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interview ISSN 2175-6708


Entrevista com o arquiteto holandês N. J. Habraken; sua teoria de Suportes é explicitada alinhada com a abordagem do movimento Open Building. Objetiva-se entendê-la em prol da sua possível aproximação com o contexto da arquitetura contemporânea brasileira

Interview with Dutch architect N. John Habraken; his Supports’ theory is made explicit aligned with the approach of the Open Building movement. It aims to understand it in order to make it possible into the context of Brazilian contemporary architecture

Entrevista con el arquitecto holandés N. John Habraken; su teoría del Supports se explica en consonancia con el enfoque del movimiento Open Building. Su objetivo es entender el posible acercamiento al contexto de la arquitectura contemporánea brasileña

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NASCIMENTO, Denise Morado. N. J. Habraken explains the potential of the Open Building approach in architectural practice. Entrevista, São Paulo, year 13, n. 052.04, Vitruvius, dec. 2012 <>.

Denise Nascimento: Perhaps you could explain to us the similarities and differences between the Open Building approach and your Supports proposal, if there is any.

N. John Habraken: The Open Building approach is closely linked to the initial idea of separation of Support and Infill as promoted and researched by SAR, the Dutch Foundation for Architect’s Research, founded in 1965. It is now identified as an international network of academics and practitioners with a rather informal agenda that can perhaps best be described as pursuing a number of related ideas:

  • The idea of distinct levels of Intervention in the built environment, such as represented by ‘suport’ and ‘infill’ and urban design and architecture.
  • The idea that users/ inhabitants may make design decisions as well.
  • The idea that designing is a process with multiple participants also including, but not limited to, different kinds of professionals.
  • The idea that the interface between technical systems must allow the replacement of one system with another performing the same function, with minimum disturbance of other systems.
  • The idea that built environment is in constant transformation and that change must be recognized and studied.

The term Open Building has a history that can be summarized as follows.

In the eighties of last century, a group of individuals in the Netherlands, who subscribed to the SAR research effort but were eager to get practical results, founded another not-for-profit organization with the specific intention to implement in practice the results of the SAR research. This group called itself the Open Building Foundation and was based in Delft Technical University. Eventually both SAR and the OB group had increasing international contacts with academics and practitioners. This network was eventually formalized as a Task Group of the CIB, a world wide “International Congress of Building” founded in 1953 to encourage research in the building industry. (CIB or “Congress International de Batiment” was a French initiative that presently has thousands of building research institutes as members. Its headquarters are now located in Rotterdam). The CIB Open Buillding task group TG26 was founded in 1996 in Tokyo and as the network grew over time, it convened in a different country every year. In the year 2000 the task group was given a more permanent status as the Commission W104 for Open Building Implementation. Presently, the three joint coordinators of the commission are: Stephen Kendal, prof. at Ball State University USA; Beisi Jia, Assoc. prof. at Hong Kong University, Hong Kong; and Shin Murakami, prof. at Sugiyama Jogakuen University, Nagoya, Japan. The 2011 conference was in Boston, USA and this year the network will meet in November in Beijing, China.

DN: It may be difficult for architects to think about distributing control considering not only our educational formation and cultural heritage but also our working tools.

NJH: Many find it indeed difficult to think about it. But nevertheless, in practice, the distribution of design control is a common fact. No practitioner could survive without dealing with it. To begin with, there are the constraints put forward by higher level decisions already taken by other designers. For instance in case of the urban designer who offers a spatial framework for architects to act in. Then there are rules on patterns imposed by local authorities like, for instance, building height, and set-back rules or the use of certain materials and colors. In addition, when the user is not involved, the client will interpret what the user wants and impose a functional program that may be even more restrictive. Finally, in a large design office, teams of designers are assigned to take care of a big job. Somehow tasks must be distributed. In that game, outside consultants for such things as structural design or heating and ventilation are expected to add their own design decisions.

