A finales del año 2010, tuve la oportunidad de conocer al arquitecto y teórico holandés Nicholas John Habraken. El encuentro con Habraken supuso por aquel entonces un momento clave para mi investigación, al ser su Teoria de los Soportes la base fundamental para el desarrollo posterior de los principios de Open Building.
Conocer y charlar con Habraken, posiblemente el teórico más influyente del siglo XX en el campo de la vivienda colectiva, fue algo tan sencillo como escribir un email seguido de una llamada telefónica, y concretar una cita para el día siguiente. Nos encontramos en su casa a las afueras de Apeldoorn (Holanda), una acogedora vivienda unifamiliar que él mismo diseñó para sus padres y donde reside con su familia desde los años 80.
Tras recibirme y presentarme a su mujer pasamos a su estudio, un espacio con vistas a un patio central rodeado por varias estanterías de repletas libros de Arquitectura y Urbanismo. Allí instalados, tuve la suerte de escucharle hablar durante más de dos horas sobre vivienda, diseño y participación en una especie de charla –más bien monologo-, que ahora comparto con vosotros.
Como introducción al contenido del texto, conviene repasar al menos brevemente la base de sus planteamientos. Las teorías de Habraken surgieron en los años 60, en el contexto de la posguerra y la homogeneidad de la vivienda masiva, como reacción a un problema fundamental que hoy en día continúa siendo totalmente vigente; la arquitectura residencial (nuestras viviendas y por extensión ciudades) es construida para personas que nunca tendrán la más mínima oportunidad de tomar decisiones básicas sobre el entorno habitable en el que pasarán gran parte de sus vidas.
Recogiendo el legado de Le Corbusier (Plan Obus), el estructuralismo y la tradición holandesa de experimentación con la flexibilidad, Habraken planteó por primera vez la división del sistema de producción de la vivienda colectiva en dos fases, proponiendo la diferenciación entre elementos infraestructurales (soporte) y de relleno (unidades separables). De esta forma, la identificación y separación de estas dos etapas, y la inclusión del usuario como participante activo en el proceso, permitiría dar cabida a sus necesidades específicas y particulares exigencias espaciales o de acabados.
Se suele decir que es decepcionante conocer a tus referentes, pero a mí me ocurrió más bien lo contrario. Creo que no he conocido a ninguna persona que me haya impresionado tanto a nivel intelectual. De las pocas personas que piensan antes de hablar y que no regalan una palabra sin sentido (a sus 83 años, ahí es nada), todo un lujo conocerle y poder charlar con él.
Debido a la duración de la conversación el texto es bastante extenso, pero he decidido publicarlo en un post para que pueda entenderse de forma conjunta. Del mismo modo lo he mantenido en inglés para no perder el contenido original por la traducción. Aquí os lo dejo, espero que os parezca interesante.
Almost fifty years after the publication of your book Supports, and with the mass housing dominating us, your theories are still absolutely topical and relevant. However, if you had to re-write this book nowadays considering the current situation, – the major social changes going on which affect to the housing issue, and the new technologies available-, how would you do it?, what would you change?. That is to say, looking back to the sixties, is there any thing you regret about what you wrote at that time?.
Well, yeah, that´s difficult to say…In the situation of the sixties, when the book was written it was of course a very different culture at that time.If I had to write a book today about open building,it would be a very different book, basically because in those days we didn´t even speak about open building. The book was just an idea about housing ,an attempt to change the way of thinking of people.
Today the situation is different.Not that the things I wrote about are not valid,I think they still are.In that sense,as an argument for a way of thinking I think the book is still ok,that´s probably the reason why it is still bought and on print.
What of course I did not understand at that time,is how strongly the whole situation in housing is related to two things:
To the political situation, because when you talk about Open Building you really talk about changing the different responsabilities of people, which is basically a political issue. At that time of course I was not interested in politics at all, but in the course of time it became very clear that if you like it or not it is a political issue.
And secondly also because it is a political issue,it is also a professional problem. And that is something that I have only learned much later how deep that was.The dutch housing law started in 1901,so for more than one hundred years now that has been developed a way of working among the professionals mostly with money from above, in which they built up a very complex and strong relationship between all the parties;the bankers, the architects,the builders,developers etc…about how to do it,how to work. Which is very complicated because professionals like complicated things so they can solve the problems (laughs).This whole system was based on the assumption that the user was not part of the system. This is one major problem, because nobody likes to change their way of working now, as long as you can make money without changing your way of working.
