Here you can see the themes that have fascinated me for so long: growth and change, the continuation of patterns as results of human action; the way living urban tissues are developed out of many small, individual entities; and, above all, the underlying structure, the relatively constant holding the relatively ephemeral; the unity and diversity; the beauty of the extraordinary that compliments the beauty of the ordinary — the leaves and flowers that speak of the same tree.
—N. John Habraken
King’s Day is a Dutch holiday in late April that celebrates the ruling monarch of the Netherlands. Festival grounds pop up in cities and towns, thick with music and beer. Each year, King Willem-Alexander chooses a town to visit and celebrate his birthday publicly. Everyone wears orange clothes and drinks all day. Imagine a cross between Oktoberfest and the Fourth of July that comes with a tradition of garage sales and neighborly hand-me-downs: revelers throng impromptu flea markets selling toys and candy, and the clothes, books, records, and furniture that households inevitably outgrow.
Habraken has made it his life’s work to design flexibility into multifamily residential architecture, to accommodate diverse household needs.
Different households have distinct needs, of course, and those needs change over time. Yet, while you can always easily pass along a child’s crib when she grows into a bed or a large dining table when the kids move away, you can’t so easily move old walls when teenagers want more privacy, or carve an office out of the living room when you need to start working from home. On King’s Day in 2022, I went to visit John Habraken, an architect whose life’s work has contended with such issues, specifically the question of how to design flexibility into multifamily residential architecture to accommodate the diversity of household needs.
Like many of the thinkers whose work I study, Habraken has dedicated his career to investigating and advancing models of user participation in housing environments. Unlike most of them, however, he has not confined his analysis exclusively to the living conditions of poor or vulnerable communities. Instead, he positioned his intervention as a critique of and response to the majority of postwar housing construction throughout his country, the Netherlands. According to Housing for the Millions, the definitive account of the first phase of his oeuvre, for Habraken, “housing is not about form but about the process that leads to the act of dwelling and to the distribution of power within that process: who decides when about what?” 1
He launched his career with a bold proposition that hinges on an apparent irony: the industrialization of construction could enable robust occupant participation in the design process, and lead to greater flexibility in housing overall. Typically, we think of factory-produced architecture as requiring the standardization of forms, the rejection of the possibility of customization in favor of the efficiency of the assembly-line. For Habraken, the complex interplay of coherence and variation was never a binary condition, whether in a house, neighborhood, or city. Industrialization was merely one tool — alongside unbiased observation and a deep commitment to user consultation — with which to realize his paramount aim of fostering the agency of residents to determine their own living arrangements.
Within the superstructural supports, a flexible system of interior walls could be moved by residents when their needs evolved or units changed hands.
In practical terms, his core, initial proposition envisioned durable superstructures, which he defined as “a construction which allows the provisions of dwellings which can be built, altered and taken down independent of the others.” 2 Within these superstructural “supports,” a flexible system of manufactured interior walls could be arranged according to the needs of distinct households, and moved by residents when their space needs evolved or the units changed hands. As his research and thinking evolved over the course of his long career, his diagnosis of the problems with mass housing remained constant, though his proposals grew to encompass broader concerns, ranging from deep analysis of the vernacular urban fabric to investigations into the nature of participation in design. Tying his interests together was a fascination with the nesting of design scales, and a fundamental belief that the more rigid the underlying structure, the more flexible and varied the permutations could be above. In philosophical terms, Habraken’s ideas are about so much more than flexible interior floorplans: his life’s work is fundamentally to redefine the roles of the architect and the resident in both the home and the city.
Habraken’s name is not often mentioned among the giants of 20th-century architecture. The public narrative around his work, to the extent that it exists, consigns him to the realms of industrial manufacturing and building systems. For me, however, the enduring value of his contribution to architectural thought emerges from his commitment to user engagement, to reimagining the process of design in a way that honors how little we know about the future uses of buildings built today. One of the most poignant aphorisms in his first book, Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing (published in Dutch in 1961, and in English 1972) comes in a section called “The Unknown as Basis.” He writes, “when considering the housing of the future, we should not try to forecast what will happen, but try to make provision for what cannot be foreseen. The uncertainty of the future itself must be the basis on which present decisions are made.” 3
Habraken’s ideas inspire cult-like devotion among a dedicated few, while being consistently ignored by the gatekeepers of canonical architectural history. Part of the reason for this omission, I believe, is that his propositions threatened the idea of the architect as a singular form-giver. Habraken’s view was that the proper role of the architect should be, first, to observe without judgment how people live, and second, to use those observations to inform the design of structures that empower residents to determine the shape of their own living environments. He wanted to marry two ways of thinking about housing development — the fundamental importance of user input, and the possibility presented by industrial production — that we have come to consider as mutually exclusive. For Habraken, they were mutually enabling.
Postwar mass housing came to be perceived as impersonal, even inhospitable. Habraken proposed a radical reconceptualization.
I boarded the train in Eindhoven bound for Utrecht, squeezing through a throng of orange-clad youth already pretty hammered by 10 am. For many Dutch, this holiday is best celebrated in multiple stops, and the train system makes short work of jumping across a network of cities, each with more than 100,000 inhabitants and each about half an hour away from the next by train. Urbanists group most Dutch cities into two major conurbations, the Randstad and the Brabanstad. The former stretches crescent-like between Rotterdam, the Hague, Amsterdam, and Utrecht, and is home to eight million people. The latter includes the less world-famous cities of Eindhoven, Tilburg, Breda, ’s-Hertogenbosch, and Helmond, as well as the towns in between, altogether home to over two million people. Having grown up in the Northeast Corridor megalopolis that includes everything between Boston and Washington D.C., I am used to cities that bleed into one another through overlapping suburban and exurban landscapes. But each of these smaller Dutch cities manages to keep its own character and identity: some have medieval town squares, others have postwar central business districts; some retain palpable vestiges of the traditional division between its Calvinist northwest and Catholic southeast; many remain in the shadow of a major corporate headquarters, like Royal Flora in Aalsmeer or Philips in Eindhoven.
