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26 November 2020

A Hidden Gem of Postmodernism

Mart van Schijndel's ‘Unger House' in Bussum, The Netherlands (1981)

Wouter van Elburg

  • Unger House, Mart van Schijndel, Bussum 1981. Photo by Aad van Vliet, 2020.
  • Unger House, Mart van Schijndel, Bussum 1981. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Architect Victor de Leeuw at the Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Architecture historian Niek Smit at the Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Introductions by Niek Smit and Wouter van Elburg at the Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Niek Smit and Wouter van Elburg. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Iconic Houses excecutive director and founder Natascha Drabbe at the Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Visiting the Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Watching the video with Gerard and Marjan Unger in their kitchen. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Unger House, Mart van Schijndel, Bussum 1981. Photo by Aad van Vliet, 2020.
  • Unger House, Mart van Schijndel, Bussum 1981. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Architect Victor de Leeuw at the Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Architecture historian Niek Smit at the Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Introductions by Niek Smit and Wouter van Elburg at the Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Niek Smit and Wouter van Elburg. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Iconic Houses excecutive director and founder Natascha Drabbe at the Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Visiting the Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Watching the video with Gerard and Marjan Unger in their kitchen. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
  • Unger House. Photo by Els Zweerink, 2020.
"Unger House: postmodern architecture at its best!" Video uploaded by Hendrick de Keyser Association, 10 December 2020. 

On 11 October, a select group of Iconic Houses Friends was given the opportunity to visit the Post Modern house of the late Gerard and Marjan Unger, designed by Mart van Schijndel in 1981. The house was bequeathed to the Hendrick de Keyser Association. Led by its architectural historians Niek Smit and Wouter van Elburg, we came to know about the rich history of the house. After careful renovation the house is now for rent and is seeking the new custodian(s) that it deserves. Wouter van Elburg researched the house's history and wrote the below article.

At the end of the 19th century, the rural ‘Gooi’ area grew in popularity. This predominantly green and sparsely populated region to the southeast of Amsterdam had become easily accessible due to the construction of rail and tram lines and developed into an attractive place for wealthy citizens leaving the city to settle. Several villa parks were created along winding roads and paths, of which 'Het Spiegel' in the former farming village of Bussum is one of the largest, oldest and best known. ‘Het Spiegel’ was popular with bankers and industrialists as well as intellectuals and artists. In 1901, the painter Thomas Cool had a villa built in this neighbourhood on a plot on the corner of the Boslaan and the Parklaan according to plans by the architect Cornelis Jacobus Kruisweg (1868-1952). In order to accommodate the expressive, fairly large works that Cool painted, a detached studio was constructed in the spacious garden close to the house, with large stable doors opening to the Parklaan. After Cool died unexpectedly in 1904, the villa was inhabited for some time by his widow and daughters, rented out and later sold. The studio building was used, among others, by the local painter Arnold Pijpers.

In 1981, the slightly dilapidated studio building, at that time serving as a storage space, was put up for sale separate from the main house and bought by Gerard and Marjan Unger-de Boer. Gerard Unger (1942-2018) was a typographer who designed many well-known letter fonts, including signs for the Dutch automobile association, the main text letter for the national newspaper ‘Volkskrant’ and the signage for the Amsterdam metro. Marjan Unger-de Boer (1946-2018) was an art historian and wrote, among other things, a comprehensive history of 20th century Dutch jewellery.

The studio building was renovated on their behalf according to plans by the architect Mart van Schijndel (1943-1999). Van Schijndel knew the Ungers from the Amsterdam School of Applied Arts (today known as the ‘Gerrit Rietveld Academy’), where he had graduated in 1967 alongside Gerard Unger. Van Schijndel, who died young, was well-known for designing the Delta vase and is considered to be one of the few architects in The Netherlands who designed in the postmodernist style. Postmodernism never gained much popularity in Dutch architecture. Its remarkable geometric design language, bright colours and abstracted classical decorations, a response to the sometimes somewhat cold architecture of modernism, have only recently been revalued. Notable designs by Van Schijndel include the ‘Oudhof’ building on the Rokin in Amsterdam (1990) and his own house on the Pieterskerkhof in Utrecht (1992). In order to make the studio building on Parklaan suitable for habitation, it had to be renovated and expanded. Van Schijndel made various designs for consultation with the clients. The renovation of the house was carried out between May and December 1981. In 2017, the Unger couple donated the house to the Hendrick de Keyser Association to guarantee the preservation of their postmodern home. They continued to live there until their death in 2018. In 2020 the house was renovated and restored. It was recently put on the market for rental.

