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Publication date 17 February 2022

Rietveld’s Experimental Housing in Reeuwijk Saved

An almost forgotten social housing project designed by architect Gerrit Rietveld in 1959 that was threatened with demolition has been saved and is now being partially restored.

by Wessel de Jonge and Jeroen Semeijn

Gerrit Th. Rietveld (Utrecht 1888-1964) is no doubt one of the most outstanding designers of the Modern Movement in the Netherlands. A main objective of the architectural avantgarde was to improve the quality of everyday life by developing novel and functional spatial arrangements, providing hygienic, well-lit, and healthy living conditions for everyone. This prompted architects to re-think the interior spaces and their relative relationship within the buildings they designed, and inspired designers to create functional objects for the interior space, promoting comfort and easy-to-use features. Rather than an architect who involved himself in the design of interior furnishings and objects, Rietveld was a furniture maker who increasingly engaged in architectural design.

Rietveld houses in Reeuwijk. Photo Pieter Brattinga, circa 1960 

Rietveld aimed at reducing the spatial impact of furniture. By breaking them up into structural components their structures became light and transparent. His famous armchair of 1919 received its iconic colours only in 1923, just one year before he completed the Schröder House where his ideas were further explored at the scale of an entire house. Yet his ambitions went beyond experimental residential environments for private clients and Rietveld increasingly focussed on social housing. His core-house concept, developed since the late 1920s, involved efficient housing typologies with a minimum of space lost on circulation. In response to the need for more efficient housing for reconstructing the country after the war, Rietveld’s novel spatial layouts became again relevant. But the housing scheme in Reeuwijk of 1959 forms just one of his three realised social housing projects and remained the only one derived from the core-house principle.

Ground floor of the restauration block. WDJA 

The 52 terraced units are arranged alternatingly with the front and the back to the street. The interior spaces had to be compact but are smartly arranged, efficient and well-lit. In line with the core-house idea the zone traditionally dedicated to a corridor (connecting the front door to the kitchen in the back) was added to the living room, creating an additional zone as a play or dining area. The cupboard wall to the kitchen was opened to allow the dishes to be passed around and daylight to enter deep into the house. This way Rietveld successfully transformed everyday households through the smart design of interior spatial configurations and ingenious systems of storage in search for a healthier and easier life.

Shortly after completion the minimalist details such as those of the window frames and roof curbs, caused leakages and other technical shortcomings. By the late seventies the houses were covered by a slightly sloping new roof, the timber window frames were replaced by units with an altered configuration and all the woodwork was painted dark brown. The lack of privacy because the front and back gardens were located adjacent to each other became a problem for some residents. Gardens were enclosed by a variety of high fences compromising the innovative lay-out of the scheme.

When in 2019 the housing association announced their intention to demolish the houses, the residents joined together in a campaign to secure the preservation of the scheme. A comparative study of various renovation options (including partial demolition) was set up to provide an objective framework for the discussions. WDJ Architects was commissioned to develop the various options, to assess their heritage impact, and to estimate the relative costs and the expected technical performance of the houses. An intense participatory process resulted in the decision to retain the entire scheme, to restore one block of eight units and to renovate the remaining 44 houses to preserve the general urban context. The renewal includes replacing the individual fences with uniform metal mesh fences with ivy.

Visualisation WDJA 

Recently a mock-up of the restoration was completed to test the repair and reinstalment of Rietveld’s characteristic architectural details. These include the typical eaves formed by steel U-beams and the shadow-box-type spandrels that are made up of a ribbed glass pane placed in front of a coloured panel. The project is due to be completed by the summer of 2022.

Mock-up of the restoration. Photo Jannes Linders 

WDJArchitecten

Publication date 17 February 2022