The variation among these urban built environments gives each town its own feel, but the pressures of 20th-century Dutch history urged the public sector to pursue a standardized, nationwide response to post–World War II reconstruction that threatened to homogenize urban form in the name of efficiency and cost. A small set of developers and construction companies, often enjoying long-term contracts with municipalities, consolidated control over housing production, and the industrial manufacture of prefabricated building elements led to optimism about increasing efficiency and uniformity. Initially, onsite construction consisted of mixing and matching subsystems including foundations, roof slabs, and interior walls. Eventually, industrially manufactured housing also included systematized formwork for pouring concrete. 4
By 1962, one million new houses had been produced, and nine years later that figure had doubled. High-density apartment blocks rapidly transformed an urban landscape formerly dominated by gable-roofed rowhouses. This new mass housing, both high-rise and low-rise, met with all technical demands concerning space and health, but also came to be perceived as monotonous, impersonal, and even inhospitable. Into this milieu came John Habraken to propose a radical reconceptualization of architecture that could harmonize industrial efficiency with a broad variety of housing unit types to meet the diverse needs of Dutch households. That specific, national condition is what motivated his original work on this topic. But over the past sixty years, his far-ranging vision has proved prescient, relevant to a wide range of issues that bear upon our current global housing emergency. In a time when we need lots of new housing units and must simultaneously redouble our commitment to making sure our living environments are responsive to dynamic household needs, Habraken’s singular approach, refined over decades of dedicated research, merits closer examination.
Over the past sixty years, his far-ranging vision has proved relevant to a wide range of issues that bear upon our current global housing emergency.
I got off the train in Utrecht. Two Dutch friends, both architectural historians, picked me up to drive to Apeldoorn to visit Habraken in his home. Frail but sharp as ever at 94, he had recently moved, with his wife, into a nursing home in the center of town. Yet since the loud, drunken King’s Day revelry was sure to be a distraction, we had arranged to meet at the house they had recently vacated, a home he had originally designed for his parents in the 1950s and had lived in himself since the late 1990s. He was still sorting through his library there, he told us, and it would be quiet enough for an interview.
The majority of Habraken’s prodigious output is research and writing rather than built work, so I was excited to see one of the few extant buildings of his own design. Situated in a leafy precinct of a city known for its natural beauty, the house does not attract attention by its size or structure. It is a one-story, flat-roofed bungalow with a brick exterior topped by a strip of siding. To enter this modest home, however, is to be transported. The central space is a rectangular living area with a slightly raised roof, fenestrated by a narrow band of glass that floods the room with light. Columns help to define a series of distinct yet combinable spaces for dining and sitting. The space is simultaneously flexible and monastic, cozy and luminescent. We sat at the dining table, and Habraken’s daughter Julie served us tea and cake. We started at the beginning.
John Habraken was born in the city of Bandung in Indonesia — then known as the Dutch East Indies — in 1928. He described to me how his upbringing there influenced his eventual manifesto. His father was a civil engineer for the railroad, and his mother — unlike many colonial officers or their spouses — spoke several Indonesian languages fluently. During his childhood, his hometown was growing rapidly: the year after his birth, the Dutch colonial government started moving important administrative functions from coastal Jakarta to the more naturally defensible mountain town of Bandung. New buildings in the 1920s and 1930s — banks, hotels, trade centers — reflected the global reach of Art Deco architecture and, eventually, the International Style; according to a Dutch expert in Indonesian architectural history, “nowhere else in Indonesia are the influences of the ‘Modern movement’ in architecture [as] observable as … [in] Bandung.” 5 To manage the city’s growth, the colonial administration adopted a garden-city plan for the northern neighborhoods, where the Europeans lived, replete with large, green public spaces demarcating zones for military, government, industrial, and residential uses. 6 Amid all this urban development, Habraken discovered, at the age of twelve, a book on Dutch architecture in his parents’ library. He decided to become an architect.
As a child in Indonesia, Habraken explored ethnic Sundanese kampongs, villages that were self-sufficient in both construction and maintenance.
Even more formative than this early exposure to European architectural traditions, however, were young Habraken’s explorations of the mountain villages near his childhood home. The kampong is a specific type of village in Southeast Asia, built by its residents. The dwellings in the ethnic Sundanese kampongs that Habraken used to wander as a child had pitched roofs, and a spatial arrangement derived from Indigenous cosmology. Habraken described them as “very organized, and very clean,” invoking the self-sufficiency of the kampong in regard to both construction and, crucially, maintenance over time. 7 The notion that nonprofessionals are capable of meeting their own housing needs exerted a lasting influence on his thought.
During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War II, Habraken’s family was interned for over two years, which left him with a debilitating case of dysentery. While he shared this anecdote with me matter-of-factly, in a subsequent conversation with Ann Beha, a former colleague of his who has since become a prominent U.S. architect, she advised that I should not overlook the foundational importance of this confinement: “Of course freedom is important to him; he grew up in a prison camp.” 8
While his family wanted to stay in Indonesia, the tense political situation after the war recommended flight. When he left the country in 1947, Habraken was almost 20. Upon arrival in the Netherlands, he found an urban landscape undergoing a radical transformation. His mother didn’t like the Netherlands, he said, because “there were too many modern houses.” 9 And he again compared postwar Dutch cityscapes to the self-built kampongs he’d wandered through in his school vacations, observing: “the vernacular addition [made by] people who knew particularly how to deal with their own environment, and how to build their houses, was a big difference from in the Netherlands where architects did big projects, which didn’t make much sense to me.” 10
As a student in one of the world’s most prestigious architecture programs, he was dismayed to find that housing was not a topic in studio curricula.
