The Polyvalent Architecture of Appropriation and Identity in Social Housing


Published in Future Social: Design Ideas, Essays and Discussions on Social Housing for the Hardest-to-House. Matthew Soules, ed. Vancouver: BlueImprint, 2012.

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The lives of people identified as the ‘hardest-to-house’ are often defined by trauma, mental illness, drug addiction, and a discontinuous relationship with permanent housing that deeply affects their sense of self. It is possible for social housing that caters to this demographic to respond with design that enhances residents’ self-identity. One such design approach can be called ‘polyvalent architecture’—an architecture that offers a polyvalent framework for personal expression and the construction of identity. Such architecture stimulates the appropriation of space as a venue for expression. This appropriation enables the sense of ownership and pride necessary both to help establish a person’s sense of self and to contribute to the enrichment of the public sphere to which they belong. Architecture that supports this type of identity construction relies on the careful treatment of dimension, materiality, and boundary conditions —polyvalent architecture has the greatest potential at the transitions between private and public. The boundary is where polyvalent architecture most effectively creates possibility and catalyzes action.

It is necessary to start by defining some key terms that will be used throughout the paper. Firstly, for the purposes of this exploration, social housing will be understood as including both transitional and permanent housing that ranges from supportive housing to public housing. It will not be used to identify emergency or transitional shelters. The reason for this more specific focus is that the acts of appropriation and expression which this paper is primarily concerned with require a length of stay longer than shelters typically provide.

A second term is identity. A typical dictionary definition of identity states that it is “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.”1 Although identity is often thought of as being this simple, it is rarely so. Identity is unstable, and mobile. Everyone has multiple and “contradictory subject positions and are sometimes torn between identifications in different situations and places.”2 Identity in the public sphere for example, may take on a very different form than it does in private space. By necessity, identity is a flexible, fluid and mobile attribute. Identities are a process, a project, and sometimes, a performance.3 In discussing identity, Richard Sennett refers to a quote from the psychologist Erik Erickson: “…an identity is the meeting point between who a person wants to be and what the world allows him to be.”4 In other words, there is an intersection of desire, and the imposed will of the public. This definition may be particularly apt when discussing the hardest-to-house who face severe public judgment, and who, by this definition, may be drastically limited in what they are allowed to be. In the context of this paper, identity will be all of the above: complex and multiple in its meanings, but critical to a person’s sense of self and the projection of their presence in the world. Identity is closely linked with expression, which will be understood as the process of making one’s feelings or thoughts and identity known to others.

The third and final term is appropriation, which will be understood as the act of taking something for one’s own personal use. Where appropriation often has the connotation of being done without permission, in this case, permission will be assumed. Furthermore, appropriation will here refer exclusively to architectural space, and not to material goods or items.

Polyvalent architecture is a primary concern of Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger, who describes it as an architecture that “endeavours to offer a meaningful framework to the users, which they can ‘claim’ as their own and finish designing.”5 For Hertzberger, to ‘finish designing’ means to interpret and augment by taking ownership of and completing to one’s own satisfaction. Along these lines architecture seeks to maximize possibilities of interpretation, use, and appropriation. As Hertzberger states, architects can design in such a way that “the result does not refer too outspokenly to an unequivocal goal, but that it still permits interpretation, so that it will take on its identity through usage.”6 In fact, a polyvalent design encourages appropriation. “What we make must constitute an offer, it must have the capacity to elicit, time and again, specific reactions befitting specific situations; so it must not be merely neutral and flexible—and hence non-specific—but it must possess that wider efficaciousness that we call polyvalence,” says Hertzberger.7 This statement is central to the idea of polyvalence; in order for the user to appropriate a space, its design must not be a blank canvas. Hertzberger argues that it is a prerequisite that the range of possibilities be graspable by the inhabitant; users must be able to draw on their own conscious experience to create associations with the space. The role of built form is to provide the groundwork for these associations to take place, so that the inhabitant can “compare them mentally with propositions of which he was already conscious or which can be raised from his subconscious experience.”8 In this way, a user can assess potential, and the space can become an “extension of [her] familiar world, and thus of [her] personality.”9 For the architect, this entails designing to evoke as many associations as possible; the more associations inhabitants can respond to, the more relevance the space will have for them, and the more they will be able to identify and appropriate the space for their own needs.

