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  • Writer's pictureNigel Wakeham

Tea with Madame Schroder

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

UK Overseas Development Aid

Tea with Madame Schroder

In early 1968, I went to Holland to have a look at some examples of the ‘Nieuwe Bouwen’, the Dutch version of international style architecture built in the 1920s and 1930s. I wanted to see the Van Nelle building in Rotterdam, the Schroder House in Utrecht and the Zonnestraal Sanitorium near Hilversum.

Before leaving for Holland however, I discussed my trip with a Dutch ballet dancer friend and it transpired that her father was a joiner and he had been responsible for making furniture for Gerrit Rietveld (her flat was full of examples of these including the famous ‘Red and Blue’ chair) and she had therefore met and was friendly with Mme Schroder, owner of the eponymous house designed by Rietveld. She suggested that, if I was interested, she could ring Mme Schroder and ask if I could visit the house. Of course I said that I would love to see the house and Mme Schroder not only agreed to my visiting it but invited me to tea!

Shortly after, I set off for Holland in my trusty Renault 4 and headed for Rotterdam to have a look at the Van Nelle building, a factory built to process coffee, tea and tobacco. It was designed by Leendert van der Vlugt from the office of Brinkman and van der Vlugt in cooperation with the engineer, Jan Wiebenga. Construction was started in 1925 and finished in 1931. The building is considered to be a prime example of the international style and it is claimed that the building incorporated the first industrially produced curtain wall in the world. Le Corbusier, who visited the building in 1932, called it ‘a poem in steel and glass’ and it still is a beautiful building, the epitome of the international style with its sweeping white concrete structure expressed externally and its vast areas of glazing. It was however still in use as a factory when I visited it and I could not get inside.

Photo by F. Eveleens
Photo by Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed

I stopped off for the night in Delft where I was laid low by a really bad migraine and was rescued (I am not now sure how) by some friendly Dutch architectural students with whom I stayed the night. When these students learned that I was off to tea with Mm. Schroder the next day they insisted on accompanying me as in normal circumstances they said that there was no way that they could get into the house. I was rather worried as to what Mme Schroder’s reaction would be when I turned up with a bunch of students, but we were all warmly welcomed and given tea and cakes. In fact, I think that she rather enjoyed the visit as she grilled the students on the latest developments at their school of architecture and the latest gossip in Dutch architectural circles.

We were given a guided tour of the house which was of course very impressive although slightly worn at the edges by that time as Mm. Schroder had been living in it since the 1920s and had brought up her three children there.

In 1924 Mme Schroder, who had recently been widowed asked Rietveld to design her a house. Although she knew him as a member of ‘De Stijl’ and as a designer of furniture he had never designed a house before. Mme Schroder had some fairly unconventional ideas about what a home should be and this together with Rietveld’s disdain for tradition meant that they worked well together and she played an important role in the design process.

Rietveld’s design for the house is an embodiment of the ideals of De Stijl (which were rather different to those of the main-stream modern movement) with its fluid transitions between the interior and exterior, the clean horizontal and vertical lines, the three-dimensionality of both the interior spaces and the external elevations with their varying planes and the use of primary colours alongside white, black and grey.

Mme Schroder made major contributions to the design such as the extensive use and design of built-in furniture and the use of the sliding walls on the first floor that meant that by day this space could be one open space but in the evening it could be divided up for various family activities.

The house when you visit it, seems much smaller than it appears to be in photographs and this is largely due to the fact that it is tacked on to the end of a block of large and rather ugly apartments. It was designed to look away from its neighbours and out over the adjoining polders and Mme Schroder’s favourite view was apparently from the first floor looking out over the polders.

In the early 1930s the land in the polders opposite came up for sale and to stop any developments that she did not approve of and anything that might spoil her view, she bought the land and asked Rietveld to design two residential blocks on what later became Erasmuslaan. A block of four townhouses was completed in 1931 and an apartment block in 1934.

Rietveld’s designs for these housing blocks followed the principles of functionalism, a style that was rational and efficient and more in line with the international style rather than the De Stijl style of the Schroder house. The primary colours of the latter were replaced by white, plastered walls and steel window frames. The elevations were rather plain compared to the house with large areas of windows and long balconies. Rietveld and Mme Schroder saw the houses as models for modern living and furnished one of them to serve as a model home (and to show off Rietveld’s furniture designs).