The young man threw himself into architectural studies at Delft University of Technology, to this day one of the most prestigious architecture programs in the world. Yet he was dismayed to find that, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, housing was “not even a topic” in the studio curriculum. The first year was spent copying iconic buildings — a Greek temple, the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena — to learn to draw. He claims to have spent most of his time in the library, “teaching myself, patiently.” But he did find a kindred spirit in one of his teachers, M. J. Granpré Molière, a traditionalist architect whom the other students found old-fashioned. Granpré Molière’s preference for classical proportions and intricate brickwork had little in common with Habraken’s eagerness to find a way to balance the opportunities of vernacular, flexible architecture with the realities of a country in need of literally millions of new homes. But the older architect was an open-minded and generous teacher. Molière recognized the originality of Habraken’s thinking, and he encouraged him to write.
After graduating, a desk job during his compulsory military service provided him the time to put his thoughts to paper, to articulate his bold vision for a remedy to what he saw as the failings of Dutch mass housing. Habraken was not alone in his critiques. Many of his peers were also responding to the homogeneity of postwar living environments. Starting in the 1950s, as the architectural vanguard was reacting to schisms in and challenges to the orthodoxies of modernism, influential architectural thinkers — including Yona Friedman, Constant, Rayner Banham, and others — were propounding bold, utopian visions of urbanism addressed to questions of time, change, and user participation. Meanwhile, innovative built projects — including those by Lucien Kroll, Cedric Price, Piet Blom, and others — proposed modular spaces informed both by social-scientific observation of use patterns in residential, commercial, and civic buildings, and by robust user consultation. What set Habraken apart was the audacity of a proposition that was neither idealistic provocation nor boutique experiment. It was a process, a bold reconceptualization of the role of the architect relative to the roles of the client (often a local government housing association), the producer (a construction company), and, most importantly, the end-user (the resident).
Supports and People
The visual and experiential homogeneity of postwar mass housing in the Netherlands was not the only basis for architects’ concern. Trained architects were not particularly in demand in this era of standardized, state-guided mass-housing production. There was, of course, architectural work to do in the translation between the demands of municipal housing agencies and what construction companies could supply, but social housing didn’t really “present a design challenge.” 11 Other architects were employed by the state as researchers, charged with making recommendations to ease the transition of Dutch society from low-rise towns of individual homes to large apartment blocks. The rise of “systems building” had “drastically restricted the freedom of the architect …. Clients often opted for uniformity, since repetition was cheaper, simpler, and faster. Generally speaking, however, systems building proved to be no less expensive than traditional methods of construction.” 12 Habraken saw the potential of industrialized building as a means to democratize decision-making, to involve inhabitants in optimizing their homes for their own needs.
In Habraken’s view, the industrialization of mass housing imposed a rigid repetition of forms, making it impossible for residents to feel at home.
In 1961, he finally found a publisher for his first book — who told him, correctly, that it would be “read by few, but everybody will have an opinion about it.” 13 Supports outlines Habraken’s view that the industrialization of mass housing in the Netherlands had not only imposed a rigid repetition of forms, but made it impossible for residents to feel at home. To restore the “natural relationship” between occupant and dwelling, the book argued for decoupling two key components of buildings: supports and infill. Provided with a solid, industrially produced “support structure,” individual residents would have the freedom to shape and adapt their own dwellings within this structure over time. Habraken refused to describe such support structures in physical terms, and purposely did not include any drawings at all. Supports would take many different forms, he argued, and he did not want to limit the creative possibilities by offering examples. One analogy the book does offer compares supports to a highway and infill to the cars along it. As another way to allow readers to imagine his vision, he describes a couple shopping for a home in a store where they can browse a variety of full-scale models. The home they choose will then be prefabricated, and easily inserted into the support structure, which “contains connections for electricity, sewage, and other general facilities. The support structure, for which the community (government) bears responsibility, has a much longer lifespan than the dwelling assembled within it and must, therefore, be independent of this dwelling.” 14 Habraken saw support structures as an opportunity; the configuration of and connections between multiple supports was an invitation to ambitious urban design.
At first glance, this framework for architectural design bears a superficial resemblance to core-and-shell commercial construction, wherein “the building owner designs and constructs the … exterior elements (shell) … while fit-out works are left to the tenants before occupying the building. This approach creates a blank canvas for a tenant to create a proper working space that meets their particular needs.” 15 This method is primarily used for offices, and it does indeed separate design responsibility between exterior and interior; it anticipates changes in use, and assumes a basic flexibility. A fundamental difference, however, is that core-and-shell foregrounds economic efficiency rather than end-user agency: it does not attend to the psychological needs of residents who feel alienated by housing units in which they have no input on the dimensions or uses of interior space. Nor does this commercial method seek to repair “the ‘natural relation’ between environmental form and inhabitant as it was found for millennia before our times.” 16 Moreover, for Habraken, the distinction between the base building (support) and the fit-out (infill) is “primarily one of control and design responsibility, and only secondarily technical.” 17 Thus, his principal conclusion, offered in the opening pages of Supports, demands “that the return of consultation and involvement on the part of the users, in the most literal sense, must be accepted.” 18
To accomplish this end, Habraken proposed no specific design solution, but rather “a redistribution of control.” 19 The easiest way to understand what this means is to envision a sorting of design responsibility: plans for those components of the built form that are expected to endure falls to one set of designers, while responsibility for those that are more versatile or ephemeral falls to another set, with significant end-user input. Just as we expect the design of the street to be distinct — in terms of when it happens and who is responsible for it — from the design of houses along it, so too should we distinguish, sequentially and architecturally, between multifamily building and individual apartment. Only then can we truly engage the agency of residents to determine their own spatial living arrangements.
