address: Coolsingel 105, Rotterdam
architect: Marcel Breuer
local architect: Abraham Elzas (The Bijenkorf and Hema architect at that time)
commission: De Bijenkorf
design of the sign: Robert F. (Bob) Gatje
original materials: teak
size of the letters: 60 cm high/ back lit
categorie: slab serif or Egyptian
capitals or romans: capitals
cursive or upright: upright only
Architect Bob Gatje (NY, 1927–2018), worked at Breuer’s studio in NY for 23 years, most of his working life. He was 26 when he started and would later become Associate and Partner.
When Bob designed the spiral bound booklet of drawings they used to present to update the Director of De Bijenkorf, he choose a fat slab serif type for the title “The Bijenkorf” on the cover. However, the drawings and the model in this booklet still show a modernist sans serif sign above the entrance and one probably neon, on top of the east façade. In Marcel Breuer. A memoir (p. 52-53), Bob writes: “I chose a shadowed Egyptian type style with heavy slab serifs that was popular in one of my favorite magazines, The Architectural Review of London. As the construction drawings progressed, Lajkó [nick-name for Marcel Lajos Breuer] decided to use the same letterform as building signage over the store’s main entrance at the Coolsingel and I made the drawing for its execution in heavy three-dimensional back-lit letters of teak, each about two feet tall.”
Bob Gatje was a great fan of the writings of Nicolete Gray who at that time regularly published on architectural lettering in the English design magazine The Architectural Review. In the June 1954 issue, right at the time when Breuer was designing the Bijenkorf, Gray wrote about Egyptian lettering: “Undoubtedly the Egyptian letter is the best architectural letter so far invented”.
In a later article in The Architectural Review dated April 1955 entitled Expressionism in lettering, Gray presents the recently finished Bijenkorf pointing out the beautiful contrast between the softness of the wood with the brutal stone. To this I want to add that from an architectural point of view, the choice of wood was a logic design consequence as teak was already used for the interior of the building: for the handles in the glass entrance doors, along the staircase (still to be seen), for the counters and the ceiling.
I was curious to know which letters exactly Bob selected from The Architectural Review for De Bijenkorf. In the 1954 June issue of AR, the one in which Gray wrote about the Egyptian letter, I found exactly the same letter as Bob Gatje selected for the Bijenkorf signage. Not surprisingly they were part of the type style of the magazine and used only for the headers of the articles on architecture.
Bob Gatje has written to Nicolete Gray about his De Bijenkorf sign. In Marcel Breuer. A memoir (p. 54) he writes: “Among my pleasure in reading The Architectural Review were the regular articles by Nicolete Gray about building signage in which she often noted the quirks that sometimes occurred due to a signpainter’s personal whim. She […] was amused by my report that the carpenter who made the letters had ‘improved’ on my execution drawing by adding a serif to the bottom point of the N, which, obviously, the architect had forgotten.”
This name was given to the new bold and loud letters designed in the beginning of the 19th. Century. They were new, especially made to be read in large sizes on posters and handbills, new advertisement phenomena, that were hung all over the city – especially in England. Newly designed letters, not enlarged book types. Big letters, fat letters. The letters were named after Egypt, a country that Napoleon failed to conquer in a military expedition from 1798 to 1801. His military expedition failed, but the scientific expedition led by Vivant Denon (whose drawings were published by Pierre Didot, Paris, in 1802) brought to light the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Rosetta Stone, the miracle of the pyramids, mummies… Followed a period of serious Egyptomania in Europe with an influence of both high and low culture, design, art and architecture. In 1817, the foundry of Vincent Figgins published a specimen with slab serifs called “Antique”. The competing foundry of Robert Thorne made also a slab serif and published it somewhat later, in 1820 and named it…“Egyptian”.
Gray mentions the revival of the egyptienne in architectural lettering in the 50-ties and according to James Mosley (1999) the Brits were suspicious towards the European modernist sans-serifs, reminding them of the recent, continental World War II horrors. They avoided any reminiscence to the war and reused a British letter. The revival of the slab-serif became clearly visible at the Festival of Britain in 1951 where the slab-serif lettering was “cheerful, picturesque and charming” (Kinross, 1992).
Sign in 2019
The sign as I photographed it, is in bad condition. The letters are not made of solid teak wood anymore – who has the old ones? – but made of cheap wood covered with veneer that is old, cracked and comes off. So, I wrote to the Bijenkorf: it is time for a restoration.
