Jeremy Melvin, 25 February 2020
Open Buildings first made an impact at WAF when Marc Koehler Architects entered their Superlofts project in the Amsterdam docklands in 2016. It won the Director’s Special Award, a rarely given prize which marks a particularly impressive entry which falls just short of the Building of the Year.
Superlofts Houthavens © Marcel van der Burg
At last year’s festival Koehler, working with Caroline Kruit, put together a day’s programme on the Festival Hall stage which explored the Open Buildings concept in some depth. This showed the range of the movement, including its implications for design, planning, construction, financing and lifestyle. What emerged was an approach to housing that came out of the specific social, economic and physical conditions of Amsterdam after the financial crisis, but with much to offer those numerous cities struggling with the affordability of housing and the consequent impact on social and economic life. We thought we should go to Amsterdam to take a look.
Marc Koehler on the Main Stage with Jeremy Melvin at WAF 2019
The origins of Open Buildings go back to the insights of John Habraken, half a century or so ago. Like his near contemporary Stewart Brand, initiator of the Whole Earth Catalog and author of the self-explanatory How Buildings Learn, Habraken argued that buildings were better suited to human needs when they could adapt over time. Unlike Brand, whose comments on the specifics of architecture are rather naïve, Habraken theorised an architectural approach to achieve this, based on the concept of frame and infill. He was after all, an architect and head of the department at MIT. Borrowing ideas from structuralism promoted by his fellow Netherlanders Aldo van Eyck and Herman Hertzberger, the frame would have a long life, but allow numerous different infills over its existance. Each infill could offer a different spatial configuration.
Related to the notion of participatory architecture which seemed to offer a way beyond the simplistic modernist approach to housing, Habraken’s ideas were not immediately recognised, in the early, oil-guzzling 1970s, for their potential to contribute to sustainability. But by the early 21st century and the climate as well as financial crisis, the idea of re-using rather than demolishing existing structures had an added significance.
At the time Koehler found the work in his architectural practice drying up and realised he would have to initiate his own projects to keep it going. It was also becoming apparent that Amsterdam like many of its counterparts in the developed world, was proving prohibitively expensive to live in, forcing many young professionals and their families to move to suburban settlements like Almere. The detrimental effects on urban demographics are widely regretted.
So Koehler and the colleagues he gathered around himself to kickstart Open Buildings were trying to square a number of circles: to generate work for themselves against a grim economic backdrop, but also to explore ways of allowing young families to remain in urban locations. They understood that this would mean challenging the orthodoxies of the entire mechanism of housing production, from the planners who allocate land, the contractors who build homes, the organisations like housing associations who maintain and operate them, and the financiers who provide the necessary resources – as well as designers.
At that point Koehler remembered the nearly forgotten figure of Habraken and dusted off his ideas. Though he quietly acknowledges that Habraken’s own buildings are on the dull side, the history did give his initiative a form of authority to cite with the forces of governance and commerce. The Amsterdam city planners, for example, were sympathetic to proposals for building when nothing much was being proposed from any other quarter. And they had much of the vast former docks to play with and no other takers at the time. So momentum began to build.
Superlofts Plot 1
If the initial goal is to provide affordable urban housing, the long term effect of the Open Buildings movement is to create more diverse cities, where living and working reflect real need and opportunity rather than planners’ ukases, where families and non-traditional households intermingle, and where people can remain living as their circumstances evolve. How you get there, from the seed of communal living movements, via clever construction, imaginative financing, and sympathetic planners is not straightforward. But it does have a logic which Koehler and his colleagues are fighting hard to demonstrate.
An important motor was the number of people looking to find ways of living in the city on a more affordable basis. Among them was Koehler himself, but he realised that a group would be more powerful and persuasive with other parties than an individual. Collective action started as a necessity to gain credibility but it has become one of the most important characteristics of the Open Buildings movement as it shows how a well organised grass roots movement really can deliver something as important as housing, and has the potential to make an impact in local politics.
Some ground rules quickly emerged. An ‘open building’ would start with Habraken’s concept of frame and infill but explore its architectural and lifestyle implications more than its progenitor ever did. This is especially important as one of the motivations behind Koehler’s initiative was to allow people to remain living in the city as their circumstances evolve, for example in moving in with a partner, having children or pets. It is, of course, not just cheaper for residents to avoid the costs of frequent moves, but also it is inherently more sustainable to prolong the life of buildings by making them adaptable. It also fundamentally changes the financing criteria, because return can be obtained over a longer period.