It´s not only because people are lazy that they don´t want to change their way of working, but also it takes more risk, because they (professionals)have to do things that they don´t know how to do, and that´s where the problem is.
So of course if you had to write a book about open building now, these are the issues you have to adress whereas the book “Supports” was purely treated as a design problem and a technical problem, design and technology. Whereas as I´ve learned out, if you would write a book now,you wouldn´t even talk about the technology, the technology is now there available.
So you consider our task nowadays should be to look into all these management and cooperation issues trying to rearrange the relations of all these parties involved in the making of housing.
Yes,that´s what we have to deal with. And you have to ask yourself what it is what you will as an architect and how far you want to go into that.
When we started with the SAR,many people said ,well you know,if you do research about this you have to talk about the economy, you have to talk about the law,about politics etc….and we refused to do that, we said no, we are architects researchers,our task is to figure out what the architect should do, how we should work, let other people figure out how they should work, what they should do.
That was a decision we made, I´m not sure that was a good decision but I was interested in architecture and design,and I felt there were also other very interesting questions about design. So when you are an architect and you become interested in open building, you have to decide for yourself which way you want to go. There are many people who have studied architecture and who have moved into the direction of management and politics or whatever…and I think that is a very good thing.Architects are a bit like lawyers,they can go in all directions,there´s nothing wrong with that but it depends on your person,what is that you are interested in.
Talking about management, the reailty is that most of the open building projects that have been done are carried out by developers who are housing associations or public institutions. Can open building create interest among the private developers?
Yes you are right, one of the major difficulties with open building nowadays has to do with management and the control of the whole process. There have been projects built in Holland but in most of these projects the base building has been designed, mantained and owned by a housing coorporation like the Solids in Amsterdam. In this way they are long term owners, and therefore they can rent out the space and make a long term investment.
This leaves out the commercial developer who puts money into an apartment building and tries to sell it right away even before he builds so he can get his money back and go away. So it is difficult that a private developer invests in the long term and the lifespan of the building, specially if we consider that open building implies, as I said, changing the usual way of working of the developers.
The question would be how can we involve a developer in the process. There are some interesting and succesfull projects that have been done in Finland in this way, for instance the Abianranta project, which was carried out after a architectural competition for open building where the architects had to submit not only the actual project but a whole strategy about how to organize the project.
There the developer first only cooperated because he wanted to be good friends with the municipality but then he found out that he could make money that way.The thing is that the architect winner of the competition Asco Kari cooperated with a data processing company who dealed with the users.They understood that the problem for the developer was not about design but the management of the whole thing,you have to talk to the user,the buyer,explain him the possibilities,you have to organize all the parties involved,negociate about the cost etc…
That was very succesful because this data processing company also helped the developer with the management.So when they did the negociation with the users,all the information went to the builder so they knew exactly what they had to do.This data company has now started a new succesfull business called Moor and they help the developers to do these things,they help them trough all the steps,the relationship with the users,the infill packages,selling the appartments, taking away of the process all the troubles from the developers.
Most of the developers don´t want to go into open building because they think: “I don´t know about all these problems,how do I manage all these things?”,and they are right,it is a very different game.So in this sense,this is a very interesting development,a company specialist that knows how to do all that,and makes life easier for them.
If you get to do with developers maybe you can point out to that experience,explaining that there is a way to solve the problems for them,and make life easy for them.At the end that is what architects should do,we should be able to help the people we work for.
During these years you have had a lot of experiences in participation processes and the relationship of architects and users.How do you think that relationship should work?,where is the limit of the user freedom of design and what is the role of the architect in the process?,should the users have total freedom of design of their dwellings?.
I surely think there is a role for the architects in the infill,apart of course from the design of the base building.
The first experience we had was with the project of Frans Van der Werf in the Molenvliet.He gave two meetings with the users,the first meeting was to explain the technical issues of the project the grid,the piping,wiring etc…and in the second meeting people could come with their sketches about their houses and if there was any problem he could help them.
He said he was surprised that nobody asked for his advice,every body knew what they wanted, and they came to him not to find his aproval but if there was a problem they couldn´t solve;a conflict or technical problem.That was an interesting experience and since then many more experiences we have had.
What I´ve learned along the years is that users generally have a very good sense of what kind of house they want because of their own experience and what they´ve seen from other people and so and so…It´s interesting because if you go back to the history that was very much the case,there was only one way to build the house and everybody knew about it.If you look at the floor plans of Pompey, a very complicated design,but people know exactly how they work.So that was a shared knowledge between the professional and the user and that is why the professional could help the user but also the user could tell the professional about what to do.That of course has been broken because of the modern development.But it is surprising that still people know what a house is ,what they want.
