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Dutch masters

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The recent restoration of Brinkman and Van der Vlugt's Sonneveld House in Rotterdam turns the clock back to 1933.

Open any history of Modern architecture and you are sure to see a photograph of the Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam (1925-31).

Designed by JA Brinkman & LC van der Vlugt with Mart Stam, this machine for processing tea, coffee and tobacco was a functionalist monument - a compelling advert for the concrete frame and curtain wall. Now partly refurbished as the Ontwerpfabriek (Design Factory) and housing various 'creative' enterprises, it is still a commanding presence on its canal-side site.

Kees van der Leeuw, the Van Nelle director who commissioned the new factory, was an enthusiast of Modern architecture and soon afterwards invited Brinkman and Van der Vlugt to design a house for him on Kralingse Plaslaan in Rotterdam (1927-29);

keeping up progressive appearances, one of its near neighbours today is by Mecanoo.

Other Van Nelle board members followed suit, with both Mathijs de Bruyn and Bertus Sonneveld asking Brinkman and Van der Vlugt for new homes of their own.

Happily, the Sonneveld House (1929-33), which served as the Belgian consulate for many years after the Sonnevelds left in 1954, has just opened to the public.Now owned by the Stichting Volkskracht Historische Monumenten, but managed by the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI), it has been restored by the Delft-based practice of Molenaar & Van Winden in conjunction with the NAI. It is presented much as it was on its completion: a state-of-the-art showpiece for the functionalist Nieuwe Bouwen (New Building) and Nieuwe Wonen (New Housing) movements.

F R S Yorke thought the Sonneveld House significant enough to merit a generous five pages in the very first edition of The Modern House (1934). As one aspect of the restoration has been a careful recreation of the complex internal colour scheme, it now has qualities that Yorke's black-and-white images never conveyed. But while the decision to treat it as a show house eliminates problems of adapting it to a new use, it raises questions of its own.

Just what does the visitor experience here?

The architect for the restoration, Joris Molenaar, says: 'I see architecture in its long lines, in its continuity. I want to be an architect of today's situations but also to care for what we have inherited. I have a lot of historical interests - by no means just the Modern Movement. I'm not interested in reviving a long-gone avant garde, but in how to live with its legacy.'

Molenaar was a logical choice for the Sonneveld House commission. As a student he was involved in making an inventory of Brinkman & Van der Vlugt's archives, which were thought to have been lost in a flood but in part had just been rediscovered. He later secured a grant to carry out research on the practice's villas. Above all, in 1987-88 he had already restored a Brinkman & Van der Vlugt property - the house built for Mathijs de Bruyn at Schiedam, now a Rotterdam suburb.

The De Bruyn House, in family hands since its completion in 1931, had been purchased by a couple who admired the architecture but expected current comforts - the kind of clients John Winter describes (see page 30). They wanted double glazing, for instance, which was duly installed, and did not seek a total restitution of fixtures and decor: a previously built-in bench remained in the cellar to which an earlier owner had consigned it; the living room was not brought back to the colours which Molenaar's investigation revealed - 'the shock was too much for them', he says.

So while content enough with the outcome of that restoration, especially given the more limited knowledge that prevailed then about handling such buildings, Molenaar saw greater potential in the Sonneveld House - it could be restored without any compromises.

For despite its period of institutional use, primarily as a place for the Belgian consul to entertain his guests, and a flawed renovation in the early 1980s, the house was substantially intact. But there were conflicting arguments about its future: a museum of design? offices? apartments for scholars?

'It certainly wasn't clear from the start that we would complete an exact reconstruction like this, and treat it simply as a show house, ' says Molenaar. 'But for me that was always the ideal. People can only understand the exemplary meaning of the Sonneveld House if they see it just as it was realized. And in that way they can better understand the Nieuwe Bouwen.'

At first glance Bertus Sonneveld and his family, living in the 'brown oak' interior of an old brick house on a Rotterdam canal, seem unlikely patrons of the Nieuwe Bouwen. But, as NAI conservator Barbara Laan puts it, having explored the client's background and the commission in depth: 'I gradually became convinced that the Sonnevelds' decision was an unusual one for the average middle-class family in the early 1930s, but a logical one in their particular case.'

