For more than two years now newspaper articles, symposia, competitions and books have been devoted to spontaneous housing, all arguing that the consumer must be able to decide for himself how he is to be housed. In retrospect it can be easily explained why this discussion has been so infectious. The nature of the disaster taking place throughout the Netherlands is becoming apparent now that the first results of the Vinex housing programme are available for inspection. The monotonous housing estates which sprang up all over the country after the war in an attempt to ease the quantitative demand for housing – an attempt repeatedly frustrated by the increase in population and the reduction in the average household size – are back again in a different form. Uniformity has given way to marginal diversity, which can hardly be seen as an improvement, nor has anything been learned from the deadliness of mono-functionality. Worse still, being far removed from city centres, deprived of good public transport and surrounded by an increasingly congested road network (the Vinex locations are after all hooked on to the existing infrastructure) residents of Vinex housing estates will hardly be able to make use of urban facilities.
Confrontation with this planning, urban design and architectonic tragedy has been quite an eye-opener. But something can still be saved. Increasing delays in carrying out the Vinex programme make it possible to take emergency measures. The Vinex policy is to be reviewed in 2000. Secretary of State J. Remkes has already announced that certain things will be changed: "One of the things to be taken into account in the review will be that buyers of new houses must have more say on the appearance of their houses, both external and internal. If this is to be achieved both local authorities and builders will need to make changes. What we are doing in the housing market is converting a seller’s market into a buyer’s market, a market in which people will set their own requirements and insist on having greater influence.’ 1
Meanwhile it has been decided that in 2000 one-third of all housing on Vinex locations must be issued as uncontrolled plots to private clients. The hope is that a bit of ‘spontaneity’ and ‘expressiveness’ and a rather more prosperous set of residents will have a positive effect. The job now is to please the desired new residents. So uncontrolled plots are to be introduced as wild cards in the great housing game. And not only on the Vinex estates. Uncontrolled plots in other locations in the Netherlands have suddenly been discovered as places with potential, particularly the 30-40% that are due to have ‘catalogue houses’ built on them. Increasing economic prosperity means their number is increasing. More and more Dutchmen are now in a position to have a detached house built on an uncontrolled plot. Stawon gives 170,000 guilders as the ‘average price for the cheapest class’, an amount that is actually less than the average price of a house. 2
Housing is becoming individualized, and in our society that means commercialized. Now that people are beginning to realize that the catalogue house is no longer a marginal product, the architectonic discipline is beginning to react. Architects who would previously have shrugged their shoulders over the whole affair now see it as a challenge. Yet the question inevitably arises whether attempts by the design discipline to improve the catalogue house as a product might not be paradoxical. The reason why the catalogue house has succeeded in winning a place in the market is simply dissatisfaction with the design discipline. Moreover current attempts to design catalogue houses in which the future inhabitants will be able to decide on just about everything and so express his ‘individuality’ and ‘personality’ seem to be wide of the mark. The buyer of a catalogue house buys such a house precisely because he has no clear ideas and no need to express anything. After all, if he had had ideas he would have had them realized in a suitable form in the traditional way, with the help of an architect.
The challenge presented by uncontrolled plots is not so much at the level of architectonics as at the level of urban design. The fact that many people see their detached house as no more than accommodation and certainly not as a cultural object may be regrettable but no more than that. But at the urban design level uncontrolled plots are more problematic. Our Flemish colleagues, for example, have already been through the present discussion. In the Vinex Press, published by the BNA on the occasion of the symposium ‘Architect en Vinex’ (The architect and Vinex) held in Nagele on 9 June 1999, Bob Van Reeth gave a piece of good advice in the form of a comparison: ‘The continuing allocation of plots in Belgium will have to come to an end one day. The good thing about the Netherlands is that plots are not allocated to individual houses. Building is still done in ensembles, subject to very strict town planning controls.’ 3
Koen Van Synghel sounds a warning note in a review of two books which set the present discussion going, Carel Weeber’s Het wilde wonen (Spontaneous housing)and Daan Bakker and Christian Rapp’s Het kant-en-klaar huis (The ready-to-wear house): ‘Weeber may quite logically extrapolate spontaneous housing into spontaneous planning, but like Bakker and Rapp he neglects the true town planning impact of spontaneous housing on mobility, recreation, autarchy and self-fulfilment. Nonetheless, what it means is plain to see in Belgium, the realm of spontaneous housing.’ 4
This warning appears to have been taken to heart in the study ‘Relaxed housing. Individual building and housing culture as a collective design task’ recently put out by Stawon, a study in which 22 architects were asked to close the gap between ‘housing wishes’ and ‘reality’ in four different locations. The book’s introductory text concludes with the statement that private individuals can only be given the freedom to go their own way on their own plot ‘within a firm landscape plan’. 5
Yet it is striking that even here most of the participating architects devoted their energies to designing ‘improved’ catalogue houses. Hardly any attention was paid to the context. A few exceptions provided food for thought. The firm of Maaskant and Van Velzen designed a ‘fence-house’, in which the shape of the house was partly determined by the wall surrounding the plot, so offering a solution to the present practice of setting down houses somewhere in the middle of their plots and taking little advantage of the plots themselves. Yet this is a type of house that is unlikely to appeal to today’s occupier of an uncontrolled plot. It is more an urban type, recalling the clusters of patio houses designed by Mies van der Rohe, which would provide a solution if the plots allocated were to become even smaller – if, in short, the illusion of ‘living in the country’ were to be abandoned.
