In a letter dated 3 August 1924 Gerrit Th. Rietveld wrote almost cursorily to his good friend the architect J. J. P. Oud: ‘I’m working on a small house, here in Utrecht. As soon as I have drawn it out to scale a bit better, I’ll show it to you. It has to be finished quickly. Once I have the permit next week, we shall be starting.’ This little house was to go down in history as the Rietveld-Schröder House, named after the architect and his client Gertrude (or Truus) A. Schröder-Schräder.
The Rietveld-Schröder House is without doubt the best-known architectural work by Gerrit Th. Rietveld. What originally began as just a small house that had to be completed quickly, turned into one of the high points of 20th-century architectural history. The house has been photographed from every imaginable angle, portrayed in publications as a satellite in orbit and, in the course of restoration work, analysed down to the last nail like a forensic sample. The placing of the house on the Unesco World Heritage List in 2000 is an indication of its cultural and historical significance not only in relation to Rietveld’s own oeuvre but also in a broad international context.
The irony is that the house, which according to Alison and Peter Smithson is ‘the only true canonical modern building in Northern Europe’ (1958), was the first complete architectural design by an untrained architect. Bearing this in mind, an intriguing question arises: whether it was a blessing or a curse for Rietveld to have made his debut as an architect with this wholly spectacular chef d’oeuvre. The house became the architectural and creative benchmark for all his subsequent designs. It was, moreover, hailed as the outstanding manifesto of architecture by De Stijl, the group of artists and architects associated with the avantgarde periodical of that name, which was founded by the artist Theo van Doesburg in 1917 and to which Rietveld also contributed. This made the house into a stylistic yardstick as well; people do not generally recognise a work by Rietveld unless it has some red, yellow and blue on it and is replete with spatially distinct elements that are normally supposed to join up.
In my opinion, Rietveld’s meteoric arrival as an architect acted to his advantage. There is nothing to indicate that he felt under the least pressure or need to equal his masterpiece. Besides, he had established his reputation as a modern architect at a stroke, not just in the Netherlands but even more so abroad. Walter Gropius wrote about the house, as did Jean Badovici; El Lissitzky visited it in person and wrote an article on it. Periodicals in Germany, France, Russia and as far away as Japan devoted attention to the house.
In the Netherlands Rietveld was already well-known in artistic and craft circles as a furniture designer. The establishment of his own furniture workshop in his native city, Utrecht, in 1917 inaugurated a career marked by a certain rebellious independence, fuelled by a combination of ingrained originality and a strong personal ethic. The 1918 armchair, of which a later version in red, yellow, blue and black was to achieve fame as the Red and Blue Chair, was Rietveld’s first overt act of resistance to traditional, established methods. At the same time, this piece of furniture demonstrated his profound scrutiny of the idea of ‘a chair’. The same analytical fervency that reduced the armchair to the bare necessities of seating and support formed the departure point for his architecture. He was 36 years old when he built the Rietveld-Schröder House. From that point onwards Rietveld would describe himself as an architect: he transferred ownership of his furniture workshop to his assistant Gerard van de Groenekan, who continued executing Rietveld’s furniture designs.
Gerrit Thomas Rietveld (1884-1964) started work as a trainee in his father’s furniture workshop immediately on finishing primary school. The furniture made there was in a historicist style, as befitted the taste of the time. In the evenings the young Rietveld attended a school for craft education and took lessons under the architect and furniture designer P. J. C. Klaarhamer. The independence of his own workshop must have come as a liberation to him. Rietveld could not resign himself to the prospect of a future as a jobbing craftsman and chose to strike out in an unmistakably different direction from his father. As his own boss, he was free to design furniture entirely according to his ideas. The step from furniture design to architecture must have been a short and logical one for Rietveld, when we consider the specific, intense interest he took in the spatial action of the object.
A topic of debate in Dutch design circles at the beginning of the 20th century was the rejection of the widely used revival styles and the urgency of establishing a contemporary one. From the outset it is clear that Rietveld’s interest did not focus purely on the stylistic aspects of furniture design. He analysed furniture, concentrating on its meaning and on its form and its function, whose essence he aimed to expose. The extent of his preoccupation with reducing furniture to fundamentals is evident not only from his novel designs, but also from his penchant for condensing even existing types of furniture down to their inherent functions: to bearing, supporting and storing. As he later recalled, ‘We took a cupboard and cut away everything it had in the way of decoration, mouldings and other inessentials. So cupboards turned back into boxes.’
