Utrecht’s Rietveld Schroeder House

*Explore le Tour is excited to welcome its first contributor, Dr. Ann Woods, who contributed significant portions of the following post.

 

In a town known for its fourteenth century Dom Tower and other similarly historic architecture and canals, Utrecht somehow also became a center for modernist architecture. The Hogeschool and Jaarbeursplein, numbers “4” and “15” along the Explore le Tour Stage 1 overview, are easily identifiable (and later) examples of this modernist trend along the city’s outskirts. Less than 2 kilometers from the Dom though, is a genuine masterpiece of modern architecture. Gerrit Rietveld Schroeder House is known world-wide as the personification of Holland’s De Stijl movement.

De Stijl, meaning “The Style”, was coined in Paris by the founders of the movement in 1917. Principally, the creators of De Stijl sought to counter the ultra-expressionism of other concurrent movements and culture as a whole. In this vain, De Stijl was ultra-rational and literally universal. It was based on the idea that the world functioned with absolute regularity. By this token, architecture was merely the organization of infinite space using linear elements, namely a wall. While not as radical, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style outside Chicago displayed similar straightforward results and was in fact copied by De Stijl architects in Europe.

Built in 1924, the Rietveld Schroeder House has been called the first great home of the Modern period. It was the collaborative effort of Truus Schroeder, a young widow, socialite with three small children and Gerrit Rietveld, a furniture maker, disciple of the De Stijl movement, and native son of Utrecht. While still alive, Schroeder’s husband was a proficient lawyer and political activist. While the family had everything needed for a comfortable life and even lived in an imposing old-fashioned home, Truus ironically worried about becoming too materialistic. In fact, Truus wanted a new home where the family could share their lives unencumbered by material possessions and routines.

The result was a modest sized two-story home designed for efficiency. In style, it reflected the ideals of De Stijl. The building’s exterior resembles the paintings of one of the movement’s founders, Piet Mondrian, with horizontal and vertical elements, white walls, and small accents of primary color. Compared to the adjacent brick houses, the Schroeder House contrasted with its modern materials and construction techniques devoid of ornamentation. This was the regularity of the world in a three-dimensional form.

Inside, the main living space occupies the second floor, surrounded by windows and balconies. Sliding partitions divided the space into a living room and bedrooms for the children at night, but could otherwise be removed to create a unified family living space. Furniture was built-in or folded away into cabinets. True to Rietveld’s background, the home has been described as “an enormous piece of furniture masquerading as a house.”  Although simple and austere, the home included modern conveniences for the time such as a dishwasher, radio, and early movie projector.

To conclude the story, Rietveldt became Truus’s lover, although he had a wife and six children. After his wife’s death, he moved in and lived here until his death in 1964. Truus had planned to live in the home only until her children grew up and left, but she loved it so much that she continued to live here until her death in 1985. The home became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 and is currently open for tours operated by Utrecht’s Central Museum.

 

Significant portions of this post Dr. Ann Woods is a Professor of Art and Architecture at San Diego State University and the University of California San Diego with more than 17 years of teaching experience. Dr. Woods holds a Ph.D. and a Master of Arts degree in Art History from the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Woods also serves as a member of the City of San Diego Historical Resources Board.

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