Spike Lee was the mentor of Kyle Bell in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative 2020 - 2022. Photo by Arnaud Montagard / Rolex
Francine Houben

Francine Houben: “What’s most important is the senses”

Short Profile

Name: Francine Houben
DOB: 2 July 1955
Place of birth: Sittard, Netherlands
Occupation: Architect

Ms. Houben, as a champion of public architecture and urban redevelopment, have you always been fascinated by public spaces?

For me, thinking in a public way — it’s always been part of my thinking! Even if you look at our early works, they focused on affordable housing in urban-regeneration areas in the Netherlands, because in the 1970s, 1980s, that was a big issue. And I was not just thinking about how affordable housing would work, but also how it worked in a collective way: what it meant to the street, to the neighborhood, to the city. So thinking of public spaces, this is like a red line, flowing through the work of my firm, Mecanoo. Thinking of the society and how to contribute to it, that's how I was raised by my parents, my brothers and sisters.

Apparently you grew up in a big family, and moved around The Netherlands a fair bit during your childhood.

Yes, I’m number four or five kids, which is a pleasant position: you're not the youngest one, nor the oldest one. So I could go very much my own way. But as you said, we were constantly moving across different parts of The Netherlands — we always had to adjust. I was born in the south, which is different from the Hague, and more so different from the north: I remember once there wasn’t even a highway connecting the new town we had moved to. We often did not go on holidays, because we were either moving, building or renovating a house or, you know, simply adjusting to the new environment. But I totally enjoyed it! Different kinds of people, different kinds of landscape…

“People have always been the most important, and that’s because you care for who you’re designing for.”

Do you think this was the beginning of you becoming more aware of public spaces?

I think it was important. I remember, on summer evenings, when it would still be light until 11 at night, my mother would take all of us for a long walk, to try to understand the new neighbourhood, the new region. But the funny thing is, everyone else was so sick of moving again. And I always thought, “Oh great, we’re moving to another city!” (Laughs) So it's also, of course, your own identity. My first projects in the 1980s were from the very beginning very people-focused.

Which at the time must have been quite a contrast to the more traditional, purpose-driven approach to architecture.

Right, but in urban regeneration and social housing projects, people have always been the most important! You have to deal with and talk to so many people, and that’s because you care for who you’re designing for. That’s why I always say, it’s the four fundamental Ps in architecture: people, place, purpose, and poetry, in this order. It’s of course important to be purpose-driven as well, but one thing I’ve learned by working for 40 years now: things are always changing! We have to be prepared for unpredictable changes. I know that from the moment I design a library or even a railway station, some things will change, maybe the whole ticketing system. Or a pandemic like Covid! We have to be prepared, and not dogmatic about purpose. To create space that focuses on people is very important.

Is that ethos the same for private projects as well?

Private projects are interesting because the owner or the family has to like it. So in that way, the ethos is similar — but it's not influencing the city! When we design public buildings, or public spaces, we are also thinking of the public money: it should feel that it's designed for all, it should feel very inclusive. I think that's a different thing. For example, designing the Library of Birmingham, which we did in five years’ time from start to finish, was very unique. It influenced me a lot in terms of realizing how vital inclusivity is to architecture.

Libraries seem to be something of a passion for you; you’ve designed several of them around Europe, the US, the UK and Asia.

Yes, that’s why I'm called the library whisperer. (Laughs) But building the largest public library in a city like Birmingham, that has people from so many cultural and ethnic backgrounds, really made me realize how important libraries are also from an economic perspective. The question was, how can I design an intuitive space to help the diverse population of a city develop in a lifelong process of learning?

And what was your solution to that?

Well, there should be a little bit of storytelling. A lot of people think libraries are just about books — but then a library becomes just a storage space or a shelving system! With our architecture, we try to seduce people to come in. Our buildings are much more expressive than others. Don't forget, there was a period when minimalism was very important in architecture. But to make a minimalistic, concrete building, well, that's not really designing for a population from young to old, from poor to rich, from all cultural backgrounds! If you want to be inclusive, think of this little kid entering your building: they shouldn’t think, “Am I allowed to enter this building?” You have to feel it's designed for you, as well.

“I think a public building should be inviting, welcoming, and not so impressive that it makes you feel intimidated.”

What qualities create the atmosphere that a building is “designed for you?”

I think what's most important is the senses. The first, seeing: you have to have sidelines because then you feel safe, but you can also oversee things by yourself. Day light, of course, is extremely important for a pleasant feeling, but also for orientation. Acoustics are important because a lot of buildings nowadays are very loud, which is tiring. A good ventilation system to create a healthy building is very important. For the New York Public Library as well as in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, we added artificial light that is more theatrical, and that you can play with. I think a public building should be inviting, welcoming, and not so impressive that it makes you feel intimidated.

But that isn’t to say that a building can’t be both.

No, but the two can be conflicting ideas. With a public building, you want people to come back, at least every month, every week, or sometimes even every day. Then again, the National Performing Arts Centre building that we did in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, is so poetic. It’s a tropical design inspired from the Banyan tree, which is a tree with a horizontal crown that protects locals from the rain and the sun. The design therefore really fits in that area of the country, and people use the public space underneath the canopy every day! I’ve always been a big fan of the work of Charles and Ray Eames, because although their work is expressive, and you can see it was designed in the 1950s, 1960s — it has a timeless beauty. I hope that our own buildings will still work well and be as appreciated in the next 50 years’ time!