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February 1976: Hertzberger's Framework for Care

Sutherland Lyall explores the inner workings of open community living for the elderly without the clinical aesthetics of a hospital, but instead beginning with a bare concrete structure

Originally published in AR February 1976, this piece was republished online in April 2013

Hertzberger began designing De Drie Hoven about 10 years ago, and he has, since that time, emerged as one of Holland’s most articulate and interesting designers.

The theoretical basis of his work is a belief that the only way to end the alienation that exists between modern architecture and its users is to involve the occupants of his buildings in the physical formation of their own environment. He feels that ‘good’ design is learned by practice not by a process of casual osmosis. Many other current theorists argue along the same lines; Cedric Price’s Fun Palace, Yona Friedman’s flatwriter, Frank Duffy’s Bürolandschaft, and Harbraken’s Supports are all arguments for greater involvement of the client and all try to offer the users of buildings a considerable degree of choice. Price and Friedman have little to show that has been built and the GLC’s attempt to build a version of Harbraken’s Supports has yet to be completed. Frank Duffy has recanted some of his theory in a recent article on Hertzberger’s office building at Apeldoorn (AJ 29 October 1975). Hertzberger however has a considerable number of buildings to place against his developing body of theory. Where other theorists have proposed the simplistic panaceas of total freedom, or indeterminacy or completely turned their back on buildings, Hertzberger celebrates the primacy of architectural form. If it is the architects’ responsibility to provide people with scope for some creative participation- ‘an arena in which each can play as many parts as he has within him, so that everyone can become more truly himself’-then he must provide a helping hand. The spaces and forms he designs must invite the user to fit his environment to himself-encourage his active, designing participation.

exterior photograph

Exterior of the old people’s centre: concrete structure is visible on the facades as a mid-rise block

One of Hertzberger’s definitions of creativity is the ability to see secondary and tertiary possibilities in customary forms and objects. It is, for example, an increasingly common experience for architects to discover the possibility of a variety of living spaces that can be created inside the framework of the standard old fashioned terrace house. Artists and children share a capacity that allows them to convert everyday objects into forms that carry a new significance for them and often for the spectator. Hertzberger draws an analogy with language, an analogy that may be an obvious one. ‘What matters with forms, just as with words and sentences, is how they are read, what images they evoke in the readers. Seen through a different eye, and in different situations, a form will evoke other images and can acquire new significances’-and so too with forms. As in language there is a need for a structure, a system of grammar and syntax, without which the combination of words is merely ‘noise’. It is by invoking the words and language of the structuralists that Hertzberger reconciles the apparent dichotomy between promoting participation by users of buildings and at the same time providing them with architectural forms which are highly charged.

In practice Hertzberger recognises the limitations of what the architect can actually do, that very often it is only in the very small things that he can initiate experiment. An example is the multipurpose boxes in the floor of the Montessori school at Delft, (AR February 1975) which can be used as floor, construction blocks, stools, and whose removal creates a new space for new activities in the room.

He has also begun to recognise the importance of cultural convention and inertia: for example, the houses he designed at Eindhoven were a basic structure, elevations and services and a series of indications of where the occupants might finish and extend their domains. What happened was that the owners proceeded to complete their homes very carefully in accordance with the style and in the materials of Hertzberger’s unfinished ‘instigators’. If this was something of a disappointment, the office building at Apeldoorn, the widely publicised Centraal Beheer (see AJ 27 October 1975) was more successful. Not only have the occupants taken over the enhancement of their own domains but the form of the building and this ‘enforced’ involvement made the otherwise staid insurance company radically revise its hierarchical organisation.

concrete plant pots

An outdoor area added to the roof. Turned concrete blocks make a home for plants

The most recently completed of Hertzberger’s buildings and perhaps also the earliest of his major commissions, De Drie Hoven has a structural framework which is more or less post and beam. The precast storey-height columns are differentiated only by the number of nibs (two, three or four) projecting just below the top of the column. The beams, whose downstands sit on the nibs, come in three sizes to suit either a 2m, 3m or 4m column spacing. There is an additional kit of precast concrete parts for parapets. The system is a development of Hertzberger’s earliest design for the laundry at Lin Mij in northern Amsterdam. This latter system worked only in one plane and was unable to resolve the problem of turning the corner and allowing the same facade treatment on all elevations. Here the problem of the facade is neatly resolved and the projecting nibs at the corners (and also in the solid concrete vertical circulation shafts) act as indications of the extendibility of the whole complex. An examination of the plan suggests that they are, in fact, more rhetorical of kit part structure and indeterminacy than real indications of where new building might actually link on.

