Unfinished business – designing for the unknown

Posted by on jan 24, 2013 in blog, responsive spaces, stories | No Comments

In following the SelfBuildingBuilding project (part of Studio for Unsolicited Architecture, SFCI) I have been studying some examples of alternative organisation of urban planning, home ownership and flexibility. Once again the previous economic bubble has left us with a lot of badly organised space and odd conflicts in the market – empty office buildings, a hotel bubble in progress in Amsterdam, and a hopeless economical traffic jam on the housing market. This leads, for me and many other architects, to thinking about a more flexible and resilient way of urban planning, closely connected to local conditions and city life. Urban planning not as a fixed idea cast in concrete, no idle future predictions, but urban planning more like life itself: constantly adapting and transforming, growing and shrinking according to the present needs.

The idea of architecture or urban planning as an open framework that offers the possibility for inhabitants to create their own house or workspace is not new, but has since its first appearance popped up in architectural history in various ways. Most of them propose a general structure and communal realm as the steady backbone that changes only slowly, whereas individual spaces and small components can directly follow their inhabitant’s needs. With nowadays possibilities of fast modular production, advanced computer modelling and rapidly developing 3D print techniques, the technical conditions seem only now to offer full support. But how about other parameters? How are social, economical, psychological and other aspects doing in the current city and building market? It is interesting to look back at the endeavors in the past in order to get an idea of what we might do with it in the present. Here is my brief analysis of three interesting projects of the 1960s and 1980s, with some of their ancestors and descendants on the side. Of course with a special thank you to Beate Lendt and her wonderful documentaries (www.ximage.nl).



Constant Nieuwenhuys – New Babylon 1950s

Well known vision of the world as continuous space in which the individual can navigate freely through various atmospheres, unlimited by boundaries, tasks, property or fixed destination of space.







Yona Friedman – 1960s

Groupe d’Etude d’Architecture Mobile (GEAM),

Ville Spatiale (Spatial City), concept for a new framework kind of city.

The concept of the Ville Spatiale could be another architectural interpretation of New Babylon. According to this concept by Yona Friedman, architecture should only provide a framework, in which the inhabitants might construct their homes according to their needs and ideas, free from any paternalism by a master builder. Furthermore, he was convinced that the progressing automation of production and, resulting from that, the increasing amount of leisure time would fundamentally change society. The old city as we knew it was no longer fit for the new mobile society: Friedman proposes a temporary and lightweight structure.

Sources: http://aire-ville-spatiale.org








John Habraken – 1960s

Open Building

John Habraken first articulated the principles of open building in his book De dragers en de mensen, het einde van de massawoningbouw, a 130 page manifest in 1961. It was published in English in 1972 and 1999 as Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing, and in many other languages. It was a complaint against the uniformity of postwar mass housing projects.

Habraken argued that housing must always recognize two domains of action–the action of the community and that of the individual inhabitant. When the inhabitant is excluded, the result is uniformity and rigidity. When only the individual takes action, the result may be chaos and conflict. This formulation of a necessary balance of control and liberty had implications for all parties in the housing process, including architects.

John Habraken thought mass housing created by professionals without any influence from inhabitants created inhumane cities. He states that even ‘participation’ is essentially a paternalistic term, because it implies that professionals are still in charge and ‘grant’ the inhabitant an exceptional occasion for influence. Habraken wanted a universally much more equal role for inhabitants and professionals cooperating on a plan.

Architecture and Urban Design

The community is shaped by the design for the urban plan: the size of housing blocks, the street and communal space in between, the way staircases and dwelling entrances are positioned, etc.

The individual inhabitant can then choose his own ‘fit-out’: his own facade, his own floorplans and his own materials, colours etc. Anything that can be altered without having to touch the main structure: the community stays intact while individual inhabitants change.

The metaphor that Habraken uses for this is jazz: the main theme played by all musicians is the urban plan and community idea. Like in jazz, individual players can then play a solo based on that theme, within the framework of the piece.

