Allowing for easy interaction: an interview with Hedwig Heinsman, DUS architects, Amsterdam



Hedwig Heinsman is an architect who grew up in the Dutch Flevopolder and now lives and works in Amsterdam. One of the three co-founders of DUS architects, probably best known for their 3D Print Canal House, she is passionate about public and social architecture.  Hedwig is a graduate of Delft Technical University and the Helsinki University of Technology. DUS are about to leave their current Open Co-op building and move to a larger site.

Tell me about your first school.

My parents were teachers so I think they took me there much earlier than I was supposed to be there.  The school I went to was a Hertzberger*-like school because I grew up in a new town, it was built in the seventies, so it felt like a kind of safe village, an environment where you could just be and explore, but it was still safe because you were within the boundaries of the school. And then there were a bit more dangerous zones – the area further on where the older people were and the safe area with the square where the youngest kids would be.  And, of course, in my case, it was really a safe village because I could just say ‘Hey Dad!’ (laughs). So that was very nice. And in that sense I really experienced something because I was allowed to rollerblade through the hallways which I could do but no other kid could do. So a very safe creative space.

Did you have traditional classrooms in that school?

There was always classrooms but they were clustered around three squares with hallways connecting them. They were really separate classrooms but they didn’t have doors – they had really big vinyl harmonica dividers that you could open up and close or a brick wall and another brick wall and you could just flow around it and you would be in the classroom. Very seventies I suppose, very open but secluded enough to have privacy and be in the class but open enough so that you could peek and sneak and listen. So I have very fond memories of that.

As you got older did the school architecture change?

Well, it didn’t change for a long time because I went to a particular kind of school called Jenaplan. It means that you are always with kids of three years (range in age), three different years in one class.  So there would be, for instance, eight 9 year olds, eight 10 year olds and eight 11 year olds and that would work quite well because you could learn from the older kids.  And so I went to that school from four to twelve and then after that I went to high school and that was totally different because there was 1,500 kids from the lowest age to almost university level.

Was that a shock?

Not really because the kind of kids I knew already from elementary school so it was the same children but just much larger school. But in a way, even there, the clustering kind of remains, so also you had younger kids with older ones.

Did you have a favourite place in school?

Not really, I liked a lot of the areas, but in that sense I did always like the corridors a lot because they weren’t really corridors. There was a kind of medialab in the centre, so when you were there you were given enough responsibility to learn by yourself and sit in there but also, of course, be irresponsible (laughs). That was very nice because you felt very mature and you could sit there and see other people and wander about a bit yourself. I liked that.

Do you think architects are influenced by the schools they attended?

Yes. About two years ago, a graphic designer who also has his office in this co-op said something that stuck with me: ‘For me the ideal office environment is like a school because you have your own little office but you also have these shared environments and for me, this place – the co-op – is like that’. And I thought ‘wow yes, he actually has a point’.

A non-traditional DUS corridor within their co-op building
A non-traditional DUS corridor within their co-op building

One of my colleague’s parents were also teachers and so the kind of designs we make (influenced by this), we always try not to have corridors, at least not in a traditional sense, because I remember when I was a student and was living in a student hall of residence and you had a corridor with all the rooms and then at the end, a communal kitchen, but I dreaded it because you never could meet people there by coincidence, it was always an effort. Whereas, if there was no way around this environment it would have a totally different purpose. Because then you could just totally coincidentally pass by, decide whether you’d like to stay or go and I think that’s what Hertzberger* does very well and what I love about his stuff and something that we try to do in our work in the designs that we make is allow very easy interaction. Because we Nordic people we are a bit dysfunctional in this regard and I think it’s very nice when you can just encourage people in a very easy way.

And your current work?

It’s quite diverse, but has the same kind of thinking (as school design):how can we, as architects, design for communities and with communities.  That’s not so common any more, unfortunately.  Lately we’ve become well known for our 3-d printer research, but the funny thing is we’re originally totally not techies.  But we’re really driven by this social idea that via the internet we could empower the globe to have access to architecture and create communities and that’s something we find super-fascinating.  Really to lessen the difficult … (pauses) because it’s a very un-transparent process, the building process, and not accessible to lots of people …

As a former teacher I really understand that … 

Yes, even as an architect I still find it really difficult to know how expensive something is or how I can get something built.  So that’s really something that drives us.

