THE CRUISADE OF OBBE NORBRUIS
Rehabilitation of a group of Dutch architects in the Dutch East Indies
by Hans Arends
The names of Eduard Cuypers, Marius Hulswit and Arthur Fermont are connected to the two most productive architects from pre-war Indonesia: Until 1927 they worked under the name Hulswit-Fermont & Ed. Cuypers. After the death of Marius Hulswit (1862-1921) and Eduard Cuypers (1859-1927) they continued under the name Fermont-Cuypers until 1958.
Together they realized more than 150 buildings in the archipelago. Their extensive oeuvre includes churches, bank buildings, hospitals, government buildings and private houses. The buildings, of which there are still many, harvested much appreciation in the former Dutch East Indies and now in Indonesia. But who has ever heard of these architects here in the Netherlands?
Obbe Norbruis has written two books about these architects and explains with great passion why he wanted to snatch these architects and this part of our colonial history of architecture from oblivion.
Obbe Norbruis studied architecture and urban design in Delft. He did research in that area and worked as a designer and consultant in the Netherlands for various agencies and municipalities. Interested in architecture and urbanism from the colonial past, he expanded his research world to Indonesia.
Where does this fascination for colonial architecture in the Dutch East Indies comes from
I am very fascinated by things that run differently than they are planned. People who have lived a turbulent life, I find more fascinating than people who live according to the book. The first certainly applies to the designers and builders of the colonial buildings in Dutch East Indies. They ultimately worked on those buildings with a completely different idea than it eventually became.
You have to imagine, as I mainly have described in part II, that just before the war, headquarters for large companies – such as those of the Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij – were built with the intention that they would remain headquarters for years to come. None of that. Many buildings were given a different function.
I can really enjoy a ruin for example. How did it look in the past and why has it become a ruin? That tells me a lot more than the Rietveld-Schröder House, which stands nicely polished.
You write that the history of this colonial architecture has been silenced
A great deal of attention has been paid to the critical side of colonialism. I think that’s right. But the reverse did not seem very clear to me. I have always found it astonishing that no one paid a lot of attention to it. Well, let’s take a look at what has happened and see if we have the same opinion, or that we have changed our mind.
In the Netherlands we have many people who are involved with architecture. We have plenty of books about all sorts of well-known architects. What struck me was that we knew very little about the architects there. In fact, those architects, were never taken seriously in the Netherlands. If you look at the professional literature from that period, only indirect attention was given to them.
Since Berlage we have learned to look at architecture in a specific way. We have tools to judge something right or wrong. That is how I also was trained during my study. But those instruments do not lend themselves to establish an opinion on the architecture there. That is also a reason why not so much attention has been paid to it.
Why did you end up at the trio Eduard Cuypers, Hulswit and Fermont?
I have discovered Eduard Cuypers – nephew of the well-known Cuypers of the Rijksmuseum and the Central Station – in preparing for a trip to Indonesia. When collecting information, I came across the name of Cuypers very often.
It struck me that people wrote about a few more modern-oriented architects, like C.J. Dullemen who wrote about Wolff Schoemaker [Tropical Modernity, Life and Work of C.P. Wolff Schoemaker, h.a] but not about the architects with a bit of retro-like or classicistic preferences, as was the case with Ed Cuypers, Hulswit and Fermont.
In addition, they also got the stamp to be commercial. I also come from the generation who thought that architecture should not be commercial. Now I say: why not?
I got stimulated more and more. At the end, I found it fascinating to discover how much had happened and with what kind of drive that happened. I thought maybe the moment has arrived to really find what went on.
When it comes to your choice of architects, by contemporaries here in the Netherlands they were mainly portrayed as architects from a bygone age: the boring 19th century
You correct that image in your books
Right. But I am not the only one at the moment. There are many more writers who come up with the question: In the last 100 years we have not thought very much about architecture in one particular way. It was always said: that 19th century is not right. We are all brought up in that way a bit. And it is too easy to say that is because of Berlage. But he is the man who has started it all. And now we say: before Berlage something at least has happened and maybe it should get more attention.
Has Berlage visited the Dutch East Indies himself?
In 1923 he was in the Dutch East Indies. He wrote a book about it [Mijn Indische Reis, h.a]. Berlage wrote about everything he did. That is why he got more attention from the newspapers. And Cuypers was only building. He did publish a few magazines with a focus on international developments. But we do not know what underlying thoughts he had with his designs.
Cuypers is said to have used many architectural styles
Eduard Cuypers started quite young as an architect. His uncle Pierre scored with the Central Station and the Rijksmuseum. But he went to work for a slightly different target group and was one of the best architects we had until well after 1900.
In particular, socialist views versus liberal ideas from the 19th century played an important role in condemning Eduard Cuypers, because he did not participate. For Cuypers the client was holy. He also did not have that much feeling for down-and-outers and wretches. For him the motto was: roll up your sleeves and get started.
He also went to the Dutch East Indies
He has only been there once, in 1909. What motivates someone to design things here that have to be built there? Of course the big assignment for building all those buildings for the Javasche Bank. But why he captivates me again is that he did not insist that it should all be executed exactly as he had conceived it. We think that a very good architect is someone who draws everything from A to Z and works it out to the last, but he also gave others the space to fill things in according to their own ideas. That’s what graces him.
All those drawings went that way by ship. That lasted a month and then he hoped that Hulswit, his companion, understood it all and if not, the questions about it would come back by ship. I think that’s all very interesting.
Is there a definition of colonial architecture?
It will probably exist somewhere, but I suspect that it says that it concerns buildings that originated from a Western perspective in the tropics during the colonial period. Something like that.