None of my photos from my first visit survive but I did visit again in 2007 when our older daughter was on an Erasmus exchange at the school of art in Rotterdam. We went on a guided tour of the house which had been renovated to more or less the condition that it was in when built and it does look very good (see I am not sure however that the tour guide believed me when I said that I had had tea with Mme Schroder in the living room 40 years before!

The photo galleries below show the house at the time of our visit in 2007 (we were not allowed to take photos internally but there are plenty on the internet) and the housing units on Erasmuslaan which are, very unfortunately, separated from the house by a very ugly elevated motorway. When this was built, Rietveld said that they might as well demolish the house as the whole concept had been destroyed.

The following day I set off to Hilversum to see the Zonnestraal Sanatorium. This was designed between 1925 and 1927 by Jan Duiker (the leading spokesman for the modern movement at the time in Holland), Bernard Bijvoet and again the engineer Jan Wiebenga and was completed in 1931.

The sanatorium was designed to be a rehabilitation centre for TB patients and provided the high levels of lighting, ventilation, open space and fresh air that specialists at that time thought were necessary to treat the illness. It also embodied the then current definition of ‘modern’ architecture in that it used an externally expressed concrete structure, large areas of glass, repetitive modules and avoided any unnecessary decoration.

The buildings were to consist of four pavilions accommodating the patients’ rooms (only two pavilions were built) with a central building that accommodated the entrance, the medical department, kitchens, stores and workshops and on the first floor, a cruciform dining room with roof terraces. The buildings were set out on a central axis with the main building in the centre and the two pavilions to each side with all buildings having a southerly aspect to ensure maximum exposure to the sun. This arrangement also meant that all of the patients’ rooms could have unobstructed balconies for sunbathing. There are some line drawings in my essay about the buildings (see below).

The sanatorium was celebrated at the time as a significant example of the modern movement in architecture and was very influential in the design of other sanatoriums including the Paimio Sanatorium that was designed by Alvar Aalto (who visited Zonnestraal in 1928).

It was assumed at the time that a cure for TB would be found within 30 years and for this reason the buildings were not designed for a long life and used simple and inexpensive materials that were available at the time. After the second world war a cure for TB was found and the disease was almost eradicated (although it is now on the increase again) and the buildings became an old peoples’ home which it still was at the time of my visit. The buildings were by then however in pretty bad condition and there are a few photographs taken at the time of my visit in my essay about the buildings (see below) that illustrate this.

In 1968 I was a 4th year student at the Architectural Association and the year before I should have submitted a history essay (I was usually late with these things; the history essay that I should have submitted in 5th year was not submitted until the early 1990s!). Following my visit to the Zonnestraal Sanitorium I decided to take that as the subject for the essay, a copy of which is attached. The essay was quite well received at the time (although that is now for others to judge) and I will end with a quotation from it:

‘Zonnestraal can therefore be seen to typify the Modern Movement building solution. The expression of separate and defined volumes for separate and defined functions. The use of a trabeated structure, expressed consistently throughout the building even when not entirely justified, as post, beam and slab. The use of materials thought most representative of the machine age. Plain surfaces of concrete painted white. The largest possible areas of glass, the slimmest possible mild steel glazing bars and above all, the functionalism of the building being so heavily overlaid with symbolism as to become of minor importance. Tuberculosis is now being treated in other ways; sanatoria are being converted to other uses. Zonnestraal is now a geriatric unit and the light, airy symbol of Duiker’s building, the community dining/recreation centre, is now no longer in use because the old people cannot climb the stairs. It stands, the glazing bars rusting, the glass cracking and the rendering falling off, as a still beautiful monument to a machine age that existed only momentarily.’

Schroder House




Architecture in Developing Countries: A Resource

The design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health in rural areas of the developing world.

Nigel Wakeham is an architect who lived for 23 years in Southern and West Africa and the SW Pacific working on education, health and other projects. He has since worked for over 20 years as a consultant for national governments and agencies such as the World Bank, DFID, ADB and AfDB on the implementation of the construction components of education and health projects in many countries in the developing world.​

​The objective of this website will be to provide the benefit of more than 45 years of experience of working in developing countries to architects and other construction professionals involved in the design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health. It will provide reference material from the projects that Nigel has worked on and technical information on the design, construction and maintenance of educational and health facilities and other relevant topics and these will be added to from time to time.

I am happy to be contacted by anyone requiring further information on any of the projects or resources referred to in this website or by anyone wishing to discuss work possibilities.


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