Two types of architecture: Rietveld or Rem?

18/12/18

A trip to the Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht uncovers two approaches to architectural design: one to serve our needs, another to put us in our place writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by Anthony Coleman. 

 

For lovers of cities, architecture and buildings of all kinds, a trip to Holland is always a surprise, never disappointing. Something – an Utrecht townhouse door, a glinting polytunnel (viewed from the window of a speeding train), a daring extension, like the Stedelijk’s in Amsterdam, which resembles a giant sink, bolted rudely (but with great skill) on to a grand 19th century edifice – something, it could be any or all of these things, will catch your eye. Guaranteed.

 

Yet catching your eye is rarely the goal. Dutch architecture works hard. It does a job. Each piece seems to solve some kind of problem. Serve some kind of need. If it looks good doing this, bonus points all round. But how much attention it can grab isn’t the point. How it performs is. 

 

This is vividly demonstrated in the Rietveld Schröder House, Holland’s most famous Modernist building, and to the uninitiated, a kind of 3D version of a Mondrian painting. Built in 1924, this gleaming white-grey cube, with dashes of red, blue and yellow – solid vertical constructional elements defining windows and doors – appears especially odd because of it’s location: the gable end of a traditional terrace, a 19th century brick-lined street in a sleepy part of a sleepy town. This type of bold juxtaposition, very un-English, is a Dutch speciality (and played out spectacularly, and on an absurdist scale, at the Stedelijk, mentioned above. A must-see.)

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Yet during my visit (in August with Open City photographer Anthony Coleman) it became clear that the building’s genius arises not from its Modernist aesthetic – ‘the Shock of the New’ – and its collision with what was there before, but from the way it creates architecture that responds to people, to human behaviour; to the real human needs of a widowed mother and her three children - the daily rhythms of the Schröder household. 

 

What’s doubly interesting is the role played by the client Truus Schröder who urged her architect Gerrit Rietveld to explore De Stijl ideas in his design - Rietveld was never a committed ideologue - and who curdled his architectonics with the ergonomics, her own comings and goings and those of her children, to define the home’s eventual form. In essence she was co-designer.

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Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, much of what you find – at first, at least - is in fact what you might expect of a typical 1920s house. It is brick built for example, with a render finish (concrete was too expensive in 1924). The ground floor plan is conventional, subdivided into rooms – kitchen and dining, a reading room, a studio and a bedroom - much like the neighbouring terraced homes. Yet upstairs, hinged, moveable screens enable the creation of one single continuous open plan. Consequently it has been the focus of huge interest ever since by architects intrigued by flexible planning. During our visit, the tour guide, a young historian - please note, of average build and body-strength - arranges the screens in minutes showing how easily it can be transformed and all the while continuing to narrate the story of the building to the visitors. The change from open plan to subdivided rooms is indeed radical  - and surprisingly, both configurations are comfy – cosy even. It is heartening to think that Truus and her family lived a full and long life in this home.

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Despite its exalted status in Dutch culture, historians and academics remain sniffy and architects invariably cite other Modernist exemplars (Villa Savoye, Farnsworth, Falling Water) when pushed for sources of inspiration. In what feels like a typically English (and typically unpleasant) putdown the once-feted critic Reyner Banham wondered how a 'unremarkable, provincial' figure like Rietveld was able to produce not one but two of the most important icons of modern architecture (his Rietveld Chair is also canonical) misunderstanding the make-up of Holland – a nationwide architectural project - in the process.

Elsewhere Rem Koolhaas, in his 1990 essay ‘How Modern is Dutch Architecture?’ finds Rietveld’s effort wanting when set against the works of Mie Van der Rohe, deriding the Rietveld Schröder House as a ‘gypsy caravan’ flouncing about in cut-price Modernist drag.

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Both Koolhaas and Banham are of an age, so its unsurprising – though still disappointing - that neither acknowledge Truus Schröder’s role in its design. But Koolhaas’s reference to the most reviled of all the ethnic groups in Europe - the Gypsies, who are also synonymous with an anti-urban, rural and nomadic lifestyle - should be noted too. While someone should remind the 6 foot 5 Dutchman that ‘punching down’ is never a good look it suggests the Pritzker Prize-winning architect doesn’t like people. Indeed Koolhaas makes this clear in the same essay when he states:

‘There is a major stream of modernity that has no concern for people, that isn’t humanistic, seeing itself as part of a whirlwind that spares nothing. This is a modernity that we in Holland have never embraced.’ 

To most of us this sounds like the Dutch are doing the right thing here. Yet Koolhaas’s wistful mood is one shared by many architects and it represents the flipside of the desire to put buildings in the service of their users. It’s the kind of thinking that in the past has given us Brasilia, Chandigarh and closer to home, failed megastructures like Cumbernauld Town Centre.

 

Koolhaas’s dismissal is harsh: is he really chastising Rietveld for working closely with his client and for providing an architecture that responds directly to human needs? Koolhaas prefers architecture, ‘where voluptuous sofas lie beside sandblasted windows, where obscene red plush curtains hang next to onyx, where nothing is placed next to something, where heavy rubs shoulders with floating’. You can sense his film-making roots here. This is the architecture of the film or stage set – one that demands you behave according to its rules.

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Interestingly, Rietveld never again designed a house like the house he designed with Schröder. Gerrit was interested in people, less so ideas, and as Tony Fretton notes in his essay Rietveld’s Houses (in his wonderful collection AEIOU - Articles, Essays, Interviews and Outtakes) it was this impulse that defined his work. “There is also relevance and pleasure,’ writes Fretton, perusing Gerrit’s handiwork, “given the gross regard for rhetoric, gesture and celebrity of the present moment, in the fact that all of these projects were carried out in general practice for regular clients, and were variable in quality, experimental in style, sometimes unashamedly dull and at other times innocently of world class.”

 

As Anthony Coleman’s photographs show, the Rietveld Schröder House is a curious blend of domestic charm and mad futurity. Bespoke, almost medieval-looking bedsteads tuck into the same volume lit by a disappearing corner window, which to this day serves as a symbol of future living.

 

Koolhaas’s diss, that’s it’s a jumped-up caravan, misses the point: the ideas underpinning the Rietveld Schröder House are radical – perhaps too radical, as Fretton in his essay says Rietveld would later consider the ‘oppressiveness of planned freedom’ - but because they have been applied at a local level, directly addressing the needs of an ordinary busy family – there’s no film-set glamour here - they go unnoticed by star-seeking Koolhaas. The Rietveld Schröder House was no built manifesto but rather a living, breathing - loved - home, something more dramatic exemplars, from Corb’s Villa Savoye to the Barcelona Pavilion, in fairness, never aspired to be.

 

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