Back-front of the Sonneveld House. Photograph: Ger van der Vlugt.
The Sonneveld House is a historic example of Nieuwe Bouwen, the Dutch branch of functionalism that emerged early in the 20th century and reached its climax in the years between the two world wars. The designers claimed no monumental aspirations, as was the case in much traditional architecture, but based their designs on the intended function of the building and the needs of its users.
The Nieuwe Bouwen architects were keen to adopt modern technologies and building materials, such as concrete and steel frames. Through the use of these techniques, they hoped to create efficient, hygienic buildings. They also emphasized the importance of a functional ground plan with an open and preferably flexible space layout. They wanted the building to make a transparent, airy impression, in contrast to the closed volumes of traditional architecture. Their goal was a healthy living environment with ample fresh air and sunlight. "Light, air and space" became the slogan of the Nieuwe Bouwen movement.
Freely Configurable Space
The principles of Nieuwe Bouwen are quite prominent in the Sonneveld House. Both the front and rear facades have wide strips of fenestration. These windows admit a flood of daylight to all the rooms of the house. The large number of doors opening onto the garden or the balconies encouraged an intensive use of the surrounding space. The structure of a steel skeleton with concrete floors made loadbearing walls superfluous, allowing for a free configuration of the interior space. Internal walls acted merely as partitions between rooms.
The Van Nelle Factory is Considered One of the Best Examples of the Nieuwe Bouwen Style. Photograph: E.M. Van Ojen, Collection Gemeentearchief Rotterdam.
Besides conforming to the credo of Nieuwe Bouwen, the Sonneveld House complied with the five principles Le Corbusier stipulated in his seminal book, Towards a New Architecture, in 1921. He aimed to open up the house to the outside world by giving it balconies and roof gardens. The ground plan had to be free of load-bearing walls, and the outer walls had to be like a curtain, similarly without a structural function. Le Corbusier had a preference for horizontal strip windows, if possible extending the whole length of the facade, and propagated "elevated living," which involved raising the house above the ground. The elevated living principle was well suited to the Sonneveld House, since the clients wanted an integral garage. The main living areas of the house were not at ground floor level but on the first and second floors.
Top: Balconies and Terrace at the Rear of the House, undated. Photograph: © Jan Kamman. Collection: Nederlands fotomuseum. Bottom: Large Strip Windows Provide Ample Daylight to the Interior, approx. 1933. Photograph: NAI Collection, BIHS Archive.
The first sketches for the Sonneveld House were made as early as 1929, the final building specifications were ready in 1932, and the house was completed and handed over in 1933. The substantial set of design drawing for the house has been preserved in its entirety. These drawings have made it possible to follow not only the architects' design process but also their interactions with their clients, the Sonneveld family.
Brinkman and Van der Vlugt backed up their design with a careful study of the family's lifestyle. The residents' and staff's spaces were kept strictly separate. The rooms were finished in different colors to match the preference of individual family members. They architects also took a detailed interest in the interior layout, even deciding how the furniture was to be arranged. Brinkman and Van der Vlugt were able to spend so much time and attention on the house only because the economy was going through a crisis. Large commissions like the Van Nelle factory were nonexistent in the period following the stock market crash of 1929.