The Amsterdam Architecture Centre’s new exhibition “The Right to Build: Self-build Between Dreams and Reality” takes stock of ten years of self-building in the Netherlands, while exploring some important questions in the contemporary housing debate.
Last week the Amsterdam Architecture Centre (Arcam) opened its new exhibition on the contemporary “self-building” movement. Running from 28th June to 8th December, the exhibition primarily covers self-build projects in Amsterdam and Almere, alongside several other international references from Brazil, Egypt, Albania, Germany and Belgium, offering a snapshot of how it’s going in other countries.
A few days before the opening, I sat down to speak with one of the exhibition’s curators René Boer (full disclosure, René is a colleague of mine at Failed Architecture). We started by talking about the conditions which led to the movement’s emergence in the Netherlands. As he explained, here, and especially in Amsterdam, there’s been a long tradition of state-led property development. The famous exception is the Canal Zone, an early precursor to contemporary self-building in which people would buy a plot and build whatever they wanted, so long as it abided by certain strict rules set by the urban design plan. Following the Dutch Housing Act of 1901, however, the state along with various housing associations, exercised near universal control over the city’s urban development.
Self-building projects after the 2008 global financial crisis
Then came the 2008 global financial crisis and suddenly none of the usual stakeholders were building anymore. To plug the gap, the municipality began giving out a few empty plots of land to self-building projects. At first, it was just individual plots of land for private homes, but it quickly developed into larger collective developments.
However, as René explains, before long, developers started to take over the running of both individual and collective self-build projects. In some cases, you had one person buying two plots of land for two houses, one of which they would rent out in order to finance building another house for themselves. Similarly, for larger plots intended for collective construction, one architect would get together with a group of friends to invest in, say, 40 apartments, ten of which they would live in and then 30 they would sell at a profit. As René says, “it wasn’t really in keeping with the original idea, which was to restart housing construction in the midst of the crisis while giving people a greater sense of ownership and allow them a greater hand in shaping the city”.
In response, the government introduced two new categories: co-commissioning, which allows developers to take the lead while stipulating that they have to involve the inhabitants; and housing cooperatives, a more radical structure in which the property is owned collectively in a cooperative structure which inhabitants pay rent to, so it can’t be sold.
Even with these adjustments, the movement still does deviate quite a lot from the historic equality of the Dutch housing system. I asked René whether he thought the trend maps onto a wider change in attitudes in Dutch society. “Totally, so we describe in the introductory text to the exhibition that, after decades of individualization in society, you can now even customise within the area of house-building.” Until recently, people simply had to sign up for social housing and wait for a place to become available and almost 90% of Amsterdam was divided according to this system, “so the idea that you could pick a place or even design your own place is really foreign”.
Cliché of total freedom
On the other hand, as René points out, “the idea of self-building comes with his cliché of total freedom, that you can do anything. But what we see in reality is that people also don’t want so many choices”. Instead, most prefer it if they can hand pick a building out of 80 in a catalogue. Also, people’s tastes tend to be quite uniform. “What is really very important with self-building is the selling quality.” This means creating something that you can sell rather than some architectural folly, because no one will buy it.
That said, this doesn’t stop some people from going ahead and building their folly anyway. For instance, the exhibition features one self-built house in which the owner had been collecting building materials on Markplaats (the Dutch equivalent of eBay) for 20 years which he then asked an architect to make a house out of: “it’s quite nice and he’s very happy with it but it’s also totally unsaleable according to current market values.”
At its best it seems like a very good way of demarketising the house building process. The money that the developer would take in profits goes instead to the inhabitants, who often reinvest it in the development. For example, one building in the exhibition, comprising 12 apartments, includes a neighbourhood centre, where around 10% of the entire floor space is being given to the neighbourhood, something quite unlikely in a typical commercial development.
‘Lots and lots of boring council housing’
One of the criticisms often levelled at self-building is that it’s not enough to make a dent in the wider house-building process. I bring up a recent tweet from Owen Hatherley about self-building, in which he quotes Nicholas Taylor, Lewisham’s director of housing in the 1980s, responsible for the Segal self-build estates, who said that what we actually need is ‘lots and lots of boring council housing’.
Perhaps there’s a middle ground, where many people can be involved in the process of building at this scale, ensuring the housing isn’t so boring. For that to happen, though, we would need a lot more involvement and public pressure at the planning level.
Contemporary housing debate
This would help self-build too, because often even the most radical co-operative developments are constrained by pre-ordained planning rules. Take the Archimedes Plantsoen project for instance, a promising challenge to marketized development but one in which the municipality has already set the building’s volume and the rent band for each section, thus limiting the other choices that the co-operative can make. “The municipality could have done it themselves,” René says. “But now the final winner of the tender has to figure it out. They’re basically filling in for what the municipality has already proposed.”
That seemed like a good point to end our conversation, since we were both strapped for time, but as all this suggests, there’s lots to talk about and the exhibition offers a very timely intervention into the contemporary housing debate. Using what is still a relatively small movement, it also manages to strike a neat balance between exploring both the practical realities of present-day house-building and the more exciting future possibilities.