By Kelly Merks:
I was riding my bicycle when I first saw the Papaverhof. The sense of place I felt is unforgettable: with the simple motion of turning a street corner, my 1930s brownstone neighborhood ceded to a horseshoe-shaped row of low-lying but imposing white concrete blocks. I froze in fascination, and my bike slowed gently to a stop.
“It’s De Stijl! In real life!” my head clamored. My eyes followed the geometric masses of white that tumbled down the street, hemming in short and bold lines of black, blue and yellow. The scene recalled Piet Mondrian’s iconic Tableau and Composition series; the buildings mimicked the paintings’ cubic rhythm and primary colors. This unique housing development, the Papaverhof, was like nothing else I had ever seen, and my modest district of The Hague was not the place I would expect to see something like it... but here it was.
The discovery was only a personal one, of course, because people have been living in the Papaverhof for almost a century. It’s a housing development that represents a unique moment in Dutch and local history, yet many people in The Hague don’t know about it.
After the First World War, Dutch cities faced a shortage of adequate housing and building materials. In 1917, before the war ended, a 25-hectare (61.7-acre) plot between The Hague and an adjacent village called Loosduinen was created as a suburban extension and given the name Daal en Berg after the farmland it occupied. This new development was meant to help alleviate the region’s crowded urban living conditions, and is seen today as an early example of Dutch suburban social housing. Later the same year, Daal en Berg became a Coöperatieve Woningbouw Vereeniging Tuinstadwijk — roughly translated, a Cooperative Housing Garden City Association. I found no evidence that this garden city initiative was influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement. Daal en Berg’s reality, in fact, was closer to that of a mini garden suburb. Garden suburbs are built on the outskirts of cities and are typically absent of industry, density, or connectivity: the antithesis of Howard’s garden city dream.
Daal en Berg’s social housing complex—called the Papaverhof in keeping with the area’s botanical street names, like Rozenstraat, Magnoliastraat, and Irisstraat—went from concept to creation under the direction of architect Jan Wils. In 1919 Wils was favored in a design competition by the cooperative’s commissioner, Hendrik P. Berlage. Berlage is regarded as the patriarch of Dutch modernist architecture. He was especially enamored with Frank Lloyd Wright’s work after a 1911 tour of the American Midwest and east coast, and he became a liaison between Wright and “both the expressionists of the Amsterdam School and the rationalists of the De Stijl movement,” according to the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.
Indeed, the Papaverhof is not only one of Wils’ and Berlage’s important works, but bears the fingerprints of other contemporarily and regionally influential artists and architects: Gerrit Rietveld, Vilmos Huszár, Piet Mondrian, and the De Stijl movement founder Theo van Doesburg, who lived at Daal en Berg (on Klimopstraat, across from the Papaverhof) for 20 years.
The Papaverhof is also an exemplar of a short-lived architectural movement called Nieuwe Bouwen, or “New Building”—an offshoot of Functionalism that centralized economy of scale and relied on modern technology. If De Stijl provided the development’s aesthetic, Nieuwe Bouwen concerned itself with materials and organization. It was a response to the interwar demands of economic and demographic expansion. Nieuwe Bouwen reorganized the home to provide more light, air, and space, focusing on efficiency and modernization instead of ornamentation. “Form follows function” lives on at the Papaverhof.
Despite its architectural and social importance, the Papaverhof’s 128 units were initially slow to sell. People were wary or just turned off by the large open garden in the center. But this problem doesn’t exist anymore; residents tend to stay for decades, and the waiting list to buy is long. The Papaverhof is among the top 100 national rijksmonumenten, or heritage sites, and one of only 11 in The Hague.
Today the city has subsumed Daal en Berg. The once-suburban satellite is now well within city limits and sits only a short walk from the Laan van Meerdervoort, the longest avenue in the Netherlands at 5.8 km (3.6 miles). To celebrate Daal en Berg’s 100th anniversary in 2017, residents of the Papaverhof have created a virtual tour of a model home, and hope to eventually recreate for virtual tour a home as it was designed by Jan Wils in the early 1920s.
(Follow this link to take a virtual tour of the Papaverhof)
Kelly is an American enjoying life on the frigid North Sea after a few years in Japan, having swapped great sushi for better beer in the Netherlands. As the daughter of an aerial photographer and a geographer, she grew up in a home of mapping equipment, old globes, and atlases that have informed her search for hidden contexts of the landscapes we travel and live in. You can find her on Twitter at @flaneurie and read more of her work on her blog, Bullet Trains and Bike Lanes.