The task of the architect would be designing ‘carriers’ as a structural system, designing prefabricated building components, and designing individual houses together with the inhabitants.

Essentially Habraken still thought the design of urban areas and houses to be the work of professional designers, but not as formalistic dictators but in service of the community and the inhabitants.

The appearance of the whole, seems of secondary importance. Habraken states in 1971: “The architect has become a King Midas. Everything he touches becomes architecture; everything he touches becomes something special” Rather than that, the architect should save this attitude for large public buildings, and leave housing and everyday life to the people themselves.

The central jazz theme however remains a vital ingredient in Habraken’s view, not in order to create a visually coherent image but to create a coherent social community. The communal structure is all but generic or indifferent. Contrary to more abstract ideas such as the Ville Spatiale, the ‘drager’ (the structure or ‘carrier’) in Habraken’s vision is also the carrier of social potential of a neighbourhood, of the community and of the way people share their city. The structure is therefore an important component in the identity of the area, with which Habraken shows a great sensitivity as to how people relate to their home environment. The individual cannot ‘dwell’ without this notion of the communal equally well involved.


The Open Building concept is basically a recipe of how one should organise a process and how one can plan a more meaningful city for people. It is essentially a sociopolitical statement and does not give defined rules for its implementation nor does it define technical or economical preconditions. The SAR and the OBOM, two study groups founded at TU Eindhoven and TU Delft, have however afterwards investigated on the conditions for implementation of Habraken’s ideas. Also the theoretical concept has been applied in various ways in different housing projects.

Technical Aspects

In the 1960s the building industry was transforming from an essentially in-situ handmade industry towards a prefabricated industry. The SAR and Habraken did research on modular building systems, required for an economically feasible implementation of the Open Building idea. Nowadays, these necessary modular systems are widely available, from facade elements to entire prefabricated bathrooms. Today’s new techniques such as 2d/3d printing of components and more advanced CAD and BIM programs offers even more possibilities to have a truly individualistic fit-out in a greater framework.


Documentaire De Drager, door Sonja Luthi en Marc Schwarz,


Habraken, de drager, en de architect, 12 januari 2013 / Marina van den Bergen, Archined










Frans van der Werf – 1974

Molenvliet, Papendrecht Rotterdam

Molenvliet by architect Frans van der Werf was one of the earliest examples of the implementation of Habraken’s Open Building theory. Up to four storey housing blocks were designed around courtyards that also contain the infrastructure and access for the houses. A in-situ cast concrete slab structure of 4,8m square allowed for people to choose the size of their house by the number of sections. All inhabitants had two meetings with the housing corporation and the architect to design their own house, based on an entirely empty floorplan only containing shafts and structure. The thatched roofs, roof terraces and galleries/access were predesigned for the whole block. Facades consisted of wooden frames that could be filled with a modular system of glass and panels.

The project shows a very careful and practical application of the open building theory, based on then available building systems. The appearance of the whole has a strong sense of unity and identity with a distinguished formal and spatial idea. The communal is very decidedly designed. The liberty for inhabitants focusses on the small scale of the home interior and facade details. Overall the project seems to be successful and its design is careful and meticulous. It also seems still very much based on traditional housing, but perhaps this small scale level of freedom for inhabitants is eventually also the most important one.


Documentaire De Drager, door Sonja Luthi en Marc Schwarz,





Frei Otto – Ökohaus Berlin – 1987

The Ökohaus in Berlin by Frei Otto was first designed as an example of experimental housing for the IBA (International Building Exhibition) of 1987. It showed a concrete structure of floor levels of 6m high, entirely filled with trees and plants. In this vertical garden, people would be free to build their own ‘nest’. The ensemble was situated on the empty plot of the former Vatican embassy in Berlin, adjacent to the Tier Garten, and had already a rich flora and fauna. The three building structures are built to fit between the big trees and are placed so that they make the most of the sun and passive heating.