Design motifs
Although some details such as iron anchor plates and decorative masonry under the eaves are reminiscent of the studio building’s original construction in 1901, the building was so thoroughly renovated and altered in 1981 that as a whole it should be considered as a product of that time. Its design came about in several phases. Van Schijndel was inspired by two elements already present in the building: its main shape and the arched entranceway. For the design, the simple shape of the building, essentially a rectangular box with a pointed roof, served as its main inspiration. Van Schijndel interpreted this existing form as an 'ideal house type' that did not need to be altered. The rounded arch with decorative brickwork above the original studio doors was central to the decorative interpretation of the facade. In a first design sketch, Van Schijndel drew inspiration from the ‘Vanna Venturi House’ by the American postmodern architect Robert Venturi (1925-2018). In this house an arch shape above the entrance area is also emphasised and the building has a similar, simple design. Venturi was in turn inspired by the ‘Villa Valmarana Bressan’ in Vigardolo in northern Italy by the Italian renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), who also served as one of Van Schijndel's great sources of inspiration. Combined with several other Palladian motifs, Van Schijndel made plans for the Unger House. He sketched ideas for a richly decorated facade, with differently designed windows and a loggia with walls made out of glass bricks. This interweaving of classical motifs and modern forms is characteristic of the architecture of postmodernism. At the rear, the Unger house would have a small, rectangular extension. However, this plan was rejected by the clients, who wanted to keep the exterior of the house more modest.

In a second design Van Schijndel worked differently, but used comparable sources for inspiration. The arched entranceway at the front of the house remained to be a central design focus, but this time the architect drew inspiration from a motif used at the ‘Villa Foscari’ (known as ‘La Malcontenta’) on the Brenta river near Venice, also designed by Andrea Palladio. The motif, a so-called 'thermal window', is itself derived from the windows of the ancient Baths of Diocletian in Rome and was frequently used by Palladio. Van Schijndel took this motif and used it as a design for a window over the entranceway of the house in Bussum. Under this, he designed an indoor loggia with an S-shaped entrance wall made of glass bricks. This curved wall is a reference to a Japanese folding screen, but also references the clients: it was designed after the curve of Marjan Unger's calf, drawn by her husband. The use of the shape of a body part as a design motif is also a nod to the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki (b. 1931), admired by Van Schijndel, who used the curve of Marilyn Monroe's body in his designs. At the time, Isozaki had just designed an audio-visual centre in Oita (Japan) which referred not only to Monroe, but also to the aforementioned Villa Foscari. Later Van Schijndel stated that the S-shaped entrance wall was a reference to the ‘Linea Serpentinata’ or the ‘Line of Beauty’, a theoretical concept about an ‘ideal curve’, popularised by the British painter William Hogarth (1697-1764) in the tract Analysis of Beauty (1753). His concept of the S-shaped, ideal curve of the human body can be traced back to ancient Greek sculpture and is meant to grasp the attention of a viewer and bring liveliness to a design. The curved wall of glass bricks has since featured in more designs by Van Schijndel.

The clients had set several requirements for the design. For example, an indoor garage, two separate work areas and a dark room for the development of photos needed to be incorporated in the floor plans. To optimally use the space and to make this possible, Van Schijndel lifted the main floor from street level and made the entrance accessible by two symmetrical stairs (a motif also taken from the Villa Foscari), between which a slope gives access to the garage in the basement. This created a ‘piano nobile’, as is customary in larger houses in Italian renaissance architecture. At the rear, the former studio building was extended with a rectangular wing, which was raised to the roof height of the existing building. This replaced a smaller wooden extension to the old studio. Van Schijndel situated this extension in such a way that space was created for a terrace and garden on the southwest side of the house. In the extension, the upper floors were situated differently than in the front part, so that the ground floor here is nearly level with the garden. In the inner corner of the rear facade, the Palladian motif of the facade was repeated, inventively staggered with the varying storey height of the front section and the extension.