The nice thing is, and that is one of the discoveries I made, that the first 30 years of the last century architects in the Dutch East Indies were much more open to different style influences than their colleagues in the Netherlands. Here they quickly came with brick construction and a some more Amsterdam School. That will be an obedient architecture, while in the Dutch East Indies you will see many more flamboyant buildings.
So the Dutch East Indies is the outlet for Dutch architects
In the Netherlands much more modernism and rationalism began to penetrate. That has played a much lesser role there. I have to say that and that is colonial again that we are talking about buildings for the better Dutch who were there. The native still had his hut and his regular home. No attention was paid to this. Certainly not by Eduard Cuypers and his team; that was done by some other architects. But we cannot blame him too much. Cuypers died in 1927 and only the last 10-15 years of his life social housing started to play a major role in the colony .
Which place did Ed. Cuypers take within the professional architects in the Dutch East Indies
Architecture in that country started very timidly around 1900. Before that time there were no guidelines. And if you consider that Cuypers was there for the first time in 1909 and did his first projects, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. So at the beginning he and Hulswit were absolutely of importance.
So there was no distinct vision
If there was a vision around 1910, it was a very classic vision that was rooted in the 19th century. The Netherlands was a colonial power, so you showed in your buildings that the West was superior. In those days monumental buildings were built in the Philippines and Australia, among others. And Cuypers thought that that might be an example for him too. So he had to take care that the Javasche Bank in Batavia beared witness. And the nice thing is that Indonesians find the bank a splendid piece of work.
The ‘new’ attention for the colonial architecture here in the Netherlands, is it also experienced in Indonesia now?
We grew up in the Netherlands with the attitude of avoiding this subject. Our generation has paid little or no attention to it. This is now changing. That applies to the Indonesians as well. Until recently for them the world started on the day of independence and about the history before that time they heard little. And you now notice that young people truly say: ‘Hey, there was a time before that, what about that’?
You also notice that owners are interested in the type of colonial building they own.
Photo series are made and they form the backdrop in streets where tourists gradually come. So you see that a revaluation is occurring.
Have Dutch architects tried to convey the Dutch vision on building?
Architect Moojen has done his best to create an architecture link with the Netherlands. I describe that in my book. But he was pretty unique in that. There are a number of buildings – for example the post office in Medan – with a Dutch allure. That was round 1911. I do not know why, but at a certain moment it disappeared again. People were more charmed by, for example, American art deco. They were more international, you could say. So when you see those buildings, you do not feel that it has anything to do with the Netherlands. They could also be built in Australia or Miami. Or the buildings have something very special, with many influences from their own country.
So those colonial architects in the Dutch East Indies did not have any need to impose the Dutch will on the country. They were also there with the idea that they would go back again one day.
The English and the French had a greater tendency in their colonies to convey their architectural ideas and to train people and design buildings that could have been in Europe.
What we do see – that is a bit of refining of my answer – is that especially in the thirties with the crisis, architects who built there also erected a number of modern architectural buildings.
And those architects who came back from the Dutch East Indies, did they bring their ‘tropics experiences’ with them? Do you see anything of this in the Netherlands?
That is a new area. We will investigate that. We are in contact with Museum ‘Het Schip’. I haven’t seen many good examples myself.
In any case, this does not apply to Cuypers. He never lived in the Dutch East Indies.
At the end of the conversation, Obbe Norbruis returns to the astonishment that runs through his argument: ‘Darn! They have built so much and that has never been put on a list. The question among architecture historians was mainly: Are there still modern buildings? Because modern was good, that’s how we learned it. So those were in the spotlight while they left the rest because they couldn’t deal with that ‘
So that actually leads back to the Berlage-Eduard Cuypers controversy, which you pay a lot of attention to?
And actually also a bit in the second part between Fermont and those who especially strived for socially-driven, modern architecture. Because he had less interest in that. But it also had to do with the fact that modern architecture does not really lend itself for the tropics. You didn’t need large windows. On all those tight flat roofs they now have built little roofs against the heat. So they were actually right at Fermont-Cuypers not being interested in it.
When assessing these buildings in the Netherlands, they were quickly judged by the standards from here.
You live here in the middle of the ‘Berlage plan’. How do you view Berlage as urban planner?
I have had a high regard for Berlage my whole life. And actually I still have. He has meant a great deal to our architecture and our architectural views. But, I also say, South Amsterdam has become beautiful by the architects of the Amsterdam School. If you go to Javastraat and you look at a number of Berlages blocks of houses, then you are glad that the entire neighborhood is not filled with his block of houses. He was primarily an urban planner and had to give space to the architects of the Amsterdam School. They have made facades just a bit more interesting than the purely businesslike, almost boring facades of Berlage. Those two elements together, Berlages rational views on urban design and the input from the Amsterdam School, have ensured that this has become a very nice neighborhood.
Will you continue with this topic?
I will continue with the person Eduard Cuypers. I dealt with him indirectly in my book. We do not have that much about him so it will take some gathering.
Furthermore, I am collecting money for the English editions of both books, because I want people in Indonesia to read these stories. The books are meant for that. I have already held a number of lectures. And, it sounds a bit complacent, in Indonesia they look forward to it.
Alweer een sieraad voor de stad
Het werk van Ed.Cuypers en Hulswit-Fermont in Nederlands- Indië 1897-1927
Auteur Obbe Norbruis
LM Publishers, 314 pagina’s
Architectuur met vlag en wimpel
Het werk van Fermont-Cuypers in/em>
Nederlands-Indië en Indonesië 1927-1957
Auteur Obbe Norbruis
LM Publishers, 295 pagina’s