Architecture, Travel

How to mess up your weekend on the beach: Rietveld and Curaçao

[Ian Macready]
The verandah protected under the deep cantilevered roof

For regular readers, you ‘ll know we’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Modernism in the tropics here at Viewport. However I did not think that a trip to Curaçao for a long weekend would mean much more than swimming about in turquoise water, some dodgy cocktails and a bit of sunburn. Curaçao is a small island just off the coast of Venezuela, (as well as an ingredient for some of those dodgy cocktails: it is a well known blue liqueur produced on the island) once part of the Netherlands Antilles and still remains part of Dutch sovereignty. It is one of the richest islands in the Caribbean based on the discovery of oil at the beginning of the twentieth century on the South American mainland and with its political stability (something not much known at that time and even now in Venezuela) and deep water harbour, Royal Dutch Shell established a refinery there in 1914.

So what happened to mess up my weekend of splashing about in the water? First up, the small and charming capital Willemstad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with buildings right back to the 16th century, a remarkable Synagogue, a pontoon bridge, an interesting museum of slavery with a lovely hotel attached and some decent cafes serving good beer. And in amongst the brightly coloured old buildings, there were a few bits of interesting Modernism. And of course, a few Google clicks on the internet later, I discovered a top ten of buildings in Curaçao created by Docomomo “the international organization that aims to enhance the documentation and conservation of the Modern Movement worldwide.” So, boom, beach lounger abandoned, I was off to tick them all off the list. And in at no. 6 on the list was a building by Gerrit Rietveld, Dutch architect of the De Stijl movement from the 1920s, and most famous for his Red and Blue chair (1917) and the Schröder House (1924). What was he doing in the Caribbean? He had been invited by a Doctor Engels working in the island who wanted an architect to design a facility for handicapped children on a small plot of dusty land halfway between the capital and the airport.

Like me, (my flight story here) Rietveld flew with KLM (celebrating its 95th birthday this year) although his plane back in 1949 had to stop off at Gander on the Newfoundland coast (at that time a regular stop on transatlantic flights), then down to New York, before his final stop in Curaçao. He stayed on the island for three weeks and while he was there he knocked up his sketch ideas for this institute for the White Yellow Cross, the charitable organisation behind this project. In Rietveld’s own words: “You could regard the whole as en enormous reed roof on a great many round columns and with two enormous light holes punched in it”. And that is pretty much it. Today the Fundashon Verriet is not in particularly good condition despite it being designated a Curaçao monument of modern architecture in 2004. But Rietveld’s design ideas are all there: two W-shaped wings with external walls of louvred doors, low internal walls that allow for the free flow of air, large V-shaped cantilevered roofs with a reed mat on the underside to provide deep verandahs that are protected from the harsh sunshine and deep gutters around the roof to collect the rain water, that is a valuable resource on this very dry, windy island.

In Docomomo’s words: “Rietveld most strikingly expressed how to create an architecture that comes to grips with the tropical climate of the island and the culture of the people of Curaçao. A spatially open and culturally receptive structure at the same time. That is why for Curaçao Rietveld’s home for handicapped children can be considered the earliest and first experiment in the creation of an architecture in which the sense of place and people has been reflected.”

The design was never fully completed due to a lack of funds, but Rietveld did return in 1950 for a three day visit to oversee the final construction of the project. Rietveld drew up plans for as many as 6 buildings for the island, although only two (including this one) ended up being built. Plus ça change for architects eh? He did design a staircase for the home of his island patron Dr. Engels which is apparently still in situ although not open to the public. At this time there appears to be no campaign to preserve, restore or for that matter complete the building that I can find, which is of course a great shame. But then very few visitors to the island can probably be tempted to leave the beaches and the cocktails to look at an “enormous reed roof”.

Some of Rietveld's colours still in situ on the steel columns
The entrance to the Institute
The external louvred floor to ceiling walls
Another image of the reeds of the canopy roof
The low internal walls open to the atmosphere
A model of the original design which shows the never built central gallery
Rietveld's original plan
An early photograph of the Institute
The wreck of the Cinelandia building from the 1930s
The Customs House, a 1930s modernist building
The KNSM building from 1941
The waterfront at Willemstad