Iconic Houses in The Netherlands - The Diagoon House

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Publication date 1 December 2022

Iconic Houses in The Netherlands - The Diagoon House

Ideal Living, but Different

At the end of the 1960s, the Netherlands was in turmoil. These were the years of secularization. People demanded more freedom and democratization. Views on housing and urban planning also changed drastically. The seventies were the glory days for participation by users and residents in the Netherlands. The Diagoon houses in Delft are a special example of this change. One Diagoon House owner is a member of Iconic Houses, and his home can be visited by appointment.

Text Robert von der Nahmer | Photography Jan Bartelsman

House = shell + infill
This is the motto under which architect Herman Hertzberger (*1932) developed an experimental family home in 1968. A form of housing ‘that allows everyone to be themselves as much as possible’. Commissioned by the Experimental Housing Foundation (Stichting Experimentele Woningbouw), eight of these homes were realized in 1971 in the post-war expansion district of Buitenhof in Delft.

Prototype
According to Herman Hertzberger, the dwellings should be considered a prototype that can be tested. The starting point is that the houses are basically a so-called half-product. Residents should be able to arrange, expand, finish, and furnish the houses themselves. This according to their functional and emotional living needs. 'Such a home should not be an appliance, like a shaver,' says Hertzberger, 'but an instrument, like a violin that only starts to sound in the user's hand.' For Hertzberger, it is important to provide a context that encourages people to shape the home according to their own ideas and needs. Emancipation is on his mind, not conformity.

Given the current housing challenge, the Diagoon houses are particularly topical  

Changing Insights
That premise does not come out of the blue. At the end of the 1960s, the housing shortage resulting from World War II was largely alleviated. At the same time, there was an increasing awareness of what is described as ‘housing shortage’. Rigid modernism in architecture and urban planning, with the uniformity of housing and the separation and zoning of urban functions, was seen as the disintegration of the city and as a threat to the individual. New design concepts are being developed in which the user is central. Hertzberger too is looking for a different design attitude, so that an architecture is created in which the user himself is ‘in control’. A design philosophy that became known under the term structuralism.

Master of One's Own House
That human scale is the starting point for the Diagoon homes. The houses are fairly simple in design and consist of two fixed cores: stairs and wet rooms. Around these are several floors around a void, each staggered by half a floor, which Hertzberger calls the 'living spaces'. These places can in principle be given any desired function: living, sleeping, studying, eating and the like. Hertzberger calls the central void the living hall: the place where residents on different floors can make their own place and remain connected. The contrast with conventional housing is great because there each space has a specific purpose.

Residents must be able to design, expand and finish the houses themselves  

Experiment
The Diagoon houses turn out to be both a spatial and a social experiment. They offer many possibilities, but also demand something of the residents. The houses are changed, adapted, and actively appropriated. At the same time, the houses influence the residents in their way of living, their experiences, and their mutual relationships. Not all residents are willing or able to change the way they live. Some of the dwellings are therefore conventionally filled in by installing dividing walls to create lockable rooms. In other dwellings, on the other hand, use was made of the openness, so that the dwellings became a large continuous living space.

Making Space, Leaving Space
Children of the time remember that because of this openness, contact was always possible between family members, much more than they were used to in earlier homes. Relations between parents and children also became less hierarchical. Space was created for consultation on matters such as tutoring, hairstyle, clothing, music, drinking, going out and when to come home. Also, residents do not experience the house as empty when they are there alone or in pairs, but also not as full when the whole family is complete. The special qualities are equally praised. The homes invite the creation of sitting areas and sitting corners, to look around or to do nothing and daydream. The Diagoon dwellings appear to offer space for this, both literally and figuratively.

‘And then you buy one of those diagoon-things with your savings, and you still look like a fool!’  

Controversial Opinions
The press is not entirely enthusiastic about the project in Delft. In 1972 an article appears with the title 'new consumer good: eksperimental building', written in the 'modern' spelling of the time. In the sub-title it says with dismay: ‘And then you buy one of those diagoon-things with your savings, and you still look like a fool!’. The homes are far too expensive and do not force a fundamental change in housing and the construction industry. Nevertheless, public interest is enormous. Interested parties are brought in from all over the Netherlands by buses at a time. Their first impression is often that the houses do indeed look like bunkers from the outside. Once inside, the surprised viewers judge differently, and many are impressed by the spaciousness and light.

Sustainability
From over fifty years of living experiences, the homes still appear to function well. It is striking that especially the psychological aspects of living play a dominant role. The appreciation of both old and new residents relates largely to sensory experiences: through the eye, ear, sense of touch and organ of balance (movement). Diagoon houses induce numerous sensations, thanks to space, light, time, and matter. The emphasis is not merely on practical aspects, but rather on living as a way of life. Moreover, given the current housing challenge, Diagoon houses are particularly topical. Once again, standardization is the norm in material, construction method, appearance and, above all, living itself. There is not only a housing shortage, but once again a residential distress. In that context, the functional and cultural sustainability of the Diagoon houses is striking. The homes are a shining example to continue, designing and building in the spirit of experimentation and innovation.

Robert von der Nahmer's Diagoon House is part of the Iconic Houses Network.

Space for Living
In 2021, Diagoon houses celebrated their 50th anniversary. To mark the occasion, the publication Space for living - The experimental Diagoon Houses of Herman Hertzberger appeared, describing the characteristics and related qualities of these experimental homes that guarantee a form of ‘ideal living’. It deals with the social context in which this experiment came about, the architectural and urban planning aspects, the underlying vision of the architect and the experiences of residents over the past fifty years. The publication is in line with the growing interest, reassessment and current research into architecture and urban planning after the reconstruction period, under the title Post65 (1965-1995). The publication is available in Dutch and English versions.

About the author
Robert von der Nahmer is an architect and owner of a Diagoon House in Delft. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and the Academy of Architecture and Urban Planning in Rotterdam. He was an architect at Alkemade & Von der Nahmer and the multidisciplinary design firm ProForma. Until 2021, he was coordinator of professional practice and pre-masters at the Rotterdam Academy of Architecture, where he also taught. The house at 32 Gebbenlaan can be visited by appointment, see www.diagoonwoningdelft.nl

Movie Night 26 January 2023
Iconic Houses made a film about the developments of Dutch residential architecture in the twentieth century. In "Pioneers of the Modern Dwelling House in the Netherlands," the author of this article presents the theme "Experiments with Space. Join us 26 January in Amsterdams when the film is screened at Amsterdam School Museum Het Schip. Twenty iconic houses, spread throughout the Netherlands, provide insight into improved hygiene and health, palaces for the people, the roles of women as clients or architects, experimments woth space and the house as the architect's self-portrait.
Tickets are available at www.hetschip.nl/iconic-houses-filmavond

This article previously appeared in Dutch Magazine Herenhuis #92, November/December 2022.
Translated with www.DeepL.com.

Publication date 1 December 2022