If there was such a thing as a long-service medal for Modernism it would surely go to Truus Schröder who lived in the Rietveld Schröder House in the Dutch city of Utrecht for 60 years from its completion in 1925 to her death in 1985. When she moved into the house that Gerrit Rietveld designed for her, she was a single parent with three young children to care for. Rietveld had for more than a decade been a designer-maker of avant-garde furniture. Although closely associated with the De Stijl group and Theo van Doesburg, this was the first building he designed. From design to realisation was a rapid process of less than 12 months with architect and client more than usually closely involved. It was Truus Schröder who pressed for the flexible division of space on the first floor and her relationship with Rietveld seems to have been exceptionally productive and harmonious.
First impressions – the house has only three façades, being essentially an end of terrace and it’s unexpectedly compact. The façades, with their recessions and projections are wonderfully animated by light and shade in accordance with one of architecture’s first principles. The compositional balance of primary colours and rectilinear forms is perfect. Inside, the ground floor is relatively conventional with enclosed rooms of modest dimensions apart from the deployment of colour to demarcate areas with separate functions and the purpose built furniture, often designed to fold away. The first floor accommodation can be configured as a single undivided space within which bedrooms and a living/dining area (again equipped with fold-down, stow-away furnishings) can be defined by sliding moveable partitions around. Long horizontal bands of glazing flood the unified space with daylight – all the windows open to ninety degrees and some smart engineering enables the southeast corner to disappear when the two windows, normally at right angles, are fully opened. The effect is to break the barrier between internal and external space and take full advantage of the panoramic rural views (now emphatically lost since the construction of an elevated motorway in 1963) that existed in 1924.
In the Sixties the Schröder House (by then some 40 years old) was explained to students like myself as a crucial point in the long march of Modernism – a popular fallacious academic narrative in which conceptual rationalism, purity of form and functionalism distilled from a fusion of Cubism and Constructivism would converge in triumph over lingering Victorian decadence, the insidious ornamentation of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and the sordid dream world of the Surrealists. But matters would become much more complicated as a new narrative emerged in which Modernism was the godfather of alienation and the servant of Totalitarianism. The story went that new urban environments, planned and constructed according to Modernist principles de-humanised the populations for whom they were designed, leading to widespread social breakdown. At the same time the Modernist tendency towards grandiose scale achieved by means of unitary construction techniques provided a blueprint for the high command of business and finance when it came to developing corporate flagship projects. Post-Modern architects would address this by rejecting the stylistic tyranny of Modernism in favour of a non-prescriptive idiom where historical styles could be borrowed and combined at will while new materials and technologies expanded formal possibilities, permitting designers to explore a new vocabulary of free-form structures and gravity defying configurations. Since Post-Modernism seems to have expired in a flourish of empty stylistic gestures and off-the-peg irony the smoke has cleared enabling a new assessment of the pioneering Modernist buildings. The Schröder House now has the protection of Unesco World Heritage Status and exists as a carefully conserved relic that will never be lived in again. Its fascination lies in its dual function as a critical point of departure in the development of Modernist architecture and its role as a modest family home for Truus Schröder where in 1925 she turned her back on traditional domestic comforts and boldly stepped into a new future, a place that to many of us, even 90 years later, seems as far away as ever.