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Rietveld’s Universe, Centraal Museum Utrecht, the Netherlands

Another Rietveld emerges: not just the standard bearer for De Stijl but a prescient environmentalist

This engrossing exhibition sets out to challenge some preconceptions. Its premise is that Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) is still primarily thought of for just two early designs, the Red Blue Chair (1918/23) and the Schröder House (1924), and that much of his long career is overlooked. Not that those two De Stijl icons have been admired unreservedly by all. Rem Koolhaas, for instance, has written that the house is ‘full of high purpose and sly intentions; full of colour, or at least of paint; full of abstract bells and sublimated whistles’.

Rietveld’s Universe almost refrains from giving star billing to the house and chair. Organised thematically rather than chronologically, with displays devoted to such subjects as ‘Liberating Space’ and ‘Simplicity and Experiment’, it absorbs them both into a larger narrative. We see the wide spectrum of Rietveld’s work, from urban design at one end to a continuing focus on furniture at the other. In-between come numerous building types, including academies, exhibition pavilions and private houses.

One dominant theme is Rietveld’s embrace of new materials and technologies. Exploring possibilities of prefabrication he came up with a ‘core house’, comprising a front door, hallway, stairwell and bathroom. He designed several different types of concrete block and was one of the first architects to realise a luminous ceiling. But he never had the opportunity to combine industrialised construction with social provision on the sort of scale he wished.

Exhibition designer Kinkorn has resisted the temptation of De Stijl’s primary colours and has instead chosen shades of grey for its refined and adroit installation. Visitors take a meandering route through the galleries, with many of the exhibits on trestle tables of varying height and images projected on screens overhead.

Devoid of gimmicks, the show demands an audience that is willing to spend time examining drawings, material samples and Rietveld’s often quite rudimentary working models. There are none of the seductive colour photographs that graced 2G architecture magazine on Rietveld’s houses (November 2006) or Kaya Oku’s book The Architecture of Gerrit Rietveld (Toto, 2009).

Adding a little glamour and putting Rietveld in context are works by some of his international contemporaries. Models of Rietveld’s Van Slobbe House and Richard Neutra’s Lovell House, both built into a slope, sit side-by-side, with a drawing of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House above them - an apposite ensemble. Less convincing is the juxtaposition of Rietveld’s thatched-roof Monsignor Verriet Institute, on the island of Curaçao, with Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel; Rietveld was hardly a practising expressionist.

Published alongside the exhibition, the book Rietveld’s Universe (NAi Publishers, 2010) explores his career and critical reception in a dozen essays. It’s a valuable collection, which ranges from the cultural life of Rietveld’s hometown Utrecht to the way he detailed a corner, and out of it another Rietveld emerges: not just the standard bearer for De Stijl but a prescient environmentalist.

As long ago as 1958 Rietveld was saying: ‘Remember that the earth’s natural resources were not all designated for us… Learn to enjoy the wealth of restraint.’ In the book’s final essay, Netherlands Architecture Institute director Ole Bouman draws the obvious moral for the 21st century, stressing the purity and austerity of Rietveld’s conceptions: ‘He found meaning in the smallest space, fashioned something valuable from virtually nothing.’

So the book comes close to proposing Rietveld as a patron saint of sustainability, but it doesn’t quite canonise him. Yet instead of a new defining image of Rietveld’s work on the cover, what do we see? Yes, the Red Blue chair.

Rietveld’s Universe

Where: Centraal Museum Utrecht, the Netherlands

When: Until 30 January 2011

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