Eycks’ tacit phenomenological understanding of architecture.
These and other similar experiences likewise illuminated metaphysical concepts and ideas that had remained cryptic and abstract before. Consecutive lunches, dinners, and breakfasts below the skylight that, extensively performed with my body, enabled a deeper understanding of the Van Eycks’ fascination with the natural cycles and the fact that it’s impossible to encounter the same spatial experiences twice (Fig. 3). The inconvenient step between the garden and the living room, when demanded with a continuous crossing of boundaries for the unplanned re-enactment of Team 10’s famous meeting in the Van Eycks’ garden in Loenen, clarified their notion of the in-between and their metaphoric understanding of a door as a place to tarry (Fig. 4). Overall, these and many other everyday re-enactments proved very valuable for the understanding of the different dimensions of time in the Van Eycks’ work, since the acting body necessarily dwells within a topo-temporal lifeworld where space and time can only be intertwined. As Vannini has pointed out, ‘being sensitive to the quality of performativity means tuning-in to the event-ness of the world, taking a witness stance to the unfolding of a situated action, and being open to the unsettling co-presence of bodies affecting each other in time-space’ 17 Phillip Vannini, ‘Non-representational ethnography: new ways of animating lifeworlds’, Cultural Geographies Vol. 22(2) (2015): 317–327, p. 321. .
History meets the Body.
Nonetheless, rather than exploring these re-enactments and their yields further —which I do in the conference presentation—, I want to discuss here the consequences of the fact that the re-enacting body differs from the bodies that instituted the space and inscribed their cultural values in its material qualities. While re-enactments allow for an embodied understanding of how architectural ideas take material form, they also hold the potential to show the situatedness, partiality and contingency of the re-enacted practices, challenging the same values that they unearth. Phenomenology attends to the tactile, kinesthetic, and visual character of embodied reality, but we should also think of the ‘historic-racial’ scheme which is below it, beneath the surface. We can say that ‘homes’ are archives, ways of gathering material around which worlds gather, which make what is not already here familiar or reachable. In a sense, they are orientation devices, which are not neutral but directive.
For instance, during my stays at the house, I once and again interacted with the Van Eyck Art Collection, composed of hundreds of artworks from two distinct traditions: a small but intensive collection of avant-garde European art and an extensive collection of non-Western artworks —sometimes called ethnographic art, primitive or tribal art— (Fig. 5). The Collection, exhibited on the house’s walls and vitrines, was seen by the Van Eycks as a Great Ensemble of artefacts from all over the world, exhibited as a constellation of formal relationships which showed, ultimately, the ‘elementary’ qualities of human nature and the nonexistence of any kind of hierarchical/evolutionary relationship between cultures. However, my bodily interaction with these objects, which was unavoidable considering their immense impact on the historical atmosphere of the house, intuitively rejected the Van Eycks’ perspective. Contrary to theirs, my body-mind has continued to feel a certain kind of epistemic violence during my daily interaction with these objects, noticing how these were instrumentalised to play their role as archetypal scenes, without confronting the colonial matrix of power in which their collecting practices emerged. As Sarah Ahmed 18 Sara Ahmed, ‘Chapter 3: The Orient and Other Others’, in Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke University Press, 2006). has rightly pointed out, the otherness of things is what allows us to do things ‘with’ them, extending the reach of our bodies. In putting such things within reach, a certain world acquires shape, a white world that is orientated around ‘whiteness’ and that is inherited as a dwelling, shaped by colonial histories. This is why Ahmed argues that it is possible to talk about the whiteness of space — a whiteness that is only invisible for those who inhabit it—as an accumulation of such objects of extension, since we do inherit our tendencies; instead, we acquire our tendencies from what we inherit. The table, the bed, the coach, surrounded by such exotic objects from other times and places, became for the Van Eycks vortexes from which the world unfolded. Even if these appropriations spoke the language of curiosity and care, the agency of collectors, dealers, travelers, explorers —gifts, thefts, purchases, payments— is behind such gatherings. During my long stays at the house, I was taking these very same domesticated objects in my hands, looking at them as intensely as the Van Eycks, reading their books, feeling their weights, materials, colors and compositions, facing their ’otherness’ in an attempt to re-enact their curiosity. However, they failed to clarify the Van Eycks’ intentions, since there was a clash between bodies, theirs and mine, thirty years later.