When Marcel Breuer (1902 Pécs, Hungary – 1981 NY) receives the commission (by telegram) for a shopping mall in Rotterdam in 1953, he is already a renowned architect and busy designing the prestigious UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Before that, Le Corbusier too was very interested in the commission for the UNESCO buildings but through efforts of Walter Gropius, Breuer was chosen to do the job in a triumvirate with Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss. Gropius had informed Breuer on purpose about a meeting of the supervising team of the UNESCO buildings in a café in Paris. The supervisors were not satisfied with the process, nor with the actual architectural project. ‘Accidentally’, Breuer passed by, he was invited at the table and got the commission.
Breuer and Gropius were colleagues and friends for over 20 years. Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus and 19 years older than Breuer, invited him to lead the carpenter’s workshop at the new Bauhaus in Dessau after Breuer had graduated there and left the Bauhaus to travel Europe with Herbert Bayer, the Bauhaus Master of the graphic print workshop. Gropius asked Breuer to design furniture for the auditorium, canteen and the Master houses. As an outstanding student at the Bauhaus, he gradually had become close friends with Walter and Ise Gropius. For the Bauhaus, Breuer designed his Wassily chair, the famous, and very first, steel tubular chair. J. Stewart Johnson, when designing the exhibition on Breuer at the MOMA in 1981, has researched drawings, renderings and photos of projects of older famous modernist architects including Mies van de Rohe and Le Corbusier but none of them was showing steel tubular furniture before 1925-1926 in any of their projects before Breuer designed his famous tubular Wassily chair. For the Bauhaus he also designed nesting stools and theatre chairs. This range of furniture became extremely successful and commissions for interior designs, and soon also villa’s, for the rich and cultural famous followed.
The bike and the chair
It is good to realize that until then, all furniture was made out of wood; Breuer was thinking about new, modern furniture that was to be light, easily movable, industrial-like and transparent. First, he tried a tubular chair out of aluminium but this material was too soft, too expensive and could not be welded easily. Breuer’s bike gave him the idea to use steel tubes: when he came to Dessau, he bought a bike to explore the city and he made long bike trips to get to know his new environment. He soon ordered lengths of extruded steel tubes with Mannessmann Steel Works, the manufacturer of his steel bike frame, that were bent according to his specifications. And, as Breuer was always looking for what we now call co-creation, he hired a plumber who could help him welding the steel.
Breuer was eager to make things. At the age of 18 he moved to Vienna to study at the prestigious Akademie der bildenden Künsten and soon discovered they were only talking and not making. He moved to the Bauhaus in Weimar, studied there – the second year had just started – and later, led the carpenter’s workshop in the new Bauhaus in Dessau. Imagine: he was part of this whole new, amazing artistic community, not only as a student but also as a teacher and independent entrepreneur. Unlike the other teachers, he soon started his own furniture company together with an Hungarian friend which allowed him to survive during the economic crisis in Germany. In 1928 he left the Bauhaus to establish his own architectural practice in Berlin and travelled Europe where he looked for work in different places.
Breuer and Gropius
Gropius was impressed by Breuer’s talent since Breuer was a Bauhaus student and during more than 20 years, Gropius used his own power and prestige to help his protégé: he asked Breuer to return to the Bauhaus to teach, to come to London arranging a partnership with F.R.S. Yorke, to work with him in his office in New York, to teach with him at Harvard, gave him all the commissions for villas he himself had no time for or no interest in, manipulated the supervisory team of the UNESCO HQ in favor of Breuer… Of course, at one point, Breuer had to start his own office, which he did in NY, in 1941.
London – Cambridge – NY
For Breuer, it was no longer possible to work in Germany, it was 1934, Breuer was Jewish (although everybody thought he was Catholic) and he moved to London, started a practice and moved again, to the US this time where he taught at Harvard, worked with Gropius, had his own practice and lived in NY until he died in 1981. Imagine: at Harvard he was again part of the same cultural, artistic circle as at the Bauhaus as many artists had fled Europe and were now working and teaching there.
XS – XL
In Europe, Breuer had realized interiors, built his first villas but in the US he builds no less than 60(!) villas: think James Bond houses: wood, natural stones, glass, on a concrete/natural stone base; beautiful villas with sometimes one sculpture: the fireplace or the stairs, sparsely decorated with the new, multi-functional, steel tubular furniture. A next phase started with the large UNESCO HQ (1958), The Bijenkorf in Rotterdam (1957) and the US Embassy in The Hague (1958). Later also an XL urban project followed: the ski resort village Flaine, France (1960).
