The provincial Rietveld

As part of its Rietveld Year, the Centraal Museum in Utrecht is presenting an exhibition called Rietveld’s Universe, an incredibly ambitious title for an exhibition that is far too modest in comparison. Under the leadership of Ida van Zijl, the work of Rietveld has once again been dusted down in an attempt to correct the prevailing historiography. To that end, the NAi, Utrecht University and Delft University of Technology jointly set up a research project with a view to defining more precisely the position of Rietveld in relation to the history of modern architecture. And in particular to alter the perception that his contribution is limited to that one famous house and that one famous chair.

A swipe from the British historian Banham seems to have been one of the factors that determined the direction of the Rietveld’s Universe project. For it was Banham who asked how it was possible that an 'unremarkable, provincial' figure like Rietveld was able to produce not one but two of the most important icons of modern architecture. Now you could simply dismiss Banham’s remark as that of someone who wasn’t really interested in Dutch architecture in the first place. Nonetheless, ‘Rietveld Bashing’ is a common enough activity when it comes to promoting oneself and setting out a vision on the development of twentieth-century architecture. Rem Koolhaas offered us the strongest example of this in his controversial lecture ‘How modern is Dutch architecture?’ by admitting his aversion to the Schröder House and describing it as a sublimated gypsy caravan crammed with well-intended ideas both big and small.

This fact — as well as the relative obscurity of all the other work that furniture maker, interior designer and architect Gerrit Th. Rietveld (1888-1964) made in addition to the Schröder House and the Red and Blue Chair, particularly in the post-war period — encouraged the compilers of the exhibition and the catalogue to produce a revised historiography, a totally different Rietveld to the one responsible for those two well-known icons. So far so good, you could say, a promising starting point for a fresh history project and a new take on that modest furniture maker who sang the praises of 'the luxury of sobriety'. But honesty compels me to admit I cannot conceal my disappointment. At the very most, you could say that the exhibition and catalogue mark a first step in a reappraisal of the work of Rietveld, but that was already true of the exhaustive catalogue produced in 1992 and compiled by Marijke Küper and Ida van Zijl, just as it was of the book written by Rodijk, De huizen van Rietveld (= The Houses of Rietveld), published in 1991.

Two things became clear even back then. First, the incredible clarity of the design language developed by Rietveld in his post-war work, and which had almost no equals during the whole twentieth century and easily eclipses the neo-modernists of the 1980s and ’90s, OMA included. Second, the apparent ease with which Rietveld could change design language was striking. The Van Slobbe House from the 1960s, for example, is of an entirely different formal idiom to the Schröder House. In this context, the summer house for Verrijn Stuart from 1941 near the Loosdrechtse Plassen lake district is a key project. Without any notion of 'postmodernism', the Verrijn Stuart House blends the traditional and the modern in a way seldom displayed, which is so obvious and yet so new that the house is perhaps even more relevant to contemporary architectural debate than that canonical house on Prins Hendriklaan. It should be stated that the rustic character of the house was certainly not the architectural language that Rietveld had in mind, since he had to make the most of the limited means at his disposal and restrictive regulations. Yet the passage of time enables us to constantly look at history in a new light, and aspects or phenomena previously deemed to be of minor importance can now adopt a position more in the foreground.

Such a notion of writing history would seem to be lost on the compilers of Rietveld’s Universe. They took a historicist approach as the starting point in their search for a 'historically correct' contextualisation and an accompanying reevaluation of Rietveld’s position. They set about detecting 'influences', charting the exchange of ideas among contemporaries and collaboration with clients and producers, and in the process they lost sight of the work itself all too often. In the end, the three-part task they seem to have set themselves proved too much: making sense of the internal development within the work of Rietveld, particularly of the work after De Stijl and after World War Two; re-evaluating Rietveld’s position within the De Stijl group with the explicit goal of portraying him more independently; and finally repositioning Rietveld in the pantheon of heroes of the modern movement. Each element is worthy of an exhibition of its own, but collectively they draw too heavily on a clear presentation of the work.

Both the exhibition and the catalogue are burdened down by the third of the three goals. The furniture maker from Utrecht is constantly measured by assessing him alongside Oud, Le Corbusier, Mies, Wright and other leading modern architects and designers. This occurs to the point of weariness, particularly in the exhibition, by means of models, drawings and a well-nigh endless stream of quotes from all those past masters. The remarkable effect is that Rietveld is shoved aside, as it were, by his colleagues. That starts as early as the opening gallery where a big model of Lovell Health House completely overshadows a charming, small model of Rietveld’s Van Slobbe House.

Moreover, an unintentional side-effect is that modern architecture appears once again as a homogeneous phenomenon, something that even the authors of the catalogue admit should no longer be under discussion in contemporary writing on the history of modern architecture and its protagonists. A similar paradox emerges when the compilers assess Rietveld’s position within De Stijl. Even though they claim they want to liberate Rietveld from the cliché as the designer of that one house and that one chair, the last gallery still brings Rietveld back to those two very icons. By the time you’ve reached the last gallery, the assessment of the internal development of Rietveld’s work has long since disappeared over the horizon. To be sure, a number of surprising designs have been pulled out of the archives, among them the interior of a Fokker aeroplane (1956) and the design of a children’s home in Curaçao (1949-1952), but you long to see so much more.

Is there anything nice or positive to say about Rietveld’s Universe? Of course there is. It shows once more that the Rietveld archive in Utrecht and Rotterdam is one of the most important avant-garde archives in the world in terms of size and type of material. The models in particular are unique. Irrespective of any curatorial explanation, the material itself proves that Rietveld was one of the most creative and significant designers of the twentieth century. Research into Rietveld’s contribution is still in its infancy. One of the crucial questions, for example, concerns the particular nature and positioning of the avant-garde. All sorts of recent studies point out that the whole notion is in need of a revision that goes beyond the criticism of Manfredo Tafuri at the time. This does not just concern the instrumentality of avant-garde production within such general schemes as the development of capitalism. Rather, it chiefly concerns the precise position of avant-garde production in its local setting, the local coalitions and networks that were maintained. The essays in the catalogue offer some hints, but they often fail to move beyond that cursed urge to liberate Rietveld from his supposed provincialism.

Should we not instead view that provincialism in the very opposite way? Why go along with such a typically snobbish accusation from Banham? Just like Koolhaas — who cannot see Utrecht as a 'station of modernism' in the way that Moscow, Berlin or New York are for him — Banham sees the modern avant-garde as an exclusively metropolitan, cosmopolitan affair. But anyone who looks a little more closely realises that there was a whole group of avant-garde figures who were not active there at all. In any case, this applies to the entire Dutch contribution. After all, we don’t have a metropolis in the Netherlands, and the same is true of Switzerland, Scandinavia, most of Germany, central Europe and so on. A whole network stretches from Hanover to Zurich and Amsterdam, from Utrecht to Ulm and Bergeijk, from Alfeld to Weimar and Dessau, and from there further, which lies totally beyond the metropolitan. Perhaps that so-called 'provincialism' is exactly what’s so good about Rietveld, and perhaps it is even the key to a new notion of the twentieth-century avant-garde.