The Bertus Sonneveld that Laan describes is a man in love with the conveniences of his age. A frequent traveller on Van Nelle company business, he had acquired a taste for ocean liners, Pullman cars and American hotels.

'He liked clever inventions and practical refinements. He really loved gadgets, especially when they made life easier - lifts, telephones, cigarette lighters.' As his wife was equally alert to 'the utility of objects', and had something of an eye for contemporary design, you soon have two candidates for the new way of living that Modern architecture, in its Dutch functionalist manner, would allow.

The Sonneveld House was one of four villas built in the 1930s in the so-called Dijkzigt Villa Park in the centre of Rotterdam. They stood on the former meadows of an old estate close to the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, then under construction and - to Dutch Modernists' distaste - looking rather like a Scandinavian town hall from the early years of the century.

There was a long gestation period for the design, with some 12 variants emerging in discussions between Van der Vlugt - its principal architect - and the Sonnevelds.

The eventual house has accommodation over three storeys surmounted by a roof terrace, with the main rooms on the first floor.

It has a framework of steel columns and beams - sometimes expressed (the columns clad in black glass) but elsewhere concealed - which is infilled with masonry, and supports floors made of steel bridging joists and light concrete plates.

In an article on the Sonneveld House for the Dutch periodical Archis in August 1993, Molenaar writes: 'If one tries to analyse the design, two different visions seem to vie for prominence: the house can be seen as an autonomous composition, or as the result of a purely rational translation of the dwelling programme into the form and organisation of spaces.' He demonstrates this 'ambiguity' by taking the reader on a tour of the exterior, analysing each elevation in turn.

His conclusion, put simply, is that Van der Vlugt was ultimately more concerned to accommodate the family in the most advantageous way than impose an idealised order.

Relating this to two opposing poles in the Nieuwe Bouwen, Molenaar says: 'There is the constructivist viewpoint that can be traced back to Berlage's ideas on the primacy of construction as the governing principle, and the organic standpoint, which in Van der Vlugt's case was uppermost.'

So this is not a 'manifesto' building in which an aesthetic imperative - a proposition about structure or space - is dominant;

it is more pragmatic. The Sonneveld House is neatly tailored to its client, which points up its limitations as well as its virtues.

Though they abandoned their brownoak past, the Sonnevelds' way of life was still to some extent traditionally bourgeois, complete with two servants whose routines - thanks to Van der Vlugt's plan - could proceed in isolation from their employers'.

True, there is some spatial flexibility in the house: with a curtain between the dining-room and living-room, and folding screen between the living room and library, those three areas can be separated or conjoined at will. In addition, the roof terrace, second-floor balconies and first-floor veranda, not to mention the extensive glazing, all gave the Sonnevelds much greater contact with the outdoors than in their previous home. But what they sought primarily was increased comfort, convenience, and cleanliness - not radical change.

In returning the Sonneveld House to 1933, the restoration has reversed the renovation of the early 1980s, in which the steel frames of the continuous west-front window were replaced in aluminium (along with more minor alterations that were either technically deficient or out-of-keeping), in favour of what survived - or could be recreated.

As the house itself was structurally sound, with its steel skeleton largely protected by effective damp-repellent detailing, and as there was no pressure to upgrade it in energy terms, Molenaar could keep the invasiveness of his work to a minimum. Some affected steel components were replaced by new welded sections, but the original anti-damp layer of asphalt on the outer leaf of the cavity wall was kept intact as far as possible. Molenaar was helped too by Van der Vlugt's careful installation of heating, plumbing and electrical facilites in easily accessible pipes and ducts, so repairs could be made without disturbing the linen-lined internal walls.

For many visitors, the recreation of the internal colour scheme of the Sonneveld House may be its most memorable feature.

Like last year's restoration of the Gropius Meisterhaus at Dessau once occupied by Kandinsky and Klee (AJ 13.4.00), it offers further evidence that the Modern Movement was not just neutral or white. But Klee and Kandinsky's separate schemes were very personal, departing from the colour practice of their Bauhaus colleague Hinnerk Scheper.

What do we discover here?

Discover is the word, for when the restoration began the house was all white walls and yellow-painted woodwork. As at the Meisterhaus, researchers took their scalpels to the walls and cut little colour ladders (200 or more) through successive layers of paint until the original was revealed.

