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Johannes Christiaan van Epen

14-03-1880 - 28-12-1960

J. C. van Epen had particular significance for public housing. With the aid of architectural measures, he built homes for workers and small traders that took on some of the quality of his villas and country houses. In his idealistic enthusiasm, he also devised various exceptional projects that were not carried out, such as a holiday camp and a garden city for workers and several visionary skyscrapers.

Born in Amsterdam, Van Epen grows up in a socialist family. His parents are good friends of H. Roland Holst and architect W. Kromhout. After secondary school, Van Epen works with his father in the timber yard, where he learns all about materials and construction techniques. At the age of 17, he is apprenticed to A. C. Boerma, an architect who still employs a very historicising style. After that, he works at the architecture firms of J. W. Hanrath and the Van Gendt brothers.

From 1901, Van Epen works for several firms in Paris. Whilst working at C. L. Auclair, he signs designs with a stamp bearing his name for the very first time. Both jointly and under their own names, they design villas and country houses, taking inspiration from English examples. They are simple in design, with whitewashed façades and paying a remarkable amount of attention to well-arranged floor plans. At regular intervals, Van Epen sends reports to the ‘Bouwkundig Weekblad’ periodical on what is going on in Paris in the way of architecture.

In 1905, he sets himself up as an independent architect in Baarn, which is on its way to becoming a centre for villa and country estate architecture during this period. His first assignments are also in this particular field. In addition to this, he designs buildings for holiday, recreation and relaxation purposes. From 1908 onwards, he works on houses and housing blocks for workers, including three for the Amsterdamse Coöperatieve Onderwijzers Bouwvereeniging (a teachers’ cooperative building association, ACOB) in Amsterdam.

These buildings are much appreciated for their straightforward lines, their robust character and their functionality -- brickwork architecture ‘the character and serious beauty of which lies in the lofty flat wall’ (J. Gratama in BW, 1910). This is followed by a block of 48 houses on Pretoriusplein square, also for ACOB. Between 1913 and 1918, Van Epen works on various projects with H.P. Berlage, including a block of workers’ houses on Tolstraat, and houses plus interiors on Transvaalstraat and Ringkade.

Van Epen is very involved with the well-being of the residents and wants them to have more space, preferably with a small garden. One of the reasons why he likes working with bay windows is because they provide more space and light, and offer views not just across the road, but to the left and the right as well. Bay windows are also expressive elements that create rhythm in the façades that can be used to end a street and have it turn the corner, as it were. They also create space for flowerbeds, so that people can at least see some greenery.

He also tries to get the most out of the floor plans by saving on corridor space and making interconnecting rooms that can then be put to flexible use. He makes sure there are good kitchen furnishings and creates sufficient storage space and electric lighting. He champions showers.

Despite all these efforts, Van Epen is still dissatisfied with the circumstances in which ordinary people have to live. Based on his socialist views and the importance he attaches to being close to nature, he sees cooperative housing in rural areas as a good alternative. In 1925, he takes part in a competition for a holiday camp for workers which he calls the ‘Troelstra camp’, after socialist politician Pieter Jelles Troelstra. He also designs very imaginative residential tower blocks, such as a staggered building with terraces and roof gardens, and a crystalline-shaped skyscraper. Though he thinks they are wonderful from an aesthetic point of view, he does not see them as being habitable.

During the war he takes part in study groups that are considering various aspects of post-war housing, such as space, light, hygiene and facilities. Many of his practical ideas about housing have since become planks in the platform of new functionalist architects. He does not share their preference for modern materials, however.

In stylistic terms, throughout his life Van Epen holds on to an austere style in which ornament hardly plays a part. Now and again, he experiments with designs he recognises in Berlage’s work, in the visual language of the Amsterdam School or in Frank Lloyd Wright’s American architecture, without ever really giving himself over to that.

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