A Brief History: Early Sustainable Projects
The architectural signature of VenhoevenCS is not based on form, but on design principles that have evolved over the years. Most of these design principles are directly or indirectly related to sustainability.
Early examples of saving energy can be found in a social housing complex for the elderly at the Wilhelmina Gasthuis area in Amsterdam: the project features glass conservatories instead of balconies, a very unusual feature at that time in the Netherlands. Later design strategies focused on creating ‘fat’ buildings, with less façade and strategic use of glass: we tried to create buildings that could be healthy, warm, cool, and bright enough, while still saving energy.
Early attempts at circular projects include Het Kasteel daycare centre in Soest and the Heyplaat playground in Rotterdam. The playground was made up of unused materials and objects from the surrounding port area. In Het Kasteel, we experimented with recycled milk cartons as a building material. Later we started to design façades with untreated aluminium panels; the idea was that these could be replaced by energy-producing cladding at the end of their life cycle. Since the aluminium was untreated, the panels could easily be recycled.
Saving buildings from demolition is important. The saying goes: “buildings don’t wear out, but ugly out”, so from early on, we have tried to make buildings that are culturally resilient, meaning that the design does not become outdated, but appeals to later generations. Our design strategy aimed to create ambiguous spaces, hinting at certain symbols and metaphors, but avoiding direct representations. We tried to create room for personal interpretation, appropriation, curiosity, and suspense: is it a cave, a spaceship, a molehill, a robot? What will I find around that corner? Is that the end of the building or not?
Another important strategy was to create multi-purpose interiors, so a building could be used in other ways later. The laboratory we designed for the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority in Zwijndrecht (commissioned 1998, completed 2003) was refurbished into a co-working space in 2017.
Biodiversity and ecosystems were also early concerns. In the mid-1990s, incorporating birdhouses into façades was all the rage. A little later, we started thinking about all-green façades and tried it out in competition designs like EVE Park, New York (1998). In 2001, we had the opportunity to put these ideas into practice. After consulting Patrick Blanc, Copijn and VenhoevenCS built the first completely green façade in the Netherlands.
VenhoevenCS has a long history of designing compact, walkable cities and neighbourhoods with a minimal eco-footprint. In 1995, we designed an experimental, conceptual urban plan for the Eastern Docklands in Amsterdam. We took a regular city plan, with residences, warehouses, offices, shops, parks, meadows, recreational facilities, a zoo, boulevards, bicycle routes, public transport, and roads. Then we ‘rolled’ the whole thing up, so the flat ‘pancake’ city plan became like a ‘wrap’. This was used the blueprint for a dense, compact, integrated city plan, at 1,600 metres long, 60 metres deep and 35 metres high.
In 2003, we entered a competition to regenerate the port area in IJmuiden. We created a dense, mixed-use urban plan for living, working, and recreational activities. The plan is largely car-free, with a kaleidoscopic offering of roads, alleys and footpaths mainly dedicated to pedestrians.
Another experimental design was City of Cities (2005), a proposal for a new city for 500,000 inhabitants in South Korea. The competition area consisted of 73 km2, but the compact City of Cities only uses 18 km2. The design is completely centred around the pedestrian. The key concept of this project is ‘immediacy’. Neighbourhood density regulations vary with proximity and service level of public transport nodes. Neighbourhoods also vary in size, are all mixed-use and car-free and have high service levels. Every resident can find all destinations a modern metropolis can offer within walking distance. Other destinations can be reached rapidly by underground railway, bus, or car. And nature is always nearby, no more than 1.5 km or a 15-minute walk away.
The MicroCity concept is the advanced version of the walkable city. The concept represents a form of self-sufficiency in buildings, parts of cities, urban regions, and metropolitan areas. The name MicroCity can be applied to all these levels, but we mostly use it at the neighbourhood level. The cycles of a MicroCity – energy, mobility, raw materials, water, heating, and food – are as closed as possible, requiring as little energy and mobility as possible.
One of the main principles behind the concept of MicroCity is subsidiarity. Integral management guarantees that cycles are always closed at the lowest possible level: the household first, then the building, the neighbourhood, and the rest of the metropolitan area. Only things a MicroCity cannot supply, arrange, or absorb itself are exchanged with higher scales.
Sustainable urban regions comprise ascending series of MicroCities at different scales. They are neighbourhoods, in cities, in urban regions, each with a high degree of mixed use and a circular economy. With this biological structure of smaller and smaller cells, we can create a circular metabolism with as little impact on the environment as possible. With a certain extent of self-sufficiency within societies and cultures, this systematically takes the pressure off major systems and infrastructures.