Insights > LEAF Awards 2 1

1. Francine Houben (pictured) was introduced to architecture by her brother – who also studied at Delft.

2. Tainan Public Library, Taiwan.

It’s a profound sentiment, but not a startling one for those already familiar with Mecanoo’s philosophy. Houben has talked extensively about creating buildings that aren’t simply intellectual pursuits, but visceral structures in their own right. It’s a sentiment that has proved commercially successful. After completing landmark projects in the Netherlands, most notably Delft University of Technology Library in 1997, Mecanoo has grown into a global firm with over 150 professionals from 25 countries. Not that Houben is fixed to the company. In fact, her writing and academic interests are just as distinguished. In 2001, she published her seminal manifesto on architecture titled, ‘Composition, Contrast, Complexity’.

Gauging the strands of influence that shape an architectural career is always tricky. Invariably, childhood is as good a place to start as any. Growing up in the Netherlands, Houben lived in a nomadic family, travelling across the country with her four siblings. Her father worked in the Dutch coal industry, while her mother was largely self-sufficient. A passion for architecture came early. “My mum was always buying a house, or refurbishing a house, or extending a house,” Houben explains.


“So, it was kind of part of our life to build, to explore the local environment because we didn't go on holiday. We always moved during holiday time.”

While her mother was learning to build on the fly, Houben’s siblings were already pursuing architectural degrees. Her brother, one year older, studied architecture at Delft. “He brought me into the faculty of architecture into the modelmaking room,” Houben recalls. “I still can remember that moment coming in that space and thinking, ‘okay, this is what I want’.” At Delft, Houben met fellow students Henk Döll and Roelf Steenhuis, with whom she won an architecture competition to design for the urban renewal of social housing. Mecanoo was founded while all three were still in university. Their first office in the Netherlands was a canal house dating from 1750, designed by Italian architect Bollina,

with stucco work and carvings in Louis XIV style. Initially, Mecanoo rented a part of the house. Now it occupies the entire building. Houben’s first project was Kruisplein in Rotterdam, a public housing and urban regeneration project designed for spatial flexibility, that owes a clear debt to Le Corbusier and other modernists. “I was very young,” she says. “I was 25 when I had my first big commission. You have to realise that if your clients are not open minded, you don't get good work as an architect. And I think especially at that time, the 80s and 90s were about urban renewal, but also affordable housing. Social housing was a big, big issue. And at that time, it was not very well done.”

The art of influence Travel had a formative effect on the architect’s career, particularly visits to California in the late 1970s to live with

Charles and Ray Eames after meeting the designers through professor Max Risselada at TU Delft. “We visited their factory in Michigan, and had lunch or dinner at their home numerous times and talked to them. They always invited my friends who were [also] architects or designers. We talked with them about many things,” Houben recalls. “We did what they did, of course, so it was very inspirational.” A visit to the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1999 was also deeply instrumental. The work of Lina Bo Bardi, in particular, felt instantly familiar. “Seeing that work was like coming home, this attitude that you as an architect [should] design for the world,” Houben explains. “Also, the way she was Italian from birth, and tried to understand the local [Brazilian] population and was inspired by them.” That fascination with culture comes through. Houben is most enthusiastic describing the places and societies in


Yu-Chen Chao

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