That in turn affects construction, and this year, with academic partners, the focus is on timber because of its sustainability, ease of use and longevity. Quality is a sine qua non for long life, and to achieve the desired flexibility not only do spaces have to be generous, but the structure has to allow walls and partitions almost anywhere, and as much flexibility as possible for plumbing. Resulting from this is a powerful and compelling spatial concept. Each unit is double storey and the idea is that, according to need and means, occupants fill in the volume with a mezzanine that can fill the entire plan area, or have sections cut out to bring variety to the space and light deep into the plan. So a 45sq m apartment can more or less double in area to cater for a growing family, or increased affluence. These changes can be made incrementally and are reversible so a new occupant could strip back to the shell and start again.
Superlofts Houthavens, Marc & Juanjo's loft © Marcel van der Burg
Koehler’s own apartment demonstrates some of the inherent possibilities in this approach. It has a double height living room, a mezzanine study, with a kitchen, dining area and bedroom on the upper level. A drawer opening into the bedroom reveals a bath, though there is a fully equipped adjacent shower room. An 85sq m footprint becomes 135sq m with the additional level.
Some clever work on the communal core gives his apartment two entrances. This creates an opportunity for a small, self-contained studio apartment which can be let to generate income or provide for guests.
Both the base Superlofts building and the individual apartment benefit from getting the basics right, such as orientation and overall dimensions. The double height allows for large windows which lead onto balconies, just wide enough to be useful. And even the spaces around the building core can be colonised as bike stores or extra bookshelving.
Meeting some of Koehler’s neighbours confirms the diversity of residents that Open Buildings attract. Architect David Klinkhamer – who worked for Koehler on the Superlofts project before starting his own architecture and real estate firm Raumplan – and his partner Marjanne, a psychiatrist, took one unit for themselves. When their first child was born they adapted it by adding space on a mezzanine. After they had a second child they could easily extend the wooden mezzanine to create a third sleeping space. As Klinkhamer writes, it is features like ‘materials, transitions and good proportions’ that lift a bare shell into a satisfying and enjoyable home.
Superlofts Houthavens, David's loft © Marcel van der Burg
His apartment feels light and spacious, partly because the main external wall is almost entirely glazed, ‘Our favourite moment’, he continues, ‘is the morning as the sun rises and enlightens the whole house’. But this volume also has intimate spaces for work and sleep, as well as intriguing spatial effects where the mezzanine level is not filled in and light streams through. Klinkhamer describes it as an ‘urban villa’, belying its original 45sqm footprint.
Superlofts Houthavens, David's loft © Marcel van der Burg
Another apartment combines living and working space for artist Marieke Bolhuis. She works in photography among other media and documented the construction process from vacant site to fitout – much of which she did herself. The double height volume serves as the studio, with a sleeping area (on a mezzanine), kitchen and living space above. A similar shell to Koehler’s she too takes advantage of the option for a self contained studio for rental income, tucked below the living area, which helps to offset the cost.
Perhaps the most ambitious of the apartments visited is occupied by artist Marie-Jose Walhof and her husband Sjef Roymans. It is their living space, as well as a space for showing Marie-Jose's work – much of it paintings of bison – and that of their son, a furniture designer. As the second occupiers, they ‘inherited’ a clumsy fitout which failed – at least from their point of view – to exploit the possibilities of the concept. So they made various modifications to provide a sequence of spaces including, on the mezzanine, a music room where they offer therapy sessions. Again the effect is to create apparently large, light filled volumes which open into each other without compromising the intimacy and privacy of spaces like the music room. The staircase in this apartment is a fine token of the design idea: its lightness, elegance and minimalism whose aesthetic captures the overall concept.
Superlofts Houthavens, Marie-Jose's loft © Jansje Klazinga
Superlofts Houthavens, Marie-Jose's loft © Jansje Klazinga
Taken together these are a magnificent selling point for the Open Buildings concept. They prove the proposition that this approach to house building creates variety that supports diverse needs and lifestyles. And the movement is growing, with projects all across the Netherlands from Eindhoven in the south to Groningen in the north, as well as beyond the national borders in Belgium, though most are still clustered in Amsterdam. Developers in London have shown interest, proving the wide applicability of the idea.
What underpins its success, and shows the inherent power of Habraken’s thinking that he was not quite able to bring to fruition, is recognising the need for numerous different types of input. This ranges across Government and financing to design and construction, and fitting all their priorities into a vision for diverse cities designed and made around the wishes, lifestyles and ambitions of their inhabitants. At a time when the fluidity of lifestyles is axiomatic, the open buildings concept has the potential to square numerous circles, but especially the dilemma of how to provide homes for those who want to live in the city, in an affordable, adaptable and sustainable way.
As Koehler himself acknowledges, the evolution from cross laminated timber construction and bare-boned lofts to a diverse and inclusive city is not necessarily inevitable. The goal he and his collaborators share is to find and demonstrate its logic.