A revolutionary innovation of his was to consider furniture from the viewpoint of how material and form relate to space. Invited by Van Doesburg to join De Stijl in 1919, Rietveld’s first publication appeared in this periodical. It was little more than a short explanation of the wood joints he had used in the child’s high-chair, illustrated alongside, although in conclusion he drew attention to the design’s spatial qualities as the main advantage of his chosen construction system. The wood joint with loose dowels made it possible for the posts and rails to pass across one another instead of interlocking as in the customary mortice-and-tenon joint. Rietveld used similar joints in his Red and Blue Chair, of which the first, then still unpainted, version was completed in 1918. A picture of the chair appeared in De Stijl in 1919. Once again Rietveld explained that its construction made it possible for the chair to stand ‘free’ and ‘clear’ in the surrounding space. A year later he wrote in a letter to Van Doesburg that his goal was to make furniture that did not obstruct space, but left it uninterrupted.
As in his furniture, Rietveld sought to achieve a continuity of space in his architecture by letting spaces communicate with one another and with the infinite space around the building. And just as the components of his furniture are plain, simple forms without elaborate profiles, so the elements from which his architecture is composed are geometrical in character. The Rietveld-Schröder House, to start with, is a composition of pure planes and lines.
Rietveld’s contact with other members of the De Stijl team was of paramount influence on his work. In the early 1920s he started painting his furniture in colours from the limited palette -the primary colours plus black, white and various shades of grey- sanctioned by the painters of De Stijl and spearheaded in practice by Bart van der Leck. Around 1923 Rietveld also experimented with asymmetrical forms in his furniture. In this and several other respects his work shows clear parallels with the architectural models then being made by Willem van Leusden, a friend of Rietveld and a painter on the margins of De Stijl. As to the Rietveld-Schröder House, the colour scheme of red, yellow and blue in combination with uncoloured surfaces is more tellingly used than in any other later work by Rietveld. The literature rightly notes that the De Stijl concept of an integrally designed interior, and hence the interior of the Rietveld-Schröder House, must be regarded as a sequel to the late 19th-century aspiration to achieve a synthesis of painting, architecture and graphic design.5 The harmonious environment thus produced also had a moral component insofar as it concerned a collaboration between artists of different disciplines. The Rietveld-Schröder House deviates significantly from this aspiration, however, since there was no question of collaboration between specialists in different fields. Rietveld deliberately took charge of everything himself: the architecture, furniture design, interior finishing and colour use.
When Rietveld designed the house, he was acquainted with architectural designs by Oud, Van Doesburg and Cornelis van Eesteren from De Stijl. He studied a few of them in depth, among them Oud’s design for a factory (1919), for which Rietveld was asked make a wooden model, and Van Doesburg’s design for Maison Rosenberg, which Rietveld transformed into a model for the De Stijl architecture exhibition in Paris, 1923. The asymmetry and pure rectilinear forms of these designs reappear in the Rietveld-Schröder House. But whereas Oud, Van Doesburg and Van Eesteren were still principally concerned with the artistic stacking of cubes and the interpenetration of closed building volumes (space cells, as Van Doesburg called them), Rietveld’s house in Utrecht was the epitome of an expansive architecture oriented towards the surrounding space. It is worthy of note that the same year Rietveld built the house, Van Doesburg published sixteen precepts of architecture as a synthesis of the ‘New Imagery’ of De Stijl in the periodicals Bouwkundig Weekblad and De Stijl.Precept 2 runs as follows: ‘The new architecture is elementary, that is to say it develops from the elements of building; in the broadest possible sense. These elements, such as function, mass, plane, time, space, light, colour, material, etc., are at the same time visual elements.’ Precept 8 states: ‘The new architecture has punctured the wall and thus destroyed the separation of inside and outside. The walls are no longer load-bearing; they have been reduced to column supports. The result is a new, open plan which differs totally from the classical in that inside and outside spaces interpenetrate.’