In what ways can polyvalent architecture accomplish this stimulation of appropriation? What operations can be undertaken to ensure an architecture with embedded potential? Dimension, materiality, and the design of boundaries are three primary considerations in making polyvalent architecture and will be analyzed in three projects: The Delftse Montessori School in Delft and the De Drie Hoven home for the elderly and disabled in Amsterdam, both by Hertzberger, and the Royal Hospital at Chelsea in London by Sir Christopher Wren. By focusing on dimension, materiality, and the design of boundaries in all three projects, the deployment of polyvalent architecture will be displayed.

The Delftse Montessori School, completed in 1966, encourages appropriation at thresholds by destabilizing the boundaries between public and private. In doing so, it stimulates the projection of individual and group identity from the private space of the classroom to the more public space of the shared circulation hall. The entrances to each of the ‘L’ shaped classrooms are situated within a small nook. These entrances function simultaneously as display spaces in which dimension is critical, as the careful measure of space produces in it the greatest number of possibilities and determines its accommodating capacity.10 The window ledges above the entrances are deep enough to accommodate potted plants, books, models, clay figures and drawings. They function as ‘open cabinets’ that constitute a framework, to be filled in to the specific needs and wishes of the users. When filled, the entrance-way becomes personalized; the work and personalities of the students are displayed to the outside, projecting the identity of the classroom as a whole to the larger school. Instead of the boundary functioning as a barrier, it functions as an invitation for exploration while still providing necessary privacy.

Inside the classroom, a half-wall separates the entrance zone from the main body of the room. This separation articulates a space for smaller group work, while also offering a ‘foyer’ for those entering and exiting the classroom. The half-wall is topped with concrete blocks, a material that Hertzberger identifies as exemplifying the “reciprocity of form and usage.”11 Intrinsically, concrete blocks appear ‘unfinished,’ inviting further contribution from the inhabitants. Their hollow cavities can, for example, serve as storage or as a place to pot plants. While it is true that someone who wishes to pot plants will likely find a solution for their needs regardless, the concrete blocks provide an incentive to be finished in this way. A clever use of materials that invite appropriation can enrich a space with its inhabitants’ identity.

At De Drie Hoven, completed in 1974, Hertzberger expands on his ideas to create an architecture that uses subtle manipulations of form and dimension to encourage the appropriation of space. The resultant architecture breathes life into semi-public zones, with identity being expressed in a manner that enriches common areas. De Drie Hoven is a social housing project for the care of elderly and disabled people. The building consists of a number of long living halls with units that open on to an ‘interior street.’ As at Delftse Montessori, the careful articulation of thresholds is the catalyst for the claiming of semi-public space and the extension of individual inhabitant’s identities into the public realm.

Individual units are coupled throughout De Drie Hoven’s plan and share an entrance area in which each unit’s door faces the other. This area is set back from the ‘street’ and demarcated by structural columns and a low wall that sits adjacent to each door. This approach creates two distinct but interrelated zones: the public zone of the interior street, and the semi-public zones of the entrance areas. The primary importance of the low wall resides with its dimension; it is modest in height but long enough to define the enclosed space as belonging to the unit. Its height and length establish a degree of privacy that precludes the overstepping of boundaries while maintaining a visual connection to the door. This generates a spatial gradient that frames the transition from public to private and is critical for invoking appropriation: the inhabitant must feel, to some degree, that it is their right to take over the space. In other words, the architecture must grant permission for its over-taking. As Hertzberger states: “Provided we incorporate the proper spatial suggestions into our design, the inhabitants will be more inclined to expand their sphere of influence outwards to the public area.”12 The intimate nature of this entrance area and its proximity to the entrance door encourage its take-over by the resident. This appropriation is also furthered by the deliberate location of the window, which allows each resident to keep an eye on their objects.13 This is both a precaution against theft, and a reassurance of space. In this manner the user and the form reinforce each other and interact, a relationship that is akin to that between the individual and the community. “Users project themselves onto the form, just as individuals show their true colour in their various relationships with others…and thereby become who they are,” says Hertzberger.14 The furnishing of the space outside the unit extends the limits of the home beyond the front door and into the public realm, providing the public space with amenity and also projecting the identities of the inhabitants outwards. This projection is essential to our understanding of ourselves as our constructions reveal “how we desire to present ourselves to this world.”15