Final design and floor plans
The second design was approved and built with some modifications between May and December of 1981. The original building plans, which have been preserved, provide insight into the execution and the materials that were used. For example, the roof had to be covered with a specific type of Dutch rooftiles that were reused from the old studio building. The masonry had to be executed to match the existing brickwork, using bricks that closely resembled the original ones. By sensitively interweaving old and new in the exterior, Van Schijndel gave the building a timeless appearance. Details regarding paintwork and other finishes were determined on site, in consultation between clients and architect.

The house has an L-shaped floor plan measuring approximately 9.5 metres wide by 12 metres deep. When determining the dimensions, Van Schijndel appears to have played with theories of visually pleasing proportions. The floor plan consists of two rectangles, a large one for the main house (the old studio) and a small one for the extension. The ratio between the short and long axes of these rectangles is almost identical. The two rectangles could theoretically fit into a large rectangle that also has that same ratio. Van Schijndel was most likely inspired by renaissance principles of ideal proportions, such as the ‘golden ratio’. However, because he had to work with an existing situation, these are not entirely correct in his design.

The wooden floors in the front part of the house are situated about one meter higher than in the back part, creating a split-level floor plan over three floors. In the extension, the kitchen, a bedroom with private bathroom and a bedroom with shower cubicle and walk-in closet are situated above one another. In the front part, there is a garage and darkroom in the basement, a living-dining room on the first floor and two study rooms and a guest or child’s bedroom on the second floor. The space is optimally divided by the inventive placement of the stairs between the front and rear section. By situating the stairs diagonally in the inner corner of the house, they take up as little space as possible on the floor plan. However, the steps are not perpendicular to the sides of the stairs, but parallel to the front of the house. They are therefore at an angle of approximately 45 degrees, a playful effect that seems to have been inspired by the stairs of the ‘Vanna Venturi House’. The stairway is a key feature of the interior. Originally Van Schijndel had wanted to provide the staircase with a sloping outer wall of glass bricks, which was omitted at the request of the clients.

Not afraid of colour
It is the finish of the interior in particular that gives the house its characteristic postmodern appearance. The interior finishing was partly designed by Van Schijndel, but also partly based on the ideas of the Unger couple. Van Schijndel was responsible for the interweaving of classic and modern elements and the spatial effects, the Ungers for its colour scheme. In the house, colour accents were applied in dark yellow and terracotta red (doors), light and dark blue (vinyl floor covering) and soft blue and pink (walls), which creates a playful setting. Marjan Unger has commented that for these accents she was inspired by the warm colours she had seen during a trip to Morocco. The colours she chose were an important source of inspiration for Van Schijndel, who after that made more striking use of colour in his designs. Ultimately, the subtle use of colour would become one of the defining elements of his work. The bathrooms, with blue tile walls and floors, were fitted with white bathroom fittings, a novelty in the early eighties.

The interior colour scheme was changed in 2000-2001 by the Unger couple. The blue vinyl was covered with grey carpet and the yellow and red doors were painted white. The soft blue walls were given a bright turquoise colour and both the living room and the kitchen had a wall painted in a dark shade of pink. The kitchen and toilet have floor tiles in various pastel shades. During the renovation of 2020, the colour scheme of the floors, walls and doors from the construction period has been restored. The original vinyl floor, which turned out to be still present under the carpet, was irreparably damaged and was replaced by a cast floor in the same colour scheme. The tiled floors in the kitchen and toilet which were put down at a later date have been retained.

About the author
Wouter van Elburg (1994) is currently employed as an architectural historian at the Hendrick de Keyser Association and as a PhD-candidate at the University of Amsterdam. He specialises in the typological development of Dutch residential architecture. This article is an adaptation of research carried out for the Hendrick de Keyser Association as part of the larger research project Huizen in Nederland (Houses in The Netherlands), of which the results will be published in Dutch in the coming months.

Posted 26 November 2020