More than any architectural project of the De Stijl period by any architect or artist, Rietveld’s creation answers to these and all the other precepts formulated by Van Doesburg. But there is a catch to this observation, for even if the Rietveld-Schröder House did conform closely to Van Doesburg’s precepts, the house is exemplary solely of the work of Rietveld and not of architecture produced by other members of the De Stijl circle, either beforehand or subsequently. In the pages of De Stijl itself neither Van Doesburg nor any of his associates paid much attention to the house. Nothing was written about it in the magazine, which between 1924 and 1928 reproduced no more than four photos of the house without any accompanying text.6 The artists and architects of De Stijl clearly did not see the Rietveld-Schröder House as the icon of their movement it was later to become.
After the Rietveld-Schröder House, a second commission for a private dwelling followed in 1925: the Lommen House in Wassenaar (demolished after being damaged by a stray V2 rocket in 1944). This individual house for a private client did not have Rietveld’s top priority, however.
The designing of social housing was in his view his most important social task as an architect. Although he was never officially affiliated to a political party, his sympathies were socialist or communist. Rietveld was a lone wolf, a free spirit. He declared from the outset -first in his correspondence with Oud- that he did not aim to work for ‘the people’ in the sense that others could impose demands and pass judgement on his work, but, being himself a man of the people, he felt free to design according to his own needs and ideas. He admitted, however, that this might be wrong because he was really a professional outsider. Rietveld cannot be accused of a lack of reflection.
Rietveld was to continue making designs for working- and middle-class housing throughout his life, but few of them were built. It was not until the 1950s, in the period of reconstruction after the Second World War, that Rietveld had the opportunity to build houses on a larger scale. Rietveld was in any case not the only one for whom ideal and reality did not match up in the early days of the functionalist Nieuwe Bouwen. The architect Ben Merkelbach, one of the pioneers of this movement and a founder of the periodical De 8 en Opbouw, which was the mouthpiece of modern architects in the Netherlands, identified it as a widespread problem in 1934: ‘We make no secret of the fact that we do not consider it the most important and weighty task of Nieuwe Bouwen to satisfy the very special wishes of a few individuals, but that we see a greater task ahead in the area of social housing; we must not forget, however, that buildings like these provide an invaluable schooling in how to perform this task properly.’ In other words, the private house was a training ground for the real, important work. Decades later, in 1960, Rietveld said of the house he had designed for Van den Doel in Ilpendam that it was admittedly not a generally applicable model, but that this architecture could have advantages for mass building because certain aspects of dwelling had been reduced to the simplest possible and also because ‘characterless’ architectonic remnants had entirely disappeared.8 It is evident from these words that he still held onto the ideal that had motivated him at the beginning of his architectural career.
Since Rietveld gave the first public indication of his interest in social housing in 1927, it is natural to suppose that the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart must have provided a strong impetus. Fellow architects Oud and Mart Stam, both of them friends of Rietveld, built small blocks of working-class houses there. Rietveld published his first social housing concept, which he termed a ‘standard dwelling,’ and designed in collaboration with Truus Schröder, in the Dutch avantgarde periodical i10. With the standard dwelling Rietveld introduced a house type that differed strongly from stereotypical Dutch working- and middle-class homes, which he considered wholly unfit for their purpose. The conventional house had a long narrow hallway parallel to roomsen suite on the ground floor, and upper floors that repeated the same plan. The starting points for Rietveld’s house design were a new spatial layout and the maximum admission of daylight. Not only was the space conceived as a continuous whole in a horizontal direction, but the vertical layers were spatially connected. There was no hall, and the living area was open but could be subdivided into living, dining and cooking sections by sliding partitions. The bathroom-cum-toilet was situated at a mezzanine level between the ground and first floor. All the rooms on the upper floors could be entered via small landings that were merely wider-than-normal stairs. Rietveld referred to this as a reallocation of space: in traditionally designed houses the hall leads to the rooms and the staircase leads from the hall to the landing, but when the staircase fulfils both these functions there is a saving of circulation space.(…)
Rietveld was a keen advocate of standardisation and prefabrication. This fascination first emerged in his architecture in a design for a garage with a chauffeur’s apartment that he built in Utrecht in 1927. It took only three weeks to assemble the building as a steel skeleton to which concrete panels were attached. A later and very attractive example is presented by his designs for a house core made in 1929. This concept involved a standard, prefabricated core incorporating all the regular necessities of a house: not only piping and wiring for the utility services and central heating, plus a vacuum cleaning system, but also the front door, hall, stairwell, all interior doors, cupboards, shower, toilet and even the doorbell and letterbox. Rooms of various sizes could be grouped around the core as required. Rietveld continued working on this project until the 1950s but it never came to fruition. Elements derived from the core dwelling can be identified in his house designs, however: for example the staircase around which rooms are arranged in a split-level arrangement, and the vertical concentration of the kitchen, WC and bathroom.