A literal English translation of the book’s Dutch title — De Dragers en de Mensen: Het einde van de massawoningbouw — would be Supports and People: An End to Mass Housing. But when it was finally translated and released in English in 1972, it became, simply, Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing. This elision speaks to the way Habraken’s work has come to be associated with the architectural methodologies that he was proposing, and with the basic decoupling of design processes for exterior and interior. However, as the architectural historian and historic preservationist Dorine van Hoogstraaten reminds us, “people — occupants — are Habraken’s primary concern. According to him, the accommodations that were being given in modern urban expansion areas were inadequate, and users were not taken seriously as participants in the housing process. Occupants should regain control of their own homes.” 20
He envisioned a sorting of design responsibility, distinguishing between components that are expected to endure, and those that are more ephemeral or versatile.
The proper role of and methodology for user consultation and community engagement within architecture and urban planning have long been sensitive topics for the profession. The complicity of the design disciplines in exacerbating spatial inequality in the second half of the 20th century often disguised itself by invoking the egalitarian ethos of the International Style, while applying only its aesthetic form and ignoring its social agenda. In the U.S., municipalities destroyed low-income neighborhoods and displaced their inhabitants — primarily people of color — through urban renewal programs. In Europe, migrants from recently independent former colonies were squeezed into the urban peripheries of cities such as Amsterdam, Lisbon, London, Madrid, and Paris. Both types of violent disruptions came cloaked in the visual trappings of architectural modernism.
The next generation of activists began to turn against the brutality of top-down master-planning. The original Dutch version of Supports was published in 1961, the same year as Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities. And yet, the long-promised integration of user consultation into the design of multifamily residential buildings remains incomplete. Instead, mechanisms for community engagement have been outsourced to public-sector processes — community-board approvals, environmental-impact review, etc. — that are structurally inclined toward a binary choice between approving or denying a new building in a particular neighborhood. Actual input into how such buildings can meet the needs of the diverse households that will inhabit them is rarely on the table, beyond token consumer insights such as convening a marketing focus group to determine the appropriate number of bedrooms for a greenfield, cul-de-sac development. Some urban planning projects have devised processes for co-creating community revitalization plans alongside residents, attempting to move toward true partnership, turning stakeholders into decision makers. Yet these efforts, while laudable, are more exception than rule. The efficiency imperative of making more housing quickly and inexpensively still countermands the engagement imperative of introducing the possibility of variation or customization responsive to different users’ needs. Since standardization enables efficiency, flexibility and customization — especially if based on meaningful user consultation — supposedly slow down progress and drive up costs. Supports begged to differ.
The book begins by reminding readers that housing standardization had been an official goal of Dutch public policy since 1918. In that year, facing a housing shortage of almost 300,000 dwellings, the Building and Housing Inspection Department sought to address the lack in the quickest way possible. The plan was, in effect, limited to one housing type with standard components and a layout comprising living room, kitchen, bath, and three bedrooms: a standard single-family dwelling to be realized within various kinds of multistory buildings.
Customization, especially if based on meaningful consultation with users, supposedly slows down progress and drives up costs. Habraken begged to differ.
This plan was in keeping with the rise of standardization across Northern Europe in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. 21 Even before the Second World War destroyed millions of homes and buildings in cities from London to Dresden, Germans were advancing efforts to rationalize the building process, typified in the 1936 book Bauentwurfslehre (Architects’ Data) by Ernst Neufert — a pupil of Gropius whose work eventually attracted the patronage of Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect. Neufert sought to “create a completely standardized, molded-to-average-dimensions citizen, who from the cradle to the grave would live and work in an environment consisting of standardized units of measure.” 22 The Netherlands under German occupation was also subject to efforts to standardize building production, whether for troops, the manufacture of ammunition, or other wartime needs. Even before the war was over, the Government Commission for Postwar Reconstruction was making big plans, starting with “a centralist planning apparatus: an information center that designed an organizational framework and a system to facilitate the job of building approximately 500,000 dwellings in ten years, while taking into account the lack of skilled labor, building materials, and means of transportation.” 23
Habraken viewed these approaches as inherently disruptive to the “natural relation” between residents and dwellings. “Like all fundamental problems,” he writes in the opening of Supports, “the housing question is one of mutual relationships.” Yet, as a result of the government’s shift towards standardization and efficiency, “the involvement of the individual is deemed to be undesirable,” and therefore “our ideas of housing reduce him, in essence, to a statistic.” 24 Habraken wanted to “break the bonds of mass housing, and at least to inquire what the individual can contribute to the housing process.” The control that mass housing has denied the occupant is manifold:
It concerns the assessing and choosing of innumerable small details, the manifestation of preferences and whims. It concerns the freedom to know better than others, or to do the same as others. It has to do with the care to maintain, or the carelessness about private possessions, with the sudden urge to change as well as the stubborn desire to conserve and keep. It is related to the need to display and to create one’s own environment, but also the desire to share that of others, or to follow a fashion. The need to give one’s personal stamp is as important as the inclination to be unobtrusive. In short, it all has to do with the need for a personal environment where one can do as one likes; indeed it concerns one of the strongest urges of mankind: the desire for possession. 25
Possession, in Habraken’s view, is not about ownership. It is about what social scientists and philosophers would call agency. Social theorists have long debated whether structure (the social systems that constrain action) or agency (the capacity to act) is the primary determinant of human behavior. 26 “Structure” in this sense is, of course, not literal; it is constituted by the patterns of social organization — family, socioeconomic class, educational opportunity, racial or cultural or religious identity, etc. — that limit choice. But, for Habraken, the literal, physical structures of postwar European mass-housing schemes had robbed inhabitants of an agentic relationship to their homes that had been taken for granted in preindustrial culture. According to economist John B. Horowitz, Habraken
argued that balanced distribution of control between what the community decided and what the individual inhabitant could decide would create healthy, sustainable, and regenerative environments. If the inhabitants has no control, uniformity and rigidity result. If the community has no control, chaos and conflict result. Habraken became convinced that individual responsibility for one’s own immediate environment was an essential precondition for environmental health. 27
In Horowitz’s reading, “community” refers to the priorities articulated by a local government authority. Still, his word choice speaks to a powerful dynamic always at the heart of Habraken’s thinking: how the tension between collective and individual needs plays out at nested scales across the built environment; room, home, building, neighborhood, city.
