The Flexible House Then & Now

By Dan Gregory

The Rietveld-Schröder house in Utrecht of 1924 is an early example of an architectural "transformer," with partitions that move. Photo courtesy Centraal Museum

It may be an architectural cliché to say that limitations prompt new possibilities, but nevertheless it's true, and vividly illustrated in the house designed by the Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld for Truus Schröder in Utrecht, Holland, of 1924. The house is now part of Utrecht's Central Museum, which you can visit. I toured it recently and was struck by how inspirational it could be for anyone thinking of building a house and wanting to make the most out of small space. Indeed, it gives new meaning to the phrases "doing double duty" and "multipurpose space."

Truss Schröder was the mother of three and recently widowed when she commissioned the design from Rietveld, known more for his modern furniture, such as the red and blue chair of 1918 (shown in the house and in the photo below)

up to that time. But it had to be a small house: it's on a tight corner lot and only 2 stories, with kitchen, studio and a bedroom on the ground floor and the main living and entertaining space above, to take advantage of the views. According to the museum website, Truus knew how she wanted to live, and had worked with Rietveld before on a small office remodel. Clearly she was an unusual client interested in opening up an interior, and he was a perfect foil with his embrace of new approaches to three dimensional expression. He designed the upper floor to expand or contract depending on use. Sliding partitions allow it to become one large light-filled space or divide into two small bedrooms. The floors and walls form a Mondrian-like abstraction of lines and planes in primary colors. In the photo above you can see how the house is designed as a series of moving parts, like a Dutch version of le Corbusier's famous "machine for living" idea, with movable walls like the one behind the chair that can extend along the red floor line to create a room-within-

the-room. Other ideas were also ahead of their time, like the under-mount kitchen sink, with faucets installed in the backsplash to keep the counter clutter-free, which looks very contemporary even now, ninety-three years later! And the compact and

very efficient bath has a similar contemporary look. You could lock the rolling-swing door open (following the curving metal track that's inlaid in the floor, shown below) so that it blocked views of the tub while allowing

views through to borrow light from the adjacent space. Ingenious! 

Even windows were rethought -- Rietveld emphasized the feeling of openness by designing a main window

to open up at the corner: the house becomes a space-frame that redefines inside and outside. In fact, one of the neatest things that Rietveld did was to maximize natural light during the day, when the partitions could be moved out of of the way to bring in light from at 

least two sides of major rooms. This window is a great grandparent of all those fold-away window walls that are so popular today, like the ones in Plan 496-1, above, and Plan 933-5, shown in the layout below, that can turn great rooms and adjacent decks into
expansive indoor-outdoor entertaining spaces.

So what are the lessons? Think about how you will really use a space or room. Moving walls may not be what you want to do every evening before you go to sleep, but a built-in daybed in a corner of the great room can work as a couch during the day and a 

temporary bed at night; or if a flex room or study is near a powder room it can become a guest room in a pinch. Or can your kitchen island be flexible enough to work as a casual dining counter, prep surface, and storage center, as shown in Plan 497-35?

Of course changing room configurations every day is a bit extreme. However, flexibility in the way your house works inevitably becomes more important as your needs change over time.

Thu Mar 16 00:00:00 PDT 2017