Are they or aren”t they?

Last February, there was a public discussion at the NAI (Netherlands Architecture Institute) on the subject of the individual commissioning of dwellings, with as title ‘Shaping the Netherlands: Architectural Policy 2001-2004’. After a whole evening spent discussing the new policy proposal to allow 30% of new housing production to be undertaken on the initiative of private individuals, Member of Parliament Adri Duivesteijn concluded: ‘The builders are against it, the developers are against it, and the local authorities are against it. Three good reasons to continue.’

including a response by Mark Zaitsoff BEd.
University of Manitoba

Individual commissioning is one of the major projects set out in the architecture policy document for 2001-2004 Shaping the Netherlands. These projects fall under the direct responsibility of the government. Individual housing has been ‘adopted’ by Johan Remkes, State Secretary for Housing (previously Public Housing) at the Ministry of Housing, Physical Planning and Environment. The policy document refers to overall themes. One of them is ‘Architecture is everybody’s business’: government wishes to involve citizens more closely in issues related to architecture and the physical development of the Netherlands. Individual commissioning is viewed as a means of giving the citizen more freedom and influence over his living environment. The cabinet’s target is to allow 30% of housing production to be realised through self-build in the period 2005 to 2010. Based on the figure for average housing production in the Netherlands from 1995 to 1998, 30% of housing production amounts to all houses built in 1998 in the provinces of Limburg, Noord-Brabant, Zeeland and Utrecht.

Taking part in the debate on this policy proposal were Remkes and Duivesteijn, and also Sjoerd Soeters (architect), Liesbeth van der Pol (architect), Wietse Patijn (architect) and Peter van der Gugten (developer). The most remarkable aspect of the evening was that all speakers, with the exception of Soeters and Van der Gugten, were unanimous in their opinion that VINEX districts are ugly. Not a single objection was to be heard from the audience. The view was posited without any supporting evidence. Neither was there any attempt to offer a definition. Duivesteijn showed plenty of slides of what, in his view, were examples of very ugly VINEX dwellings. Soeters agreed that some dwellings indeed wouldn’t win first prize in a beauty contest. But much couldn’t be expected if such houses had to be built for a government-set budget equal to that for social housing. ‘You can’t build a house for 140.000 guilders’, he snapped at Duivesteijn.

Determining whether VINEX districts and VINEX dwellings are really so ugly and boring as is claimed is of vital importance to the discussion about individual commissioning. In the discussion it is assumed that the citizen is sick and tired of the dictates forced on him by authorities, architects and developers. His greatest wish, we are told, is to build his own home. Remkes created the impression that, if asked whether they would like to build their own home, everybody would answer with a categorical yes.

Why are VINEX districts seen as ugly and boring? Is it the urban layout, the programmatic infill, or the dwellings themselves? If the negative perception is the fault of the first two aspects, then the question is whether individual commissioning can change matters. For the business of urban planning and the formulation of programmes is a government matter.

Does individual commissioning improve the quality of the surroundings? According to the advocates of the 30% ruling, Remkes and Duivesteijn, the answer is yes. To illustrate the superior quality of self-build, Duivesteijn pointed to the free plots on Sporenburg (Amsterdam). The other speakers were of the opinion that this was not typical of common practice. Soeters showed examples from Lutjebroek to force home his point that not much should be expected of the quality-enhancing capacity of individual commissioning. Most individuals are only interested in square metres and extendibility and not in the quality of the surroundings. And according to Patijn, thinking in terms of individuality would undermine the collective. To him, an alliance between individuality and the market only results in cosmetic variation and not in programmatic variation, which in his view is needed in the housing sector. Rotterdam alderman Hans Kombrink was also of the view that private initiative would not lead to any improvement in quality. That is why the authorities in Rotterdam do not provide any free plots. What is more, Kombrink thought it remarkable to say the least that central government should attempt to dictate to local authorities how land is distributed and thereby determine how cities are planned.

In view of the increasing claims made on space and the increasing difficulties with regard to transport and access, one can also raise questions about the desirability of earmarking 30% of housing production for self-build. It would seem to contradict the concept of the compact city – also a government policy.

Rather than stimulating individual initiative, the government should be promoting compact building: realising many dwellings per hectare in a responsible manner but making more and better use of urban design as an instrument, good-quality housing (including more spacious dwellings and greater height) and variation in housing stock.

If people were involved in shaping their immediate living environment, and if, by relaxing a number of regulations, they could change their homes without encountering any bureaucratic barriers, then surely far fewer people would answer yes to Remkes’s question ‘Do you want to build your own home?’

Are they or aren’t they? A response March 19, 2001

After recently reading ‘Are They or Aren’t They’, I was shocked to hear that none, or very little, of Holland’s housing is taken on by individuals. After some thought I came to realize that a system such as this is most likely going to provide you with a more interesting archetypes and a greater amount of diversity between building types. Although it may be hard to believe, and I’m sure much of the debate at the conference in question was stating the exact opposite, I’m looking at this from the perspective of someone who has visited Holland and lived in North America all of my life. I have seen what a capitalist approach to housing is capable of yielding and it is not good. New suburban housing in Canada is taken on by developers and in many cases lots of land are sold in the suburbs to private individuals, the outcome is usually the same. Very ugly, prefabricated showhomes which are conscerned with exactly what Soeters said they will be conscerned with in Holland, square meters.

Having been to Holland after completing the undergraduate component of my architectural studies I came to the understanding Holland was very progressive in that it was conscerned with experimentation in the field of housing and was not afraid to take risks, which often yields very interesting architecture. Not to mention the social aspect of housing in Holland, Canada’s social housing program has all but vanished over the past 20 years. In any event, I do believe this is an interesting experiment you may be undertaking, as specially limiting the experiment to 30%. It will be interesting to see the results of a project or policy with such huge consequences. I just wanted to be on the record in advance in stating that this may be a very big risk, even in a place like Holland who’s architectural risks seem to pay off in big ways. A system such as this may place the entire concept of social housing at risk in a nation that I admire for its efforts to provide everyone with a roof and four walls while maintaining the highest architectural standards.

Mark Zaitsoff BEd.

University of Manitoba