Breuer and Nervi
For the UNESCO HQ, Breuer teamed up with Pier Luigi Nervi, the architect/engineer famous for his béton brut (qualification by Le Corbusier, Unité d’Habitation, Marseille, 1952). According to Bob Gatje, Breuer said that the collaboration with Nervi was the most fruitful collaboration of his life. Exciting facades followed with carefully designed XL patterns in concrete: El Recro, Caracas, 1958, US Embassy The Hague 1959, and amazing tree-like supporting concrete columns: Library, St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota 1961.
No concrete for The Bijenkorf façade yet but travertine, a natural stone that was also a favorite building material of the modernists, especially of Le Corbusier. Anticipating possible dirty traces made by rain and smoke and smog from the harbor and the traffic downtown Rotterdam, the travertine slabs with a beehive pattern on the Coolsingel façade and an orthogonal pattern on the south façade have fine ribs avoiding the usual vertical traces of smog. Instead, they make a beautiful pattern.
The first architect that was assigned for the commission, was JJP Oud. In a letter by Abraham Elzas (Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, Elzas, A (Abraham)/ ELZAd343), the in-house architect of The Bijenkorf company and co-architect of the project, wrote: “Tout savoir, c’est tout pardonner”. JJP Oud had refused the commission because he was suffering of depressions and the request for the commission came at the wrong moment.
The new building would replace the old Bijenkorf built by W.M. Dudok (1930) that was partly destroyed during the bombing of the centre Rotterdam in May 1940. Of course, the building could have been rebuilt by Dudok after the war. However, in the Basisplan by Van Traa (1946), describing the reconstruction of Rotterdam, https://wederopbouwrotterdam.nl/en/articles/basic-plan-van-traa the Dudok Bijenkorf obstructed the view of the urban window towards the river Maas and did not fit into the Road Plan defined immediately after the bombing. This required a new site and a new architect. The chosen site was the corner stone of the Basisplan by Van Traa: the most important urban spot at the Coolsingel, at the main axis of Rotterdam.
75 m x 110 m x 27 m, 4 floors, expedition in the basement. Later, Breuer would also build a parking garage.
The Basisplan by Van Traa prescribed a protruding element at the south corner of the building. Breuer had no intention of adding a projecting ‘bumb’ to his building just to satisfy the cityplanners (B. Gatje, 2002), so he invited his friend Naum Gabo to design an art work right at the ‘bumb’. He must have met Gabo at the Bauhaus where he also taught in 1928, and in Londen where he also lived in 1936/1937 and finally they must have met also in the US, as Gabo also immigrated to the US in 1941.
“Kunstwerke machen nicht unbedingt ein schönes Gebaude aus. Wir leben nicht mehr in der Gotik. Aber ich begrüsse die Kunst als Ergänzung der Architektur, wie ich Menschen, Pflanzen und Bücher als die belebenden Elemente des Raumes begrüse, der sie umgibt” (Marcel Breuer. 1921-1962, Cranston Jones, Hatje, Stuttgart, 1962, p. 185)
Marcel Breuer. A memoir, Robert F. Gatje, The Monacelli Press, NY, 2002
Marcel Breuer. 1921-1962, Cranston Jones, Hatje, Stuttgart, 1962
Marcel Breuer. Furniture and Interiors, Christopher Wilk, The Museum of Modern Art, 1981
Modern typography. An essay in critical history, Robin Kinross, Hyphen Press, London, 1992
WhatsApp zou onderzoek moeten doen naar de leesbaarheid, NRC 13 oktober 2018
Lettering on buildings, Nicolette Gray, The Architectural Press, London, 1960, p. 41-47
Egyptian Lettering. Their character and suitability to contemporary architecture, Nicolete Gray, The Architectural Review, June 1954, p. 887-889
Expressionism in lettering, Nicolete Gray, Architectural Review, April 1959, p. 272-276
The Nymph and the Grot. The revival of the sans serif letter, James Mosley, London, Friends of the St. Bride Printing Library, 1999
Photo Naum Gabo and G. van der Wal by Fritz Monshouwer: Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, Elzas, A. (Abraham)/Archives ELZAd343
Presentation booklet: Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, Elzas, A. (Abraham)/Archives ELZAd310
See also The Marcel Breuer Digital Archive of the Syracuse University Libraries: https://breuer.syr.edu/