In 1984, architect-in-training Francine Houben and two Delft University of Technology student colleagues won a competition to design youth housing at Kruisplein in Rotterdam. The project marked a turning point in Dutch social housing, which was then mainly oriented towards family units. The design was a demonstration of urban regeneration in public housing without compromising high architectural standards. “Social housing can – no, must – also be beautiful. The city and its inhabitants should be proud of it,” Ms Houben says.

The students founded global architecture firm Mecanoo architecten. Today the firm is made up of diverse creative professionals from more than 25 countries with expertise ranging from interior design, architecture, urban planning to landscape architecture. “I like to compare Mecanoo to a symphony orchestra,” she says.

Ms Houben spoke on her architectural vision - people, place, purpose and poetry - in the latest instalment of the UTZON Lecture series hosted by UNSW Built Environment.

“I began to formulate the three fundamental concepts of my architectural vision while studying at university,” the creative director says. “I design primarily for People, construct spaces that are relevant to Place, and forge connections that give a building Purpose. This has remained consistent, underlying values to Mecanoo’s practice over the past three decades. Poetry, a new layer, reflects the elusive elements of architecture.”The multi-award winning architect has a swathe of accolades, including the prestigious Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds Prize bestowed by Queen Máxima of the Netherlands in 2015 for her body of work. Ms Houben is particularly renowned for the design of libraries, including the Delft University of Technology library and the current refurbishment of the New York Public Library. Today her portfolio spans a range in scope and scale, from single houses, theatres, museums, school, skyscrapers, universities, even a chapel. The National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts in Taiwan is one project that stands out.

“At the official opening, there were 50,000 people, and there were fireworks and music, it looked like the opening of the Olympic Games. [Now], they use the open spaces of this building and the surrounding park to make music and to do yoga and kung fu exercises, for example. That is exactly what we had in mind when we designed it, and it is nice to see that it happens.”

National Kaohsiung Centre for the Arts, Taiwan. Image: supplied.

She says Mecanoo has never had a house style. “Our focus is on contextualism,” she says. “We learn from the cultural context where our projects take place, and we use those lessons to create unique designs – this is embodied in our philosophy. We believe this makes us different from our peers and an added value for future clients.”

Ms Houben says it is a design philosophy that not only sets them apart but will combat the future challenges architecture faces. “The world is in flux — swept up in climate change, ceaseless urbanisation, the digitisation of systems, knowledge and life, and global shifts in power, population and wealth. The questions are what will these forces demand of architecture, and how will architects respond? We believe that our architecture can contribute to a better world, and we are passionate about solving complex challenges to create inspiring places for people.”

UNSW Built Environment's UTZON Lecture Series features industry experts and academics whose inspiring work shapes the world's future cities for the benefit of all people and the planet.