Associate Professor Dirk van den Heuvel of Delft University of Technology was recently in Australia as a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Architecture at Monash University. Dirk sat down with Professor Naomi Stead for a wide-ranging conversation about the significance of sexual identity for people studying and working in architecture; diversity and inclusion policies in Australia and Holland; and the importance of challenging limiting ideas of architecture and design. Drawing on their own experiences as a gay man and lesbian respectively, Dirk and Naomi considered the need to expand advocacy beyond gender parity to include sexuality and cultural background.

The realisation that the struggle is not over

When I was a student, I first moved to Rotterdam, and then quickly to Amsterdam, where the queer life was. There I hooked up with a group of people who were all very progressive, and we all thought the struggle was behind us. My first apartment was in a former squat. There was a dykes and queers disco, which was basically nothing but a dark basement – De Trut, it was called, which translates as The Bitch. It was pretty activist and aggressive. It was a great place to be. It is still there. Together, somehow, we had an idea that we were ahead of everyone mainstream – we didn’t need marriage, we believed in more radical ways of collectivity, ways of living beyond bourgeois securities. But I was in my 20s, so I didn’t realise at the time that, of course, some basic judicial arrangements are actually quite helpful and crucial in terms of acceptance and feeling safe.

There were two moments that made me realise that the fight for equal rights was far from over. I had never thought about being able to marry, and then when it happened, in 2001 in The Netherlands, it came as a sort of shock to me. I clearly remember the headlines in the papers announcing the new law, and I was totally emotional. I realised that there were many other things happening and the legal right to marriage was important for feeling accepted, which I hadn’t fully recognised until then.

The other moment was when I went back to university, to Delft, to start my PhD, and my first question to myself was, shall I be open about being gay or not? This was odd – it was strange for this to even be a question, for me to be considering it. But I quickly realised that it’s much better to be open, because if you’re not open, then people will make funny remarks assuming you are straight, like men will do about women, city folk about farmers and vice versa. Of course, all groups do that. So, as to avoid any sort of irritation or annoyance or restriction, I quickly made it clear where I was. But having to make that decision shows that there was already something not quite right.

This was 2000 or so, and TU Delft had just started a new diversity policy. I thought, “That’s nice, I’d like to be part of that.” So, I called up and said, “I would like to support the diversity program. I want to bring in the gay perspective”. And then the person on the other side of the line went totally silent, and she replied, “Well, I don’t think Delft is ready for this yet”. This was 2000, just a year before civil marriage was legally opened for same-sex couples in our country.

Things have changed since then, although TU Delft is taking baby steps towards a full-blown diversity and inclusion policy. For instance, we’ve only had a diversity officer for a year or two.

Limiting ideas of architecture and housing

At TU Delft, in our bachelor’s degree, we have a housing studio. At the end of the semester, all the studios and teachers have to pin up the projects. Then, with no students present, professors and teachers review the work to see how the studios are performing.

Part of the task is to develop a user’s perspective, because that is an explicit part of the assignment. In one of the iterations of this studio, back in 2014, I was part of a group that was reviewing hundreds of schemes in this studio. But it quickly became clear that every project was about young, straight families. I was really annoyed, because it’s not just about the gay presence, or lesbians or trans, or ethnic migrants. It’s also about broken-up families, remarried families, blended families, multi-generational families. Some of the students must come from families like this, but this was not reflected in the designs.

So, it relates to the whole idea of what a family constitutes and who you design for, who you accommodate. I was really shocked that this was the result in 2014 in Amsterdam, in a model school like TU Delft. What is happening?

I realised that it’s not just an individual issue; it’s institutional. Not only did the students not have the courage to bring this up, and really look into what’s happening here in Holland, and question how they relate to it as an architect or a future architect, but also the teachers and the studio staff were not taking this into account. They all more or less worked from the assumption that architecture and housing is about a certain sort of model, which is a straight, nuclear family – mum, dad, kids. A standard format or template that won’t raise questions, won’t cause any awkwardness. This was heteronormativity. And we as a university and a discipline were completely complicit in its reproduction.

