Art Travels

Aubette 1928: a Neoplasticist Gesamtkunstwerk in Strasbourg

Magda Michalska 10 July 2019 min Read

Last week I had a chance to visit Strasbourg in Alsace, France. It's a charming city full of picturesque narrow and tiny houses scattered along the canals. There are bridges and pretzels (yum!) everywhere. Yet, among the cute pebbled alleys one can find a large public square where there is a quite original building...

Neoplasticist
Theo Van Doesburg, Stained-glass panels for Aubette, 1927. "Fortunam suamquisque parat" ("Everyone is responsible for their own destiny"). A table from cine-dancing, 1927, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Strasbourg. Photo: Magda Michalska.

Originally an 18th century military building (the name 'aubette' comes from the daily changing of the guard, which took place at dawn). In 1870 part of the building was ravaged by fire and needed renovation. In 1922 begins its avant-garde history: two brothers, Paul and Andre Horn, rented one wing to make it a leisure centre, " a public monument of general interest (...) to endow the City of Strasbourg with magnificent function rooms". The only element of the original building they had to keep intact was the frontage, considered a historic monument.

Theo Van Doesburg, The cine-dancing, Aubette, 1928, Strasbourg. Photo: Magda Michalska.

Paul, who was a professional architect, drew up the first plans and subsequently he invited Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp to help him with the project. In 1926, the Arps asked Theo Van Doesburg to join. Van Doesburg offered them all his vision of Aubette: it was to become a Neoplasticist Gesamtkunstwerk.

Neoplasticist
Theo van Doesburg, The Function-room, Aubette, 1928, Strasbourg. Photo: Magda Michalska.

At the outset it occupied four levels (basement, ground floor, mezzanine and first floor) and offered several different leisure spaces: a "Five O'Clock" tea room and Foyer-bar by Sophie, a billiard room, an American bar, a cavern dancehall ( all three by Jean Arp), a cafe, a cine-dancing club, and a restaurant by Theo.

A piano, Aubette, 1928, Strasbourg. Photo: Magda Michalska

In Aubette, the Neoplastic utopia of making public architecture a total work of art based on geometric principles took shape of a radical intervention based on use of the geometric grid. Sadly, it turned out too avant-garde for the public. The integrity of the interior was quickly broken by the managers who started adding ornaments in line with the tastes of the time just a few months after the opening in 1928. In 1938, all the original Neoplasticist decor was covered over.

Neoplasticist
Theo Van Doesburg, Staircase, Aubette, 1928, Strasbourg. Photo: Magda Michalska.

The idea of restoring Aubette emerged for the first time in the 1960s. In 1985 the staircase and the cine-club were classified as historic monuments and their restoration began. The foyer-bar and the function room gained the same classification in 1989 and their restoration was launched in 2004. The restored first floor of Aubette was opened to the public in 2006 and the entry is free to all.

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