Presumably you have a very clear vision of what you design, how do you deal with having to compromise as an architect?

I think we compromise the whole time but it doesn’t feel like compromising. We engage with the people we work for, whether it’s clients or communities and in this dialogue, things work. And that’s also the nice thing about our profession. We’re not super-dogmatic artists. We want to make beautiful things, of course we have aesthetic ideals but we see a lot of opportunities.


If you were designing a school, how would you encourage children to become part of that process?

Well, in that sense maybe I’m very old-fashioned because I don’t believe that kids should start designing by themselves; you also have to be taught to do that. And it’s also something you see with a lot of adult clients. In the beginning we made lots of mistakes because we thought that our adult clients would know how to be a good client and know what they wanted, but actually they’re also laymen at architecture and we really have to set the agenda for what they want. And also the funny thing is that people think they don’t want something but when you teach them what it is and why it’s interesting or not, then they often actually like it. And this goes for highly educated people, low, rich, poor. And it’s the same for children.  I’m more on the level of teaching architecture. Play with them.

What is the balance between communication and experimentation when you consider working with children on school design?

I don’t think I would ask them ‘where would you like to sit the most?’ or ‘how would you design your school?’  but I would teach them about ‘what is a door?’ ‘what is a nice thing about the window?’ or ‘what is your favourite place in your house, why do you like it so much?’ and then maybe you can implement these kinds of things in the design.   But I don’t think the kids should become architects, you know, they’re kids.

Do you think there will be schools in fifty years time?

That’s a difficult question because I don’t even know what a school looks like nowadays, I haven’t been in a school building for quite some time so my perception is also quite ‘80s.  But I’m sure there will be schools because I really believe in the importance of physical nearness.  But I can imagine the whole idea of classrooms, or maybe it will be like a big restaurant, because people can learn at home and they only need to do the social thing or the eating or the sharing or the building at school.  But, I don’t know, yeah.

You have said that you admire the work of Herman Hertzberger, what do you enjoy about his work?

It’s a very humble and human approach so that he’s trying to facilitate the human encounters and I really love that. You can really see that there’s a lot of thinking behind it.  It’s not simplistic: it’s very clever. And I love these doors in the old people’s home that have double doors, like a stable door, that you can have half open – a semi invitation.  I think it’s these kinds of things that I’ve always wanted for my own environment because it’s just like clothing, you can show who you are with architecture; you can leave the door a little bit open.  And it’s quite special because you also have … obviously he also has an ego, you need that to be able make things, but not in the way that he forces his architecture upon you.

Who or what influences your work outside architecture?

I grew up in the Flevopolder in the Netherlands; an area that was formerly sea and everything there is totally designed.  And my parents were amongst the first, when they were young teachers they came there with a pioneer vision of creating a new community.  So I’ve been always aware that everything around me was thought about.  And all the mistakes.  For instance, I couldn’t do my driver’s lessons and do my driver’s licence in the city I grew up in, Lelystad, because there were no traffic lights so I first had to drive for half an hour to another city where there were traffic lights, so I could practice driving there, then I had to drive half an hour back and this kind of thinking – it’s super exciting because it gave me the idea that you can make anything because you can shape whatever you want.  Look, someone has made everything here!

So you are a pioneer too, like your parents were?

Because my parents were (pioneers) I became one, whether I liked it or not. I’m happy with it now but maybe it’s ingrained in a lot of Dutch people because everything is so cultivated, there is no wilderness, everything is so planned.

How do you know whether your buildings are a success?

It’s a compliment if people use space differently from how you thought they would. Because it shows that the space really can facilitate that.  And in a good way architecture is also provocative; it should have a few weird corners that provoke you to deal with it.  I think our work does that. Yeah, it creates beauty because people have to come up with creative ideas themselves and I hope that’s in most of the work that we do.


*Herman Hertzberger, renowned Dutch architect of school buildings (look out for his upcoming interview with A&E)

I spoke with Hedwig Heinsman on Wednesday 9th September 2015 in the Tollweg co-op building, Amsterdam.


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