The difficulty in our profession is that we never consider these constraints and relations as part of the design job. We cling to the ideal of unrestricted freedom in design decisions; an ideology that wants us to believe that freedom is the prime condition for good architecture while, of course, real creativity is triggered by the challenge of constraints. As a result, we do not have any theories about how design relationships can best be organized, how tasks can be distributed that guarantee efficient interaction and minimum friction. We have no explicit methods that help us to decide where one party should take over from another party, or how common principles can be adopted for all involved. It is truly amazing to be part of a profession that does not study its own ways of working and denies the need for cooperation and design distribution. Education too is in full denial of this reality. The things mentioned above are seldom if ever discussed in schools, let alone being included in the curriculum.

If cooperation and distribution of design tasks would be an explicit skill in the profession, the introduction of the inhabitant in the process would not be a big deal. We would be able to rationally discuss how this could best be done. If, therefore, when we propose user involvement, this issue comes up as a problem, it is not because the problem is new, but because it can no longer be denied.

DN: Although you have stated you do not have a proposal on how architects should act, how do you understand the work of multiple participants and different kind of professionals in the design process?

NJH: In my book “The Structure of the Ordinary. Form and Control in the built environment” I have tried to answer that question. The way I have approached the topic is not to talk about what professionals must do, but to explain how built environment is a complex physical entity with its own properties that define the kinds of control we can exercise. Thus our freedom to act is defined by the environmental elements we manipulate. If we understand the organization of those elements, our acts will be most effective. When we play a game of chess we can move the pieces as we see fit; we can act as a free player as long as we do so within the rules of control attached to those pieces. In the built environment we can distinguish three “Orders” within which we operate.

The first is the “Physical Order” which is governed by gravity and the properties of materials. It encompasses decisions about how things are put together. Like with all physically complex things in nature as well as in human artifacts, that order is hierarchically ordered. There are “Levels of Intervention”, that is to say physical organizations that contain one another in the way, for instance, the urban spatial organization contains the buildings in it and the way buildings contain fit-out systems and furniture configurations.

The second is the “Territorial Order “which is about control of space: it is about deciding who and what can go in or out the spaces we build. This is also a hierarchical organization in the way one territory contains other included territories. For instance how a neighborhood contains private homes and gardens, and houses contain private rooms controlled by inhabitants.

Finally, there is the “Order of Understanding” (understanding in the sense of agreed upon ways of working) in which we decide what preferences we have in common. This is where we come to speak about styles, patterns, types of buildings, and systems we work with.

When we design, we operate in all three orders simultaneously, but in each order we relate to other parties in a particular way: parties that operate on higher or lower physical levels than we do, parties that control territories we operate in or who operate in the spaces we control, and parties with whom we share preferences that define our culture.

If we could share an understanding of the built environment in the way of control as summarized above, we would find it much easier to deal with the distribution of control that shapes it.

DN: I understand you do not use the word participation in Supports proposal. In this case, what are the mechanisms or instruments that effectively promote and/or ensure the real involvement of residents in the decision-making processes?

NJH: I prefer not to use the term “participation” because it usually means that professionals are willing to listen to would-be inhabitants, but in the end will make all decisions.  “Decision making power”, on the other hand, means that professionals do not make certain decisions but seek to provide a context in which those decisions can be made by inhabitants. This means a shift in the way professionals organize themselves, which, in turn, implies new ways of working in design, financing, management, and technology. They are the subject of both practice in the real world and study in the context of the Open Building Network. Where do you want me to start?

DN: Within these 'new ways of working' an important concept is implied. Shared decision-making processes must recognize non-scientific knowledge (essentially from dwellers) to be recognized as a meaningful component added up to the scientific knowledge. Has the Open Building movement actually increased in such issue?

NJH: This question may have intellectual and academic interest but we do not need the distinction between knowledge to implement the Support Infill approach. We are not talking about shared decision-making but about separating decision making. About not telling people what to do, but accept them as legitimate parties to relate to. As John Turner has demonstrated in his writings, people who take responsibility over their own environment are perfectly able to tell professionals what they want. That discussion is about concrete things like physical elements, utility services, and territorial boundaries, that everybody understands. I would argue that everybody understands environmental knowledge. It is not abstract.


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original: english



052.01 Introdução

Entrevista a César Augusto Naselli

Omar Paris


Visita a Christian de Portzamparc

Maria Cau Levy and Helena Guerra

052.03 Introducción

Entrevista a Jose María Ezquiaga

Leandro Medrano and Manoel Doval


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