By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

BOOK

REVIEW

2G no. 39/40 - Gerrit Rietveld: Casas/Houses Editorial Gustavo Gili, 2006. 287pp. £40.00

Imagine creating a canonical building as your first proper architectural project while still in your mid 30s, yet never designing anything as important again. You would be in the same boat as Orson Welles or Joseph Heller, forever associated with your earliest, seminal work; blessed and cursed at the same time.

It's what happened to Gerrit Rietveld with the Schröder House of 1924-25 - although he had already achieved a notable hit with his Red and Blue chair, designed in its unpainted form in 1918.

Both these artefacts were icons of the De Stijl movement, of which Rietveld was a part.

Although never as theoretically sharp as Theo van Doesburg, or as naturally talented an architect as J J P Oud or Jan Duiker, he created the ultimate symbols of Dutch Modernism. But of course, Rietveld produced a lot more than the Schröder House, and this issue of 2G, edited by Marijke Kuper, does a sterling job of filling in the gap by focusing on his private house designs.

Several things emerge from reading it. One is that Rietveld was a Dutch parallel to Mies van der Rohe, someone with no formal architectural training but who came instead from a European craft tradition. In Mies' case it was stone-carving, whereas Rietveld trained in his father's wood furniture workshop. Both Mies and Rietveld shared a love of clarity and austerity, choosing to express themselves through enigmatic, often oxymoronic aphorisms. Rietveld spoke of 'the wealth of sobriety', and was fond of pointing out that 'dwelling is a verb', envisaging an active role for the user.

Socialist by principle and Calvinist by temperament, Rietveld lived most of his life with his family in a modest rented apartment in Utrecht, eschewing possessions as far as possible.

What this volume also reveals is the consistency of Rietveld's approach, based on the classic Modernist tropes of form, function, free-owing spaces and framed structures.

He was known for thinking through his hands, making endless models, and deliberately leaving details to be worked out on site. Rietveld's aim was for exibility, standardisation and prefabrication wherever possible. These he saw as the architectural expressions of the concept of abstraction, the removal from nature which was called for by De Stijl doctrine.

As a die-hard Modernist, he was a Dutch representative at CIAM's La Sarraz declaration in 1928 and remained a member until that body fizzled out in the 1950s. Ideally, he wanted to design working-class housing, but got little chance to do so; rather his socially orientated projects tended to be museum pavilions and art academies in Amsterdam and elsewhere.

Instead, Rietveld had to fall back on to private house commissions - around 100 of them, often holiday retreats, almost all in the Netherlands.

Working usually on a 1m² planning grid, he pursued his architectural hunches - evolving from two-storey houses wrapped around a central core before the Second World War, towards a freer bungalow style along American lines after the war. The later houses mixed steel or concrete frames with large glazed panels and exposed brickwork that was often painted white, black, blue or yellow for visual effect.

It is fascinating to see how Rietveld's emphasis on constructability could lead him to extreme conclusions. For instance, the rough-sawn clapboarding of the Verrijn Stuart House in Breukelen (1940-41) ended up looking like something Robert Venturi might turn out if asked to represent Dutch vernacular.

Many of Rietveld's post-war houses reected growing Dutch prosperity, such as the Van Slobbe House in Heerlen (1961-64), a sumptuous, bourgeois villa miles away from his early ideals: it contained seven bedrooms, including one for a live-in maid. However, for all his ingenious attention to domestic design, the paradox was that Rietveld's house plans were just as controlling as anyone else's; exibility turned out to be another mythical 'holy grail' of Modernism.

Altogether, some 21 houses are shown in this book. Yet for all its good intentions, it can't help but reinforce the pre-eminence of the RietveldSchröder House, which is given far more pages than any other.

After all, it was a shining icon that Rietveld could never escape. When his wife died in 1957, Rietveld moved into the house with Truus Schröder, spending the last seven years of his life there.

Murray Fraser is a professor at the University of Westminster

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters