rendering of building covered in greenery

Ton Venhoeven Believes Architecture Must Support Non-Human Life

The Dutch architect and former national infrastructure advisor, aims to raise quality of life by taking nature-inclusive design to the next level.

Dutch architect Ton Venhoeven’s quest for a higher quality of life for people, animals, and plants underpins his design for ZOÖP ZEEBURG—a mixed use development in Amsterdam that will include 82 residences and 1,500 square meters of ground floor commercial space. VenhoevenCS’s team of over 50 designers worked in collaboration with landscape architecture firm DS Landschapsarchitecten to develop a winning proposal that’s designed as much for plants and animals as it is for human residents.

To optimize biodiversity through architecture, the ZOÖP ZEEBURG project team includes a “Speaker for Life.” This independent ecological expert ensures that the interests of non-human life are represented at all stages of the design process. Developed by Het Nieuwe Instituut, the ZOÖP (short for zoöperation—a portmanteau of “Zoo” and “cooperative”) is a novel Dutch cooperative legal entity in which humans and multispecies ecological communities can be members.

a portrait of Ton Venhoeven

Inspired by efforts in New Zealand to grant legal personhood to various landscapes, like the Whanganui River, Mount Taranaki, and Te Urewera Forest, the ZOÖP model proposes a radically different way of living and building that Venhoeven believes can be a model for a more sustainable future. “I think we architects have a very big influence on how people live, how societies develop,” he says.

When complete in 2026, the projects four buildings of 39, 56, 66 and 131 feet, will provide eight horizontal biotopes and six roof terraces. The facades will be made up of units of rough concrete and sound-absorbing wood and contain solar collectors and nest boxes, insect hotels and voids where invertebrates, birds, and plants can dwell.

“It’s a natural response that we try bringing back nature in the city, especially since the countryside has nearly developed into industrial wasteland with all the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers,” Venhoeven says.

a rendering of a building surrounded by water
a graphic showing wildlife, plants, and land
A graphic illustrates what plants and animals will inhabit which zones of the project. ZOÖP ZEEBURG COURTESY VENHOEVENCS

At the same time, he stresses the importance of having a community that “really values this project and wants to play with it”. There will be a selection process, and potential buyers have to explain why they want to live at the energy-producing apartment complex, which will comprise 82 homes for families, couples, and individuals in a new, car-free district near the city center.

“We are basically inventing the planning culture of this century, and I think we have to come up with solutions that also work in a climate that is warmer by two degrees Celsius, with more rainfall and more droughts,” says Venhoeven, who taught Architectural History and Theory at Eindhoven University of Technology from 2005 to 2009.

This academic background has helped him and his team take a curious and creative research approach to addressing climate challenges.

For example, in 2018, Venhoeven worked with the Dutch government on the 2050 City of the Future design study, researching how cities should react to significant challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, natural resource depletion, and pollution.

rendering of semi-submerged park in china
A rendering shows the Pailao River Blueway Project masterplan COURTESY VENHOEVENCS

In the same year, local investigations on how to design for areas with imminent flooding informed the team’s work on the Pailao River Blueway Project masterplan in Shenzhen, China. “It’s an interesting location because it’s comparable to situations we have in the Netherlands,” Venhoeven says about the mega city that links Hong Kong to mainland China. “Peatlands were made into polders with dikes, and the water pumped into the sea. Land subsidence is the cost now that the level of the land is lower than the sea level,” he adds. To reduce flooding caused by more intense rainfall in this subtropical region, Venhoeven’s team intervened to replace the concrete quays along the Pailao River with wide vegetated banks that act as sponges, absorbing excess water.

Back in the Dutch capital, AMST near the Amstel train station also shows the architect’s ingenuity for dealing with water. Supporting Amsterdam’s efforts to become resilient to cloudburst events, VenhoevenCS devised the mixed-use complex, scheduled for completion next year, to be water neutral.

While the gardens, courtyards, and roofs function as spaces to collect, hold, and reuse water, which also reduces heat stress. In addition, by reducing ambient temperatures on the roof AMST’s green-blue infrastructure increases the building’s photovoltaic panels’ efficiency,  and contributes to a thriving local ecosystem.

A rendering shows the Paris Aquatic Center is being built for the 2024 Olympics Games. Its wooden roof will support a massive solar panel array producing enough energy to power 200 homes. COURTESY VENHOEVENCS RENDERING BY PROLOOG

“AMST isn’t only nature-inclusive, it’s also net-zero energy and provides inclusive housing for low-income people,” points out Venhoeven.

Founding his practice VenhoevenCS in 1995 the Dutch architect was deeply influenced by The Limits to Growth, a book-length report published by the Club of Rome in 1972 that concluded humanity’s increasing consumption patterns would lead to ecological and societal collapse.

His firm has experimented with nature-inclusive design since the start of the new millennium, with the Sportplaza Mercator in Amsterdam being one of the early flagship projects. Finished in 2006, today, this sports-and-wellness center looks like an overgrown fortress.  VenhoevenCS installed small shrubs and carpet plants in felt-covered panels, nourished by an automated irrigation system built into the plant walls, to create a building that merges into the context of Rembrandtpark, a large scenic public park on Amsterdam’s west side.

rendering of a neighborhood

Recalling the his firm’s beginnings, Venhoeven relays two lessons learned over the years. First, when it comes to plants, he emphasizes the importance of resilience without technical aids. “We don’t do anything artificial to get plants growing,” Venhoeven says. “We plant everything in the full soil and allow them to grow gradually.” Second, Venhoeven recognized the advantages of working with specialists to concentrate on ecological connections fully. “They advise on the ideal combination of animals and plants and inform us about the requirements of nesting and feeding,” he explains the collaboration with DS Landschapsarchitecten in the case of the ZOÖP ZEEBURG project.

Like Venhoeven, the Club of Rome took a look back at what has happened in recent years. The book Limits and Beyond: 50 years on from The Limits to Growth, what did we learn and what’s next? was released this May, and for which the Club of Rome brought in two of the original authors of the 1972 publication.

While Venhoeven hasn’t had the chance to dig into the paperback, the question of living together on a finite planet is still a fundamental topic for him. From a philosophical point of view, the advocate of progressive change through design considers it imperative to develop a post-anthropocentric culture.

“We have to teach people that they are not the center of the universe,” he asserts.

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