The SAR — Architectural Research to Reinvent Architecture
In 1962, the year after Supports was published, the Netherlands celebrated completion of its one millionth new housing unit since the end of the war. Achievement of the milestone only intensified the discomfort many Dutch architects felt about the speed and quality of all this building, and it inspired a group of architects to begin meeting as a committee to discuss “the state of affairs surrounding industrialized housing and [to] analyze … the reduced role of the architect within that sphere.” 28 Two years later, these conversations culminated in the founding of an independent research office, supported financially by the participating firms. Habraken’s book had launched his career as an architectural theorist rather than as a designer, and his relative youth, coupled with the fact that he did not have a firm of his own, recommended him as the institute’s founding director.
Rooted in research and observation, the SAR conceived of architecture as negotiating between communal responsibility and individual control.
Between 1964 and 1990, the Stichting Architecten Research (Foundation for Architectural Research), or SAR, proposed a radical new way of thinking about mass housing, one that would fuse the efficiency of industrial construction with the flexibility of user customization. Rooted in a deep commitment to research and observation, the SAR conceived the role of architecture as negotiating between communal responsibility and individual control. Habraken described his job running the think tank as ensuring that “the highly diverse membership of the SAR stands firmly behind a number of easily understood and concretely defined agreements, which will have a direct influence on the future of housing construction.” 29 The group’s seminal publication SAR65 proposed to fundamentally reshape architectural decision-making by outlining rules and standards that would enable supports and infill to be autonomous in both design and delivery.
The SAR was always a collective endeavor, with intellectual outputs intended to be distributed among a wide variety of practitioners. The board of directors comprised representatives of prominent architecture firms throughout the Netherlands and, eventually, construction companies as well. This governance model ensured that the methods proposed would not be proprietary to any one firm, but could be shared and adapted. As part of its ongoing inquiry into user customization, the SAR also studied group dynamics in professional architectural practice itself, proposing new modes of collaboration and responsibility for complex projects. The group’s sights were set squarely on changing the profession of architecture and the culture of building. At the same time, the SAR’s strong focus on research rather than built work as such qualified Habraken for his first academic position, as founding dean of the Department of the Built Environment at the Eindhoven University of Technology.
The Eindhoven University of Technology was established in 1956 as the Technische Hogeschool Eindhoven (the name was changed in 1986, and the initials in Dutch are styled TU/e). More than a hundred years after the Delft University of Technology was founded, the new school became the second public technical university in the Netherlands. By this time, Philips was already one of the largest electronics companies in the world, growing from its humble beginnings as a filament lightbulb factory to the corporation that would invent many of the consumer electronics, medical imaging technologies, and lighting equipment that defined the 20th century, from the portable radio to the compact disc. A tertiary institute of technology in Philips’ hometown, where it could benefit from synergies with the company’s research-and-development labs, seemed like a shrewd public investment. Whether or not architecture belonged among the fields of study offered at such an institute, however, remained an open question.
Studio assignments prioritized housing environments and the everyday landscape, forcing a sharp break from traditional architectural education.
Architecture’s epistemological straddling of engineering, art, and craft has complicated its pedagogy since the field first professionalized in the mid-19th century. The centuries’ old tradition of apprenticeship began to be supplanted at the École de Beaux Arts in France — an academy of fine art, which formalized architectural education, in a form we would recognize today, in 1819 — and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, a university of technology that introduced architectural education in 1868. 30 The balance of artistic training and technical knowledge required of architecture students continues to shift alongside new technologies that lead to new ways to represent, compute, and construct. Despite architecture’s reliance on engineering, physics, and math, the leadership at the TU/e was unconvinced regarding architecture’s scientific bona fides. But the SAR’s commitment to rigorous research and to rethinking the role of the architect in society helped to convince university administrators that architecture was an appropriate field of study.
Habraken took up his academic post in 1967, and under his deanship, studio assignments prioritized housing environments and the everyday landscape, forcing a sharp break from the focus on monumental architecture that characterized traditional architectural education. The curriculum he developed encouraged specialization at multiple scales — in urban design, architecture, industrial design, construction technology, and even HVAC systems — and instructors evaluated student work in terms of practical construction. Bringing the SAR team to campus helped to prove that architecture could produce rigorous empirical research, and the organization bridged the academy, industry, and the profession, further raising the profile of the new department. The SAR’s mode of inquiry encompassed observational studies of how residents in social housing projects arranged their homes; close analysis of housing regulations and standard dimensions; and meticulous inquiry into the optimum dimensions for manufactured elements that could be reconfigured by residents. These studies enacted a deep commitment to analysis of people’s spatial behaviors. Habraken would later write, in the introduction to his 1998 opus The Structure of the Ordinary:
Our stance vis-à-vis the built environment should parallel that of the botanist observing plants. Unlike florists, botanists do not promote plants based on the shape, color, or fragrance of their flowers. Unlike farmers, they neither choose nor rank what is observed in terms of ease of production, palatability, or marketability. 31
In other words, architects should first and foremost be observers and identifiers of patterns, rather than shapers: “We must similarly resolve not to obscure our understanding of interaction between agent and form by passing value judgments on what it observed.” 32 This exhortation, of course, runs counter to traditional architectural expertise as it represents and reproduces itself. Indeed, in his 2005 book Palladio’s Children, Habraken laments the fact that “architecture, from Palladianism onwards, has largely been a matter of exquisite signature objects. Site and context are brought to bear to the extent that they serve to heighten the audience’s appreciation of the dexterity of the author.”33 Habraken saw far more promise in designers’ service as custodians of existing urban fabrics, supporting the agency of residents.