Riempt van der Donk has attempted to devise ‘location specific’ solutions for the catalogue house. The idea is that a ‘basic house’ would be applied differently in each part of the country, so combating uniformity and achieving what in the United States is called ‘a sense of place’. This is certainly an option for those who think that association with the character of the locale results in architectonic quality. Whether a simple adjustment to the shape of the roof, as proposed by Van der Donk, is sufficient to create ‘critical regionalism’ remains open to doubt.
The most interesting part of the Stawon study is the contribution by Heren 5. They were the only ones to forgo preparing a design: ‘The main point of the study is … not prejudice in favour of the architecture of the catalogue house but adjustment of the preconditions. After all, catalogue builders can build anything, they only need to be told what to build’. 6
For a location in Slochteren (for which H+N+S made a preliminary study) Heren 5 laid down subtle preconditions designed to produce three desirable residential environments while still giving future residents complete freedom in the building of their houses. Thus the problem was quite correctly shifted to one of determining the character of the public space.
It is clear that there is an enormous advance to be made here. This is a field in which the notorious Dutch housebuilding industry still lacks tradition and so provides a tremendous challenge: no architecture, but public housing on uncontrolled plots. But unfortunately different forces are active in just this area. Elsewhere in this edition Hans Mommaas describes how our spatial environment is increasingly taking on the character of decor, arranged and designed to suit the ‘tourist gaze’. It is easy to illustrate how real an influence this has. Examples can be seen in the advertising sections of the newspapers every day of the week: 69 substantial town houses on ‘the islands’ in IJsselstein-Zuid offer ‘a permanent holiday feeling, thanks to their interior courtyards laid out in the style of a North American beach’.
In an interview in Forum magazine a casual remark was made by Peter van der Gugten, director of developer Proper Stok: ‘At one time we … worked with Mecanoo on building nice houses, nothing special, but really good, in so-called Scandinavian style, or rather with a Scandinavian feel, with lots of wood, planking and overhangs. The idea was that the houses should create a holiday feeling, with water, jetties and children sailing around in little boats all over the place’. 7
Housing is being expected to maintain a permanent holiday feeling; housing is getting to be like a party, but a party whose organization is often put in the hands of professional party organizers who know what people like. They have done research on the subject. Bouwfonds Woningbouw for example knows what many consumers think is ideal: ‘A spacious, preferably detached house with "romantic" architecture. A style that often harks back to the thirties. Houses that look solid, with a large sturdy roof and plenty of visible variety in the elevations (bays, extensions, dormers and chimneys) are very much in demand’. 8
Investors and developers are measuring and recording what the new housing consumer expects both from his house and from the environment in which he lives. Just as Dutch house builders have for years produced almost nothing but single family houses, because that was what was most in demand, today we are threatened with inundation by a particular kind of ideal dwelling in a particular kind of ideal setting. Now that everyone is convinced that housebuilding has changed from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market the same thing is threatening to happen as happened with television programming when the same turnaround took place there: people only have an eye for the greatest common denominator. Worse still, everything revolves around anticipating people’s alleged wishes and needs. Because real desires are by definition unreal, we have to make do with socially achievable derivatives, leading to the effrontery of pre-programmed ideals. All those soundings taken to determine the wishes of the housing consumer with which we have been bombarded in recent years point to an ambiguity in the present discussion. The wishes are themselves becoming the product of marketing. The free market in which the new housing consumer finds himself is no more than the simulation of a free market.
Yet this consumer and marketing culture need not necessarily block any counter-offensive. The examples from the Stawon study mentioned above already provide a number of sensible lines of thought, and elsewhere in this number Erik de Jong refers to particular conditions and initiatives which provide satisfactory residential environments without conflicting with the social developments mentioned here. If the stormy discussion raging over the Netherlands proves anything it is how willing the design disciplines are to win a place for themselves on the new battlefield.