Next to the brutal high-rise building of the Westeinde hospital is a tranquil oasis of 17th-century architecture. Like a closed block, with the back out and the gaze in. I am in the Hofje van Nieuwkoop in The Hague. When the monumental entrance door closes behind me, the noise of the city has suddenly disappeared. It is quiet, so quiet that it is noticeable. Here reigns the holy trinity of tranquility, purity and regularity. Dutch classicism at its best, a modest architectural style whose richness is hidden in noble simplicity.
With 62 homes, the Hofje van Nieuwkoop is the largest and one of the most beautiful in our country. It was the ambitious and wealthy Johan de Bruijn van Buijtenwech who commissioned the most prominent architect of the time, Pieter Post, for a garden pavilion in the newly planned expansion of the royal city.
This so-called Speelhuys is the basis of the later housing complex. Playhouses arose in a green environment at the time and offered the elite a wide view of the area from the top floor. Stadholder Frederik Hendrik had set an example for this with his country estate Honselaersdijk. The Hague underwent a metamorphosis in those years and shows the Golden Age at its goldenest, but perhaps I should say here at its greenest.
Johan van Buijtenwech would change his will several times during his life, in order to use everything in the last version to found a courtyard that connected to the Speelhuys, for which Pieter Post was once again called upon. The deceased had stipulated that the hofje should be exempt from municipal taxes, otherwise the bequest would go to Haarlem. But the city council of The Hague did not let this opportunity pass.
And so, in three years of construction time, behind a stately main gate, prominent on the Prinsengracht, a sublime example of collective living arose, which three centuries later is still in the hands of a private foundation. The state of repair is immaculate and a pleasure to see. Craftsmanship is mastery, I conclude.
The central courtyard garden forms a well-organized whole with symmetrical surfaces, neatly arranged in line, separated by double rows of privet and box hedges. In the middle a nice water pump. At the time, the lawns were used as a bleaching field, but today the orderly greenery only serves as an embellishment. Clinker streets divide the geometric central area into sections. It is a layout that you still see everywhere in the many courtyards in the Netherlands.
Various cities in our country have courtyards that show striking similarities in their origin, often determined by will, such as by Angenis Hooft. In her will she determined that her hofje van charity (anno 1756) in The Hague was intended for ‘elderly spinsters or widows who profess the Reformed religion’. Or the seventeenth-century Arend Maartenshof in Dordrecht, which was intended for needy women and widows of soldiers who had died for the fatherland. Guest houses, beguinages, Holy Spirit Brotherhoods, old men’s and old women’s houses, proveniers’ houses: courtyards come in all shapes and sizes. But everywhere they are small, often single-person houses around a green courtyard. The original function of a bleaching field or herb garden may have disappeared, but the construction is always strikingly in harmony with the architecture.
After the Second World War and the demolition frenzy of the 1960s, interest in hofjes habitation declined and the costs of the monumental complexes increased. The elderly were tempted to spend the last years of their lives efficiently in large-scale care homes. Fortunately, the tide has turned. And in order to break free from the clogged housing market, it might be good to look again at this age-old form of housing. At the end of last year, experts proposed that building attractive senior housing would solve the housing shortage the fastest.
Walking through the courtyard of the Hofje van Nieuwkoop I get a vision. Connected houses, a collective space such as the Speelhuys here, which is a name of all times, and of course a great communal garden for both flowers and vegetables, but especially for gardening together. The Hofje van Nieuwkoop has thus fulfilled its original function for more than three centuries. I don’t know of any better proof that living with atmospheric greenery is the future.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 22 January 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 22, 2022