This commitment to close observation and an almost ethnographic study of interiors was resolutely nonjudgmental, but that doesn’t mean it was non-normative. In fact, the point of the research was to develop standard dimensions by which to maximize the possibilities of differentiation among units. Eventually the SAR settled on a 20-by-10-centimeter raster grid as a common design language that would allow the various parties in a given project to collaborate. The more fixed the underlying and infinitely expandable grid, SAR research argued, the greater the potential for variation upon it.
Another major component of the SAR’s commitment to user input was its use of 1:1 scale models for prospective residents to test alternative configurations of their potential homes. In 1971, a housing fair at the Utrecht Exhibition Center presented two 1:1 scale support structures, one with an infill package and one without. A version of this model lived at TU/e and was used with clients and construction companies to demonstrate the possibilities of separating support and infill. SAR research also responded to the growing public demand for “democratization of the planning process and the participation of the population [as] decision-making procedures and responsibility for the built environment were called into question everywhere.” According to Martien de Vletter in her book The Critical Seventies: Architecture and Planning in the Netherlands 1968–1982, “The citizen (that is the user) was emancipated on all kinds of fronts, became more vocal and … started to demand a say, co-management, transparency and openness.” 34
Habraken saw great promise in designers’ service as custodians of existing urban fabrics, supporting the agency of residents.
This desire often manifested as “social resistance to tall residential buildings.” The official government response was to abruptly halt “the wave of high-rise construction that had marked the previous decade. In its stead appeared low- and mid-rise construction,” often planned as new greenfield development. 35 Today, commentators derisively call such planned communities “cauliflower neighborhoods,” in reference to their branching patterns of winding streets. But, in the Netherlands in the 1970s, these residential districts were “deliberately constructed to stage ‘spontaneous’ encounters between neighbors to stimulate social bonding and to encourage identification with the built environment.” 36 The impersonal image of tower-block housing was to be replaced by walkable, green, low-rise neighborhoods, typified by Dutch urban design’s most recognizable export: the woonerf, a curbless street where slow-moving cars must yield to pedestrians and playing children with full right of way across the street’s full width. Throughout this period, “the right angle was supplanted by the diagonal, architects turned en masse to the pitched roof, the brick industry had its heyday, floor plans became increasingly whimsical, and new typologies were devised.” 37
As a follow-up to SAR65, Habraken and his colleagues “argued for the development of urban-design regulations and zoning methods. Habraken found this order of study to be self-evident. Once the relationship between individual and dwelling was repaired, the relationship between community and housing environment could be addressed.” 38 Thus, SAR73, the group’s next major publication, signaled a shift in scale from building to neighborhood. SAR73 defined tissue projects as working at the neighborhood scale, to ensure efficient land use while providing for variations in the sizes and privacy levels of shared exterior spaces. This analysis would distinguish between a variety of interlocking open spaces — alleyway, agora, square, and village green — to complement streets of distinct widths, which prioritized pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and limited vehicular access. With open public space as with interior-unit plans, the close examination of use patterns — including daily circulation, socializing, and commuting — could yield system requirements by which to fulfill the promise of individual variation while integrating coherently within the existing urban and suburban fabric.
His prescient emphasis on user agency resonated with a new generation of students and practitioners working in conditions of economic uncertainty and rapid urbanization.
Habraken moved on from the SAR in the mid-1970s. But he continued to investigate this balance between highly specified systems and the flexibility they could engender within the built environment. As his work developed in the new context of the U.S., his prescient emphasis on user agency resonated with a new generation of students and an international network of practitioners working in conditions of economic uncertainty and rapid urbanization. His insistence on housing solutions that were neither boutique nor utopian, that centered in-depth and accountable consultation and iteration with tenants, and that recognized the political and financial complexity entailed in meeting housing demand, led him into a phase of his career that is even less remembered than his initial provocations in the era of Supports. And yet, Habraken’s constant refining of his core philosophy, over decades, is precisely what strengthens the relevance of his thought to contemporary challenges.
Habraken after SAR
Following publication of Supports in English in 1972, Habraken’s ideas found a broader audience among architects and urban planners around the world. An international speaking tour led to his appointment in 1975 as chairman of the Architecture Department at MIT, where his research influenced a new generation of urbanists committed to harmonizing industrial production and individual expression.
Habraken fostered broad intellectual engagement not only among the influential architects on MIT’s faculty but also with the artists, filmmakers, and theorists who taught alongside them: groundbreaking visual thinkers like polymathic design educator György Kepes, digital pioneer Nicholas Negroponte, graphic designer Muriel Cooper, photographer Minor White, and documentarian Richard Leacock. Unlike the TU/e, MIT in the 1970s cultivated a flourishing culture of artistic as well as scientific innovation, and the department of architecture was charged with fostering the arts on campus, a responsibility Habraken relished.39 The department also had many connections with the department of urban planning, where Habraken engaged with thinkers — like John Turner, Don Terner, and Kevin Lynch — who shared his passions for housing and for activating the agency of residents. Ann Beha, who was Habraken’s research assistant when he first arrived at MIT, described these wide-ranging conversations as “his intellectual oxygen.” 40 She told me how he would move fluidly from dealing with administrative matters and tenure cases to conversations about holograms, or silkscreens, or cybernetics. His polite Dutch reserve masked an insatiable intellectual curiosity, characterized by what Beha calls his ability to “exercise that rare muscle [of] listening.”