It´s true as well that they also know that usually when they do the design they pay money for it in one way or another,so they know that if they do some thing crazy it will be difficult to sell it again.That´s the same with the people who have money to buy their own house.
So there is a tendency to fit into a kind of typology that people are familiar with.I think that is a very good thing because that is part of the culture,of course, if we accept that, that sort of shared tipology,we can help people with doing it better.We can also help in a more general sense as a profession if we can hope that we can help the culture to develop so the typology becomes more interesting and shopisticated.
However,the difficulty is that many designers try to direct the user into the direction that they think is a nice solution,and that is not a good thing.Summarizing,the sure answer is that we architects can certainly help people if we forget a lot about our own education (laughs).
I think it is also an interesting point in the general understanding of the concept.In the course of time I have become to apreciate more and more what in the book I call “the natural relationship”,because I didn´t know by that time that it is was so strong, and that the role of typology it was so important.Today the role of typology is still there but it is not clear to us how it works,it is much more complex,it is more diverse,which makes it interesting also.
Another possibility is to give to the user different options,so he can choose the preferred one.What do you think about this way to proceed?
If you do something like that,I think it would all right as long as you apply a real adaptable system,if the walls can be shifted. There is nothing wrong with saying I have four or five different floor plans so that the people can choose and buy it.But the key thing is that the moment the users buy the house and choose one of the options,they will start changing things.People will change houses not matter what,the question is if the houses are constructed and design to accept those changes.So I think what is really important and makes a difference is producing a real separation of infill and support,so that in the long term things can adapt.
The experience when they see options is that they want that option but with this wall in a different position.My friend Frans Van der Werf did a lot of housing,when they do an open building what they do is to produce four or five typical floor plans very different and they give them to the users.And then they say to the people here you have five examples,we know that you don´t want that exactly like that,but it makes easier for the users to decide what they want because they recognize their own typology and then they say “well I want this option but with a wall in a different place etc..”.That is a good strategy because if you give them a blank piece of paper is very difficult,but if you give them some examples,immediately they will know what they want and start changing it.
Besides these different ways of managing the participation processes, I can see as well a “continuum of openness” in the open building practice.I mean,the base building can be provided at different levels of intensity, offering different possibilities and options for the users;sometimes the facade is part of the base building some times not, sometimes the services are fixed as well etc..That is to say, there are different steps we can take.
In a way we know from experience that if people buy an old house, the first thing that they change is the kitchen and the bathroom.Because the kitchen and the bathroom are sort of social status symbols,people want to have a beautiful kitchen…In a way is like the car,everyone wants the latest thing.
Sometimes architects feel is much easier if you fix the kitchen and the bathroom because then you are free to shift the walls around,so they can make it easier for the user. But they forget that people would like to change bathrooms and kitchens. So this is an interesting decision you have to make. But even if you fix the space of the bathroom and the kitchen, you still can make possible for people to change the interior, the equipment and the finishes. That is already better.
The same question is of course for the facade, how much of the facade do you want to make changeable?.I think it is also a cultural issue.We have to learn by practice,but as long as there is no open building,we can not learn.So for the time being we have to make the best guess we can do.You have to work with the client who pays you and to see what he thinks about how flexible it can be.You can explain to him what are the advantages or the different ways of doing it and then he can make a decission,and in the course of time we will learn more.
There are many steps that you can take,but the important thing is that this is something has to be decided with the client,you can help him and advice him the advantages and disadvantages. Again,I think it is a very important decision you make as an architect whether you explain to the client and let the client to decide how flexible he wants to be.The other strategy is that you have your own opinion and you convince the client to do it,but then when things go wrong in the beginning you have a problem. That is the difficulty.
Our role as architects is to inform to the client about the different steps he can take,the different degrees of flexibility.We have to explain to him,and show what makes it more difficult for him or more expensive and then he decides where he wants to be.
Open building has to do not only with the possibility of choice for a first ocupation,but also with the possibility of change in the long term and the life-span of the houses,hence the sustainability.However there are not studies done showing these potential advantages in the long term.
Yes there are some studies which have been done in Japan and show how open building offers economical benefits in the long term.My friend Minami actually,was involved in the new law in Japan.About more than one year ago the japanese government has passed a new law to promote long life housing,they want housing projects to exist for up to two hundred years.Of course if you want to do that you need a support and infill separation.
