Modern Communal Living in the Netherlands

Originally published in 
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Craving not just a home but a proper piece of architecture, a handful of design- and business-savvy Dutch families banded together, hired an architect, and set about forming the community that would net them the houses of their dreams.

Villa van Vijven

With the idea of communal living all too prone to conjure visions of student squalor or hippy homeliness, Villa van Vijven comes as a refreshing surprise. The strikingly sculptural bright orange building, reclining in the flat Dutch landscape, accommodates five families under a single, stylish roof. And there’s not a whiff of carob in the air.

Step into any one of its five apartments and you are convinced that you've entered an independent piece of architecture entirely. Though they vary in size (the largest is 3,200 square feet), each unit has a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape and its own distinctive layout, decor, and, of course, inhabitants. The group ranges from a business manager to a sports coach to an art historian. “We don’t necessarily see each other every day,” says Paula van Dijk (the art historian). “Often, we just say hello when leaving or coming home again.” Cees Noordhoek, a sales manager who lives here with his wife, Jacquelien, and three kids, adds: “It just doesn’t really feel like communal living.”

Yet Villa van Vijven is a truly collective and collaborative project, financed and commissioned by five families (19 people in total) who wanted to build a home that they could otherwise never afford: an architecturally high-impact retreat set in extensive gardens, with great views of the surrounding landscape and nearby lake. Residents Johan Bouwmeester and Marlene Blokhuis got the ball rolling when they found the large plot to the southwest of the new and rapidly growing city of Almere, an hour from Amsterdam. The appeal of the relatively rural setting, just 10 minutes from the center of the city, was manifest, and the couple began inviting design-minded acquaintances to join in on the project.

The next step was to find the right architect, one able to embrace the kind of co-creation process that the group needed to accommodate their five different dream homes under one roof. “Our first architect bullied us,” Noordhoek recalls. “But then someone told us about this promising young office, Next Architects. So we did two workshops with them and found that they were able to focus our rambling thoughts. That was enough to convince us.”

With the architect on board, the business of obtaining financing, permits, and other essential administration was handled, Noordhoek says, “in the same way we organized all details—by mandate. For every part of the process we appointed two managers, who did the field research, asked for competitive bids from suppliers, and had the power to act on behalf of the group. The group as a whole was presented with a detailed proposal for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote. We felt that discussions and emotions shouldn’t be allowed to run loose. We knew that only when we acted like professional managers would it be possible to build the house on schedule and within budget.”

The same tough principles were applied to the design process. “Difficulties mainly arose when individual preferences collided with another person’s interests,” Noordhoek says. “But in every case of conflicting preferences, we simply let the architect make the decision. Usually, that worked.”

“It was very different from having one client,” says architect Michel Schreinemachers of Next Architects. “With a group, you have another dynamic entirely.

Yet it worked quite nicely.” At many steps along the way Schreinemachers would propose several options, which the group would discuss and then return with feedback. The final decision, though, was always the architect’s. “If I’d suggested the eventual building at the outset, they would have walked away,” he adds. “They wanted something very industrial, or thought they did. But they always wanted something architecturally interesting, a landmark building, and this design grew out of our discussions.”

Schreinemachers visualized the space as a block of rectangles that he rotated to face different directions, adding and subtracting volumes to reflect the residents’ wishes. The result is a Tetris-like layering of interlocking shapes, each with its own character and its own signifying color as visualized in the plans. “When Michel finished his drawings, everyone had to choose the unit they wanted—it was the moment of truth!” Noordhoek says. “And each of the five groups went for a different one, which shows how well the architect interpreted our wishes.”

Personal wishes could often be indulged, given that the truly communal areas of the project are just the large garden (each family also has a small private garden as well) and what Schreinemachers calls “the public square” onto which all the front doors open: a glowing orange space carved out underneath the building, where the residents tend to leave their bicycles and bump into each other on the way in or out. This feature, van Dijk says, “gives the building a really playful quality, as does its great openness to the garden.” Schreinemachers reports that he achieved it “by raising the living room up to the second floor. You can walk straight into the garden from the living rooms, over the terrace.”

Schreinmachers chose orange for the exterior to reference the traditional orange-tiled rooftops of Dutch country buildings. Echoing the splashy chromatics of the outside, the residents quickly set about brightly painting their own interiors. In Paula van Dijk and Bob Krone’s minimal white space, for example, there’s a vivid splash of yellow, while Koos Sweringa, seeking a bit of formal instruction, attended a color course that inspired a whole palette of shades.

Color aside, the actual interior design was left to the residents themselves—to keep costs down they moved into bare spaces. Undaunted by empty expanses of naked walls and flooring, each family created an interior that satisfies their individual desires and shows a strong sense of ownership. Noordhoek (who took the green unit) sought ample floor space for his large family, and thus his unit is a generous 3,200 square feet. Bob Krone and Paula van Dijk (who took the red apartment) wanted “big, open spaces with long walls for hanging paintings and as few doors as possible.” Koos Sweringa and Marianne Schram (whose two college-age daughters usually stay at the yellow apartment with them on weekends) wanted a “live-in” kitchen that resides in the place of honor that the other families have assigned to the living room. They also have a capsule kitchen next to their bedroom on the second floor, plus a view of the historic tower of Naarden from the same room.

Though the architecture favors idiosyncrasy over uniformity, when it comes to each other, the residents are all quick to note that pragmatism is what they value most. They are unanimously keen to emphasize that they are best neighbors, not best friends. Thus, they maintain a fund for the upkeep of the house and are working on the idea of a shared amphitheater with a fireplace for the garden. But house meetings are kept to a minimum—far fewer than the twice-monthly gatherings demanded by the five-year development process. “The biggest advantage of living together is that we can use each other’s expertise,” Krone says. “Another advantage is that when you’re on vacation, there’s someone to pick up the mail, water the plants, and feed the pets.”

Even while enjoying all these advantages, “I think we all still wonder what on earth it was that made us go for this unusual design,” Noordhoek says, as he strolls through the garden. “But it just stands out in every respect,” he adds, turning to look at the villa. “It surprises me every day that we dared to do it. It really is the building of our dreams.”


To see more images of the project, please visit our slideshow.

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