Dr. Ole W. Fischer Dipl Architect ETH/SIA


Doctoral Thesis:

"Nietzsche’s Shadow – Henry van de Velde’s Theory and Work in the Mirror of the Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. A Comparative Analysis of Reception History in Early Modernity", Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH), Department of Architecture (D-ARCH), Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), 2002-08.


The work of the Flemish painter and style reformer Henry van de Velde (1863–1957) points in the theoretic, book-artistic and architectonic production in various ways to the philosophic texts of the German philologist and private scholar Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). The examinations of Nietzsche’s writings were a watershed for Henry van de Velde in his artistic work in the late 1880s. His changeover to the applied arts and architecture and subsequent appointment as artistic consultant to the Court of Weimar in 1901 coincided with a substantial series of works dedicated to Nietzsche in architecture, applied arts and book design, which van de Velde continued in the Netherlands during the period between the wars. The influence of Nietzsche’s thought on the aesthetic writing of van de Velde can be traced from the first publications in 1893 with intensification during the Weimar period after the turn of the century to World War I and it stays virulent until the unfinished memoirs written in the Swiss exile during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The focus of this analysis is the correlation of radical philosophy, aesthetic thought and artistic production. By confronting the aesthetic concepts of Friedrich Nietzsche with the artistic and theoretic work of Henry van de Velde this recherché exemplifies the process of acquiring philosophic models as programmatic carrier of meaning in art, architecture, and design. Methodological this interdisciplinary contribution to reception history of philosophy in art and architecture of early modernity of the turn of the century consists of two parts: based on a comprehensive and synthesizing elaboration of the artistic, architectonic and life reformist concepts of Nietzsche and van de Velde, the first literary-aesthetical section traces the parallels and references in the texts regarding content and style by comparative reading; the second architectural-art historian section specifies and discusses the programmatic artworks of van de Velde dedicated to Nietzsche, and scrutinizes the idea of transfer of philosophic concepts into abstract form as an early example of the artistic strategies of the avant-gardes of the 20th century.

An exemplary analysis of the alteration of the Nietzsche Archive for Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche in Weimar (1902–03) provides insight into van de Velde’s practice to mediate philosophic motives, physiologic analogies and metaphoric references into built form by the artistic method of “transcription ornementale” deriving from late-romantic music theory. Finally this study raises the problem of the plausibility of this artistic approach, the question of the tightrope walk of the “creator” between homage and usage, between congenial exemplifications, productive misunderstandings or theoretic manipulation, if not to say ideological worldview architecture; therefore the study confronts critically van de Veldes Nietzscheana with alternative readings and discuss possible repercussions of his work on the Nietzsche-cult of the early 20th Century.