Sonneveld House, an icon of Functionalist architecture, is not only remarkable in terms of its modern design and luxurious and comfortable interior. It was also designed as a “healthy home” for mind and body. A new audio tour, created in response to the coronavirus pandemic, sheds fresh light on this innovative design by architects Brinkman and Van der Vlugt. Above all else, Sonneveld House had to be a hygienic living environment, with as much light and clean air and as little dust and bacteria as possible. The Healthy House audio guide and the accompanying presentations in Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Study Centre have been realised with the support of the Rembrandt Association and the Turing Foundation.
Functionalist architecture enjoyed its heyday between the two world wars. Designs were based not on monumentality, but on a building’s function and its users’ needs. Architects employed modern materials such as concrete and the recently developed steel-frame construction to create efficient, hygienic buildings. Functional floor plans with flexible spaces gave buildings an open and airy feel, in contrast to traditional, closed buildings. The aim was to create a healthy living environment with fresh air and lots of sunlight. Functionalist architecture was so successful because, among other things, its white buildings with large windows and terraces provided answers to current health issues. There were few effective medical treatments at the time, but this new architecture, with lots of light, fresh air and sunlight, provided not only mental hygiene, but also concrete physical health benefits. The sciences were beginning to influence architecture, especially in the field of medical hygiene. Lighting, ventilation, heating, water supply, waste disposal and sewerage are aspects of building design for which we now have scientifically devised standards.
In 1931, the architect of Sonneveld House, Leendert van der Vlugt, visited two exhibitions in Germany that presented state-of-the-art housing and hygiene: the International Town Planning and Housing Exhibition in Berlin, and the International Hygiene Exhibition in Dresden, both of which attracted millions of visitors. Van der Vlugt applied the ideas about hygiene propagated at these exhibitions to his design for Sonneveld House. At the exhibition Die Wohnung (The Home) in Stuttgart in 1927, he saw furniture designs by the Rotterdam-based designer Willem Hendrik Gispen. What made Gispen so innovative was that he was the first designer to apply modern ideas about hygiene – previously applied only in university hospitals, model farms and schools – to the home. Gispen’s tubular-steel furniture had no seams and the seats were removable for easy cleaning. They were assembled not with screws but were welded and then chromed, resulting in less dust and making them easy to clean. The desks in Sonneveld House are illuminated with Giso lamps made by Gispen. After all, too little light results in myopia, slouching posture and poorer performance, all considered very detrimental to a child’s development.
The importance of sunlight
In the first half of the 20th century, sunlight was considered to have preventive and healing properties for many physical and psychological ailments. Health experts believed that direct sunlight was the best antbacterial agent and had a positive effect on metabolism and mood. Heliotherapy, the therapeutic employment of sunlight, enjoyed a resurgance and was considered the most effective treatment for infectious diseases. In 1903, Niels Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for his treatment of tuberculosis and rickets with sunlight. The natural healing power of sunlight seemed to be a panacea for almost every illness. Sonneveld House has sunlight in abundance, due partly to the long strip of windows running along the entire first floor, which also afforded a clear view of the garden and the Museum Park. In this way, you were always close to nature. The furnishing fabrics employed in the house were colourfast, which meant that you no longer had to close the curtains during the day to protect the upholstery from sun bleaching. The sun could shine in unobstructed all day long. And the more sunlight in the house, the better. The balcony off the living room was called the “outdoor room”. This space was the ultimate realisation of what Functionalist architecture stood for: light, air and space. The family could reach the covered terrace through the large French doors, where they could breathe fresh air.
Rubber and black marble were used for the stair treads and hallway flooring. Rubber was one of the new materials in architecture in the 1930s. Like linoleum, rubber was recommended as a floor covering in the textbooks of the time because this smooth, seamless material was easy to clean. Wood floors and carpets trapped dirt and were breeding grounds for microbes. Rubber was also sound absorbent. All the doors in the house are smooth, without profiles: sleek and modern, but also easy to keep clean and dust-free. The bedroom was the same: no frills and only a few items of furniture, to ensure a simple, minimal interior. The steel bed with steel wire mattress was much more practical than a spring mattress. The glass plate on the bedside table was also easy to clean.
Presentations in the Study Centre of Het Nieuwe Instituut
From Saturday 21 November, there are two presentations in the Study Centre that relate to The Healthy House audio guide.
A digital presentation showcases a selection of 30 projects, mostly designs for buildings and furniture, from the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning. They show how architects translated the new medical, health and hygiene insights into their designs. This was at a time when there were still many infectious diseases, such as cholera and tuberculosis, for which there were no vaccines. A healthy body and fresh air, light and sun were central. The presentation features various designs for sanatoriums and air parks, plus Piet Zwart’s photograph of the hygiene pavilion in Paris.
Publications about hygiene and design
To stay abreast of the latest developments in health and hygiene, architect Leendert van der Vlugt consulted the latest literature and also visited the International Hygiene Exhibition in Dresden in 1930. Over the years, the library of Het Nieuwe Instituut has collected numerous publications on hygiene and design, some as part of architects’ libraries and some purchased by Het Nieuwe Instituut and its predecessors. We have made a selection of books that focus on the relationship between hygiene, health and spatial design. New insights were communicated through popular education. At the time, for example, an attempt was made to combat infectious diseases with insights from natural medicine. After all, at that time, just as now with Covid-19, the medical world had not yet discovered an effective drug to combat diseases such as tuberculosis.
Please note: due to corona virus measures, you can visit the Study Centre by appointment only. Please make an appointment by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Healthy House audio guide is available free of charge with your entrance ticket for Sonneveld House. You can reserve a time slot to visit the house here.
These presentations aim to draw attention to the strength of the permanent collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut, and were realised with the support of the Rembrandt Association and the Turing Foundation.