Francine Houben: ‘I’m a child of TU Delft’

TU Delft owes its appearance in no small measure to the architect Francine Houben, who has been named as this year’s Alumnus of the Year. An interview.

Francine Houben: "There's a tremendous amount of energy here for making things happen.” (Photo Sam Rentmeester)

First stop for contacts and clients: The office of Mecanoo architects at Oude Delft. This is followed by a regular route including stops at Delft station, Mekel Park and, obviously, the iconic central TU Delft Library. There are buildings by Houben across the globe, including a huge cultural centre in Taiwan, residential towers in South Korea and renovated libraries in New York and Washington. But to illustrate her vision, Houben prefers to take her clients on a tour of Delft, the environment that shaped her. These days, such tours must take place virtually. That includes this interview on 15 May.

You are successful, and you have made a huge mark on TU Delft, so you were bound to be named Alumnus of the Year at some point. Were you expecting this nomination?
“I didn’t know the award existed, but I’m delighted.”

You say that your works on the campus stand for co-operation. Could you elaborate on that?
“When I was studying here, from 1974 to 1984, each faculty was an island unto itself. In 1992, when I was designing the library, I spoke with researchers from all disciplines – from civil engineers to mathematicians – and Wubbo Ockels. I drew inspiration from all directions. We wanted to create a new future, and to bring people together. The library and Mekel Park, with its gentle green hills and kilometre-long bench, invite people to meet up. The university exudes green engineering and the makerspace. There’s a tremendous amount of energy here for making things happen. I’m proud of that. It’s unfortunate that the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment has not been in that flow of people at the campus since the 2008 fire.”

It’s a strange day. You should have been opening a library in New York today.
“I should have been in New York all month for the opening, but the city is in lock-down due to corona. I was supposed to be interviewed by the New York Times today. We have a library due to open in Washington in September, and another in Tainan in Taiwan later in the year. It’s an unusual year. They’ve started calling me the library whisperer in the US.

Are the buildings corona-proof?
“Looking at our designs in view of the coronavirus situation, I think we’ve done well. Our buildings are suitable for the social distancing society. The library in New York has wide staircases, and you’re not dependent on the lift. The building invites people to walk. And there are large tables so people can study without being too close to each other. Hygiene is important, too. The library is easy to clean. That’s been an important issue for me for years.”

You planted the seeds for success in your early twenties. In 1980, you founded the Mecanoo architects’ firm together with fellow students. What was it like in those days?
“We weren’t taken all that seriously while I was studying architecture. The rest of the university regarded us as some kind of playschool.
It was a time of democratisation and urban renewal. That didn’t go unnoticed at TU Delft. Many architects went into politics. I also wanted to be part of the flow of democratisation and change, but by designing in a service-oriented manner. We began with our start-up, Mecanoo architects, long before the word start-up existed. It was an inspiring time. There was a major economic crisis, but our enthusiasm made us fairly oblivious to it. We worked non-stop. It has always been that way. We focused on urban renewal, housing and public space in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and The Hague. In 1983 we won our first major award for housing for young people at Kruisplein in Rotterdam. The fact that social housing could be seen as an architectural assignment, as we did, was an eye-opener for the Netherlands and the rest of the world.”

What was innovative about it?
“We were from an era in which housing was simply seen as a product. It didn’t have to look particularly good, it just had to be built. We questioned that. I was a child of TU Delft. I saw housing as an architectural assignment; it had to look good, be properly built and offer decent facilities. It was a conceptual turning point. Since then, the Netherlands has produced some very good housing architects and has become a pioneer and a source of inspiration in the field.”

You recently said in an interview that people need beauty, and that it was OK for beauty to have a price. Are you worried that less money will be available for architecture as a result of the coronavirus crisis?
“Architecture is never allowed to cost a lot in the Netherlands. It’s never excessive. But I don’t think the crisis will lead to less attention for architecture. Good architecture and urban planning are now more important than ever. There’s a need for architecture and urban planning that encourages movement. You have to be able to walk and cycle in cities. Links are needed between the built environment, nature and biodiversity. The main challenge is to keep people healthy in cities. At the same time, community spirit is becoming more important. People are talking to their neighbours more again. I’m pleased that young architects and students are focusing much more on end users. People are central to them, as they were for us in the seventies and eighties.”

Railway station areas, campuses, theatres, residential buildings. You seem to have built everything! What are your ambitions now?
“I have my growth rings. I do something different every few years. After working a lot on theatres, museums and libraries in recent years, I’m now enjoying looking at architecture and urban planning more holistically. I’ve developed a vision for Rotterdam Zuid, an area that is home to 200,000 people. In that vision, I outline how you can intertwine housing, the knowledge economy, the manufacturing industry, mobility, water management and the energy transition. As an architect, I visualise that societal task. And as an engineer – I’m from TU Delft – it’s a gratifying challenge to bring all those tasks together. I could not have done this aged 25. Hardly anyone looks at spatial planning on such a large scale any more. They did in the past, though. You had VROM, the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment, which applied itself to that. The art of spatial planning in the Netherlands has been pretty much killed off in the past decades.”

What does the future hold?
“Three years ago I was saying that I wanted to focus more on the Netherlands. The coronavirus crisis is making that more self-evident. But you never know how things will turn out. With good clients, we can do significant things for the future. The interaction between architect and client is crucial in this profession. A good client will embark on an adventure with you, resulting in a better and more beautiful world.”

This interview was previously published in Delft Outlook, the alumni magazine of Delft University of Technology.

  • Francine Houben (born 1955) is founder and creative director of Mecanoo architects. She studied at TU Delft from 1974 to 1984. At Mecanoo architects, her designs included the TU Library and Mekel Park. Houben has a wide-ranging oeuvre ranging from theatres, museums and libraries to residential areas and parks. She designed Europe’s largest library, located in Birmingham.
  • She has written several books: Compositie, Contrast, Complexiteit’ (2001, Dutch Mountains’ (2011) and ‘People Place Purpose’ (2015), and was professor of mobility aesthetics at TU Delft. She lectured at Harvard University and Yale. In addition, she was director/curator of the first International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam.
  • Since 2010 Houben has been a member of the Berlin Akademie der Künste. Houben has been a member of the Society of Arts in the Netherlands since its foundation.
  • In 2015, she received the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund award for her oeuvre. Houben has also received honorary doctorates from the University of Utrecht and the University of Mons.
  • She is the only Dutch person on the Debrett’s list of most influential people in the UK, in recognition of her unconventional approach to architecture.


Since 2011, the Delft University Fund has awarded the Alumnus of the Year Award to alumni who have earned their spurs in the world of innovation and research. The winners will receive a plaque on the Alumni Walk of Fame in the Mekelpark. Want to know more? Go to


Editor Tomas van Dijk

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