The Netherlands is currently experiencing one of the biggest overhauls in its healthcare system of the post-war period, one that will reshape our cities and neighbourhoods and the way we live for decades to come. The demolition, transformation and replacement of healthcare facilities will be the major opportunity for builders and designers to reinvent their profession and redefine their place in society. Whereas in the past ‘housing’ was the subject with which Dutch architecture acquired its international reputation as being modern, innovative and effective, it will now be ‘health’.
The reason why this change in the way healthcare is being financed, planned, distributed and executed has such an impact on our cities, and is so relevant for architecture, lies in its past. The Netherlands has one of the most sophisticated and successful welfare states in Western Europe. The equal and finely grained distribution of healthcare facilities over our carefully planned neighbourhoods and towns played a central role in it. Millions of Dutch people live in neighbourhoods built between the fifties and the nineties, that were carefully planned around care homes, medical centres and local hospitals. These facilities played and continue to play a crucial role in the network of public places and community spaces of these neighbourhoods and towns. Emptying out the care homes, closing down medical centres and bring the healthcare to peoples homes, instead of bringing people to care homes, does not just mean an enormous surge in vacant real estate in the middle of our communities; it means removing the social heart of these neighbourhoods.
Precisely there lies an enormous challenge for architects: to redefine these buildings and places left behind by the transformation of the healthcare system as social centres, and to design new healthcare facilities that do not work as isolated institutions, but that can intensify the role of the neighbourhood as a meeting place, a place of social integration and of course a place of innovation.
Contemporary healthcare is not the same as it was in the nineteen seventies, nor is public space the same as it was back then when many of our neighbourhoods and towns were built. Technology is no longer the domain of the specialists, but has become ubiquitous in the daily lives of each and every citizen, allowing him to navigate virtual and physical public spaces at will, also changing from a passive recipient of healthcare into an active consumer. With technology as an important tool, healthcare will be integrated into the daily workings of our communities much more intensively than before, with the new care homes also being social meeting places for the neighbourhood, and the houses where people becoming hybrids between carpenters, workplaces and dwellings. These changes however are still largely policy and technology driven, but they demand a design perspective, in order for the urban buildings and public spaces to really fit with the way we will be leading our lives in the coming decades.
For this reason the Office of the Dutch State Architect, as asked the Faculty of Architecture and the Chair of Design as Politics, to develop new concepts for Healthcare in two Dutch cities. This Design studio will work parallel to a real design commission by the Dutch state to the Chair, meaning that the studio will be subject to all the pressures and all the opportunities of a real commission, with real clients in the real world.