With the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning as a point of departure, theatre and radio producer Naomi Steijger visits the Vreewijk neighbourhood in Rotterdam and talks to designers, archive experts and residents about greenery in this garden suburb. First in a series of podcasts under the name Green in the City.
A century ago, in the 1920s, the garden suburb Vreewijk was built in Rotterdam. Its buildings and green areas were conceived and implemented together, making it a special residential area: the first tuindorp (literally,"garden village") in the Netherlands. The archive collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut includes photos and design drawings that display this interweaving of architecture and greenery, as well as documents that reveal its inspiration in the garden city ideals that arrived from England at the beginning of the 20th century.
Archive Explorations: Green in the City
Under the lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are more aware than ever of the relaxing and healing power of the greenery around us. Yet the idea that has a positive effect on our physical and mental health is not new: much of the planning of greenery in the Netherlands is based on this idea. In the series Green in the City, part of Archive Explorations various radio broadcasters go on a mission to find answers to the questions: how have garden and landscape architects and urban planners dealt with the concept over the years? What were their views, and how do we see them now?
Vreewijk: A Way Back
If you want to know why the greenery where you live looks the way it does, you can try to trace a path back from the present to the first starting points. Archives and the information they contain can help with this. They provide insights into the methods, dilemmas, considerations and opinions of the time. And not only that: many insights and outlooks are often surprisingly topical and can still be a source of inspiration for contemporary ideas about green spaces in the living environment. Het Nieuwe Instituut’s collection includes photographs, design drawings and written sources that bear witness to the great garden city ideals, which came to the Netherlands from England and Germany in the early 20th century.
What is unusual about Vreewijk is that no complete design archive of this residential area has survived. This file was part of the extensive office archive of the Rotterdam architectural firm Granpré-Molière Verhagen and Kok, whose archive was incinerated during the bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940. However, surviving records about Vreewijk have been found in other archives, including in the city archives of Rotterdam, the National Archives, and in various archives and the library collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut. In addition, the archives of the Exhibition Council (Tentoonstellingsraad) and those of architect Jan Wils contain beautiful photographs of Vreewijk from the 1920s showing the young greenery. And the collection of glass negatives includes Ebenezer Howard’s famous 1898 garden city diagram, likely used in the education of young architects.
Although the lack of a complete Vreewijk archive may complicate the research, the different motivations behind these scattered sources provide different standpoints on the neighbourhood. This incompleteness allows us to examine Vreewijk from multiple perspectives, such as education and design practice. What do these materials and their origin tell us about Vreewijk? Is the neighbourhood just one of the hundreds of residential areas in the collection? Or does its DNA permeate and interweave with various oeuvres and legacies?
The Garden City
In 1898, social reformer and city planner Ebenezer Howard published To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. He introduced the idea of the garden city: a social model for a new city for workers that combines urban amenities with healthy rural life. The garden city’s land was communal property, which prevented land speculation. In 1902 Howard republished the book as Garden Cities of To-Morrow, thereby providing the impetus for the wider circulation of the garden city ideal. Rotterdam banker K.P. van der Mandele, who initiated Vreewijk, was inspired by the English garden city movement. He acquainted himself with their ideas through publications and brochures, as developed by Ebenezer Howard. In his diagram “The three magnets”, published in Garden Cities of To-morrow, Howard combined the benefits of the city – education, work, entertainment – with the joys of the countryside: clean air, sunlight, gardens, parks, and healthy housing. He believed this synthesis represented the ideal he called “Town Country”.
First Rotterdam Garden Suburb
In 1913 Rotterdam industrialists and entrepreneurs, led by banker K.P. van der Mandele, founded the public limited company First Rotterdam Garden Suburb (Eerste Rotterdamsch Tuindorp). The members contributed money to the company, which also owned the land. As a result of the Housing Act that came into effect in 1901, government subsidies were also available for the district’s construction. One of the pillars of E. Howard’s garden city model was that the land and realisation were in the hands of a single party. This prevented land speculation and made low housing density with generous green spaces realistic and feasible.
