Stories will shape the land
Building the future with Francesco Veenstra
Text — Ankie Bosch / Photography — Laurent Stevens
Neither the drawing table, nor technical skills, but imagination is the first instrument of an architect according to Francesco Veenstra, the Dutch Chief Government Architect of the Netherlands. Imagination translated into images and words, stories capturing a distant future that nevertheless shapes the choices we make today. “We should not want to pass our problems onto the nextgenerations. And yet that is not apparent.”
Chief Government Architect since 1 September 2021, Francesco and his fellow members of the Board of Government Advisors provide the central government with advice on spatial issues in the living environment. And issues there are! Housing, climate, energy, mobility, economy, agriculture and water are all urgent, competing and connected.. The only way to solve them, Francesco says, is through an integrated approach that employs each and every way to get people on board, stories in particular.
Focus for the future
“Imagination is one of the main instruments we have as designers. Stories can be very helpful in creating support and providing insight. Text supported by images, from sketches or animations to theatre performances or export pavillions, a curious mix of story and thought. The possibilities for seeking connection with the eventual user are inexhaustible. And I would like to employ them all to get people on to what we call 'a next future' - which is necessary.
To shape that future, we organise Future Ateliers. We don’t determine which way we want to go from a desired image. In the first Future Atelier, instead, we will talk with all kinds of experts about the so-called network layer: roads, waterways, energy, data, people, and goods. All flows with an enormous impact on our spatial development, which seems almost self-evident. They developed unbridled, without us seeming to have a grip on them.
“The possibilities for seeking connection with the
eventual user are inexhaustible. And I could like to employ
them all to get people on to what we call 'a next future'
- which is necessary.”
The discussion in the spatial domain is currently very much about housing. But it should also cover all other buildings as well. A transmission tower ensures that you cannot build about 200 to 300 m to the left and right of it. That severely limits the use of the land. We often see a kind of pillarization, both in companies and in governments. Policy areas that are closely related, are nevertheless approached individually. Highways are constructed without thinking about what is happening on either side.”
An integral approach
“In area development, different aspects make a claim on the available space. You cannot honour them all, so you have to make choices. We need to have a conversation on how to deal with our land. How do we distribute it in a way that fits our culture? In economic, but especially in social and societal development? The ‘Groene Loper’ in Maastricht is a good example of how it could be done, and how mobility can create opportunities to realise more homes, restore ecological connections, and connect to the underlying infrastructure.
We should propose such an integrated approach for every area development. Always considering that very broad framework: what value do we add? Which investments are involved? And how do we ensure that those investments at all scale levels, certainly the local ones, yield as much value as possible?”
A culture of stewardship
“If our story is not about exhaustion, but about vitality and enrichment; not about caring for ourselves, but about caring for future generations, then I think we are doing well. It all starts with the attitude you take in. If you tend to always take, use a certain place, and then leave again without taking responsibility for that place, then you are not operating from stewardship. We should not want to pass our problems on to the next generations. And yet that is not apparent.
I, therefore, value family businesses such as Oostwegel Collection highly. The idea of taking your property into the future using a strong culture of stewardship and seeing yourself in it as a - albeit important - passer-by feels very different from the multinational who leaves as soon as the returns go down.
Heritage plays a special part in this tale. Buildings and places also tell a story. They are an important part of any culture and say a lot about how a country, city, or region has developed. Oostwegel Collection is very good at telling the stories of their houses. The great thing about them is that I never know if they're 100% true. They may not have to, and they may be. But they are part of the imagination and help you realise that the entire history, literally standing on the shoulders of your ancestors, contributes to further appreciating the place.
By preserving heritage, you make the connection between your ancestors and your children in a beautiful way. The Kruisherenhotel is a good example of this. It is somewhat older, and some major interventions have been made. This dialogue between the past and the present renders historic buildings enormously valuable on multiple levels, not least contributing to both the story of a certain place and the shaping of its owner.”
Stirring up the past
“At the same time, heritage implores careful consideration. When you're building in a pasture, everything you do is arbitrary. But if you start with an existing context, you are immediately obliged to think carefully about questions such as: what happened? What does this place give me? What choices do I make in that? You have to cherish what you have and realise that if something is added, you have a great responsibility to do it well. Based on this, you take the first step to committing an intervention. Because it is, always.
Look at the Kruisheren Hotel. The intervention value of that access has been considered. What effect should he have? Can it still be undone in the future? The moment you work on an existing building, you realise that your intervention has consequences for the future, but that you are also stirring up the past.
The moment you start working from that future, you turn it around. Often, the horizon is a board period or a multi-year plan of 10 or 15 years. If you look much further ahead, without already determining what the future will be like, you get a much more comprehensive picture of where we can all go. And that image now provides an assessment framework.”
