Denmark's unsung master of modernism

Arne Jacobsen
February 21, 2003

Let's start with the recommendation. If you can, buy this beautifully illustrated, serious and seriously informative book; two books, actually.

Part one contains 12 thoughtful essays, which narrate the architect Arne Jacobsen's life and work and put it into the context of the evolution of modern architecture. Part two deals with more than 100 of his 300 or so projects for buildings, furniture, lamps, sanitary and tableware.

Particularly fascinating are some of the unbuilt and less-known projects such as the Belvedere in Hanover (1964), which would be called futuristic were it to appear in magazines tomorrow. There is no other book on Jacobsen to compare with this one. A void has been filled.

What an interesting void it has been. You will not find much about Jacobsen in the standard histories of the modern movement. And yet his is a far more constant presence in the world described in today's "lifestyle", design and interiors magazines and books than most of his more profusely written-up modernist peers and elders. The Series 7 chair, familiar from the famous photograph of a naked Christine Keeler "wearing" it, has become the iconic modern metropolitan café/bar piece of furniture.

The Vola range of taps and accessories has brought geometric minimalism to a market that, until a few years ago, appeared to have got as far as late Edwardian in its exploration of the 20th century. Stanley Kubrick used Jacobsen's AJ cutlery in 2001: A Space Odyssey . Jacobsen's influence today is apparent not just in "lifestyle" accessories and "designer" products but, as this book shows, also in his version of modern architecture: sophisticated, sensual, "posh", cool and safe.

The "cool" explains why, despite the influence of Scandinavian design in Britain, Jacobsen is never mentioned alongside Alvar Aalto, Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz, the three great representatives of a humane modernist architectural tradition that ran counter to the International Style. But it is the "safe" that really explains the void: why the major architectural historians and theorists - from Nikolaus Pevsner to Kenneth Frampton, and subsequently the postmodernists - have little to say about Jacobsen. As the authors of this book acknowledge implicitly, Jacobsen was a consummately talented synthesiser of other people's discoveries, rather than a pathfinder.

There were two key influences. He was devoted to the great Swedish pioneer Asplund, in whose studio he would spend a month every year throughout the 1930s. In his 20s, during the late 1920s, he visited an exhibition in Berlin by Mies van der Rohe and from then on, as he himself said, "came to view Mies van der Rohe as the most important architect of our day".

Jacobsen's SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen is a particularly poignant tribute, derivative not just of Mies but of a work by one of Mies's most famous disciples: Lever House, New York, by Gordon Bunschaft of Skidmore Owings and Merrill. Philip Johnson, another Miesian disciple turned apostate, is quoted in this often unexpectedly entertaining book, rubbishing Jacobsen's building.

The authors are admiring but also admirably objective in their assessment of the Danish master. They find Jacobsen's celebrated design for St Catherine's College, Oxford, (1955-64) "very stiff" and "dry and pedantic".

They worry about the mannered and contrived treatment of parts of his posthumously completed design for the National Bank of Denmark, Copenhagen, (1961-71) and see in it the emergence of doubt about the very basis of the modernist project. That would be entirely in character for an artist who was strongly aware of evolving product culture; for doubt was indeed setting in and architecture and design were to go through 20 years of mood swings - classical revivalism, postmodernist kitsch, high-tech, deconstructivism and the rest.

Today, in a period of return to confidence in a mature and technically hugely improved modern architecture, Jacobsen looks like rather a good exemplar and teacher. He is the quintessential purveyor of gesamkunstwerk , the Bauhaus idea of total design from the building as a whole to the furniture, fabrics, graphics and the contents of the (abstracted) mantle shelf. But whereas that idea came to be thought of as design tyranny (a word the authors also use), it can also be seen as the most wonderful attention to detail. No doing of a rough sketch and passing it to an assistant, let alone a "design-and-build" company. Jacobsen was a universalist almost in the Leonardo tradition. He had a tremendous formal, graphical and spatial sensibility and was a very skilled watercolourist, draughtsman, and fabric, product and landscape designer. OK, so unlike some, he did not set the world on fire, but to quote from the authors'

beautifully written conclusion: "His work seems natural. It seems as if the world itself, in one of its more generous moments, created all these things, which deliberately and unconsciously influenced so much of our orientation in the world, and are fortunately at our disposal."

I only wish there was more of the book - the early sketches of schemes, for example, and more details of the buildings. Another book, gentlemen?

Sunand Prasad is an architect and member of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.

Arne Jacobsen

Author - Carsten Thau and Kjeld Vindum
ISBN - 87 74042307
Publisher - Danish Architectural Press
Price - 94.00 euros
Pages - 560

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