Frei Otto had begun to think about the – in his eyes – futile idea of ‘permanent’ buildings and a city built for eternity as a pilot during the bombing of German cities in WWII. After the war he became involved with Yona Friedman’s Groupe d’Etude d’Architecture Mobile, and began thinking about a city away from monumental ‘gravestone’ architecture, towards a human city: a city that would not be hindered by its planning and material in being useful. He wanted ordinary people to be able to build their own house within the city.

Architecture and Urban Design

The building structure designed by Frei Otto has no distinct expression or idea at all, it only consists of large floors on large columns, with floors on ground level, +6m and +12m. The floors are slightly curved in shape, as they follow the movement of the sun. The only ‘rules’ in the design that inhabitants had to take into account were the vegetation (leave existing intact and reserve 1,5m of the edge of the floors for plants) and the use of passive solar energy. Also the infrastructure of large cascade stairs along the blocks was not negotiable: when the inhabitants preferred a central staircase with an elevator, Frei Otto did not want to change it for the sake of people meeting each other and seeing each other on the stairs and stimulating social contact.

Since the inhabitants were in every other respect free to build whatever they wanted, the complex looks every bit the patchwork of individual styles that one could expect, held together as an image by the paradisaical amounts of trees and plants.

Technical Aspects

All inhabitants have pretty much decided their own way of building with their own techniques. Some people had everything done by an architect and construction company, other people did nearly everything themselves. The floors of the structure have a maximum weight that they can carry, so people had to take this into account for instance by applying in a lightweight wood structure.

Ecological climate techniques were recommended. On prescription by Frei Otto, all buildings are covered with plants on the outside, and have winter gardens to make the most of passive solar heating. Some people have experimented with for the time revolutionary techniques such as grey water use and solar energy for electricity or heating – they were assisted in this by a sustainable building group from the municipality, but it was not compulsory.







Ownership and responsibility, the process

The project was led by a developer. Many people applied since the location was so beautiful and experimental DIY building was an appealing idea, but also many people quit again when it became clear that the developer could not tell them how much it was going to cost and when it would be finished. The future inhabitants could ‘claim’ a number of square meters on one of the floors, but of course this was a great puzzle for the developer to make everyone fit in and not be left with empty unsold space. This alone took the group already two years. Eventually 18 families embarked on the actual design process, in two structures. The third structure is developed by an investment party, because they could not find enough families to fill it.

Although he kept an eye on the overall idea, Frei Otto chose not be too closely involved in the project. He let the inhabitants, their architects and a representative of his firm have their meetings without him, because he did not want to limit people’s sense of freedom. If he was there, he tried to be more of a mentor to the inhabitants than an architect telling them what to do.

For the other architects involved, who were hired by the inhabitants, it was not a very lucrative project: it took too long to make any money with it. The ones that were involved stayed because of a personal fascination with the idea.

Also for the inhabitants it was not an easy ride: more expenses than expected and some fights and even legal pursuits with their neighbours made it a though challenge for all.

Economics and legislation

The houses were realised within the social housing principles of Berlin. The inhabitants bought a ‘surface’ on one of the floor levels and paid for and built their own house on it. The 18 final investing families had an agreement that if one of them should have financial problems, the others had to stand in for him, in order to keep the project safe.

Budget management was a big challenge for all: the individual inhabitants had to invest more than they had expected but also the big concrete structure had to be built in a cheaper version of what was planned at first, in order to keep within the social housing budget. Even then the project needed an additional funding from the ministry of 1 million D-mark.

In order to realise such a project in a feasible way without government support, the structure and construction methods need to be highly efficient, and a much smarter planning system should streamline the building process itself. Also the participants should reach decisions quickly in order to keep the group together. A fast and honest investigation of time and money are vital in the beginning.