Allowance was then made for the extent that, even though concealed from the light, this original colour had changed. Often it proved impossible to replicate from the current (Sikkens) range of colours but had to be mixed by the painter on the spot. A further factor was its former degree of gloss and texture, for Van der Vlugt had used five different types of paint.

'There seem to be three distinct colour schemes at the Sonneveld House, ' says Molenaar. He is standing in the living room which, like the adjacent library, is predominantly beige and brown, harmonizing painted colour with that of curtains, carpet, and upholstery. Bronze paint on the rear wall of the library has a metallic lustre. The rug, newly made from the surviving design in the archive of Metz & Co, the original suppliers of rugs and textiles to the Sonnevelds, offsets the prevailing monochrome with its geometrical pattern. Such patterns recur at intervals in the house, most subtly in the pale etched-glass squares and rectangles of the main staircase window, while the earth palette reappears in the parents' bedroom.

A second approach characterizes the service areas and corridors: beige walls, with muted yellow, deep red, and grey-green variously on doors and built-in furniture;

neutrality relieved by accents of colour. In the third scheme, however, seen par excellence in the dining room and ground floor studio, colours totally colonise the space. Both these rooms are vivified by the three primaries, but in the subdued pastel versions of Bart van der Leck (only briefly a member of De Stijl).

The Sonneveld's dressing room, in bright apple green, is an exception to any of these palettes.When the door to that is open at the same time as the door to their bathroom, whose fittings have been reinstalled in their former turquoise, the effect is peculiarly discordant.

To take stock of the restoration as a whole, it is best to return to the living room - partly because the view through its broad west window is a reminder of what has happened in Rotterdam since the Sonneveld House was built.

Just across the road is one arm of Jo Coenen's histrionic Netherlands Architecture Institute (1988-93), aptly described by exArchis editor Geert Bekaert as 'complacent and prestigiously monumental: a Versailles for Dutch architecture'. It makes the once radical Sonneveld House look a model of rectitude. Surging past the NAI, and right beside the house, is traffic on a dual carriageway built after the Second World War. Beyond it is the centre of the city, largely reconstructed after a wartime torrent of bombs.

This panoramic glimpse of half a century or more of change, drastically altering Rotterdam's appearance, accentuates the deliberate reversal of time that has occurred at the Sonneveld House.

'We wanted to communicate in a convincing way the atmosphere of the 1930s, ' says Molenaar, 'but we wanted also to give the impact of a house that is already old.' So as you tour the house you find worn rubber on the stairs, scuffed chrome, chipped veneer - but such patina of use is far outweighed by pristine recreation.

This is particularly true in the living room-cum-library. If you peer closely you see that the glazed window sill is cracked, but otherwise the ensemble is impeccable.

Reproductions of photographs by Piet Zwart taken in 1933, placed here and in other rooms, show just how exact the replication has been.

Yet, while the restoration is free from the flaws of, say, the Kandinsky-Klee Meisterhaus, where an attempt to combine a show house with a gallery leads to intrusive light fixtures and services, the concept of a show house on its own is not unproblematic.

In the library there are books on the shelves; in the parents' dressing room, an old case and hat-box - but the Sonneveld House is not like Erno Goldfinger's 2 Willow Road, full of evocative possessions. It looks more like an advertisement in a manufacturer's brochure, or the set for an imminent photoshoot; it is somehow more 'lifestyle' than life. That 'overshoes are compulsory', as the sign in the hallway announces, only intensifies this effect; like National Trust cordons, they distance you.

Earlier this year, in assessing the renovation of Gillespie Kidd and Coia's St Patrick's Church, Neil Gillespie wrote that 'reason' had prevailed over 'poetry' (AJ 12.4.01).

Whether poetry is the word or not, something is missing at the Sonneveld House. Its restoration highlights the triad of comfort, cleanliness and convenience but does not convey a deeper dimension to dwelling.

That lack, though, presumably stems from its original conception. While up-tothe-minute in the opportunities it offers for outdoor living, its mechanical ingenuity, its often Art Deco-ish interior, the Sonneveld House, its colour scheme notwithstanding, does not engage you as profounder buildings do.What some houses can awaken lies dormant here.

Admission tickets to the Sonneveld House are available from the nearby NAI, Museumpark 25, Rotterdam (tel 0031 10 4401200). NAI Publishers has just issued a book on the house (160pp, £20)

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