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25 October 2017

De Stijl in Drachten

In 1921 Cees Rienks de Boer (1881-1966), a local architect, was commissioned by Smallingerland (the municipality in which Drachten is located) to design sixteen residential buildings and a school, as part of the expansion plan Stapenséa 1918. The residences of the so-called Parrot District are middle-class housing. De Boer sent his designs to Theo van Doesburg, who, together with architect J.J.P. Oud, critiqued it. Their comments led to certain alterations and additions, such as the cubistic bay windows. These residences and the new school Rijkslandbouwwinterschool were built on the former First Parallel Road, nowadays called the Torenstraat, Houtlaan and Oosterstraat.

Van Doesburg’s Parrot District
Through the mediation of Evert Rinsema, Van Doesburg was given the opportunity to design a colour scheme for both the exterior and the interior of this project. Van Doesburg designed a scheme based on the primary colours red, blue and yellow, together with the colours black, white and grey for the houses. He also included the gardens of the houses in the colour plan. Given free rein, he incorporated all manner of theories into his plans. Sometimes he took the architecture into account; sometimes he simply did as he pleased.
For the interiors, he used the open-beam ceilings as an interplay of lines in his composition, and for the walls Van Doesburg used grey wallpaper to create colour planes that remained detached from the ceilings and skirting. For the gardens, he designed colour planes using plants, coloured patios and garden paths. The artist chose to use secondary colours such as green, orange and purple for the school building, providing a stark contrast with the primary colours of the residential buildings. The design plans clearly show all of these aspects: architectural theories, classically coloured architectural drawings, free interpretation of architecture and urban design as colour planes and subtle colour compositions with wall coverings and coloured paper.

Besides the colour schemes, De Boer asked Van Doesburg to design two stained glass windows for the school: one to be placed in the staircase in the north-façade and one above the entrance in the west-façade. The requirements for the windows were that the depictions had to be related to agriculture and could not be abstract. Therefore, the windows depict a multitude of agricultural labourers, ranging from sowers to mowers, and spaders to harvesters. Van Doesburg applied a method to this design which he called ‘doorbeelden’, which meant that he simplified an image to a collection of geometrical shapes and bright colours. Drawn designs and studies for these windows are a part of the collection of Museum Dr8888.

This unique project to design sixteen residential buildings and a school, turned out to be quite controversial. It was new for an artist to have such freedom to apply art to architecture. However the inhabitants of Drachten were far from happy and soon the neighbourhood got the negative nickname of ‘the Parrot District’ (which has persisted to this day). In less than a year the houses were repainted in more conventional colours and the colour schemes of the school building were never implemented. The school board considered it to be inappropriate to expose the students to such modern ideas. It would take sixty years for the school to be painted in the intended colours in the late 1980s.

Even nowadays the colour schemes are controversial. In 1988 the original colours were brought back and the “Stichting Theo van Doesburg Drachten” (The Theo van Doesburg Drachten Foundation) was established to maintain the restored designs. The Parrot District is an exceptional residential district in the Netherlands and even more so for the province of Friesland. An artist was involved in the design and execution of the project from the early stages. For both the artist and architect it was a groundbreaking experiment.
The architect De Boer was mostly known for his rather traditional architecture. Some of his projects, ranging from farms, residences and commercial spaces can still be found in Drachten. He was interested in De Stijl, but did not proceed to plaster the walls of the Parrot District white or to make the main building material concrete, which was considered the epitome of modernity back then and which Oud and Van Doesburg thought was necessary to accentuate the colourful windows. This was most likely due to financial constraints, although De Boer already struggled to get the extremely modern colour schemes approved by the local government.
The proposal to finish the corners of the buildings with iron and glass never materialised. Van Doesburg’s colour schemes were inspired by the typical usage of primary colours in De Stijl. Many of the sketches and designs for the interiors and exteriors made by Theo van Doesburg are part of the collection of Museum Dr8888.

The Van Doesburg-Rinsema House
In 2011, Museum Dr8888 devised plans to restore one of the houses in the Parrot District and turn it into a museum house, the so-called Van Doesburg-Rinsema House. The museum examined the question of whether, following the example of the Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht, this house could serve as a branch of Museum Dr8888. One of these residences is currently being returned to its original state in both its interior and exterior, following extensive historical and architectural research. Research was also conducted on the colours of the residences, which is generally a difficult process. The project in Drachten proves that it does not have to be.

Research and Reconstruction
Research has been done in the history of the district’s buildings and their colours. Van Doesburg’s letters, in which he describes which pigments were to be used and what he thought of the result, were also examined. The first phase of the research, with help of the Rijksmuseum and the University of Amsterdam, into the in-situ paint layers showed quite clearly that the original layers of paint were still present underneath over a dozen later layers. Fragments of wallpaper were also found in the houses that correspond with Van Doesburg’s original samples and design drawings. Initially it was unclear whether Van Doesburg’s plans for the wallpapers were implemented and if so, in which manner. Through archival research, in-situ research and reconstructions it could be concluded that the wallpaper was most likely implemented in the initial construction of the houses, but not entirely as envisioned by Van Doesburg.
The results of the archival research demonstrated that the wallpaper was of great relevance for the whole colour scheme of the house and that Van Doesburg used it as a starting point for the colours. This gives an interesting insight into the design process of the artist. In addition, it could be concluded that the way of ‘framing’ the wallpaper with white borders (by paper or by paint) was of great importance for Van Doesburg, as he also emphasized this in his plans. However his envisioned method of hanging wallpaper in the bedrooms could not be executed as he had drawn the positions of the windows and doors incorrectly on his drawings to De Boer. This resulted in the absence of white borders.
Instructions for the application of wallpaper can be found on a document made by Van Doesburg in which he linked a list of wallpapers samples to the colour harmonies. Various names and addresses were also noted on the document, as were locations such as ‘Upstairs’ and the amounts of wallpaper available to him. The samples on this list were examined on their origin, pattern style, printing process and aging. Original wallpaper fragments were also found in another house of the Parrot District. One of these fragments was then digitally reconstructed to a full pattern and was printed for the reconstruction of the residence.

The Future of the House
Starting on the first of June, 2017, Museum Dr8888 and the Van Doesburg-Rinsema House Foundation will start special programming for the museum’s Van Doesburg-Rinsema House. Despite the delay in the realization of the historic residence, the museum and the Van Doesburg-Rinsema House Foundation are making it possible for visitors to visit the house for a preview of the work in progress. Additionally, it is possible to get a first glance of how the rest of the residence will look like thanks to a purpose-built virtual reality app. The app, developed by Grendel Games, provides an interactive 3D-preview of the finished house: a virtual look behind the scenes.
In the future, when the Van Doesburg-Rinsema House is completed, Museum Dr8888 will use this extra exhibition space for the display of facsimiles of the designs of Theo van Doesburg and Cees Rienks de Boer, and replicas of furniture designed by Thijs Rinsema.

Publication date 25 October 2017