For the building permit the building coordinator sought the active cooperation of the municipality in order to ‘design’ the building legislation together. The eventual permit is a patchwork of standard legal articles especially composed for this project, because it didn’t fit in any standard system.

The social housing bill had eventually a negative influence on the variety of houses: they had to settle for only two different sizes of 120 m2 and 144 m2.

Ownership and flexibility

In the meantime some inhabitants of the beginning have moved elsewhere and have sold their house to a new family, although there is relatively little fluctuation. The idea of the project was that, when a new family moves in, they can again demolish the old ‘nest’ and build their own. In reality this is not feasible. The legal article describing the property is very specific for a certain plot, so makes it very difficult to alter anything spatially. Economically, and ecologically, it would also be quite a waste to demolish everything and start all over again every time a new inhabitant moves in. This has for a result that, after the initial adventure, the project just becomes ‘another’ house on the market, albeit quite exotic in its looks.

The real revolution happens once, and afterwards finds itself back in the usual system. If anyone should wish to repeat the Ökohaus experience it would have to be elsewhere, which would make the concept only possible in a sort of nomadic way. In order to realise this concept in a perpetual way, with continuous flexibility as envisioned, it needs a whole new idea of home ownership in order to succeed.


Documentaire der Traum vom Baumhaus, Beate Lendt en Gerald Lindner







Next21  – Osaka – 1989-1993 – Utida, Machiya and many others

Next21 was commissioned by Osaka Gas, to be the apartment building for the 21st century. Professor Utida got the commission as the main architect to assemble a team to design it. He was inspired by the concept of ‘Two-Step Housing’ by his colleague Tatsumi, a concept very similar to the Open Building system of John Habraken. He adopted these two theories for this project. The team also went to the Netherlands, to talk with Habraken and see projects like Molenvliet.

Next21 incorporated many revolutionary techniques that are still up-to-date today. Osaka Gas has been using this building from the beginning as a monitoring device for lifestyle and energy use. Inhabitants are all Osaka Gas employees that can live there for five years. During these five years they monitor their own lifestyle and how they use their home, as well as energy and water consumption.

Architecture and Urban Design

Utida appointed 13 different architects and an even bigger number of engineers, who all designed a part of this exemplary building: an apartment, the infrastructure, the facade system etc. The structure and fit out were designed as two independent systems according to the Two-Step Housing or Open Building idea. Utida regarded himself in this project as a ‘three dimensional urban planner’ instead of an architect. He proposed the idea of a vertical street, winding up in the building that would not only define the ‘carrier’, but also would determine the social structure, sense of community and privacy for the individual houses. Habraken said about this that the structure (the routing and the access, the private vs. the collective etc.) defines the identity for each space: it is flexible but it is not generic.

The individual apartments, 18 in total, were designed by 13 different architects. Osaka Gas had defined ‘lifestyle keywords’ for half of them, that the architects used in their designs. The other half of the apartments was designed together with the inhabitants. From the user reports it turned out that both types of housing equally had their problems in use, but that the inhabitants were still happier when they had participated in the design – at least they could make their own mistakes.

Technical Aspects

Osaka Gas had initially a very high-tech idea of what the apartment building of the 21st century would have to be. But the engineers came up with a more ecological idea, arguing that technology ages but that ecology will always be important. Along the vertical street a landscape designer designed everywhere room for bushes and trees, in order to make a habitat for humans as well as animals. The building is a green oasis in the relatively ‘bare’ Osaka urban fabric.

The building systems applied are overall modular systems, from floor tiles covering ducts to the facade system. As long as it fits into the measure system, components can always be replaced by something new.


Bron: Documentaire Next 21 an experiment, Beate Lendt en Gerald Lindner









Solids, Amsterdam Ijburg, o.a. Baumschlager Eberle, Claus en Kaan

Masterplan Java-eiland, Sjoerd Soeters

Quinta Monroy social housing project, Chile, Elemental Architects (see images below)