By immersing my body into the Van Eycks’ home, by re-enacting activities in-between its material arrangements, I’ve been able to offer a deeper understanding of their architectural discourse and concomitantly challenge their practices as historically contingent —yet inscribed and alive in the present. These re-enactments show connections that would have been lost if the analysis relied solely on archival research techniques. Embodied and material, they allowed me to dwell not only in the Van Eycks’ drawings and texts, but in the place they inhabited for fifty years. In these terms, re-enactments add a degree of complexity and liveliness to architectural history, enacting a new form of knowledge where the researcher’s body, through interaction with the places he or she studies, informs the findings, from materiality to meaning.
We normally think about ideas and discourses as disembodied entities, but ideas are shaped by our interaction with the environment, and they get incorporated into the places in which we dwell. With my research on the Van Eycks, I’m trying to show that their ideas are somehow present, materialised in their house. Of course, I must admit that this method cannot offer a closed, definite understanding of spaces, peoples, and ideas, nor reach the architects’ original intentions. It is, indeed, similar to wayfaring, an unravelling of an experiential knowledge that cannot ever be exhausted. However, we must see this impossibility as a creative opportunity to challenge and reconfigure the life-worlds that we study. What this method can do, indeed, is offer insights into the ways in which architectural ideas take material form, proving that specific ways of understanding history, time, space, are tacitly embodied within our environments and that they can only be disentangled with our bodies, by performing —enacting— actions within, in and around buildings. The task, in these terms, is inevitably creative, striving to ‘animate rather than simply mimic, to evoke rather than just report’. 19 Vannini, ‘Non-representational ethnography’, p. 318.
- Aldo van Eyck. Collected Articles and Other Writings 1947-1998, ed. by Francis Strauven and Vincent Ligtelijn (Amsterdam: Sun Publishers, 2008), p. 70.
- Lucien Febvre. Combats pour l’Histoire (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1992), p. 76.
- This research follows what started with my Ph.D, Aldo van Eyck, le Musée Imaginaire. Doctoral Dissertation: Universitat Politècnica de València, 2018.
- Judith Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’, Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 519–31, p. 526.
- Lara Schrijver, ‘Introduction’, in The Tacit Dimension. Architecture Knowledge and Scientific Research, ed. by Lara Schrijver (Leuven University Press, 2021) <https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1mgm7ng>.
- Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’, p. 522.
- Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’, p. 521.
- Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’, p. 526.
- Sarah Pink, Making Homes: Ethnography and Design (Taylor & Francis, 2017), p. 111.
- Katherine Johnson, ‘Performance and performativity’ in The Routledge Handbook of Reenactment Studies, ed. by Vanessa Agnew, Jonathan Lamb, and Juliane Tomann (London: Routledge, 2019), pp. 95-98.
- Schnell, ‘Performative Design Research’.
- Klaske Havik, ‘Writing Urban Atmospheres’, in The Routledge Companion on Architecture Literature and the City, ed. by Jonathan Charley (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 270–82 (p. 270).
- It is important to note that this attempt to uncover the deeper meaning of Van Eyck’s architectural thinking through their Family House in the Netherlands could only use re-enactments because, simply put, the house was still an everyday space where said tacit knowledge had been kept alive, produced and reproduced through the inhabitants’ interactions with the place and its contents.
- Johnson, ‘Performance and Performativity’, p. 172.
- Tim Ingold, ‘Against Space: Place, Movement, Kowledge’ in Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description(London: Routledge, 2011), 145-155.
- Alejandro Campos-Uribe and Paula Lacomba-Montes, ‘Embodiment takes command: re-enacting Aldo and Hannie van Eyck’s homelife’, The Journal of Architecture (2023).
- Phillip Vannini, ‘Non-representational ethnography: new ways of animating lifeworlds’, Cultural Geographies Vol. 22(2) (2015): 317–327, p. 321.
- Sara Ahmed, ‘Chapter 3: The Orient and Other Others’, in Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke University Press, 2006).
- Vannini, ‘Non-representational ethnography’, p. 318.