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Monday, January 13, 2014

Rietveld-Schroder House

The Rietveld-Schroder House, Utrecht, Netherlands.
(The dark mound on the roof is the house next door.)
Truus Schroder and Gerrit Rietveld
--a collaboration so close that after the death
of his wife, Rietveld moved in with her.
In having been a student of domestic architecture for many years, I've found one major factor which permeates the design and construction of every great example in the field--it must be a collaboration between the architect and the owner (and his or her spouse). Sometimes its a very close collaboration, as when the architect is the owner Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and Charles Eames and his wife, Ray, are examples. In other cases (as in the Bob Hope House) the owner simply guides the architect, sometimes even vetoing his or her ideas. In other cases, the two work together in close collaboration, inspiring one another. That would be the case with architect, Gerrit Rietveld and owner, Truus Schroder. Close collaboration does not mean an even, 50/50 split. The owner always dominates the team and can, perhaps at some cost, fire the architect. By the same token, the architect gets paid a substantial fee to do far more than half the work in originating the plan and supervising construction.

The Schroder House does not photograph well from the inside. Its modest dimensions preclude wide angles. Rietveld's Mondrian-style furniture, color, and interior details brighten the interior, making it seem roomier than it is. Note the sliding partition track in the ceiling.
Truus Schroder-Schrader, born in 1889, was the widowed mother of three, a registered pharmacist living in Biltstraat. Her father had owned a textile factory, her late husband had been a lawyer, so, while not wealthy, she was financially "comfortable." After her husband's death during the early 1920s, she found it necessary to find a more affordable home. She chose Utrecht, and being a longtime patron of the arts, she chose the untested De Stijl (the style) furniture designer, Gerrit Rietveld. Rietveld had never designed a house before, which was just as well, in that what Truus Schroder wanted in the way of a home was very little like any house ever designed before. Her tastes were modern, and her lifestyle demanded flexibility (raising three kids tends toward that need).

Notice that each space on the ground floor has its own outside access.
The word "room" never appears in any of the plans. They're activity areas.
The other great influence in the design of the Rietveld-Schroder House was a painter, also a De Stijl advocate--Piet Mondrian (before anyone had ever heard of him). He and Rietveld, though quite different in personalities, were good friends. Inside and out, the Rietveld-Schroder House was like walking into a Mondrian painting (top), to the point the collaboration probably should have had Mondrian's name appended to it. Mondrian, Schroder, and Rietveld lived and breathed rectangles, black lines, planes of primary colors, ultra-simple masses, and an aesthetic lifestyle most people now (and certainly then) would find obsessive.

The second-floor plan with sliding partitions fully deployed.
The design process was not easy. Where Mrs. Schroder wanted her house was on a small lot at the end of a chain of 19th century row houses near the outskirts of Utrecht. The new house had to share a back wall with the three-story house next door, which accounts for the dark mass often seen in photos of the house. By American standards, the lot was not just small, but tiny. The house itself, two-stories tall; planned around a central curved stairway and chimney; is approximately 30 feet by 20 feet (barely 1,200 square feet) with a garden area (a yard in the American vernacular) running around three sides of the house--spacious by Dutch standards but "postage stamp" size to Americans. Mrs. Schroder wanted to live close to nature and this was as close as she could get while still living in an urban area (the area near the house was undeveloped until after WW II). The house was constructed in 1924. The lower level is concrete, the upper level brick and plaster. The neighbors must have been dumbstruck by its strange, incongruous appearance.

Second-floor plan featuring one large, open space.
The ground floor plan (seen just below the interior image) is rather conventional, an entry, a studio/office, a kitchen, some bedrooms, and a bathroom. Only when one looks at the second floor plan is it apparently how unconventional were Mrs. Schroder's lifestyle, decorating, and architectural tastes. Official plans submitted for a building permit showed the area as an open "attic." Sliding "walls" allowed for partitioning to any degree desired. The entire space was the ultimate in flexibility with sleeping areas, living and dining areas, and work areas all adjustable as needs changed. It was a great idea and apparently worked quite well. Mrs. Schroder lived the rest of her life (61 years) in the house she and Rietveld designed together. She died in 1985 at the age of ninety-six.
Rietveld's corner windows were likely a first, an influence for Frank Lloyd Wright?

Every woman wants to see the kitchen. There was a dumbwaiter to the second floor.
Located on the ground floor, with three kids, the kitchen was probably seldom this neat.


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