A cardboard Mondrian: so it was once called, more in perplexity than derision. It is one of two works of world consequences by Rietveld - the other is his famous ‘red-blue’ chair and yet, when one looks at it there could hardly be a less likely candidate for fame. Tiny, structurally timid, badly sited, undistinguished in plan, it may once have had compelling local and private virtues for its inhabitants that are now difficult to make convincing to outsiders, but what assures it its place in the world scene is it’s exterior. Here for the first time, in 1924 the aesthetic possibilities of the hard school of modern architecture were uncompromisingly and brilliantly revealed (no early house of Le Corbusier is comparable until 1926, his first vintage year). The small cube of the house expands in a proliferation of flyaway planes, horizontal and vertical, that sometimes collide in right angled intersections. There may be a long-range debt to Wright, but the implications of Wright's domestic space-games have been purged and made clean through the aesthetic detergency of European abstract art. The surfaces are indeed, as smooth and as neutral of those of a Mondrian painting, in similar colours, relieved only by a use of glass that emphasises it’s immaterial quality (unlike the jewelled presence of the glass in Wright's Robie House) and by a few lean, sparse metal stanchions that support the edges of some of the flying planes, and steam-pipe hand rails that make some of the planes usable as balconies. Machine aesthetic; rectangular space play; the bare minimum of the modern architecture that was to be.
Banham R. Age of the Masters: A Personal View of Modern Architecture. Harper & Row., 1975. P. 68.
This house was conceived to be like no house before it. Indeed, it was intended to be as much an artistic statement as a house, and when completed in 1924 it was arguably not only the most innovative house in the world, but also the most visually radical.
The client, Truus Schröder-Schräder – a widowed and wealthy socialite with a passion for avant-garde design – initially wanted her architect, Gerrit Rietveld, to design a house without walls. What she got in the end is a ‘house of planes’, one of the ultimate expressions of architecture emulating an artistic movement. What she and her architect achieved, in a most adroit manner, was to transfer the imagery and ethos of cutting-edge two-dimensional abstract painting of relatively intimate scale to the realization of a three-dimensional, large-scale, inhabited, and ultimately functional object – a house.
The inspirational artistic movement was De Stijl, or neo-Plasticism, which had emerged in the Netherlands in 1917. It was promoted by Theo van Doesburg in the journal De Stijl, in painting by Piet Mondrian, and in three-dimensional design – initially and most famously in furniture – by Rietveld.
The movement explored and promoted an art of pure abstraction that would be applicable universally. It sought abstraction through reduction of all elements to essential forms and colours that, it argued, were embodied in the elemental geometry of the square, rectangles, and vertical and horizontal planes or lines, and in the primary colours, including black and white. The reduction of the complexity of the visible world to a limited series of geometric forms and colours gives De Stijl its distinct visual character.
De Stijl compositions comprising these prime forms and colours are characterized by a strong contrast between positive and negative and a sense of asymmetry, and are expressed best in the paintings executed by Mondrian from the second decade of the twentieth century until his death in 1944.
Mondrian defined the aims of the movement in various writings. As early as 1914 he wrote to the art critic and collector H P Bremmer, explaining: ‘it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty … can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.’ And in his essay ‘Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art’, published from 1917 in De Stijl, Mondrian asserted that ‘this new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary, it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour.’
This is the artistic and philosophical context within which the Rietveld Schröder House was created. And the means by which these theories were made tangible – and workable for Truus Schröder-Schräder and her three children – remain fascinating.
The process of designing a house liberated from associations with traditional domestic architecture was predictably difficult, particularly since the site for this revolutionary creation was utterly conventional: it was the end plot of a standard late nineteenth-century terrace, sharing a party wall with the adjoining house, and with roads and suburban gardens nearby.
Contemporary pioneering houses by such architects as Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier, whose Villa La Roche had been designed in 1923, no doubt provided elements of inspiration, particularly for the Schröder House’s free-form, open-plan first floor – but essentially the Schröder House remains an idiosyncratic one-off. Tantalizingly, it suggests a direction that twentieth-century Modernism might have gone in, although the building’s eccentric character and highly personal nature make it an unlikely ‘universal’ model.
In plan the house is unconventional for its time, but hardly exceptional nowadays. The ground floor contains a kitchen, bedrooms or workrooms, and a central staircase leading to a first floor that is conceived as a flexible space. Only the bathroom and WC have fixed partitions, so most of the first floor can be used as one large space. However, various permutations are possible, including division of the floor into three bedrooms, by means of sliding and rotating partitions.
The exterior elevations are unconventional and exceptional. Client and architect agreed on the fundamental idea that the elevations of a De Stijl house should be pretty much a three-dimensional representation of a Mondrian De Stijl painting. The elevations are composed of a collage of planes that overlap and glide over each other, and that frame, embrace, or act as supports for the horizontal lines of the projecting balconies.
Vertical lines, an essential component of De Stijl composition, are provided by slender posts that help support the balconies and projections of the building’s flat roof. The edges of these balconies and roof projections also provide additional horizontal lines. The vertical and horizontal lines are painted in strong primary colours, notably red and yellow, while the planes are painted in neutral white and grey. The client’s desire to break down the division between the house’s interior and exterior is reflected in the decision to continue lines, horizontal planes, and colours without regard to location, so when windows are open it is hard to tell where the façade of the house stops and the interior begins. Departing from convention, the mass of the building gives way to seemingly floating planes, to volumes that appear to penetrate one another, and to lines of vibrant colour.
In its setting the Schröder House is strange – an end-of-terrace dwelling that most determinedly has nothing to do with its homely neighbours. True, it is small, but its artistic aspirations are very big indeed.
Cruickshank D. A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings. Harper Collins UK., 2015.