Friday, September 12, 2008

Netherlands: Open Building

One of the great leaders and visionaries of the open building movement is the Dutch architect John Habraken. In 1972, he wrote a book called Supports, An Alternative to Mass Housing. In it, he railed against the post war mass housing that had consumed western Europe and much of the world. His alternative was to provide a system of Supports, which people could then infill, which would allow them to have a much greater say in the establishment of their home and community. He describes a support structure as ,” a construction which allows the provision of dwellings which can be built, altered and taken down, independently of the others.” He raises numerous other important points that I find just as important today as they were 35 years ago:

“Who is to say how the living patterns of different layers of society will take place in the future? Even within the same income group there are many families and individuals with widely differing backgrounds, ambitions, and living habits. How can mass housing deal with that?” (p. 57)

“It does not mean….that our independent dwelling is necessarily a freestanding one. .. it means, therefore, that before we can introduce the natural relationship, we must find a way to build independent dwellings on top of each other.” (p. 71)

But one of Habraken’s biggest questions and concerns was to find a way this would benefit the masses of people, and not remain as one-off architectural experiments. This is such a huge issue, as some of the most brilliant architects have tackled the mass housing issues, only to have most of the projects end in complete failure or end up only being built once. (For more info, read The Prefabricated Home by Colin Davies). And, one great frustration for many of the projects I have been looking at is that they are precisely one off projects, never get replicated, and don’t end up serving the purposes originally designed. There are many reasons for, which I will try and expound upon later.

Habraken spent some time meeting with me while I was in the Netherlands. For a man of having such a great impact on the profession, he was as generous and down to earth as could be.

After 30 years of work and experience, open building (which is the current form of Habraken’s theories), flexibility, and adaptability are still on the margins and relatively limited to isolated projects. Why is this? Habraken described one big reason that the complex process of building involves a lot of people, not just architects and requires much cooperation and coordination between the different groups. It could probably very easily be solved from a technical architectural approach, but to get it to work with insurers, lenders, code officials, etc. has proven to be a great problem. He described the typical process in which housing gets designed. Architects will make the floorplan and then everyone will work their numbers and follow in after that. But what if there is no floorplan? His research at the SAR focused on developing models by which the other groups could understand. A lot of this work has given us great projects and information, and has laid the foundation for open building, which is basically a given in office buildings now, but still very much marginalized in housing. Aside from a few constant examples, it has still had a relatively small impact.

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