Henry van de Velde on rational beauty, empathy and ornament: A chapter in the aesthetics of architectural modernity

Elie George Haddad, University of Pennsylvania


This thesis explores the different aspects of Henry van de Velde's theory, through the study of his published writings of the German Period, as well as the unpublished manuscript on ornament. Henry van de Velde's writings are almost totally unknown in the English world except for a few translations such as the Werkbund counter-theses, formulated during the famous debate in the 1914 Werkbund meeting. It is therefore the primary task of this dissertation to cast some light on these works, and to establish their role in the foundation of van de Velde's theory, as well as to explore the major themes that recur throughout these writings: “rational conception”, “empathy”, “line-force”; and to establish their relation to his overall conception of the “organic” work. One of my principal arguments is that van de Velde's theory of Beauty is based on the resolution of the dialectic of rational conception and empathic will, a resolution that is set into work through the role of ornament. This organic theory of Beauty provides the background that will allow a better understanding of Henry van de Velde's activities in design, especially where the role of ornament remains essential. I have limited the investigation of the architectural work of Henry van de Velde to the German phase of his career which summarizes the different approaches that he took towards the problem of architectural form at that time. The investigation casts additional light on this part of his oeuvre which has been reduced in the historic surveys to the singular example of the Werkbund theater of Cologne. By drawing attention to the other projects, I hope to present a more comprehensive image of this artist who struggled to define an aesthetic conception of form that resists the elimination of the human role in the creation of artifacts, and whose efforts shows a wide range of experimentation with form.

Subject Area

Architecture|Art History

Recommended Citation

Haddad, Elie George, "Henry van de Velde on rational beauty, empathy and ornament: A chapter in the aesthetics of architectural modernity" (1998). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9913464.