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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 we should go deeper on what OB wants to do and what has been done both in terms of projects and in terms of ways of working.

N. John Habraken: Let me first talk about projects that have been done. There are two sources one can turn to for executed OB projects. In 1999 already, the book titled “Residential Open Building” by Stephen Kendall and Jonathan Teicher lists some 93 executed projects of which some twenty are discussed in more detail. (ISBN 0-419-23830-1, E & FN Spon, London, New York) Presently the website composed by Jia beisi, one of the coordinators of the OB network, adds a large number of more recent projects while also listing some earlier ones of particular note.(1)

In his overview a short graph is added to each project stating which of a number of characteristics of OB projects are found in it.

Neither of the two lists mentioned above are exhaustive. In what follows I will mention five projects that each added important new insights to our understanding of the potential of the OB approach.

The so-called Molenvliet project in the Dutch town of Papendrecht comprises some one hundred dwelling units for rent. It was completed in 1977 and was the first project in the Netherlands where dwellers of subsidized rental units could select the size and location of their unit and were allowed to do the internal fit-out themselves, aided by the not-for-profit housing corporation. Most importantly, the architect, Frans van der Werf decided that a support structure - because it did not define the dwelling units themselves - could be applied on a large scale and, as such, make for an urban fabric in which public open spaces were shaped.  He designed a fabric of courtyards some of which were accessed from a street and gave access to the units in the four floor structure while others served as garden space for the units around it. This ingenious urban layout produced a very specific and architecturally attractive urban environment. It also allowed for a single structural principle to be built continuously and efficiently on a urban scale, without producing deadening repetition or uniformity because the courtyards could all be different in size and the dwelling units also were individually diffferent and could express their individuality by shaping their own facades from predetermined elements and selected colors. The capacity of a support structure principle to shape a urban fabric is still new to professional thinking and after all these years the Molenvliet project is still a path breaking concept still receiving visitors from other countries.

The potential of a support structure as an addition to the urban field was worked out in a different way in the year 1994 in the Next21 project in Osaka, Japan. This was an initiative of Osaka Gas Commpany who asked prof. Yositika Utida to explore the housing of the future with a team of collaborators who all had previous experience in Open Building in Japan. The project comprises a building block in an extant part of Osaka city. Utida declared that he did not want to do a building but do “three dimensional urban design”. The structure is U shaped around a garden courtyard and has a public path going up five floors to end at another public roof garden. One of the major innovations in this project is the fact that Utida, true to his concept of three dimensional urban design, invited other architects to design the interior units of very different sizes. This decision continued the traditional relation between urban designer and architect in a entirely new physical organization. It also demonstrated correctly that the separation of support structure and fit-out need not mean that users had to build with their own hands or design their own units, but would act as clients to professional designers.

NEXT21, Osaka, Japan, 1994 [Open Building Org]

The distinction between the responsibilities of different professionals operating on different levels of intervention in a new way was most radically implemented in a more general way in the design of a large intensive care hospital in Bern, Switzerland. Giorgio Macchi, the director of the provincial (Kanton) building office that acted as client for this facility decided that a strict separation of a long term “primary structure” from a short term “secondary structure” would assure better adaptation to new equipment and changing demands of doctors over the life time of the building. Moreover it could speed up the design and building process and could better meet changing functional demands during the years of preparation and building. To implement this approach a first competition was called for the primary structure without any specific functional interior subdivision. Only after construction of the primary structure was under way, a second competition was called for the interior design and an entirely different design office became responsible for this detailed response to present functional demands. The Kanton Building Office is responsible for all public buildings of the Bern region, including buildings for the local university. Giorgio Macchi re-organized his office to apply the two level distinctions to all projects. He thereby followed the practice of commercial developers of office spaces in the United States and elsewhere who leave floor space empty for lease and fit-out by occupant companies. He was the first to implement this strategy for the more complex demands of occupants in public facilities like hospitals and university buildings.

While commercial developers increasingly leave occupancy of office space to the renters of such spaces, they remain wary of this approach in residential for-sale projects. There is no doubt that responding to the individual demands of many households in an apartment building is a much more complex task compared to the office building. Not only does one have to deal with many more individual parties each occupying a relatively small floor space, but also the technical complexity increases substantially where bathroom and kitchen equipment occupy a relatively large part of the dwelling surface and must satisfy the particular preferences of the inhabitants. Moreover these technical facilities may be found in very different parts of the dwelling surface.