A mistake to avoid
“For example, we are now talking about building 1 million homes in 10 years, two of which are already underway. This also happened in the 1990s during the so-called Vinex development. 1 million homes were built. And many people thought: after that, it's done, we'll have enough homes. But that just doesn't seem true. Simply because population growth and a decrease in the composition of households is causing an enormous increase in demand.
Who's to say that demand will be gone by 2030? Maybe we’ll need 2 million homes in 2050 compared to now. If you build one million homes now in places that you can no longer build later on, or that ensure that you can no longer develop an entirely different area, you create so-called lock-ins: impossibilities for the future. Or maybe the population will decrease substantially in 2070. Then you may have to build whole parts of new residential areas entirely in wood, in strategic places, with the idea that they could eventually disappear again.
Those Vinex neighbourhoods are a strong example of this. Approximately 600,000 homes have been built outside the city with densities between 30 and 35 homes per hectare, compared to 100 to 150 homes in inner cities. Everyone has their own parking space, often even two, positioned decentrally so they don't have to walk far. If those parking spaces had been realised centrally, there would have been room for densification in the future. We could have made a parking garage and realised 25 or 30% more homes.
That is not possible now, because we have not designed these kinds of neighbourhoods with possible densification in mind. All those neighbourhoods have an amazing infrastructure, but the social funds that we spend on them have not been used sufficiently. I don't think we should make that mistake again.”
An incentive for development
“Next to limiting developments from the past, there is a lot of unused space. RAAAF, an artists' collective in Amsterdam, has once mapped the total amount of vacant real estate owned by the government. That was a breathtaking amount. Tax offices, empty defence buildings, and post offices, once conceived for an economy that is now completely obsolete. There are many opportunities to revitalise existing real estate and use it differently. In cities, it is very interesting to transform them into housing. Building a new neighbourhood can take up to 10 years, while you can finish transforming an existing building in a year.
The same accounts for private real estate, like empty spaces above shops. The question is what is needed to develop it. Current zoning plans often provide possibilities to use retail property as a place to live but are also a hassle that distracts from the primary activities associated with that shop and its owner. And the value of retail property is strongly dominated by the potential rental income, which in the calculation models is considerably higher for a shop than for a home.
Shop owners consider it a hassle to do something with the unused space above their stores, so they only do so when a huge value leap can be made. How you deal with the valuation of real estate also determines what people ultimately do with it. And whether there is an incentive, a willingness too, to make that space available for housing or other future developments.”
Socially added value
“In the role that I have, I stand on the shoulders of what the previous board and the previous Chief Government Architect set up. I take that with me now, and I add to it the focus on the future, on the courageous choices we have to make. That sounds quite abstract, but it really lands in projects. A project such as the Binnenhof is very complex due to the political forces in which it takes place, but in the end, those buildings are prepared for the 22nd century. There are many such projects. In any case, I suggest to people that they include the future perspective in the planning process and the choices they make, from spending their money or choosing a specific architect to determining what they want.
“I cannot imagine this area getting a future
comparable to the past. Places like this can and should
provide socially added value.”
What purpose is there for a vacant military training ground or a prison? There is a narrative and a future-oriented side to it, and I link them together. The delusions and the urgencies of the day, and the things that I think are important. Take the ECNI site. How do you leave such an area behind? How do you ensure that in all the wealth it has yielded, it ultimately becomes of added value for the development of, for example, biodiversity?
The ENCI site is located in a Natura 2000 area, which already brings along a lot of restrictions. But how will it contribute to the city's expansion space in the near future? I cannot imagine this area getting a future comparable to the past although, if you look at it economically, everything seems to point in that direction. But from a landscape and social point of view, that area says something completely different. Places like this can and should provide socially added value.”
The value of connection
“The role I see for myself in projects like these is being the connector. It all starts with connecting. From the position I have, but also from the competences and the imagination, from the stories we tell. Importance is attached to the role and institution of the Atelier Rijksbouwmeester, so when I ask to have a conversation with someone, People are quickly willing to come together. If we then develop a story, for example about such a location, I immediately have the right people at the table.
At the meantime, I also remain strongly connected to the people I know from my more than 25 years of experience in projects in the Netherlands and beyond. That connection is very valuable because it is precisely in this connection that you can realise the dreams you have, both your ambitions and collective ones. This is fundamental when looking into the future together.
In places where I never worked before, I meet people with more discomfort. It is more difficult to connect with them and the problems that arise. To connect with people in such situations, walking through a neighbourhood in Groningen and entering someone’s house, for example, I am not ‘The Chief Government Architect'. No, I am Frisian and I live in Rotterdam and I work in The Hague and I also have problems. And you have problems that are much bigger right now. What can we do to relieve them? It's all about being human and what you bring into that connection as a person.”