A Tour of the World’s Only De Stijl House
For years the Rietveld Schröder House seemed like a myth to me. It was like that relative you’d constantly hear about at family gatherings – no one has met him, yet they’re certain that he still walks this earth. Similarly, the house, a highlight of the De Stijl movement, is still considered radical even today. It’s important enough for UNESCO to place it on the list of World Heritage sites. No-one among my circles had heard of it, let alone visited it, however.
Maybe it was a niche attraction, so it was time to be a pioneer of sorts in my circle. My traipse through Europe gave me the chance to see the house in Utrecht in person. Utrecht is conveniently located on the line between Cologne and Amsterdam, but that was about as straightforward as the planning of my visit got.
Firstly, the house could only be viewed on guided tours, so I had to commit to a date and time weeks ahead. While the house was on the outskirts of the city, the Centraal Museum helpfully loaned bicycles to get there.
20 minutes was enough for me to get lost, check the map along the way, and barely make it for my time slot. It was a pleasant ride through parks and ordinary Dutch neighbourhoods that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise There was also none of the aggression from other drivers that I would have expected back home. This was what a developed country really felt like.
Another thing: After years of compulsory helmet-wearing, cycling without one to protect my noggin didn’t feel liberating. However, when in
Rome the Netherlands…
It’s been nearly a century since the movement began with Piet Mondriaan’s paintings. However, it feels so radical even today. The proponents expressed spaces and the things that occupied them using only horizontal and vertical lines and the three primary colours. Like many modern art movements, it was conceived as a universal language that could change society.
While there were also other artists associated with De Stijl, Gerrit Rietveld was the only person to express its principles in architecture. Even then, he abandoned it when he built the Erasmuslaan house on the other side of the overpass. He was also a prolific furniture maker.
The Rietveld Schröder House really stands out among all the other buildings on Prins Henriklaan. However, I rode right past it the first time. Its footprint is actually very small, so it can be missed if you’re heading east, as you would if you’re coming from Centraal Museum. Just look out when you reach the overpass because it’s right next to it. From the other side, it looks like an alien construction crawling up the wall of the traditional house next to it.
After locking the bike, I found about 20 other people waiting for the Dutch tour guides with me. The two tall, young, guys who appeared wouldn’t have looked out-of-place poring over sketches at a creative agency or drinking espresso in a hipster cafe. In short, they looked like the right people to tell us about the place.
The preservation strategy wasn’t just limited to the visitor numbers. We had to don protective covers over our shoes before we stepped into the house proper. No photography or filming was permitted either.
Inside the living museum
We were introduced to the basics on the first floor. The kitchen and the guest bedrooms there were dark and pretty conventional. Still, they had practical features such as split doors and a sliding panel that hid the staircase. As for the space upstairs, it was the work of an inspired genius. I would’ve prostrated and kissed the floors, had the guides not said that the staircase rail was the only thing we could touch.
For a start, there was nothing permanent dividing the entire living area. In the absence of walls, the bedrooms, the study and the living room were all part of one versatile space. Dark sliding panels could be moved into position to give the occupants privacy, and they took up minimal space. All the walls and furniture were painted in monochrome with a few highlights in red, yellow or blue, just like the paintings.
The massive windows contributed to the spacious feeling and if that wasn’t enough, a skylight could also be opened. There was no pillar in the corner of the study. allowing the window to wrap around it and offer a great view of the marshy neighbourhood back in the day. Shame about the overpass that was built since then.
In the absence of photos, this UNESCO video will have to do
A few Rietveld furniture pieces were on display too. I got a little careless and placed the information leaflet that was loaned to me on one of the table. The guide reminded me very firmly not to touch anything. It was a very Dutch to do, but I guess that it helped this house survive this long. For a 90-year-old building, it was in remarkably good shape; it felt like a time capsule that was preserved more recently than that. Given how many pulleys and sliding panels there were, and also the many wet days it has seen, it was also remarkable.
The guides were actually nice fellows to chat to. After the tour, they helped to stamp the many postcards that served as my pilgrim’s passport. Although I felt a wave of inspiration as I pedalled back to Centraal Museum, I was a tad disappointed that after so many years, nothing else remotely like this has been built.
It’s time to evangelise.