Johan van lENGEN
THE BAREFOOT ARCHITECT

..born in 1930, in the city of Amsterdam, Holland.

After finishing high school and performing military service, he emigrated to Ecuador, where after a series of adventures, he became instructor of judo in Guayaquil.

 

Johan attended one of the first judo schools in Holland. When he arrived in Latin America, in Ecuador, it stroked him how popular the sport was there. 

Loving to draw, he began his career by becoming an draughtsman in the office of renowned architect Guillermo Cubillo. A year later he entered the University of Toronto, Canada, to study architecture. He always had a great sense of humor and loved playing pranks on the teachers, but it did not last long, and after two years he had been expelled from the course. And not by chance, but because of his talent and creativity, he found his way to another course of architecture at the University of Oregon, from where he graduated only a year later.

 

Left: Johan in front of the architecture and design department of the University of Oregon.

 

The couple Rose and Johan at their house in San Francisco.

He began working in Honolulu and Chicago as a planner and designer, until he could finance his passage to Rio de Janeiro, to work in the city of Brasilia. But because he did not find the opportunities he expected in the current capital of Brazil, he settled in Rio, where he worked in the office of the famous Sergio Bernardes. Of course, it did not take long to fall in love with the girl from Ipanema. He married Rose, and soon afterwards they went to California.

Traces of Johan's work in the design and construction of projects throughout the United States. The boy at the wheel is one of Johan's two sons, Marc, nowadays director of TIBÁ RIO.

 
 
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I liked designing hospitals because of the complexities involved. The many things going on simultaneously, logistic problems, unusual spatial requirements.. In the case of office buildings (and all too often, school buildings) there's unfortunately nothing going on.

That kind of project expects from you a thorough and profound research, of the place's real necessities and the situations of the people involved.

  Johan designed several hospitals in various architectural offices of San Francisco and California (e.g. Rex Allen or A.D.Little), as well as  the master plan for the University of the Americas in Mexico.

Johan designed several hospitals in various architectural offices of San Francisco and California (e.g. Rex Allen or A.D.Little), as well as  the master plan for the University of the Americas in Mexico.

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Johan engaged into a pioneering work in the early days of computer programming. The focus was the creation of an software for architectural design.

Unlike many programs in development at that time, which were, and still are, primarily drawing aids and presentation tools, Relate was a program designed to facilitate the recognition of an complex web of interconnectivity (what he calls affinities) between the dwellings or structures and their surrounding.

 


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In '73 I was in Bahia, working in the favelas of Alagados. Working to help.

The plans, that I took to Salvador, were traditional plans of an architect who gets a report from a sociologist, and then starts making housing layouts. It had nothing to do with reality. When walked in the favela, I admired the creativity of the people and their lack of fear in doing things themselves. There were many shops, beauty salons, a school for infants and even a tower structure. While no body was helping them, they were coping. 

I immediately noticed some structural mistakes. Some houses were already leaning over, being held by another, or by improvised suspension. So I thought, here I am, having the knowledge I can help a lot just by spreading it..

 
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I saw a man cutting wood with a toy-like saw. I asked him if he´s building his house, and he answered that he’s building for everyone, and is the communities builder. He hardly had any tools. His little son, was pulling nails out of old wooden grocery boxes to straighten them out for use. So that was their building material.

I did feel ashamed.. Here I was again, calling myself an architect, and telling these people how to do things. While I had no idea what they actually needed, and what their difficulties were. They had no help from the government. A city engineer only would come and forbid things, like when the wiring was not ok..

 
 
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I´ve got a job for the United Nations, in Mexico. The aim of the project was to organize the knowledge necessary to improve the skills of the artisan-builder, and find solutions for common issues in the seismic zone.  

Experience showed me that games, humor or drama must be a part of the message. The assimilation of knowledge can be assured better this way. Games can be played together and cartoons tend to be read over and over again.

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During the war we had been given the game of what to do when the bombs are falling.. the effect was that when three years later the bombs were really falling, it were the children who shouted to their parents where to hide and what to do. Hearing the explosions, they even knew what kind of bomb fell.

 

 

 
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Working for the UN (in Mexico, India, Tunisia, Honduras..) and for SAHOP, the mexican Secretariat of Social Development, Johan introduced many new solutions to housing construction ("cascaje" tiles and other plasto-cement techniques), sanitation (the "bason" dry toilet) and renewable energies.

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Once time allowed, Johan gathered and started revising the notes and sketches done throughout the years of divulgating solutions and supervising their implementation in rural and urban environments. This was the beginning of the Barefoot Architect's Manual (published in 1984).

 
 
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A lifelong interest into the culture and ways of indigenous populations, led Johan to many encounters with the native tribes of Brazil. While working on the re-urbanization plan of the city Manaus, he experienced doubts about the sense of introducing our visions of organization. His fascination with indigenous architecture, was followed by a continuous research, at many different sites around Brazil, and eventually was condensed into the book: The Architecture of the Amazonian Indians  

"Why the green hell? Because in order to live there one would have to change ones way of life and that is for most people, hell." 

 

 
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After arriving back in Brazil, teaching and researching about solar energy at UniCamp in Campinas, Sao Paulo,  I also continued to introduce the Relate program. But soon it appeared to me that a computer might be not even necessary.. The means for logical and operational processing we acquire in our education as constructors and architects, but it is the creative side of our work that is neglected, suffering continuously from over-rationalization and industrial automation. 

 
 
 

Basing upon the differences between the functionality of the brains right and left side, the alpha and beta wave patterns of brain-activity, Johan developed a set of exercises to stimulate a better work-flow between modes of analytic and synthetic thinking, as applied to the process of architectural design.

 
 
 

"These alpha-sketches serve as a means to reduce the communication gap which exists between the written program and the drawn design. It is quite a psychological jump to move from linear to graphic representation; the sketches help to bridge this gap."

 
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During his late career as an architect, Johan designed several eco-villas. These housing and cultural centre projects make use of his vast knowledge to make a house truly sustainable.

 
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In 1987, Johan and Rose bought an old coffee plantation in Bom Jardim, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and founded an educational center dedicated to the teaching and research of ecologically sustainable solutions in construction and architecture, as well as a place for arts and crafts, the Institute of Intuitive Technologies and Bio-Architecture - TIBÁ.

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My main interest lies in staying receptive to the reality around me in an creative way. Realizing there is an opportunity, an opening, where most do not see it.