When I look back to the 1980s, I think it was a much more forward-thinking culture. Admittedly, it was different then. Migration was a different issue, for instance. But, at the time, you had a groundbreaking competition, for housing for younger people in Rotterdam. A whole new generation of Dutch architects used it to present themselves, many of whom would make their fame in the 1990s. Francine Houben and Mecanoo famously won and started their amazing career into global architecture. Part of the assignment was how to accommodate all sorts of ways of living. There was a funny, corny essay written especially for the assignment, which talked about the guy who was in between jobs, the girl who had a girlfriend, someone who was into a different kind of religion. So, there was a diversity of personas. The housing typology had to accommodate all of these people and, indeed, most of the entries explored this. There was an interest in collective living, which was also part of this. Looking back, it was very advanced. This was in 1983.

And then you’re in a design studio in Delft in 2014, and you get hundreds of these normalised formats back to you. It’s most unsettling. Progress and emancipation are not to be taken for granted.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives

While I’ve been here in Australia, I’ve been quite astonished by some of the diversity and inclusion activities in the universities. Monash makes sure that you cannot miss out on this. Not only are there special events and an ally network, but also the little signs which I think are very important – posters in hallways and studios that call your attention for diversity issues, the rainbow logos casually inserted in email signatures. It all signals there is broad interest in creating a welcoming and safe environment for all. There are also the other universities. I was walking around one of the RMIT campuses and there was a whole week of pride events advertised. It appears to be part of the institutional identity.

I’m now wondering if it’s possible to convince the people back home to have similar initiatives, to realise that this is only a positive thing, and that everybody will benefit.

The experience of First peoples and colonisation is very present in Australian universities; it’s a national conversation of many decades and one that will last for many more I suppose. The special thing is that it created a certain sensitivity to notions of otherness that is lacking in Holland, perhaps in the whole of Europe. To address notions of otherness, difference and diversity is an accepted thing in Australia; it is part of the conversation. This is not the case in Holland. There is a lot of denial among many groups, that things are changing, and that emancipation for instance will inevitably bring changes.

The LGBT+ network and the fight for visibility

Within Delft university, I started an LGBT+ network together with colleagues. This was necessary because of some awful incidents among students. The board had no idea how to respond, and they didn’t know who to consult. We had already started conversations to broaden the diversity politics of the university, to widen the focus on gender parity and to include issues of sexuality and cultural background. To be honest, I don’t think you can tackle the issue of gender parity properly, if you don’t want to talk about the other issues too.

With these groups, you really have to start them yourself, because the university won’t do it naturally. It won’t come to you and ask if you experience problems. We’re a small group, because not many people want to volunteer to help out, everybody’s overworked as it is, and it’s a very awkward topic to discuss. At a university of technology – supernerdy and competitive – people want to focus on work, not on their sexuality! So, the creation of this network was only possible because we had an active supporter on the board, Anka Mulder, and on the supervisory board Caroline Gehrels. Caroline is a lesbian herself, she was an alderwoman in Amsterdam and an important figure in the Dutch Labour party. She’s also part of the Workplace Pride organisation, which is a private foundation, so with this support we could more or less engage in opening up the discussion with the university.

But it’s still very difficult, and it’s really a work in progress. There’s the architecture branch, and in 2018 we had the first Pride lunch with the Dutch Institute of Architects (BNA), and they want to do it again in 2019. Then there is our own discipline, history and theory, which we need to open up and discuss. The other thing is education, and then there’s the university itself.

It’s a rough ride. I cannot say otherwise. The first thing that you encounter is, ‘Why is this necessary? You have equal rights. What are you complaining about? Shut up.’ So, the whole issue of visibility, and feeling safe and accepted and acknowledged, and all that, is something that you really have to explain, over and over again. Education is very much part of this, and there’s really a lot to do.

Also, a lot of gay colleagues and friends will not want to be actively involved – they will say, “Well, I don’t have a problem. I don’t want to be stigmatised.” So, it’s very tough to get it going, because if you want to do it, you’re considered an activist, but we don’t necessarily want to be a social justice warrior team. It can be fun, but in terms of achieving change, we don’t think that’s the right strategy at the moment. It should not be about being confrontational, but visibility is key. We need that conversation, not just when there is Coming Out Day, but as part of an ongoing process of educating ourselves, on implicit bias, insecurities, micro-aggressions and how to deal with those, without necessarily starting a blame game. Paradoxically, you need the straight people to feel safe as well. Although creating a little bit of confusion can be productive too, of course.