The issue of increasing complexity was responded to by architect Esko Kahri in Finland when he submitted a proposal for a housing competition called by the city of Helsinki to encourage Open Building solutions. Kahri invited the Tocoman data processing company which had extensive experience in dealing with building projects. Their joint submission to the competition did not only offer a support design but also a detailed procedure in dealing first with individual would-be occupants to help them plan their units providing instant costs information, to then pass on the detailed specification and technical details to the builder. As winners of the competition Khari and Tocoman found Sato development company willing to take on their project. The result was not only that home buyers could decide on their dwelling size, as well as their own floor plan and its finishings, but also that the units were delivered in time and for the agreed upon budget while Sato company made a good profit. This not only triggered an open ended contract with Khari and Tocoman, but also demonstrated a profitable model for the commercial development of for-sale Open Building residential units. It disproved the general notion that Open Building might be good for the users but could not be profitable for commercial developers.

Where the commercial developer needs to make a short term profit, long term ownership of a support building has its own economic advantages. This was seen most clearly by Frank Bijdendijk, the director of a large not-for-profit housing corporation in Amsterdam. He initiated two large, what he called “Solid” projects that were inspired on the 19th century New York warehouse buildings with their monumental cast iron facades that were still in use today, attracting a wide variety of uses. In his ‘solids’ people could rent space and fit it out for whatever purpose they fancied, provided they would not harm or disturb their neighbors. Frank Bijdendijk pointed out that long term ownership of the ‘Solid’ - say for a century or more - made long term investment attractive where the owner did not need to have a immediate return of investment but would make profit in the future. This, in turn allows for a larger initial investment and hence a better quality building. He stated that a building can live for a very long time when two conditions are met:  it must have the capacity to adapt to very different uses that change over time, and it must be loved by the occupants and the neighborhood. When a building is loved by people and can be used in many ways, it will not go away. In the year 2011 spaces in the first ‘Solid’ was auctioned off through the internet. In the middle of a real estate slump the five thousand square meters of the building were all rented out within a day, accepting the entire range of possible uses: varying from individual people who wanted a small apartment of their own to a company that rented an entire floor to start a small hotel.

It is interesting to note that in the same year that Frank Bijdendijk’s solids were built, the Japanese government passed the Long Life Housing Act to promote a life time for residential construction of up to two centuries. Both initiatives were made in the conviction, based on research and experience, that long term investment, coupled with adaptability, is the best guarantee for an economic and ecological responsible building policy.

DN: In practice, how these professionals, different agents involved in the processes of design and building, have worked together? What are the limitations and further improvements already incorporated into their ways of working?

NJH: Each OB project has its own history. More experience and documented histories are needed before any general conclusions can be drawn. But it is a safe bet that, while new ways of cooperation are the essence of Open Building, there is not one single good model. This is already evident in the five projects mentioned earlier. For a demonstration of sophisticated data processing in support of a commercial housing project, the Arabianranta project in Helsinki by Kahri architects and Tocoman data processing is a prime example. The Next 21 project in Osaka demonstrates how a well thought through modular system helps the separation of sub systems on different levels while also the invitation of fellow architects to take care of the fit-out was a good demonstration of what “three dimensional urban design” might entail. The INO intensive care hospital project in Bern, Zwitserland, contains valuable experience in the application of the multi-level approach not just in a complex building project, but particularly in the (re-)organization of a institutional organization in control of large public building facilities. The Solids projects initiated by Frank Bijdendijk in Amsterdam demonstrate in particular the investment policy compatible with long life sustainable housing as well as the architectural challenge and opportunities created by such a strategy. The Molenvliet project of the early seventies demanded a new way to value formal approval of subsidized housing as well as a willingness by the non-profit institution that owns the project to support ongoing change of individual dwellings when user preferences shift when children move out or when new occupancy is in order.

We may well expect that over time new models of cooperation will become generally accepted. But while that may be, it seems to me, that this evidence also points out that the future professional establishment will be much more flexible itself and will have the capacity to organize each project in response to its particular needs. A more agile behavior in the organization of projects demands not only the clear identification of each player’s professional expertise but, most importantly, a common understanding of the hierarchical structure of the living built environment based on levels of intervention that each have their own life span and the boundaries of which may be drawn somewhat differently in each case.

Supports’ theory [Habraken’s archive]


2005 “A theory of Architectural Practice: Open Building Interpreted by Baumschlager & Eberle”. SB05 Tokyo Proceedings (CDRom), Action for Sustainability: The 2005 World Sustainable Building Conference in Tokyo, September 27-29, 2005. Published by Tokyo National Conference Board <>


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original: english



052.01 Introdução

Entrevista a César Augusto Naselli

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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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