Lives lived in parallel

You can’t look at these two houses without thinking of one artist – Piet Mondrian. The primary colours, the black grids and the paint­erly composition of the façades all point to the influence of the Dutch artist. Yet at the same time, it’s also difficult to imagine two more different contexts than California’s Pacific Palisades and the grey-skied suburbia of Utrecht, in the Netherlands.

Gerrit Rietveld built the Schröder House in 1924 for Truus Schröder-Schräder, a strong-willed, independent woman whose ideas were pivotal in its design – pushing Rietveld (who later moved into the house and became her lover) to be more radical than he would have been on his own.

Rietveld (1888-1964) was himself born in Utrecht but was not an architect. Rather, he was a cabinet maker and furniture designer (he had served an apprenticeship with his joiner father) and he made his name with what are still some of the most radical and recognisable pieces of modernist design. His Red and Blue Chair appears almost as striking now as it must have when he first showed it nearly a century ago in 1917.

Rietveld was associated with the De Stijl movement (among whom Theo van Doesburg, Vilmos Huszár and Piet Mondrian are the best known) – but was never quite accepted by them and claimed not to have known Mondrian. As the son of a joiner, he was not an intellectual, not a networker and remained, for most of his career, a little outside the system, his brilliance never quite fully recognised.

Exterior of the Schröder House in Utrecht

In his furniture he did what Mondrian had done to the art of painting: he dematerialised it. Just as Mondrian reduced the painting to the picture plane, flattening it into a completely abstract, two-dimensional composition, Rietveld similarly dematerialised the architecture of the house.

This is construction as a composition of planes and lines – none of which seem to rely on any other for support. The elements just float there. Just as he had done with his chair, in which each of the planes, surfaces and sticks appear to pass each other along the way. There are no conventional corners: instead, walls, roof, balconies and even the brightly coloured columns overshoot at the edges to suggest that there is no structural junction; that these surfaces are as free as blocks of colour in a painting.

Architect Gerrit Rietveld in 1941

The artists and architects of De Stijl had learnt much from Frank Lloyd Wright in the US. Wright’s plans appear as abstract compositions, with each room expressed clearly as a separate volume – a very different proposition from the more classical house, in which rooms are fitted into a symmetrical box. What Rietveld was attempting to do at this house was to escape that boxiness. He described it as trying to replace mass with space. The result is this painterly, abstract composition of an exterior with an extraordinary interior in which rooms flow into each other; in which the geometric complexity of planes sliding past each other and spaces loosely defined by sliding partitions and doors create an adaptable and seductive combination of arrangements.

In Rietveld’s own drawings for the house, it is the built-in furniture that is picked out in colour rather than the walls, so that the interior appears like an abstract landscape of geometric sculptures. Vaguely familiar shapes of domestic life can be picked out: the bed, the wardrobe, the dining table, the bath, the piano. The house is clearly designed around these focal points of everyday ritual, and it is a design that genuinely responds to the client’s needs (rather than simply creating a striking piece of work, as is the case with so many modernist houses). This, perhaps, explains why in 1982 Truus Schröder, still living in the house, could say: “I think this house Rietveld isn’t so completely ‘Rietveld’. I think he adapted himself somewhat to what I wanted. And I believed I loved this house more than Rietveld did. There’s so much of myself here, I respond to the whole atmosphere of the place.”

The Eames House, near Los Angeles, whose construction began in the mid-1940s

The Schröder House – though it is difficult to imagine now – once sat at the very edge of Utrecht, its windows looking towards pure green, on to land that was rural and set aside for military use. Nevertheless it was always built (rather surprisingly when first encountered) as an end of terrace. It terminates a dull row of ordinary suburban Dutch houses, with the grey gable-end of the neighbouring property looming over the little white, modernist house.

In text books, these white modernist houses are always presented as villas, as freestanding sculptures in which context is blotted out. They become art objects, more akin to pieces of furniture than works of architecture.

Like Rietveld, Charles and his wife Ray Eames were also known more for their furniture than their buildings (their reclining plywood-and-leather chair and ottoman has become a staple of architects’ homes). And, like Rietveld, the house they built was on a once green site. But time has treated the two houses very differently. While the Schröder House now sits in built-up suburbia, a bypass running beside it, the eucalyptus trees and Californian greenery has all but enveloped Pacific Palisades so that it appears like a house in a rainforest.

Architect Charles Eames with his wife Ray

The design of the Eames House is dominated by the same Mondrianesque primary colours as the Schröder House. Like the Schröder House, this was a lived-in space, a place of real life rather than the sterile, built-for-photography feel of so many modernist monuments. It was built in 1949 for the Eameses themselves as part of the Case Study Houses programme instigated by Arts & Architecture magazine – a design-led spur to postwar construction. Like the Schröder House, the Eames House is defined by its picture-plane walls picked out in Mondrian-esque primary colours and black lines – but it is a very different proposition. Unlike Rietveld’s complex interplay of layered planes, the Eameses, looking towards more commercial approaches to middle-class housing, created something more like the box that Rietveld was trying to escape.

But what a box. Its interior revolves around a lofty double-height space overlooked by a gallery and with full-height windows. The steel-and-glass door is marked on the façade with a gold panel glittering above it, a neat contemporary nod to the sunrise reference of the Georgian fanlight.

Inside, the house is free and loose, stuffed with the Eameses’ eclectic collections. It is topped off with a super-functional corrugated metal ceiling and industrial-looking steel trusses. An X-brace on the outside echoes this language of industrial utility. The house was intended to be built entirely from standard steel components, but the country was still suffering wartime shortages and eventually many of its elements were custom-made.

Certainly the colours and Mondrian-influenced façades of both these houses chime, despite the distance between them. But there is something else too: Rietveld lived in the Schröder House with Mrs Schröder-Schräder in the last years of his life, while the Eameses lived out the rest of their lives in their house too, with Charles dying in 1978 and Ray a decade later. Some modernist houses are conceived and designed more for effect than for everyday life. Yet these two seemingly painterly houses were quite clearly designed for living in and are among the most radical but also, it seems, the most comfortable small houses of the 20th century. Talking about the house, Charles Eames said, “The house must make no insistent demands for itself, but rather aid as a background for life in work. This house acts as reorientator and shock absorber.” It is, to steal a phrase from my colleague Peter Aspden, the shock absorber of the new.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.