At MIT, Habraken began to explore systemic challenges in American housing policy, again seeking to change a national culture of building.
MIT’s architectural pedagogy was deeply invested in Habraken’s primary interests — housing, social justice, and community empowerment — and he continued to pursue his own research into form and control in the built environment. While his former colleagues at the SAR experimented with how best to bring support-and-infill projects to the Dutch market, Habraken began to explore systemic challenges in American housing policy. As ever, he leveraged his keen eye for regulatory minutiae in the service of grand ambitions to change the national culture of building. One of his new research projects was with the National Bureau of Standards in Washington (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology), where he set out to examine regulatory roadblocks to rehabilitating and adapting existing buildings. 41 While the original impetus for his life’s work was the massive scale of building in postwar Holland, what he found most concerning in his travels across America in the mid-1970s was the amount of demolition. He learned that few local building codes distinguished between existing buildings and new construction. So, often a line in a municipal building code that required a specific stair width or door height would make it more cost effective to demolish an old building than to repurpose it. Long before anyone was talking about embodied carbon or sustainability, Habraken believed in preserving the existing urban fabric where possible. This interest was born neither of nostalgia nor of interest in environmental conservation, but simply of common sense. In order for residents and communities to exercise their agency, they must be able to determine not only what is built anew, but also what remains.
Habraken regularly brought code inspectors from small cities across Massachusetts, bureaucrats from Washington, and construction engineers from the private sector to MIT, because he was as fascinated by their contributions to the built environment as he was by those of luminaries on his faculty. 42 This body of work contributed to a shift from prescriptive to performance-based building codes, wherein building regulation is tied to quantifiable outcomes, such as energy efficiency or seismic load, instead of prescribed spatial measurements. At root, this project was another example of his commitment to the analysis of regulations, dimensions, and construction technology in order to remove barriers to self-determination. He never wavered in his belief in the use of design research as a means to empower non-designers to make their own decisions about the buildings in which they live.
Meanwhile, designers and policymakers were finding affinities between Habraken’s research and writing and the growing global consensus that housing was in a state of emergency. In 1976, the year after Habraken moved to the U.S., the United Nations convened the Habitat I conference in Vancouver, in recognition of the urgent need for national governments to work together on questions of urbanization and human settlement amid an exponential rise in rural-urban migration across was then called the Third World. Many saw the potential of Habraken’s thinking to influence new strategies for addressing the explosion of informal settlements in cities in South America, Africa, and Asia. John Turner — a British architect who had spent the early part of his career in Peru, investigating how residents of the ever-increasing urban squatter settlements of Lima ordered their own living environments — overlapped with Habraken at MIT, where the two discussed their parallel efforts to foreground the capacity of residents to improve their own living conditions, if the right tools were made accessible. And Charles Correa, one of the most significant Indian architects of the 20th century, found important applications of Habraken’s work for South Asia.
The rapid urbanization of cities in the Global South, the abandonment and disinvestment in North American cities, and a growing international consensus of skepticism about tower-block social housing all contributed to an appetite for new approaches. While Habraken was no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the SAR, the fact that he had assembled a robust research apparatus to test ideas in the construction industry helped to promulgate his ideas. During this period, the SAR maintained its commitment to sharing its ideas and methodologies widely, and these efforts bore fruit, often in surprising ways. Several Japanese architects found that the SAR method resonated with a culture of compact, configurable interiors. British developers adapted the mix of prefabricated elements within standardized envelopes. American architecture students began to follow the SAR’s lead in applying social and psychological research methods to spatial problems.
Rapid urbanization, disinvestment, and growing skepticism about tower-block social housing whetted appetites for new approaches.
And yet, despite the fervent interest from people eager for new strategies to address all kinds of housing challenges, Habraken’s work has not fundamentally reshaped architectural practice. Several fascinating projects were built according to the SAR’s methodology, and Habraken’s books continue to inspire. But the distribution of design responsibilities between the relatively permanent and the relatively ephemeral has not been widely adopted. Certainly, advances in industrial building technologies would seem to make adoption of Habraken’s ideas more viable. The prefab building industry is projected to grow rapidly, from a global market estimated at $106.1 billion in 2020 to $164.1 billion by 2027. 43 And prefab and modular construction methods are increasingly employed in multifamily apartment buildings. Sweden’s leading manufacturer, Lindbäcks Bygg, can produce more than 25,000 square feet of multi-unit housing each week. Based on an area of approximately 900 square feet, the size of an average New York City apartment, that’s the equivalent of 1,500 units — including market-rate and affordable housing, dormitories, emergency shelters, and retirement homes — per year.
However, when I brought up such emergent industrial technologies with Stephen H. Kendall, a protégé of Habraken’s who has dedicated his career to advancing his mentor’s work, he was quick to remind me that these “ideas are not primarily technical.” He continued, “as soon as words like ‘modular’ or ‘prefab’ come up, I think I’ve already lost my audience. … Support and infill is a decision-making separation, not a technical one.” 44 The separation must begin with an attempt to “restore the natural relationship” between residents and their housing.
To make the point that shelter is among the most elemental needs of any human, a Dutch documentary from 1971 about the work of the SAR begins with the screams of a newborn. The viewer is shocked by a graphic birth scene, including the cutting of an umbilical cord. The voiceover asks us to ponder this child’s future:
A child, a little girl.
