Utrecht: Stad Naar Mijn Hart

My encounter with Utrecht has been nothing short of serendipitous. What started as a spontaneous trip to the Schroderhuis (1924) morphed into Rietveld’s Universe and a delightful ode to Dick Bruna.

“Architects aren’t supposed to lower space,” mused Schroder in a documentary reflecting on her relationship with Rietveld. But Rietveld wasn’t an architect in the traditional sense. Coming from a family of furniture makers, Rietveld began expressing space through furniture design with his red and blue chair (1918), a form of primary colors and geometric representation.

The Schroder house was to be an experiment of form (“You have a lot less worry if you keep things simple”) and helped cohere what came to be known as De Stijl, a movement/style based on two almost contradicting ideas: rational abstraction.

Seeing the house in real life, one is immediately struck by  the small scale  and primitiveness of the actual design. This is not the modernism of today–when  we speak of clean lines and smooth surfaces we take things such as central heating for granted. When people like Jan Wils and Rietveld began experimenting with early concepts of modernism they still had to reconcile how to heat a home with large, angular, unadorned windows.

The house looks  like a toy in relation to the streetscape, to the right is an entire block of vernacular Dutch architecture, to the left is a four-lane overpass. In the documentary, Shroder explains that the lot just outside the house was where truckers would often pull over to piss.

Schroder played a very active role in the construction of the house. She and her family moved in before it was completed, testing the livability of the design. Some years later, Schroder and Rietveld teamed up again to try and address some of Holland’s mid twentieth century social housing issues. Like the Schroderhuis, these apartment blocks offer a surprisingly quiet, almost organic alternative to the severity that often associated with early modernism.

But perhaps this quiet articulation has to do with the country’s social geography. The Netherlands was a neutral country during WWI, and has a well-known history of tolerance and acceptance…meanwhile, the characteristically flat but lush green countryside lends itself to greater experimentation with daring uses of color. Just outside Utrecht, we found a group of contemporary housing structures:

One of my other favorite Dutch designers who’s work utilizes bold but simple color is graphic designer and children’s book author Dick Bruna.

My love for Bruno’s character Miffy developed while living in Japan. Miffy and her friend Boris helped me improve my kanji with their simplicity and repetition of expressions and phrases.

While Rietveld was known for his use of primary colors, Bruna’s work takes advantage of secondary colors–a specific green and orange that seem to hold great appeal to children.

Although the Dick Bruna house was geared toward children, everyone seemed to have a great time, especially in the great constructionist domes of color.

There is something intuitive about Rietveld and Bruna’s work; both found a color palette and form of expression–a style if you will–and were able to work with it throughout their entire career without ever being reductive. The same might be said about Utrecht’s built environment which feels cohesive yet unrestricting. The narrow streets, parks, and architecture are neither linear nor anachronistic but rather, something completely different. That’s why, as we parted Utrecht to head to Amsterdam I concluded that yes, Utrecht, you certainly stand near my heart.

 

 

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