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5 modernist house museums, a car ride away from Brussels


Last year Villa Tugendhat in Brno finally opened its doors to the public – the renovation had taken quite some time. Europe can now boast a new beautiful modernist house museum, a site of pilgrimage for lovers of architecture who are given the chance to admire beautiful interiors that once were only to be seen by the people who lived there and their guests. These are our favourites:

1) Villa Tugendhat

In the residential suburbs of the Czech town of Brno: Villa Tugendhat, an icon of the International Style, designed by the German star of Modernism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in 1927 and finished in 1930.

A more than successful overall project, where the architect not only designed the house but also its interior, covering the smallest details – some of the furniture pieces he designed specifically for this house actually became more known than the house itself. Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) was commissioned by Fritz Tugendhat and his wife Grete Weiss, both heirs to wealthy industrial Czechoslovakian families. Money was not a problem, so Mies van der Rohe could deliver the radically modern villa his clients dreamt of without having to hold back – he created a luxurious, minimalist open-plan villa on a slope, a house like no one had ever seen before, with features like a steel frame and supporting pillars, and panoramic glass walls that could be slid open and that revealed a fantastic view on the garden and the city beneath. It was (and still is) impressive, modern, spacious and light, with clean lines. Mies van de Rohe also provided the family with some unique facilities, such as a special vault room where they could keep there fur coats cool and moth free, a heating and air-conditioning system that looks like the engine room of a ship and a sophisticated water supply system passing the water through pipes filled with rocks that had been collected from the bottom of the sea and through filters with cederoil, to make it cool and fragrant. Also remarkable: the beautiful, rare materials that Mies van der Rohe chose to work with, often imported from far away lands, such as Maccasar ebony (for the library and the circular dining alcove) or remarkably thin onyx slabs from the Atlas mountains, to create the beautiful, almost translucent wall in the living area, the show piece of the house. The overall result is nothing less than breathtaking. No wonder the German Nazi’s confiscated the house, after the Tugendhats, who were Jewish, had fled from Czechoslovakia. The house went through a lot during and after the war but fortunately has been fully restored since 2014, and is now open to the public. For all information, and for a virtual tour, visit www.tugendhat.eu.


2) Sonneveld House

A must-see in Rotterdam (The Netherlands): the Sonneveld House designed by Brinkman en Van der Vlugt for the Sonneveld family in the Jongkindstraat, right next to the Museumpark. Photo: www.huissonneveld.nl.

This gem from 1933 is one of the best-preserved houses built in the progressive new architectural style of het Nieuwe Bouwen (the New Building). It’s named after the man who commissioned it, Albertus Sonneveld, who was one of the general managers of the Van Nelle factory. He decided to work with the architects Brinkman en Van der Vlugt, the same team who had designed the plans for the Van Nelle factory earlier – which is the most important industrial monument in the Netherlands – and who would go on designing the Feyenoord soccer stadion.  Sonneveld wanted the architects to build him and his family a radically modern house, like the ones he had seen in the United States on several business trips; he felt inspired by the modern way of life that he witnessed there. If you would like to be able to imagine what a day in the life of this progressive household (and their staff) looked like, a visit to their house is highly recommended: the interior nowadays has been made to look exactly the way it did when the Sonnevelds moved in in 1933. The furnishings were designed by the architects to match the unique architecture of the house, in close collaboration with the furniture company of W.H. Gispen; think colourful pieces, chairs with continuous frames comprising seamless steel tubes and the use of a number of technical innovations. Even though the house is not lived in anymore (it’s a museum), it still feels like the Sonnevelds could walk in any time, coming back home from a trip, thanks to the presence of several art and everyday objects from the early thirties that are donated, acquired or loaned. A visit to this house is like travelling back in time, and it’s also fun for families with kids, who will be intrigued by for example some features in the children’s rooms or by the location of the maid’s room. The museum also has a ‘designers-in-residence’ programme: contemporary designers are invited to present their work in the context of the house. For all information, visit www.huissonneveld.nl.


3) Braem's house-cum-studio

Close to home as far as we are concerned: the house-cum-studio that Renaat Braem built for himself in the Menegemlei (nr. 23) in Deurne, near Antwerp (Belgium). Photo: O. Pauwels for Onroerend Erfgoed - www.vioe.be.

