Homage to the brick

Siebe Thissen 30.08.2018
Jannes Linders

Shortly after the bombing of 14 in May 1940 offered the visual arts consolation in dealing with the loss of the old city. After the rubble had been cleared and temporary boulevards with emergency shops and emergency cafes gave a fresh interpretation to the city center, the first sculptures arose in the city center. This trend was continued with great enthusiasm after the liberation. Banks, insurance companies, mortgage lenders and shopkeepers placed works of art in, on or near their new buildings, with which they not only demonstrated the unbroken resilience of business, but also expressed solidarity with the city population and the shopping public. The Bijenkorf department store decided to raise the bar even more and focused on international sculpture.

In 1953, the management of the Jewish family company (which lost nearly 750 employees during the Holocaust) The destroyed city donated to Rotterdam by sculptor Ossip Zadkine. In addition, a giant sculpture by Naum Gabo was placed in her new building on Coolsingel. And for the chic restaurant, a reclining figure by Henry Moore was purchased. A new tone was set. More and more large companies and multinational companies have adapted to developments abroad. In just a few years, the city collection was enriched with sculptures by Umberto Mastroianni, Marino Marini, Auguste Rodin, Henri Laurens, Alexander Calder, Giacomo Manzù and many other renowned artists. The new Rotterdam not only became a testing ground for modern architecture, but also a showroom for contemporary art in public spaces. The British sculptor Henry Moore was invited to expand the new Building Center, in the heart of the city.

Even before the German invasion, plans existed to build a City Center Building following the British example of the 'Building Centers'. The institute, intended for both craftsmen and laymen, should provide information about building materials, building methods and architecture, but also provide space for exhibitions. Architect Joost Boks opted for a striking circular construction made of concrete and clinkers (a regular hexagon), in which offices, a library, an exhibition space and a café-restaurant were housed. When it was delivered in 1949, the building turned out to be too small and the architect was asked to realize an extension. Because the round shape of the old building made no annex possible, a new rectangular block was designed next to it. The main entrance of the Bouwcentrum was moved to the new wing on the Weena. Since the entrance was flanked by a closed façade surface, the idea for a work of art came to mind.

Henry Moore had an exhibition at Museum Boymans in the spring of 1953. Thirty sculptures and forty drawings, including his famous Shelter Drawings (1940-1942) made a big impression on art critics and visitors. But museum director Coert Ebbinge Wubben had another motive with his exhibition. He considered Moore to be the sculptor par excellence who could push monumental art in Rotterdam to new heights. The museum also showed a model of a series of facade images that Moore had just designed for the Time and Life Building in London. Was this not a work of art in which architecture and visual art were united in a fabulous way? "The very personal personal world of forms of Henry Moore is twice as valuable for Rotterdam and its new cityscape," said the director. "A work by his hand will encourage Rotterdam artists to noble competition," he predicted. That message was echoed by Joost Boks, eagerly looking for a candidate for the facade of the Bouwcentrum.

The Bouwcentrum was able to seduce Otto Huisman, one of the founders of the institute and the uncontested brick king of the Netherlands, to finance the company. But then of course Moore would have to use brick. Boks and Moore quickly came to an agreement. Although the sculptor had not worked with brick before, he accepted the challenge. "Yes, I dare," the sculptor told a local newspaper. "Because an experiment with brick simply belongs in a Building Center like this." He then visited the famous brick factory of Terwindt & Arntz in Nijmegen, where Otto Huisman was in charge. Here Moore became acquainted with the red Dutch brick, studied the production process and carried out some initial experiments. "It must be possible," he muttered in the presence of the manufacturer.

The reconstruction of Rotterdam was a lucrative venture for brick manufacturers. The new city made extensive use of concrete, steel and glass, but brick remained as popular as ever. In 1953 the entire Dutch stock of one and a half billion stones was sold and Rotterdam was the largest buyer. Two years later, the brick turned out to be a scarce product and the industry announced an export restriction. The brick was a nice product, but due to the mechanization process used in construction (assembly and stacking), the danger of monotony in the design was always lurking. This shortage required traditional innovations, decorations and visual arts. In an effort to promote this craftsmanship, the brick industry in 1953 had started annual masonry competitions. The festive competition took place in a large tent next to the Bouwcentrum. Notables, including the mayor of Rotterdam, handed the winners the silver trowel and the hammer afterwards - the highest distinction of the brick company.

Well, in this environment, Henry Moore's artwork was considered the absolute masterpiece. In the spring of 1955 the sculptor was assigned two skilled craftsmen, the masons Gerrit Philips and Kees Molendijk. They were supposed to implement the design for the brick relief Moore had made on location. The sculptor called his design 'the interpretation of an idea in brick'. There was nothing original about that, he thought. "The Assyrians were already doing it! Moreover, the Dutch brick is a fantastic product to work with, and because of its smaller size much better suited for processing than the English one. Sculpting with these bricks is like mosaic work - you have to compose fine lines and lines in a whole '.

After the craftsmen received a plaster model of the design and a series of working drawings, they went to work. Every stone was meticulously placed, stacked, chopped if necessary, and updated according to the working drawings. There was no symmetry anywhere. Even the most subtle slopes, protruding and bulging shapes, curves, surfaces and lines were processed with great feeling by the masons in an eighteen meter long and eight meter high relief. The work was so dynamic that it seemed as if the bulging shapes were being blown out from behind the wall. The craftsmen enjoyed their job. More than 16.000 bricks slid through their hands.

Claims were recorded by the architect with the camera. Every Friday afternoon the photos were sent to Moore's studio in England. At home, the sculptor provided the material with comments and corrections to return the envelope to Rotterdam immediately. This process took almost four months. During an on-site inspection, almost two months before delivery, Moore was in a jubilant mood. "I am delighted today," the sculptor reported to a local newspaper. "My corrections were only brief, but now that I see the work for the first time, I can only say that this is a sublime example of craftsmanship."

On December 22 became 1953 Wall Relief 1, as Henry Moore had titled the work, revealed. Praising words were spoken by the British consul, by museum director Ebbinge Wubben and brick manufacturer Huisman. However, the British sculptor himself was absent - he had obligations elsewhere. The honors were observed by both of them. After the speeches, the director of the Bouwcentrum handed them an envelope with content. "It has become a fantastic work of art!" Said one of them. 'What does the construction industry no longer know about professionals? All chatter! If it can only cost a few cents more! "


Published in: Michel Édouard Leclerc and Christian Alandete (ed.), Henry Moore [Catalog de l'Exposition a Hélène & Edouard Leclerc Fund], Landerneau 2018.

Related artwork

Wall Relief 1 (1955) Henry Moore