Perhaps the most obvious and direct way to project identity is in person, from the individual body outward. At De Drie Hoven, the half-door is employed as a means of interconnecting the individual tenant to the larger building community. For Hertzberger, the half-door is a “distinctly inviting gesture: when half open the door is both open and closed, … it is closed enough to avoid making the intentions of those inside all too explicit, yet open enough to facilitate casual conversations with passerby, which may lead to closer contact.”16 It provides a measure of privacy and security while maintaining openness and opportunities for expression.

The Royal Hospital at Chelsea in London is a retirement home for British soldiers who are no longer fit for duty or who have suffered debilitating injury. It was designed from 1682–1691 by Sir Christopher Wren and commissioned by King Charles II.17 The building is comprised of a number of long wards that house individual units referred to as ‘berths.’ Each berth measures only 81 ft2 and contains a bed, personal storage, and a study area while all other residential functions are communal.18 Despite their modest size, the berths have a wealth of embedded potential in the way they interact with the larger community and facilitate appropriation and the projection of identity.

Much like the units at De Drie Hoven, the berths at the Royal Hospital face an interior street which contains common work spaces and gathering areas. The berth doors open onto the street, but when closed, form a long closed hall of solid wood. A fascinating projection of identity occurs with the provision of external coat hooks within the interior street. These hooks are used by the residents to hang their military coats and hats. The coats are particularly important for distinguishing rank, accolades, medals and tours of duty, creating an informative display of one’s achievements and identity. To a large extent, the coats serve to tell the resident’s biographies. Denis Diderot, the eighteenth-century French philosopher, hypothesized that “objects arranged within a space create a biography, or indeed autobiography, of the person who lives within that space, operating as words within a syntax, each word/object relating to the next to create a coherent whole, a life-story.”19 At the Royal Hospital, the berths are designed specifically to accommodate the telling of this story in a shared manner. The objects in people’s lives create narrative, describe a relationship to home, and inscribe identity.20

The Royal Hospital at Chelsea also presents an incredible rich and variable threshold between the berth and the circulation hall. In an extension of the half-door’s logic, each berth can open to the interior street in a number of different ways. Each has two large wood doors directly adjacent to each other, one of which is a half-door that has a built-in study attached to its interior face and the other a solid full-door. The combination of the single solid door and the half-door provide a number of possible permutations of public exposure. With both the single door and the upper half of the half-door open, the berth invites the community into the space. The resident can sit at his study to face the ‘street,’ or go about his business in his room while conveying that he is available for exchange. If the full-door is closed but the half-door open, the resident invites a certain degree of public interaction but maintains the spatial privacy of his domain. In a brilliant but simple move, the addition of a curtain that can slide across the eye-level of the study gives the resident the ability to make his berth available to the environmental benefits of the communal space such as air circulation and acoustic and olfactory connection while maintaining visual privacy. This polyvalent approach to the control of public and private space dissolves a boundary into a territory of potential social interaction where identity is projected and both the public and private realms have the opportunity to claim space within the other.

Of the three projects that have been discussed, none are social housing for the hardest-to-house. The school, the elderly home, and the veteran’s hospital present, of course, distinct demands and requirements. What aspects of the design approaches exemplified in these three projects are applicable to contemporary housing for the hardest-to-house?

