Jo Coenen remembers John Habraken
John Habraken died on 21 October this year. In addition to being an architect, he was a theorist, author and professor of architecture at Eindhoven University of Technology and MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One of his most important contributions, also internationally, concerns the participation movement in mass housing, which actively involves residents in the design process. His 1961 book, Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing, is the manifesto that began this movement. In the following reminiscences, architect Jo Coenen, a former student of Habraken, reflects on their collaboration and his significance for architecture.
15 November 2023
"John Habraken was my first teacher in architecture and urban planning. An eloquent and fascinating speaker and a very knowledgeable professor, I met him in 1969, in the lecture halls of Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e).
With his wide interests, he gave lectures on the art of urban planning and the building culture of mass housing at that time. I also discovered his other qualities, which were evident in his organisation of an extremely practical educational machine. Following the example of international training courses in the form of a studio, large groups of first-year students were introduced to his strategy for building mass housing, which had been outlined several years in advance. His concept of “support-infill”, and the results of the ongoing research of SAR, the Foundation for Architects’ Research, which under his direction was investigating the possibilities of his alternative ideas for mass housing, offered the resident freedom of choice. 
Having already admired some of Le Corbusier’s works during my early travels in France, including Unité d’habitation and Notre-Dame du Haut,  I was less fascinated by his building system than by his philosophical and reflective approach, in which humanity and time are central.
The first year of study ended triumphantly with the publication of some of our studio studies in Plan magazine in 1970.  Later in my studies, I did an internship at SAR where I worked on researching traditional materials in old cities under the guidance of my studio supervisor, the architect Henk Reijenga. After graduating, the then director John Carp involved me as member of the jury for a workshop at SAR. 
After this period in Eindhoven, my interest in Habraken was reawakened by his growing international reputation as head of the architecture department at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. After his return to the Netherlands, I helped boost his position in the ongoing architectural debate by contributing to publications and by inviting him to participate in new movements that were clearly related to his work. One of these was Solids, involving buildings with no defined purpose that respond to the need for customisation, an invention of Frank Bijdendijk, who was then director of the housing association Het Oosten. Together we evaluated the conditions for organising competitions for the realisation of the Solids principle. 
Most recently, from 2014, we worked intensively with our colleagues at IBA Parkstad on possible applications of his vision for housing projects in Parkstad Heerlen. But he was also interested in the further development of the concept of Open Building in urban development plans, such as in the centre of the Leidsche Rijn in Utrecht. We exchanged experiences, drafted educational texts for the Netherlands and abroad, and recently aroused the genuine interest of Minister Hugo de Jonge and his ministerial service. It is a thread that has run through his entire working life and is once again relevant today among young, curious students and progressive builders.
Perhaps it was not so much the literal translation of his ideas into realised architecture that brought us together, but rather their effects on the urban fabric and the compelling examples of ancient urban structures that we both collected in extensive libraries and archives. Last year he gave me important parts of his archive material to house in my Doc-C Foundation. 
Like him, I am proud that his archives and my own have become part of the National Collection managed by the Nieuwe Instituut, and part of Dutch architectural and urban planning history. "
Nieuwe Instituut is working with Jo Coenen to acquire his extensive office archive. Coenen is also the architect of the building that houses the Nieuwe Instituut. John Habraken donated his personal archive to the Nieuwe Instituut in 2014 and 2022; the SAR archive was acquired in the 1970s, with various additions at a later date.
- Creation of the Foundation for Architects’ Research, 1964, see Plan no 3–1970, p. 159
- Unité d’habitation Marseille and the Notre-Dame du Haut chapel, Ronchamp
- See Plan no 3 – 1970, p. 178
- 1982, SAR study week workshop
- Concept for Solids, Frank Bijdendijk, former director of housing association Stadgenoot (formerly Het Oosten). 2004 and 2009
- Doc-C Foundation has existed since 2014