On 20 October, Het Nieuwe Instituut presents two children’s books: one is a reader - Hoi, ik ben een lijn (Hi, I’m a Line); the other is an activity book - Hoi, jij bent een ontwerper (Hi, You’re a Designer). Both books introduce children to highlights of the State Archive of Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning and to architecture as a profession. Initiator and author Behrang Mousavi and project leader Clara Stille-Haardt reveal how the books were devised.
Nice to meet you, I’m a line. And allow me to introduce my relatives. There are a whole lot of us. We lines come in all shapes and sizes. Some of us are straight and narrow. Some twist and turn. Some of us seem straight, but we’re actually curved.
That is the opening of Hi, I’m a Line, published this October by Uitgeverij Rubinstein. Hi, I’m a Line introduces children to the State Archive of Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning collection, which is part of Het Nieuwe Instituut. In 2012, a book appeared featuring a collection of 250 of Dutch architecture’s best designs. Het Nieuwe Instituut’s General Manager of Heritage Behrang Mousavi was already thinking then of creating a version of this especially for children. ‘I wanted to explore how to make the collection more relevant for children. For children a collection like this, and the work of an architect, is extraordinarily abstract. I love telling stories, a story can make an unreal world real.’ The idea remained dormant for a while, until last year it was decided to give it substance. ‘To organise the content, I assembled a team whose members have an unconditional love for the collection,’ Mousavi explains. ‘We soon started selecting the best drawings in the archive. But I also wanted to explore the foundations of architecture, the mother of all the arts. Where does architecture begin? Where do architects start when they want to build something? They begin by imagining and fantasising what a building will look like. To realise their idea, they start to draw, tracing lines on paper.’
This book is about those lines. About what architects make with them: forms, frames and fields. Blocks, buildings and bowls. Stones, stadiums and cities. Architects are masters of linear art. They love lines. Everything they draw is lines. Whole stacks of lines. Row upon row. They can even make lines disappear. In fact they are more like linear magicians than linear masters.
‘It all starts with a line,’ Mousavi continues, ‘until in the third chapter, along comes colour. In artist-architect Theo van Doesburg’s work you hardly see any lines, they are all absorbed into areas of colour. For Piet Blom it is all about cubes and piling them up. That is how you build: it begins with a line which turns into a structure, a frame, and then a house, and then a street and eventually it becomes a city. The different scales in which architecture is practised are discussed. I have tried to take the children on a journey, to enable them to see their own surroundings in a different light and to learn about them. When you stand on your doorstep, what do you see?’
Soon the idea developed to accompany the reader with a book of assignments, an activity book, to help children experience what design is all about. The Council for Culture advises cultural institutions which host educational programmes regarding cultural education. The council encourages study, creativity and inspiration. It is the task of the nation's architectural archive to realise and articulate these objectives: with the reader, youngsters are introduced to the designed world around us in a playful manner, while the activity book stimulates them to form a world of their own creation.
Het Nieuwe Instituut archivist/curator Clara Stille-Haardt was involved with the book as project leader from the start. She is clearly pleased with the result. ‘The great thing about the reader is that it is suitable for all age groups,’ she says. ‘My children are five and eleven. My oldest son can read the book himself, exploring the various levels in the captions accompanying the illustrations of the collection items. We discussed those texts extensively in the project, especially how comprehensive they should be. In the end, the publishers agreed, in order to focus sufficiently on the architectural history which the collection represents. With my youngest, we look at the pictures and I occasionally read a piece of text.’
The activity book, entitled Hi, You’re a Designer, is written by Hanna Piksen (Education director) and Annemiek Snelders (Education project staff) for children aged eight and older. Children in class five and higher are able to work with the book independently. In addition to providing fun leisure activities, the exercises are also ideal for classroom teaching, projects and speeches. They fit into the basic educational syllabus and workshops, as well as enabling a more profound discussion which may not always be possible in class. Pupils who absorb the material easily can proceed with the reading and the assignments independently.
‘This activity book contains loose pages of design activities and accompanying illustrations taken from Rijksarchief documents, held together with two strong pieces of elastic. Some of the pages fold out to a larger format. Drawing tools are also included in the book: a pencil in the cover and a cardboard ruler that unclicks. Children can work on their own, filling the book with their own designs. The activity book is custom-made in every way. A real work of art into which my team and I have put all our heart and soul!’
Selection of collection items
Both books are the result of close teamwork. Internally with experts in Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Heritage and Education departments, and externally with the publisher, author Jan Paul Schutten, who helped Mousavi adapt his story for children, and graphic designer Bob van Dijk. The project team felt an instant rapport with Uitgeverij Rubinstein, who specialise in publishing children’s books, Stille-Haardt recalls. ‘We were looking for a company that would take up the challenge to develop something completely new with us. Rubinstein have worked previously with Van Goghmuseum and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. They immediately realised we wanted more than a simple picture book, that the design would play a key role, for example.’ Children’s book writer Schutten understood directly what Mousavi was aiming for with his line story. Stille-Haardt remembers the first meeting with Schutten after he had started. ‘He brought nothing with him. I thought: Oh no, he wants to start from scratch. Then he took his phone from his pocket and started to read the first piece. That was such a lovely moment. It was immediately obvious he knew exactly what we wanted to achieve.’ Behrang is also delighted with their collaboration: ‘We built up the texts step by step and selected the illustrations at the same time.’
Regarding the selection of collection items which forms the basic structure of both books, the team deliberated long and hard. Copies of drawings from the archive would pile up on the table. The projects had to have something that would appeal to a child’s imagination and speak to them, yet the selection had also to inform them about the principal movements in Dutch architectural history. At the same time, the team wanted to show different scales: from furnishings, interiors, buildings, to street, city and even landscape in some cases. Finally the city, the largest scale, is represented by MVRDV’s digital city. ‘I wanted to give MVRDV’s digital archive a place in the book,’ Mousavi explains. ‘This recent addition to the collection is also a link connecting to secondary school education, for which we plan to develop an online programme. The product is going to be a game with which school pupils will be able to learn interactively about how contemporary architects work. But that is all for the future.’
The two volumes will soon be on sale in the bookshops. They are suitable for use in primary schools and will also form part of Het Nieuwe Instituut’s educational programme. Stille-Haardt explains how the books interrelate, yet can also be used separately. ‘In the activity book Hi, You’re a Designer frequent reference is made to the page in the reader where a particular project is discussed. Icons also indicate how much time each activity is designed to take, what you need to complete the task and whether you can do it alone or together with someone else. One example is a task involving a street game developed around the work of Herman Hertzberger. His architecture is always based on the idea of living together and space for meeting each other. For that activity we developed a board game which encourages children get to know their own street better and to improve it together.’
Mousavi is happy with the result: ‘I wanted the children’s book about Het Nieuwe Instituut’s collection to radiate quality in every way. So we spent lots of time on selecting projects, writing texts, graphic design, all the way down to the choice of paper.'
Text: Lotte Haagsma
All pictures are taken from the book Hi, I'm a Line.