Friday, July 13, 2012


The V&A Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green in East London is a wonderful place for children to vist. The noise alone shows just how excited the children are. It is also an amazing place for adults. Here toys of all ages are on display, simple mechanical pieces of delight, as well as the most elaborate doll houses, puppets and and costumes. The doll houses offer some marvellous images of interior life in the Victorian era that astoinish with their commitment to scale and detail.


There is one doll house that stands out from the rest - the model of Gerrit Rietveld's 1924 Schröder House in Utrecht built as a doll house. It is a surprise to see this iconic building as an item of play; but it is interesting to see it as an architectural model too. The house is constructed on a corner block, at the end of a run of typical terrace houses. The image that is usually illustrated is the open corner view that conceals the terrace house context and highlights the clever play of form in this modernist De Stijl delight where, remarkably, space is defined by planes and posts.

The doll house allows one to see aspects of the building that are usually concealed, including the building from above. Of particular interest is the blank wall that defines the end of the terrace row. Even though the neighbouring terrace is not modelled here, the blank party wall is. It is this wall that makes the Schröder House an ideal subject for a doll house. Usually doll houses are two dimensional facades fabricated as doors opening up to an artificial array of rooms, like a cross section, to create the tiny play spaces of the home as a cupboard.The Schröder doll house overcomes this ruse, and, being complete and three dimensional, highlights the problem with the selective framing of the photographic image in architecture that, with this home, always conceals the end-of-row traditional terrace location. The doll house clearly shows all of the three beautiful elevations of this still remarkable home, the blank wall and its roof.

Architects must love the doll house; or is it that the doll house is always architectural? The Victorian doll houses emphasise the rich, decorative interiors. There is another interesting doll house at the V&A Museum of Childhood. It is what we might call the ‘Macintosh’ model? Here the exterior is designed with a precise enthusiasm to show the Macintosh-styled swelling bay window and the other 'Glasgow School of Art' squared openings. Still white, it models an example of an earlier architectural style, before De Stijl. Can the doll house tell us something about modernism and the Victorian precedent – exterior and interior importance? Perhaps modern interiors are too simplistic to intrigue: not decorative or different enough for a child’s interest, unlike the new exteriors? Or are doll houses of more interest to adults? At least there is a space for a car in the Macintosh doll house.

The 'Macintosh' facade.

There is one more Rietveld surprise in the museum - yet another play item. It is the car that has been styled on Rietveld's 1917  Red and Blue Chair. This classic piece of modernist furniture, again pure De Stijl, remains as iconic as the house. It is built out of squared timbers lapped three dimensionally to construct a frame for the planes of plywood that form the seat and back. The frame is painted black with the exposed ends painted yellow. The seat is blue and the back is red.


The car uses that same concept for the construction of the frame that simillarly holds panels of ply for the seat, sides and back. Wheels have been fitted to make the conversion into car. The frame of the vehicle is whilte with the exposed ends painted black. The primary colours of yellow, blue and red have been used on the seat, sides, back and wheels. It is a real delight - a true homage to Reitveld that overcomes any suggestion of a kitsch joke. One gets the feeling that Gerrit would have been pleased with this transformation.

The 'Reitveld' car on display with other classic wheeled toys.

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