The importance of polyvalent architecture in the context of social housing for the hardest-to-house is reinforced with architectural historians Alison K. Hoagland’s and Kenneth Breisch’s observation that “while the distinction between image and identity can blur, the latter often takes the forefront in the struggle of minority or oppressed groups to exert their position in society, whether they construct this identity themselves or appropriate the place in which they find themselves, manipulating its forms and meanings to their own ends.”21 There is a real sense of urgency to catalyzing the appropriation of space at the service of bolstering self-identity for the hardest-to-house. Encouraging care and respect for the surrounding environment is essential to maintaining its function, particularly in the case of supportive housing which must often cater to persons who have may have experienced significant traumatic or suffer from mental illness. Appropriation can help inhabitants to feel as though they are needed, that the architecture requires their input in order to thrive. The ability to form an intimate relationship with a stable domestic environment responds to the upheaval, discontinuity and interruption many of the hardest-to-house have experienced for long periods of time. The ability to meaningfully store and display the objects with which they have developed relationships encourages the restructuring of Diderot’s personal narrative. The ability to interpret space also gives the individual the power to choose, which in turn increases identity. This encouragement of self-construction, or in some cases, self-reconstruction, is an empowering tool that architecture can make use of in the design of social housing. It has the real potential to improve the quality of residents’ lives.

While the overall qualities of the three projects that have been discussed are different than the reality of social housing for the hardest-to-house, all of their tactics can be calibrated and modified to suit specific contexts. The attention to dimension and materiality and the general diversification of key boundary conditions can be adapted to the needs of the hardest-to-house. While it may be unrealistic to expect the same degree of private property populating a semi-public area outside a unit as in De Drie Hoven, it is well within reason that strategically located windows, shelves, half-walls, half-doors, and engaging elements similar to curtains and concrete blocks can enhance and encourage personal identity and expression in a diverse array of housing types.

Homi Bhabha describes acts of boundary crossing as strategies of selfhood, whether those identities are singular or communal.22 Hertzberger reinforces this concept by saying that “there is not a single relationship with which we as architects are concerned that focuses exclusively on one individual or on one group, nor indeed exclusively on everyone else, or ‘the outside world.’ It is always a question of people and groups in their interrelationship and mutual commitment… [I]t is always a question of collective and individual vis à vis each other.”23 By deploying tactics that enrich the crossing of boundaries through enhanced appropriation and identity construction, polyvalent architecture can help catalyze the strategies of selfhood that the design of housing for the hardest-to-house demands.

  1. Merriam Webster Online, accessed Feb 19, 2009,

  2. Geraldine Pratt, “Grids of Difference: Place and Identity Formation,” in Cities of Difference, ed. Ruth Fincher and Jane M. Jacobs (New York: The Guilford Press, 1998), 26.

  3. Ibid, 28.

  4. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1974), 107.

  5. Herman van Bergeijk, Herman Hertzberger (Basel: Birkhauser, 1997), back cover.

  6. Herman Hertzberger, Lessons for Students in Architecture (Rotterdam: Uitgeverij 010 Publishers, 1991), 152.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid, 162.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid, 168.

  12. Ibid, 41.

  13. Ibid, 40.

  14. Ibid, 170.

  15. Alison K. Hoagland and Kenneth A. Breisch, eds., Constructing Image, Identity, and Place: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2003), xiii.

  16. Hertzberger, Lessons for Students, 35.

  17. Royal Hospital Chelsea website, accessed February and March 2009.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Eleanor Quince, “ ‘This scarlet intruder’: biography interrupted in the Dining Room at Tatton Park Mansion” in Biographies and Space: Placing the Subject in Art and Architecture, ed. Dana Arnold and Joanna Sofaer (New York: Routledge, 2008), 55.

  20. Ibid, 58.

  21. Hoagland and Breisch, Constructing Image, xiv.

  22. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 2.

  23. Hertzberger, Lessons for Students, 12.