Braem (1810-2001) is one of the most famous post-war architects in Belgium. He was the only Belgian to have ever been an intern for Le Corbusier, and his social housing projects are internationally renowned. Braem also was an ideologist, who wrote quite a number of polemic essays on architecture, urban development and social phenomena. At the peak of his career (1955-1958) het designed a house for himself and his wife, graphic artist Els Severin; this house-cum-studio can perfectly be considered as exemplary for his ideas on living and design. The semidetached house is sober and clean-lined, with a façade that’s divided into clean-cut surfaces. Rectangular volumes and organic proportions make up the interior space. De atmosphere is further determined by the use of colour – blue, yellow and red – and by the abundance of light, especially in the studio. Renaat Braem donated his house and the full interior to the Flemish state in 1997. Today it’s a house museum, that you can visit in small groups, accompanied by a city guide (you can book one by e-mailing gidsenwerking@stad.antwerpen.be or on the website www.antwerpenaverechts.be). 


4) Villa Savoye

Some 30 kilometers north-west of Paris: the Villa Savoye (1928-1931), one of the most important examples of modern 20th-century architecture, designed by the one and only Le Corbusier. Photo: landscapelover.wordpress.com

Le Corbusier (the nom the plume of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, 1887-1965) created this magnificent house in the French countryside as an ode to the new, advanced, post-war society, a modern world in which technology had been assigned an important role. Le Corbusier had been given an extensive budget at his disposal by insurance-mogul Pierre Savoye, who commissioned the villa. This was the perfect chance for the architect to put his ideas about modern living into practice, namely the Five Points of Architecture that he had stated in a manifesto 1927, about a year before he started working on the Savoye project. He wanted to replace supporting walls by a grid of concrete columns, so that the house would look as if it were floating in the air; he wanted a free design of the ground plan – no supporting walls means no restrictions – and also a free design of the façade; long horizontal windows and, last but not least, flat roofs where one could install roof gardens. The columns for starters are clearly present in the Villa Savoye – which is also known as Villa Les Heures Claires – when you drive up to the house, you can park your car in between columns supporting the first floor. From there, you walk right into the garage on the ground floor, where you can also find the hallway and the house staff’s quarters. The living room is on the first floor and you can reach them by using the stairs or the ramp, which perhaps is the house’s most remarkable elements. The living area leads up to the terrace and the garden. The ramp continues all the way up to the roof terrace, which features semi-circular walls and panoramic windows. The house was damaged severely during the Second World War but it has been completely restored and is now open to the public as a museum (visit www.villa-savoye.monuments-nationaux.fr). Villa Savoye launched Le Corbusier as the it-architect of his time, and it became one of the most easily recognizable and renowned examples of the International Style.


5) Rietveld Schröder House

The Rietveld Schröder House in the residential street ‘Prins Hendriklaan’ (nr. 50) in Utrecht (The Netherlands), an experimental design by Gerrit Rietveld for the somewhat eccentric widow Truus Schröder. Foto: Ernst Moritz voor centraalmuseum.nl.

This is the first house designed entirely by Rietveld (1888-1964) who had up to then (the house was built in 1924) worked on furniture, honouring the principles of the Dutch avant-garde art movement De Stijl. Those principles were also the starting point of the asymmetrical design he made for Truus Schröder’s house; Rietveld only worked with primary colours (next to white, grey and black) and opted for simple, clean-cut shapes. The architect clearly left his mark on everything about the house, but his client, Truus Schröder, also had an important say. She had some important demands: she insisted that the house should be austere, and she wanted the living areas to be on the first floor so she would be able to enjoy the surrounding landscape to the full and also because she felt better when she was lifted of the ground. So Rietveld placed the living room on the first floor, and he made it an intriguing space: it’s very spacious, light, central and, above all, multifunctional. It’s literally a flexible space, thanks to sliding walls that can be used to divide up the entire room into different compartments when needed. The wall that closes of the bedroom at night can be slid away in the morning, the bed can be turned into a couch et voila, the bedroom is gone and entire space can be used as a living area. The ground floor of the house was occupied by the studio where Rietveld worked from 1924 and 1933; after his wife had died, he moved in with Truus Schröder. He died in their house in 1964. Some years later, Truus Schröder donated it to the Rietveld Schröder House Foundation; it has been restored and refurbished and is open to the public. If you want to visit the house you have to make an appointment; check centraalmuseum.nl.


___ Text: Hadewijch Ceulemans