Rietveld had revealed an even earlier interest in prefabrication in his furniture designs. He had a predilection for using standard products while transgressing their normal function: by using laboratory glassware for lamps, for example, and gas piping or broomsticks for chairs. At more or less the same time as his architectural prefab experiments, a shift towards serial production began to appear in his furniture. The one-piece chairs with which Rietveld experimented from 1926 onwards were attempts to eliminate labour-intensive stages in the assembly process. For the while this involved tinkering with moulds and clamps, but Rietveld’s vivid imagination was full of ideas for the machines and materials that would be needed to manufacture such chairs in one piece on an assembly line. (…)
Practice and theory
Rietveld was a man who thought primarily with his hands: he expressed his ideas and outlook in his designs much more readily than in writing. The first step in designing something was usually a quick sketch on a scrap of paper, or an improvised model spontaneously assembled from pieces of glass, matchsticks, strips of paper, cardboard or any other materials momentarily to hand. The result was just a step in the design process and not intended as a presentation model. Ideas for furniture were similarly set down in minuscule sketch models. The oldest architectural model, a sketch for the Rietveld-Schröder House, is a small block measuring only 10 x 7.5 x 5.3 cm. Most models are a little larger but rarely more than 10 cm tall or 20-30 cm wide or deep. These dimensions indicate the finicky work involved in making even these informal models. The models are seldom to scale but the general proportions turn out to agree surprisingly closely with the real design. Often, however, the models and design drawings differ from the end products, thereby illustrating Rietveld’s penchant for deciding details and devising solutions in situ.
Rietveld felt no pressing need to set down ideas or theories in writing. The introduction to his first article of substance is indicative of this attitude: ‘To make something, it is in my view completely unnecessary to start by giving an explanation or justification of why it has to be just so; on the contrary, the need to express oneself in form largely vanishes as soon as one has been able to put it into words.’ But, conscious how useful it could be, Rietveld was subsequently to write and publish texts with some regularity. The writings are often metaphysical in character and not always easy to follow. His attempts to clarify his ideas by restating them time and again in different words usually leads to confusion more than to illumination. Even more bewildering is the relativism that permeates his writings -it often results in him contradicting statements he has made earlier. This was a conscious and deliberate relativism, for as in his architecture Rietveld wished to avoid any suggestion that he was offering definitive answers.
Table of contents:
An introduction to Rietveld’s work by Marijke Kuper
Honest, gentle and uncompromising by Wim Quist
Rietveld’s fame by Hans ibelings
Rietveld’s houses by Marijke Kuper
Works and Projects:
Rietveld-Schröder House, Utrecht, 1924
Garage with chauffeur’s flat, Utrecht, 1927
Row of four houses, Utrecht, 1931
Klep House, Breda , 1931-1932
Székely House, Bloemendaal, 1934
Hildebrand House, Blaricum, 1934-1935
Mees House, The Hague, 1934-1936
Brandt Corstius House, Petten, 1938-1939
Lels House, Doorn, 1939
Verrijn Stuart House, Breukelen, 1940-1941
Smit House, Kinderdijk, 1947-1949
Stoop House, Velp, 1950-1951
Slegers House, Velp, 1952-1955
Visser House, Bergeijk, 1954-1955
Jansen House, Waalre, 1956-1957
Van Daalen House, Bergeijk, 1956-1958
Bláha House, Best, 1956-1957
Van den Doel House, Ilpendam, 1957-1959
Van Dantzig House, Santpoort, 1959-1960
Singelenberg House, Hengelo, 1961-1962
Van Slobbe House, Heerlen, 1961-1964
Texts by Gerrit Th. Rietveld
My outlook on life as a background to my work
About the De Stijl idea
Colour in architecture