The trees are still in their infancy, the streets are still tidy with paving hardly showing any signs of use. And most houses in Amsterdam IJburg look even tidier. IJburg is Amsterdam’s youngest neighborhood. Some ten years ago the artificial island was just a sandy, windswept desert. Once presented as the place-to-be for urban pioneers, the suburban area is now packed with mostly dull looking houses and the strong winds continue to sweep through the streets.
However, fortunately when it comes to architecture, there are exceptions. Artists Joris Brouwers and Nicky Zwaan made their bet on IJburg seven years ago when the city offered a limited number of open plots: build whatever you want. Most people hired an architect and construction company, and erected their dream house. Joris and Nicky took matters in their own hands, and designed, built, finished, and furnished their house almost completely themselves. The result is an impressive yet modest dwelling that fuses visual design with architecture, and high-end sustainability with ancient construction materials. We got to know the couple a little better as they gave us the grand tour through their habitable creation.
This story is featured in our second book, Freunde von Freunden: Friends, order within Germany here, or find the book internationally at selected retailers.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who present a special curation of our pictures on their site.
When I get up from the couch the supposedly concrete floor underneath the rug sounds hollow. What’s hidden here?
Nicky: It is the hidden trap door (jokes). We planned to have some connection between the working area downstairs and the living room, and created this opening in the floor. But afterwards we weren’t completely happy with it, and put a cover on it. Now it just comes in handy when we need to move large pieces up or down. Maybe we will open it up again sometime.
You are both visual artists. Designing and building a house is quite something else. How did you decide it was time to create your own place?
Nicky: I guess I have always been an artist. Before I started my studies in Audio-Visual Art at the Rietveld Academy I tried a number of different courses in university, but in the end I always found myself designing, redesigning, and creating. While working behind a bar as a sideline during my studies I would also design the menu or rearrange the interior. I have always felt an urge to create.
In my work I generally aim to trigger an emotion or experience. I explore and create an encompassing world, and take different perspectives that together make up a conception of our world. Take these lamps here. They resulted from a larger light installation that worked on with colored shadows. From this installation I distilled these lamps that mimic the presence of a lampshade. Designing and building our house was like a quest to explore the essence and potential of the place.
Joris, how about you?
Joris: As long as I can remember I have been building and constructing all kinds of things. For me construction and the visual arts are closely connected. With common building projects the various activities can become divided over a great number of parties. Often they just keep each other busy. I find it strange that design has become so separated from construction.
So you decided to everything yourself?
Joris: Indeed. We made the design, laid the foundation, built the walls, the interior; everything.
Nicky: I think the main difference between our way of working and the common designing and building practices was that we designed our house from the inside. Architects tend to start with the exterior, and then work their way inward. This is kind of strange, since we mostly live inside our houses.
The entire house is meant to be very energy efficient. What did you do to make the place sustainable?
Joris: The heat pump forms the centerpiece of focus with regard to saving energy. With two 100 meter deep wells that form a closed circuit the heat pump uses the geothermal energy to produce water that is warm enough to shower, fill a bath and heat the house. And I need to be honest here: we didn’t install this system ourselves.
Nicky: We plan on expanding this system with a solar boiler on the roof. And we are also looking into using rainwater to flush the toilet and run the washing machine.
Joris: The walls are finished with clay instead of regular plaster. There is a full truck of clay on our walls. Clay itself is of course a natural product, which you just need to scoop up and doesn’t come with polluting industrial processes. The best part however are its climate conditioning qualities. Our walls can absorb up to ten litres of water per square meter before it gets soft. Because it can absorb and release water, the walls help maintain a pleasant humidity.
With the rough clay walls and high ceiling the house feels inspired by Arabic architecture.
Nicky: Funny, but we didn’t consciously use any specific inspiration. I was born and have partly grown up in Western Africa where clay is extensively used for construction work. But I really think it depends on the references and associations that the observer draws from it. Every visitor has his or her own feeling about our house.
Joris: The contractor who installed the heat pump felt our place resembled an Indian village. The man is a bit of a cowboy with a great love for the US and obviously projected his own cowboy sensibility onto our house.
What does your house mean to you?
Joris: That is a difficult question to answer. I think our home is just part of us, because we did every little bit ourselves.
Nicky: But still we were surprised when we moved in. You think you know the place by heart, and before you move you think you have already figured out how everything will fit in. But when we moved our stuff and combined our furniture and personal things with our new home we were surprised by the result. What I find really special about our place is the possibility of sticking to your own pace and feelings. When the world around you goes fast, I can find my place here and step back.
Did your house come with other surprises?
Joris: Ice skating! Since we moved in the little lake that borders our backyard has been covered with ice every year.
Nicky: And in summertime we swim here.
Joris and Nicky thank you so much for showing us through your inspiring and special home.
Photography: Jordi Huisman
Interview & Text: Thijs van Velzen