The skeleton is filled in externally with a timber frame zoned horizontally and subdivided vertically according to the activities, which are expected to take place inside. There is a kit of standard parts: fixed and opening panels and windows for each of the horizontal zones. In principle at least these could all be interchanged if the function of the room behind was altered. Mechanical as these systems might appear, there is enough variety in both column spacing and in the arrangement of the panels for the whole not to be entirely boring. In the summer red and orange sun blinds sprout all over the building.

This assemblage of columns, beams, wall panels and circulation shafts stands on the flat site in an apparently rambling way. At some points around the central area the wall panels are omitted, allowing visual and circulation links between the semi courtyards enclosed by the clusters. Through these open areas a shallow stream winds from a somewhat fearsome waterspout in the south courtyard (overlooked by the main enclosed terrace outside the village green at third floor level) to the duck pond in the north square. Here there are enclosures for animals and birds, garden plots, an off-the-peg greenhouse and a long reed-lined pond which clearly is a reference to the drainage canals found all over the Low Countries. Some of the occupants have taken over already.

garden view

Bird’s eye view of the concrete outdoor balcony and courtyard. The foliage and flowerbeds give opportunity for the residents to garden recreationally.

The duck pond and the animal enclosures are well stocked: not merely with birds and fish and animals but with rustic hutches and perches, and there are sure to be gnomes soon. Curiously, nobody seems yet to have worked out quite what to do with the ‘canal’. In some cases around the married disabled people’s block small fenced back yards have begun to appear and elsewhere on the site garden beds are starting-partly incited, it should be said, by the organising committee offering plots to children from the nearby school who had been vandalising shrubs and plants. Enough old people (who had been inclined to believe themselves beyond the labours of allotment farming) were sufficiently affronted by this threat to their territory that they took to the gardens themselves. There is plenty of space and the policy of integration with the local community progressed one step. The vandalism stopped.

Thus the setting of De Drie Hoven will probably always have a feeling of not-quite-finished friendly slovenliness which a more ‘architectural’ building could not tolerate. And it will of course change as inhabitants come and go and reinterpret the possible uses of the spaces in between the paths, paving and building edges.

Planting is not confined to the ground levels, behind practically every window there is an astonishing array of pot plants. Although the average age of the inhabitants is over 80, and many of them suffer from at least two major disabilities, they are enthusiastic indoor gardeners. Elsewhere in nooks and crannies and on odd corners of the roofs Hertzberger has added little ad hoc enclosures made from concrete bricks, hollow blocks and paving slabs. These have no obvious purpose; most are very small and could hold perhaps two or three people standing up. Like the grid of low walls of hollow blocks at his Montessori school at Delft, which the children use, reuse and reinterpret as sandpits, flower-beds, shops and personal territories, these tiny enclosures built from hollow blocks in various arrangements are used by the old people as private and semi-private personal territories, flowerbeds, sun straps, conversation areas. Since the blocks are very cheap and readily obtainable and since the enclosures are genuinely late ad hoc additions to the original plan and structure, they are capable of rearrangement or extension.

