From an interest in architecture that induces more livable habitats, I wrote a post on the concepts of ‘woonerf‘ and the ‘cauliflower neighborhood‘ a while back. But you can level up even further: ‘cohousing‘ entails housing projects that are designed completely around the idea of stimulating social interaction.
And much to my surprise, there exists a cohousing project just a 5 minute drive away from my home! It’s called the Wandelmeent, and was designed by architect Leo de Jonge in 1976. Needless to say, I went to visit the place.
First impression: uggilllyyyy! Horrible sense of style. Painted in saturated primary colours. Yech.
But then I walked in.
I felt a bit like I was trespassing because it was really quiet at that moment. This was partly due to the lack of cars – it is only accessible by foot. I approached some people who were chatting on a bench. They were visitors themselves, but were kind enough to introduce me to one of the residents, a woman named Lilly.
Lilly proved to be a lovely lady who generously donated me some of her time to answer my questions. She explained a bit how things work around the Wandelmeent.
The core to the project (which is how they still refer to the place themselves) is the concept of ‘doing together what you can do together’. Effectively, this means shared activities, shared spaces and shared facilities.
The Wandelmeent consists of 10 ‘clusters’ of 5 homes each, which each differ in size to accommodate all kinds of families. Each cluster has a shared kitchen, on top of the private kitchen in each of the houses. The shared kitchen is used for shared activities; they eat together 3 times per week. Very commune-like and obviously originating from a certain ideal.
But it doesn’t end with the shared kitchen. The project offers a list of shared facilities: a cafe, a fitness room, a sauna, a wood shop, a meeting room and even even multiple guest rooms so friends and visitors can stay the night.
All of the houses are rented out, but not to just anyone. The residents themselves decide who can come live with them. Priority is given to people who left but want to come back, and family. Second prio is for friends of other residents. They are invited for an interview to see if their personalities match the profile – obviously, you’re going to have to be of the social kind to live here. If that doesn’t result in a match, there’s a list of ‘external’ candidates, which anyone can sign up for.
Now, question number 1: Is it successful?
I’d have to say: yes. Even though they don’t each as much together anymore as they did in 1977 (when it was 5 times per week), they still do. And although not all clusters are as ‘active’ as others, Lilly tells me that everyone knows everyone – at least by name. There’s a strong social cohesion and people do feel and act like a community.
Now don’t imagine a bunch of long-haired hippies running around in sandals here. They’re all really regular people; some old, some young, an accountant, a hipster. “So where are the ideals?,” I asked Lilly. She answered that they were still there, especially amongst the few remaining original residents, but that they did move to the background over the years. They just translated into a social kind of living – and people just seem to appreciate it.
That almost answers question number 2: Would it work without the ideals?
So that’s a yes… but: As mentioned, you will have to be a certain type of person to enjoy all the shared activities. There is plenty of privacy once you close the door but participation is part of the deal here. It’s not for everyone.
However, the architectural structure does induce social interaction. The multi-levelled buildings, the strong center that is the street and the winding road all give it the feeling of walking around at a student campus. If you leave the styling out of the equation, you’d have to admit that this is a really successful piece of architecture.
Overal, it looks like a great place to grow up in. A safe, nurturing, inclusive community of people that can rely on each other. Clearly it is not a utopia. It exists right around my corner.