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Central Living in the Netherlands: The Influence of Architecture on Social Structure

Knowledgebase > Central Living in the Netherlands: The Influence of Architecture on Social Structure

Dorit Fromm looks at collaborative living in The Netherlands. Contemporaneous with cohousing developments in Denmark, the Dutch see this form of shared housing as an opportunity for wide-scale housing reform, and have secured government support for their initatives. Unlike their Danish counterparts, the Dutch units have attracted more singles and renters. They are learning some interesting things about the dynamic relationship between building design and social structure.

Dutch “centraal wonen” (central living) began in 1969 when Lies van Dooremaal, a mother overwhelmed by the combination of professional work, housekeeping, and child care, published a plea in the local newspaper. She called for housing with common amenitie s to break the cycle of parental isolation and overwork. She reasoned that other parents shared her problems, and that they could help each other instead of living in isolation.

A few years earlier similar articles in Denmark had sparked enthusiasm for the cohousing movement. The newspaper advertisement in the Netherlands also met with positive responses, but there was a distinct difference between the groups that formed. While D anish cohousing attracted predominately married couples, the Dutch groups grew to include more singles, single parents, and elderly people — almost half are single and a third are single parents. Yet in both countries the motivations were similar concern ing design of communities for more social contact, including shared amenities and management.

The National Association of Centraal Wonen (LVCW) was created in 1971 as an umbrella organization for the new collective housing movement. LVCW proclaims that central living is “for the emancipation of man, woman and child” (Ren Krabbe). The Dutch view c ollaborative housing as a tool for reforming society — not only relieving the isolation of the one-family home, but also that of the nuclear family structure itself.

In 1970, a group of 25 households organized to build collaborative housing in Hilversum, a small city not far from Amsterdam. The group wanted to make housing affordable to all levels of society. Although the group had concepts similar to cohousing, Dutch political structures produced a different outcome in the Netherlands.

In Holland, social (subsidized) housing has traditionally been built by local nonprofit housing associations with government funding. Since the beginning of this century, such nonprofit sponsors have been the channel for government subsidies to build rent al housing. In 1992, there were 63 “centraal wonen” developments with some 2,000 dwellings, typically concentrated in large, urban buildings. At that time, an additional 15 to 20 more communities were being developed. About half of the Dutch developments have over 40 households, with the architecture physically dividing the households into clusters.

Dutch housing co-ops are designed to create levels of socializing between the private dwelling and the collaborating community by designing smaller common areas for the exclusive use of specific clusters of households. For instance, Hilversumse Meent cont ains a private level for each dwelling, shared semiprivate backyards, a semicommon space in the cluster kitchen-dining room, the common workshops and pub, and the public pedestrian paths in front of the homes.

Dividing the larger community into smaller groups fosters a greater sense of intimacy, allowing decisions about organization to be tailored more closely to specific clusters. Yet, because of their intimacy, groups of 12 households or fewer have more small -scale social problems than larger groups. Also, there may be confusion between the jurisdiction of the cluster and that of the community as a whole. For example, should the cluster or the whole community select new members?

The architecture at Hilversum reinforces small social groupings by connecting each housing unit to a specific cluster kitchen, providing few opportunities to mix or eat with the larger community. However, new central living communities are more flexible, supplementing the closed clusters with other clusters designed for more openness to wider social groupings.

Newer Dutch central living projects have a wide range of housing types and common kitchen arrangements. At least two different types of clusters are now planned into the larger projects. The traditional closed cluster, as at Hilversumse Meent, provides co mmon rooms that are physically connected only to the dwellings in that cluster. Alternatively, open clusters rely on common rooms that are not connected to any one particular cluster of dwellings.

When the kitchen-dining areas are not centralized, but scattered among the clusters, the sense of community is altered substantially. Cooking and eating together is one of the fundamental ways that groups create a sense of community. In fact, a strong soc ial grouping can become similar to a family or clan, and the size and strength of these clusters of households influences the strength of the community. Thus, architectural design can be viewed as a basic factor in the community experience.

About the Author

Dorit Fromm is a partner in the design firm of Riggs and Fromm in Berkeley. She is researching cohousing for seniors aged 55 and older, and has had many articles about housing published in Progressive Architecture, Architectural Review, and other professional publications. Dorit was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to research new forms of housing with shared services. The result of that earlier research was Collaborative Communities, which is now a standard English reference on co housing in Holland according to the Landelijke Vereniging Centraal Wonen — the Dutch National Association of Central Living. Collaborative Communities is published by Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1991, $45.95, 800-842-3636.

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