Building Plans

Plans (Click to enlarge)

None of Hertzberger’s buildings has a sensational façade. The interior spaces are another matter. In De Drie Hoven they are crucial for despite a number of reasonably mobile occupants, most are very severely handicapped. As a result the community spends much of its time inside the building. Hertzberger’s sense of interior detailing is acute. Having decided on a repertoire of grey concrete components-woodwool slabs screwed to the soffit of the floor slabs, grainy brick-sized concrete frame together with a neutral brown rubber flooring, the occasional screen of the glass bricks and little else, he has contrived to create a series of entirely human spaces. It is not merely in the irregularity of the corridors, or the village-like hierarchy of spaces from private to communal, but in the fine detail. Scattered around the streets and resting places are hand-basins, ostensibly expensive and handcrafted, but in fact made of granolithic concrete cast into a wooden box with a standard sick outlet stuck on top of a construction worker’s helmet as a mould. There are stable doors to the living units, which enable the occupants to watch the passing street life and control their own degree of participation from the comfortable safety of their own domains. The communal living rooms are broken up into large and small spaces by simple brick walls and adjacent structural columns and furnished and decorated by the group to whom they ‘belong’.

The structural system marches through the interiors but, instead of acting as a rigid constant, Hertzberger has taken advantage of it at every opportunity. He has incorporated it in corridor walls (and introduced the clear upper zone of the external walling to give borrowed light). He uses the strictly utilitarian nibs as decorative capitals to columns marking changes in direction in the streets. Ceilings are raised and lowered (partly as a result of conflicting ministry regulations governing the different blocks) to emphasise direction. The columns give a consequence to the individual entrances which neither simple doors off corridors or merely recesses could possibly have achieved.

communal space

The centre of De Drie Hoven is a large communal homely space where staff and residents can congregate and socialise.

Whichever way you read it the internal ‘green’ is a very satisfactory informal space. It is sometimes used for formal events like parties and theatre; its daytime use seems mainly to be as a short cut for slow moving occupants going from one block to another. One corner acts as the activities organiser’s office –several tables pushed together, a typewriter, a couple of ashtrays and the inevitable pot plants. In another corner there is a bar-used it seems mostly by the staff (for whom the building has been designed as much as the old people), an open buffet for making tea and coffee, a small enclosed sitting area and on the south side a formal terrace sheltered by translucent glass-fibre domes (which are also used in lighting the central double-height space). In the arm to the south leading to the geriatric hospital is a large occupational therapy room and library area from whence Hertzberger gets much of his feedback about the building-his wife is the librarian. To the north is a billiards area and in the northwest arm bank, giro, post office and offices for social workers. Even at a slow pace with which most occupants seem to move, the essential village services are within a relatively short distance of even the most remote living rooms.

The geriatric hospital (or, as the Dutch translate Verpleeghuis, ‘caring house’) calls for at least brief comment, for without the white coats some of the medical and paramedical staff wear, and without the bright orange articulated hospital beds occasionally visible through open doors, it would be very difficult to distinguish it from the other accommodation in De Drie Hoven. The Dutch health service advisers and medical staff, who had expected a clinical look were confounded by coarse-grained concrete blocks and woodwool slabs on the ceiling. The subsequent battle was long and not without bitterness, and even now new staff find they have to make a conscious effort to re-adjust to the idea that. Although the hospital block is a hospital, it is fundamentally for old people who are bedridden most of the time, but who are otherwise ordinary old people for whom a semblance of a normal like is important. The community living rooms seem to be much used here as in the other ‘houses’.


The structural framing of Hertzberger’s design also gives a colonnade suitable for enjoying the outdoor space in the shade overlooking the small greenery.

Although current British ideology is inclined to be doctrinaire about incorporating old, disabled people in the local community, it has often been the fact that old people normally get older and need more and more care. The advantage of De Drie Hoven is that when occupants become unable to mange under ‘half care’ as most of the semi- and mobile occupants are, they can be shifted down the ‘street’ into a physically familiar setting. Former cronies who want to see one another may have a little further to walk, but there is little of that traumatic sense of dislocation which an old person is bound to experience when he is taken out of hospital for the last time.

Hertzberger’s intentions are warmly embraced by the staff of De Drie Hoven and the building does begin to show that there is room for flexibility and change within modern architecture. But, as Hertzberger says, ‘changing the world is a step by step process. Any of these steps can only occur as change in attitude and this is a self-generating process. In his process which envelops the whole of society, architects, like everybody else, can do their but too and, maybe, add a few pieces which fit in the great puzzle.’

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