In their explanation of the “Great plan” for Vreewijk (1920), M.J. Granpre-Molière, P. Verhagen, and A. J.Th. Kok described how its coherent design takes into consideration parcelling out, architecture and green spaces such as front and back gardens, parks and trees along canals and in residential streets. The plan integrated current opinions on the embedding of greenery in residential and urban expansion areas, which have been studied in the professional literature since the 1910s. A serious consideration was how urban planners and landscape gardeners could work together to design new residential areas. Urban planners, for example, made a distinction between decorative greenery and hygienic greenery in expansion areas.
Decorative greenery was intended to beautify and increase the city’s positive experience. For example, in residential areas, landscape architects introduced the concept of the “garden street”, a communal front garden bordered by hedges, as a remedy against the clutter of individual front gardens and proliferation of paths leading to front doors.
Hygienic greenery was important for cleaning the air, dampening noise, protecting against the wind and promoting coolness in the summer. However, there was also a warning about allergic reactions to species such as plane trees. The “utility value” of greenery was significant in this respect, such as canals and parks for walks, courtyards for sports and games, and backyards for vegetable gardens, keeping free-range livestock and drying laundry. Thus, the hygienic qualities, decorative value, and green areas played a significant role in Vreewijk.
M.J. Granpre-Molière, P. Verhagen, A.J. Th. Kok
Since the office archives of Granpré-Molière, Verhagen and Kok were lost during the bombing of Rotterdam in 1940, only a few references have survived with documentation of these designers’ individual contributions. Thus, only fragmentary sources spread over various archive repositories provide this information, such as the Rotterdam city archive, the museum house in Vreewijk and Het Nieuwe Instituut.
We know that Kok went to England in 1911 to see the newly built garden villages. We also understand that the Granpré-Molière Verhagen and Kok bureau was a pioneer in urban planning and urban development at the time of the Vreewijk assignment around 1920. Sources in the collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut, such as the magazine Volkshuisvesting from the 1920s, show that Granpré-Molière had strongly held opinions on the garden village. For him, it did not represent an escape from urban life to an Arcadian world, but a convergence of the best of the rural and urban: greenery, space and fresh air for health, as well as education, income, social contacts and entertainment to satisfy material, social and intellectual needs.
From the few sources that have survived concerning Pieter Verhagen, a great nature lover emerges. From the diaries and photo albums that relatives have donated, we get to know him as a botanist, naturalist, gardener and hiker. He maintained a large garden (Carabas) in Rockanje and had an enormously extensive botanical knowledge, which formed the basis for Vreewijk’s many types of green space. His book, The Happiness of the Garden (Het geluk van de tuin), written in the late war years (1944–45), is both a breeding ground and the fruit of his knowledge and love of nature.
Archives and collections of Het Nieuwe Instituut with documents about Vreewijk
- H.P. Berlage archive
- S. van Embden archive
- M.J. Granpré-Molière archive
- J. Klijnen archive
- Th. K. van Lohuizen archive
- Tentoonstellingsraad voor Bouwkunst en verwante kunsten archive
- W. van Tijen archive
- P. Verhagen archive
- J.G. Wattjes archive
- J. Wils archive
- A collection of panels with urban designs of Vreewijk, donated by Havensteder housing corporation (Rotterdam).
Literature about Vreewijk
- De Nijlarchitecten, Cultuurhistorische Verkenning Vreewijk [De Nijl architects, Cultural-historical Exploration Vreewijk,] Rotterdam, 2009
- M.J. Granpré-Molière, ‘Een rondgang in het eerste Rotterdamsche tuindorp’, Tijdschrift voor Volkshuisvesting [‘A tour of the first Rotterdam garden village’, Journal of Public Housing], 1921, no. 2, p.124–129
- J. Oudenaarden, I. Kleijwegt, De Wederopstanding van Het Witte Paard [The Resurrection of the White Horse], Stichting Het Witte Paard, Rotterdam, 2011
- M. Steenhuis, Stedenbouw in het landschap Pieter Verhagen (1882-1950) [Urbanism in the Landscape Pieter Verhagen (1882-1950)], Rotterdam, NAI Publishers, 2007
- J.W. Verdenius, ‘Het voortuinvraagstuk in verband met de Volkshuisvesting’, Tijdschrift voor Volkshuisvesting [‘The issue of front gardens in relation to public housing’, Journal of Public Housing], no. 2, p. 342–344
- L. Zwiers, Kleine Woningen [Small Houses], Amsterdam, J. Clausen, 1923