They understood that for the law and they discussed the theory of Support and infill. They thought that is important that housing buildings live for a very long time because it is a very long term investment,so it is better for the sustainability and is better for the economy. In the law,they referred to a separate document of “technical requirements”.This document is based on looking at the building as a composition of subsystems,trying to identify different life-spans.Some of the subsystems are purely technical and they can not last for two hundred years like for instance the drain pipe which has to be changed every 15 years.So the requirement establishes that if you make drain-pipes there must be extra-room so you can put a second one in and take the first one out.
Also there are systems that are still valid but people don´t want them anymore. That is of course part of the infill. And they defined these different systems of course,bathroom,kitchen,partition system… So the regulation established that if you follow this technical requirements then the owner of the building gets a very important tax break.It´s an interesting rule because you don´t give the money to the developers or the builders. This is the first time that there is a formal recognition of this. Here again it shows that it is a political decission.
I´m very interested as well in the use of the technology and open industrialization in housing, (building houses like cars or kitchens).In some of your writings you compare a house with the kitchens where nowadays already exists this open industrialization,which allows its customization.This happens because the kitchen is divided in different subsystems,existing a modular coordination in industry,which allows an open industrialization of the components. However if we assume this open industrialization,what happens with the tectonics of architecture and vernacular construction,with the regionalism and the way in which houses are built in a specific area?could houses in this way “belong” to a specific place and culture?.
Yeah I think you are right, first of all housing is a local issue and not only the typology is local but also the actual materials,finishing,construction…You mentioned the kitchen.I think the people who make the kitchens are also very aware of this point,if they make a kitchen for the german people it will be different from the kitchen for the dutch people and I think that will be more and more the case.
It´s interesting that early on when they first started with these prefabricated kitchen systems in Holland there was a system called american kitchen,which it was a very high tech sort of look for those days.The funny thing is that if you go to America you won´t find it because the americans are very old fashion and they make a kind of kitchen that in Holland nobody would like to buy.
The car industry is also aware of this,Toyota makes a different car for the americans than for the japaneses but the differences are very small.I personally believe that if you get industries that produce complete infill packages these industries will be more and more aware of the local conditions.
The time that there will be a total system like the kitchen for the whole house,nobody knows how long this will take.I think right now it has to grow from the local profession and the local ways of working, like the handy men,they know how to do these things, know what people want and how to do it. These will be probably the first infill systems.
All this has to do again with the design,I think we should make a distinction between the design of the unit which is for specific people and the design of the system which is a general design and has more to do with industrial design.It is a very different kind of work case.
Going to another scale,your support theory is related as well with the urban design,the idea of creating structures that are able to create different environments.
Yes,I personally became more and more interesting in the large projects.For instance the Molenvliet project is interesting not only because is flexible but also because it makes a kind of urban design with the continuous framework.With this system you can do a very large environment with different courtyards,streets,plazas,…and it is a very efficient way of building because you can repeat the structure or pattern very much and still it is very habitable.
And this is what I personally would think it is a good challenge for architects.Projects will become bigger and bigger,it´s not only high rise buildings but also horizontal fields.Even if it is separate houses,let´s say you have to build a hundred houses,how do you go about it?.You probably want to have a kind of basic shell and then you can add different things to it so all the houses will be different,also from outside.I think these are very interesting questions and design problems in this sense.
It means that doing a large framework or a large project in this way you operate on the level of urban design as well as on the level of architecture,which is something I find very interesting.It is much better than trying to do architecture which is very big,which it´s certainly a different strategy.
I think that if you make a very big building,you really make a piece of urban design in three dimensions.So the concept of three dimension urban design is something I personally very interested in,and I think it is something will become more and more interesting for developers and builders but it is also in terms of architecture very interesting because it has a potential that we have not yet really discovered.
The idea of making a framework or architecture in three dimensions that fills a block is very interesting.I must confess it is a personal interest for me,I have always been very interested in ubran fabrics, also the historical urban fabrics,I find them very inspirational because you can recognize in them the general structure and you recognize the variations.
And I also think that the kind of low-rise high density fields tend to be the most efficient ones.There is this guy in England already some time ago who did a study about this and came to the conclusion that the most efficient way of building was up to six stories high.If you make blocks of six stories high,you have the highest possible density in the most efficient way,and it may be true.So the question is,how do we make those fields today?.