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Publication date 4 September 2023

Iconic Houses in The Netherlands - 100 Years Van Zessen House

The Unique Collaboration Between Cornelis van Eesteren and Theo van Doesburg

Text: Jorn Konijn | Photos: Piet Gispen

Kinderdijk is internationally best known for its windmills, but a very special building was realized on West Kinderdijk 100 years ago: Van Zessen House. The house was designed by the well-known urban planner Cornelis van Eesteren in collaboration with the artist Theo van Doesburg and it is the only house designed by Van Eesteren that was built and still exists today. Since the foundation of Iconic Houses ten years ago, Van Zessen House has been a member of the international network of nearly two hundred modern museum homes. The house can be visited by appointment.

Cornelis van Eesteren (1897 –1988) was the eldest son of Balten van Eesteren, founder and director of the Boele & van Eesteren contracting firm. As the eldest son, Cornelis was destined to become a contractor as well, but soon became interested in architecture and the visual arts. After his studies at the Academy of Visual Arts and Technical Sciences in Rotterdam, he designed a dyke house for the widow Burgerina van Zessen-Stout. It was Van Eesteren's ambition to design a new type of dike house with this house: no decorative superfluous, no romanticism, but a basic house with a functional floor plan. The design was also dictated by the limited budget and the limited implementation options of his father's company that built the dike house.

In March 1923, Van Eesteren had completed his design, but he was not present during construction, because in May he left for Paris, together with the painter Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), to prepare the De Stijl exhibition, which would later become famous. Van Eesteren had taken the drawing of the Van Zessen House with him, and Van Doesburg used the drawing to design the colour scheme for window frames, windows, doors, stairs, and shutters. Van Eesteren sent the coloured drawing, with instructions for the painter, from Paris to Alblasserdam. The house was completed by the end of November 1923. Only around the turn of the year 1923-24, when Van Eesteren was back home, did he see the house with its colours for the first time. He loved the beautiful colour. “I see it every day and I always enjoy it again and again.”

“I see it every day and I always enjoy it again and again.”  

The influential avant-garde French architecture magazine L'Architecture Vivante published the house in the spring of 1924. When Van Doesburg saw the colour reproductions, he was overjoyed: he thought the house would become 'world famous'. This was a mistake. The house is rarely mentioned in books about modern Dutch architecture.
Nevertheless, the house has become one of the earliest examples of modern functionalist architecture: sleek volumes, covered by a flat roof and enlivened by functional elements. The use of materials is traditional, but the form, on the other hand, is radically new. The view from the water in particular shows what Van Eesteren intended: a simple, clearly expressive form and, above all, no romantic clutter.

Strikingly modern, but also useful when it rains, is the awning. Painted black, it seems to float despite its heaviness due to the lack of visible support. On the first floor, the traditional inviolability of the corner of the building is rationally broken. The window has its function, because it is very pleasant to see what is happening further down the dike. Like the awning, the upper layers of masonry seem to float because the blue window frame in the corner cannot provide any optical support. Van Eesteren has fitted the house with a flat roof. He did not want an overhang and certainly not a sloping roof, as these would disturb the sleek silhouette effect.

Theo van Doesburg gave a complicated explanation about the colours, which means that the colours maintain diagonal relations with each other. This is at odds with the support and load principle of architecture. The so-called 'colour construction' is at odds with the architectural construction, making the building appear less heavy and aesthetically liberated. That is why Van Doesburg also uses the expression 'colour solution'.

Today, Van Zessen House is owned by the Van Eesteren-Fluck & Van Lohuizen Foundation, which manages the estate of Van Eesteren and his business partner Theo van Lohuizen. It was restored in 1990 by architect Bertus Mulder, bringing back the original colours. It is a national monument where the rarity value mainly consists of the materialization of the unique collaboration between Van Eesteren and Van Doesburg.

In the same year, this collaboration between Van Eesteren and Doesburg led to another design that has since become world famous: the Maison d'Artiste. This design for an artist's home was presented during the same famous De Stijl exhibition in Paris. With their design for Maison d'Artiste, Van Eesteren and Van Doesburg pursued a radical reform in art and architecture, as a reflection on social, scientific, and technological changes that were taking place at the time. The design of the Maison d'Artiste was not only a spatial sculpture, but also a manifesto for new architecture. It is even questionable whether the designers intended it to be built at all.

The Maison d'Artiste is designed as if it were detached from the ground as if gravity did not exist. The designers were criticized in the press for not taking practical implementation into account in their floating architecture and for leaving this unsolvable problem to the engineers. However, its ground-breaking design, which anticipated advancements in technology, would have a major impact on modern architecture.

In 2023, both Van Zessen House and Maison d'Artiste are celebrating their 100th anniversary, which will be celebrated in various places throughout the Netherlands. The large-scale model of Maison d'Artiste travels through the Netherlands and exhibitions can be visited in various museums. The permanent exhibition about the young Van Eesteren and De Stijl has been opened to the public in the Van Zessen House. The exhibition focuses on the short, but very fruitful collaboration between Cornelis van Eesteren and Theo van Doesburg in the period 1922-1923, and his further development and designs in the interwar period.

About the author
Jorn Konijn has been director of the Van Eesteren Museum in Amsterdam-West since June 2022. Konijn worked as head programmer at Dutch Design Week, as curator at EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam and the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam. This year, the Van Eesteren Museum is also devoting a great deal of attention to the two iconic designs with lectures and a debate.

Maison d'Artiste Large-Scale Model in Rotterdam
November 24, 2023 - February 4, 2024
With the current high-tech resources, the Maison d'Artiste has now become buildable. The large, coloured scale model will be displayed as an eye-catcher at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam this winter. The archive of multidisciplinary artist Theo van Doesburg is one of Het Nieuwe Institutes top collections. The simultaneous exhibition at Het Nieuwe Instituut examines the initiative to carry out the design and models show the required high-tech materials that are necessary for a possible realization. The book '100 Years of Mythe Maison d'Artiste' is then for sale in two languages in the bookshop.

Pioneers of the Dutch Modern House
Film screenings 10 September 10 and 22 October 2023
Based on twenty Dutch modern house museums, the film Pioneers of the Dutch Modern House (60 minutes) provides insight into Dutch residential architecture in the 20th century in five themes: Hygiene and health in the modern home; Palaces for the people; The roles of women: clients and architects; Experiments with space; The house as a self-portrait: architect houses.
Sunday September 10, Heritage Day, in Wall House #2 in Groningen.
Sunday 22 October in Museum Dra8888 in combination with a visit to the Van Doesburg Rinsemahuis and the National Agricultural Winter School, both with a colour design by Theo van Doesburg.
More information can be found at www.iconichouses.org.

The 1 hour video can also be streamed via the webshop.

This article previously appeared in Dutch Magazine Herenhuis #97, September/October 2023.
Photos: Piet Gispen, courtesy Van Eesteren-Fluck & Van Lohuizen Foundation.

Publication date 4 September 2023