She will grow up in the 1980s, she will become an adult in 1992.
She will get married and will have children in the 21st century.
But in which circumstances will she live then?
Clothes, furniture, cars.
All this will have a form which we cannot imagine now.
Except her house. We know her house. It already exists.
The city of the year 2000 was built yesterday.
Living or being housed?
We are being housed.
We are not able to choose how to live. 45
The documentary emphasizes this point with footage showing different households standing in front of their apartments. The voiceover continues:
everything [is designed] in favor of the ideal-statistics home for the ideal-statistics family. This family exists in a man, a woman, and two children. But who really lives in these houses? A woman with two children. Four students. A boarder. An older couple with their daughter. A couple without children. A family which has their family-in-law temporarily living with them. Or two women.
Habraken’s ideas and the SAR’s methodology, the documentary goes on to explain, have the potential to address the dynamic needs of distinct household types. Charting a path toward the provision of dynamic housing options in a world of static housing stock is precisely what makes Habraken’s thinking relevant today.
In 2023 and beyond, we have many more housing types under development than the Dutch government did in its early 1960s mass-housing schemes. Nonetheless, where I live, in New York City, an enormous diversity of buildings masks a surprising uniformity of housing units within them. The overwhelming majority are two-bedroom apartments, regardless of size, while the two fastest-growing household types — single people who want to live alone, and multigenerational households — find very few options that meet their needs in the rental market. According to housing expert Jerilyn Perine, “essentially we’re still asking the [real estate] development community to produce the same exact housing type that we asked them to produce after World War II.” 46
The configurations, economies, and routines of our households are changing. But these changes do not sufficiently inform the design or the development of our housing stock.
If we expand to the national scale, we see that the nuclear family household now accounts for only 20 percent of U.S. households. More than half of all American households are now headed by a single person, for the first time since the government began compiling such statistics. The number of immigrants in the U.S. hit a new record of 40 million in the 2010 census, with the largest increases by percentage coming from Honduras, India, Guatemala, Peru, and El Salvador. These populations bring their own perspectives on what a household is, especially in terms of multigenerational living. The single elderly population is now known in the housing market as the “silver tsunami”; 22 percent of Americans will be over 65 in 2050. The percentage of children raised in a blended family is growing, with youngsters often spending the week or month traveling between different homes. These changes, and many more, have had a tremendous impact on the configurations, economies, and routines of our nation’s households. But they do not sufficiently inform the design nor influence the development of our nation’s housing stock.
Worldwide, the proportion of city dwellers who live in substandard housing will likely grow to one in three in the coming years. That’s more than 1.5 billion people. In most cities in the Global South, peripheries continue to expand, swelling with those displaced by climate disruption and political violence, or drawn as a result of ever-widening income inequality between rural and urban regions. The lack of affordable options pushes more and more people to create their own informal housing outside the rules and regulations of the formal property market. Walk through any such informal settlement today, and you will see a stark reminder of the agency of individuals who have forged their own housing solutions in contexts where neither local governments nor the private sector are meeting the challenge. Unquestionably, informal neighborhoods of resident-built housing are inspiring laboratories of innovation in everything from low-cost building materials to cooperative finance. They are also sites of profound risk to personal safety, where substandard sanitation and the foreclosure of economic opportunity are just a few of the dire threats that face inhabitants. We must not allow our awe at the entrepreneurial solutions of the extremely poor to normalize or romanticize crisis conditions. But neither can we allow our despair at the scale and symptoms of urban poverty to blind us to endogenous, local solutions to global challenges hiding in plain sight.
Careful analysis of physical and social patterns yields an architecture that is more responsive, agile, and humane.
To redress this mismatch between housing supply and demographic shifts among households — a mismatch that dramatically increases the costs of housing for everyone — a wide variety of advocates are looking for ways to introduce more adaptability into our housing options. In the U.S., activists focus on the racist legacy of single-family zoning, seeking to loosen restrictions that would allow the subdivision of houses into more affordable apartments or to regularize accessory dwelling units in basements, garages, or outbuildings on a suburban lot. Meanwhile, at long last, new applications for modular construction are finding ways to introduce flexibility into prefabricated dwellings, leveraging the efficiency of factory construction to invest in deep consultation with residents, or to focus on the potential of prefab components to reinvigorate construction labor in some localities. In Northern Europe (and increasingly elsewhere), intentional communities are springing up to adapt the model of cohousing, in which residents reconfigure multi-unit buildings or a cluster of private properties to share spaces, amenities, costs, and planning and governance responsibilities. In specific informal settlements in cities across Asia, Africa, and South America, resident-led community-planning exercises are making concrete proposals to local governments for matching urgently needed social-service delivery with plans for shoring up and regularizing infrastructural access for inhabitants of self-built homes. While such initiatives often originate in community organizing and activism (often around issues of displacement and the high cost of living), they are crucially important phenomena that the fields of architecture and urban design must work to understand and to uplift.
For design to enable residents’ agency and foster greater flexibility in our housing environments, we would do well to heed Habraken’s reminder that “the idea that a living environment can be invented is outmoded: environment must be cultivated.” 47 In other words, careful analysis of existing patterns — both physical and social — will yield an architecture that is more responsive, agile, and humane than an architecture whose value is derived primarily from formal innovation. He presses this point in Palladio’s Children, arguing that the idea of the architect as singular form-giver is incompatible with the contemporary reality of a complex and layered urban and suburban fabric. Habraken concludes the book with an aphoristic credo that recalls Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer or Michael Sorkin’s Two Hundred and Fifty Things an Architect Should Know. “Study the field,” it begins.
It will be there without you; you can contribute to it.
Study the field as a living organism.
It has no form, but it has structure. Find its structure and form will come. 48