Published in DASH #03 – The Woonerf Today
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Editorial DASH #03

I believe that in twenty years’ time it may be possible to turn this into a tourist attraction . . . with catchy slogans such as: The Tanthof: its chaos, its vitality, its hustle and bustle, its variety, its multiple objectives. The Tanthof: tantalizing, in the Nietzschean sense of the word, in all its frivolity.

Rem Koolhaas in 1990, on the Tanthof neighbourhood in Delft.1

Exactly 20 years ago, Rem Koolhaas predicted the rediscovery of the Tanthof, a woonerf or home zone in Delft, in his infamous diatribe against the era’s neo-modernism, How Modern Is Dutch Architecture? The prediction was no more than an ironic, perhaps even sarcastic interjection in his Philippic, aimed at riling young colleagues such as Mecanoo or DKV. Although Koolhaas’s prophecy has not come true (yet), the ‘cauliflower neighbourhoods’, the derogatory label now attached to the suburban developments from the 1970s and ’80s, are undeniably due a reassessment. The fact that the neighbourhoods and houses are falling into disrepair and the composition of the population is changing, is putting them back on the radar of institutional managers and policymakers. The first few studies and surveys have already been carried out, but the fate of this collection of mass small-scale developments and planned everyday happiness has yet to be decided.

In professional circles it is certainly the done thing to dismiss the architecture and planning from this era as one big mistake. Some people are even calling for a large-scale reconstruction effort, similar to the one targeting post-war neighbourhoods. But at the same time there are signs of a nostalgic revival among the generation that grew up with the aesthetics of cosiness, sunken seating areas, railway sleepers and washed gravel stones in the garden. The 2004 NAI exhibition and publication The Critical Seventies, in which the so-called ‘new twee’ was quite prominent, was an early expression of this revival.

Although there is an inner-city variation on the woonerf, it is probably not too much of an exaggeration to describe the woonerf as the most important Dutch contribution to the international debate on urban and suburban sprawl in the twentieth century. Building on American and Scandinavian models, the 1970s woonerf became the preferred alternative to the era’s large-scale planning around high-rises that fostered the new post-war dependence on cars. The blue traffic sign with playing children, a house and a small car represents the iconic image of the aspiration for pedestrian-friendly and small-scale residential areas.

In order to understand the nature and quality of the woonerf neighbourhoods, we need to develop accurate methods of analysis and interpretation. Preliminary attempts, such as those by Ivan Nio, Nynke Jutten and Willemijn Lofvers, show that quality and reputation depend in no small measure on the interaction between the architectural design, open space plan, long-term management and residents’ involvement. The design of the transitions between the private and collective zones is often subtle and understated. The articulation of the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘everyday’ is what makes the architecture of the woonerf special and distinctive – especially in this day and age when design and lifestyle have become so important – but it also constitutes its most vulnerable aspect.

Closer scrutiny of the phenomenon suggests that the woonerf escapes facile and unambiguous typological definitions. Although one of the key principles underlying the woonerf is the redefinition of the place of the car in our living environment, this has resulted in extremely diverse solutions. Some forms offer a mix of traffic users, but there are equally successful examples in which the car is barred from the collective outdoor spaces. Likewise, our assumption that the woonerf was, to some extent, the product of the exchange between sociology, planning and architecture – so passionately adhered to at the time – rests largely on misunderstandings and myths.

If the rise of neo-modernism and the rediscovery of the urban block meant that for some time the woonerf was taboo in Dutch architecture and planning, the recent Vinex neighbourhoods show signs of modest re-interpretation, of a renewed critique of the production of anonymous, suburban living environments. Surprisingly enough, the woonerf phenomenon continues to inspire contemporary architects to create interesting new variations on comfortable, suburban living with modest forms of small-scale collectivity.

This issue of DASH examines the now classic 1970s woonerf and explores its historic precursors. The specific domestic lifestyle that complements collective, suburban living will be looked at as well as interesting contemporary projects that breathe new life into the ideal of the woonerf.

  • B. Leupen, W. Deen and Chr. Grafe,Hoe modern is de Nederlandse architectuur? (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1990), 17.