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Posted 26 July 2021

A Life Less Ordinary – Interview with Valentijn Carbo

Valentijn Carbo with Polman House in background. Photo Polman House: Arjan Bronkhorst. 

Valentijn Carbo is an architectural historian at the Hendrick de Keyser Association, the leading private trust for the preservation of historic houses in the Netherlands. He currently runs their Museum Houses project, which aims to open up 35 of the association’s most important houses to the public. Carbo is also a board member of the Dutch Interior Foundation and participates in the interior platform of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands. For Pioneers of the Dutch Modern House, he talks about social housing in the 20th century. He also presents the video on the theme of social housing, from one of its icons, Museum Het Schip.

What ground will your lecture cover?
I’ll be looking at social housing on different levels – as architecture, as urban planning, and also the way it is embedded in social development. I will talk not just about the icons of Dutch social housing like Het Schip, but also the more average examples, and how these came about due to the influential Woningwet (‘dwellings law’) of 1901 which opened the way to standardization.

In recent years, more social housing projects have opened to the public – what is driving this trend?
I think more attention is being paid to the stories of ordinary, working people and how they lived. This is a broad cultural phenomenon that also relates to the way we deal with modern heritage now – not just as individual houses, but on a larger scale as neighbourhoods and communities. This is true, for example, of the Polman House – with the Hendrick de Keyser Association, we have made it the model house for an entire row of 32 houses.

Why is social housing important?
One reason is because it relates to the needs of today – once again, there is a shortage of homes, and we are living in relatively small spaces. Social housing can be an inspiration in these areas. It’s still very relevant. Another reason is that social housing is a critical test for an architect in terms of the demands and budget restrictions. It’s interesting to see how architects like Rietveld, Dudok and Van der Vlugt, who also built for private clients, handled this challenge.

Does the approach need to be different in presenting social housing to the public?
Very much so – it’s hard, for example, for visitors today to realise how innovative these homes were. The people who lived in them had come from rural poverty or urban slums, and suddenly they had modern facilities. They try to get this across at Museum Het Schip, for example, by recreating a slum in a container.
Another aspect it’s easy to miss is the fact that how the architects envisoned the houses, and how people lived in them, were two different things. So in the Polman House, we have used the kind of dark, heavy furniture people placed in these homes – very different from the Gispen pieces the architects imagined, but that the residents couldn’t afford and perhaps didn’t even like!

What are you currently working on?
Our network of new museum houses – including the Jan de Jong House in Schaijk, which the architect built for himself and his family. I’m looking at how we can present it to the public, for example I’m talking to his five children about what it was like to grow up in the house.

What is your favourite 20th-century house, and why?
The Jan de Jong House – because it’s all about space and how beautiful space can be. Experiencing it, you feel calm and serene. It’s a wonderful example of architecture’s power to affect us. My favourite example of social housing is Het Schip – it’s so beautiful, it shows such respect for ordinary working people.

How could current social housing learn from its predecessors?
Today the focus is on volume and quantity, but in the early 20th century, social housing was about how to live a better life.

Recreated slum dwelling in courtyard of Museum Het Schip. Photo: Jan Reinier van der Vliet. 
Museumwoning bij Museum Het Schip, Michel de Klerk, Amsterdam, 1921. Photo: Jan Reinier van der Vliet. 

Click here for the teaser Palaces for the People.

Jane Szita

Curious about the Iconic Houses Online Event 2021?
Check out the program of lectures and a series of thematic videos about the Pioneers of the Dutch Modern House HERE.
Or register right away HERE.

Posted 26 July 2021