Francine Houben: culture and nature in landscape design

Designers love to build prototypes. So do architects. Let’s imagine the farmer to be one of such prototypes. “He prospers only insofar as he understands the land and by its management maintains the bounty. So too with the man who builds. If an architect is perceptive to the processes of nature, to materials, and to forms, his creations will be appropriate to the place; they will satisfy the needs of social process and shelter, be expressive and endure.”

Vincenzo and I went to a lovely lecture by Francine Houben, an architect who loves and builds for people. The lecture series, organized by Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism and held at spacious National Gallery of Canada Auditorium, feature such prominent architects as Edouard Francois – the author of Flower Tower; Gregory Burgess – the proponent of architecture as a social, healing, and ecological art; and other inspiring urban innovators.

The Forum Lecture Series kicked off with an inspirational quote by Wim Wenders “If Buildings Could Talk … ”

… some of them would sound like Shakespeare.
Others would speak like the Financial Times,
yet others would praise God, or Allah.
Some would just whisper,
some would loudly sing their own praises,
while others would modestly mumble a few words
and really have nothing to say.
Some are plain dead and don’t speak anymore…

Buildings are like people, in fact.
Old and young, male and female,
ugly and beautiful, fat and skinny,
ambitious and lazy, rich and poor,
clinging to the past
or reaching out to the future.

Don’t get me wrong: this is not a metaphor.
Buildings DO speak to us!
They have messages. Of course.
Some really WANT a constant dialogue with us.
Some rather listen carefully first.
And you have probably noticed:
Some of them like us a lot, some less
and some not at all.

What a perfect introduction to Miss Houben’s lecture about buildings “that are eager to welcome, to help, to be of service”.  The famous Library of Delft University of Technology has brought Francine an international recognition in 1998.  Her reasons for undertaking the project seemed to revolve around the issue of public spaces and natural settings that would welcome people to walk, feed on sunlight, and enjoy the company of each other.

TU Delft Library


Prior to the addition of the Library, the dominant structure on campus was a 1960s concrete monolith that carries a fitting nickname “frog”. It was almost natural for Francine to provide some green space for this frog to leap on.


Francine is one of those architects that studies the spirit of the place – genius loci – impeccably well. Her biggest passion is the soil she builds with, not upon.

I think Netherlands is a perfect example of champion adapter in human systems.  One of the main challenges of the region is its precarious position below the sea level, which poses a constant risk of floods. Frankly speaking, if Dutch architects chose a less experimental and innovative approach, Netherlands would be the next Atlantis by now.  Much of the hills are man-made, bidding defiance to the tirelessly conquering waters.

Francine’s designs suggest a need for a careful balance between the raucous anthropocentrism – which insists upon the exclusive divinity of a man – and an uttermost submergence of a man in nature. It is important to recognize the uniqueness of culture, its opportunities and responsibilities, while embracing the connection between the human and nature. Genius loci at its most complex manifestation.

On October 23rd, there will be a lecture and an exhibition by Leslie Reid, titled “A Darkening Vision” at Carleton Art Gallery. It will be interesting to see her much less optimistic perspective on the weakening connection between the place and its human dwellers.