Excellence and exclusion

The concept of excellence in academia, and also in Delft can be quite dominant and also exclusionary. It’s all about who is setting the standards and criteria. In the end, it’s a small world, and it is a world of excellence, but we all get to meet each other in conferences, in committees, and together with other bodies of government, like ministries or scientific bodies of funding, we ourselves set out these standards and criteria. So, in that sense, the standards and criteria say a little bit about our own communities.

It’s all about control in the end, and who you allow to enter the conversation or not. But it’s also about anticipating these selection mechanisms, so that you self-regulate, self-censor and play it safe. For instance, you will likely decide carefully what to wear (or not) when you go to a committee meeting – those are the little things, but there are other things too.

Delft is a very competitive university, and the rhetoric about excellence within the university dominates. There’s a group, DEWIS (Delft Women in Science) and they have a fellowship program that awards women PhDs. Last year, they had a campaign because women still get fewer honours when they do their dissertation defence. This is, of course, ridiculous, so DEWIS is pushing this now.

One of the first things I did as the chair of the LGBT+ network was to talk to other groups, like the Delft Women in Science. One of the questions I asked was: “What about lesbian colleagues? Did you ever hear of any special problems they encountered?” Silence! And then the remark was “we don’t know any lesbian colleagues”, which is, of course, ridiculous in the case of a university community of 30,000 people.

So, as a woman you’re already disadvantaged in the overall system, and as a lesbian woman, you come with a second handicap. Just to acknowledge this is already tough. At the same time, it is the gay males who are most conformist, assimilated. They are the ones who get integrated, not too gay, please … But, for the girls (let alone trans or bisexual colleagues), it’s very difficult. Yet I also came across some studies recently that showed that gays don’t like STEM universities and leave them, while lesbians persevere. We need to know much more about this!

The threat to equal rights

We had a huge incident in the Netherlands in early 2019, when a Dutch version of the Nashville Declaration was published. The evangelical Christian declaration, originally from the US, is an anti-gay and anti-trans statement and it was signed by some members of parliament. When something like that happens, you realise that people do want to take away your rights, if they see the opportunity.

The Declaration was also signed by some professors in universities, mostly in a Christian university, theology professors in Amsterdam. But there was also one professor at Delft, which has a protestant background, especially in the natural sciences, our top faculty, the top researchers. Some of them are creationists. Yes, Holland – it’s one of the cradles of Protestantism. Don’t forget it.

All sorts of conversations are still happening within the university because of this, a huge ripple effect, and a steep learning curve for many involved. The good thing is that the board finally came to realise that diversity and inclusion policies have to be in place now. With a proper Diversity Office, there is an ongoing, university-wide conversation on how we deal with diversity. We now have a general recognition that this is not something for the outside world, but that these issues are also urgent on campus.

The importance of role models

In the Netherlands, we have Kajsa Ollongren, a fantastic Deputy Prime Minister and Home Secretary. She always makes it clear that she’s a lesbian and has a family. So, if she’s on a talk show or something, then at some point an image pops up of her partner and children who love to go to a soccer game. So, it doesn’t come across as in your face and activist (which I don’t want to dismiss), but it’s straightforward and uncomplicated. It’s amazing that she is such an icon, but also presents herself by saying, “I have a family too, but it’s slightly different”. Yes, it’s quite astonishing.

It’s important to have that visibility for role model purposes. In the universities, especially STEM universities, it’s important for students to have role models too. If we only give them corporate-looking, white, male, straight professors, what’s the message there? What are we telling them?

Sometimes the value of diverse role models is difficult for managers to understand. In this rat-race, or the competition for excellence, anything that’s a little bit different or ‘other’ is regarded as a weakness. So, literally, people say, “Oh, but I don’t want to have this label of being gay”. But if there’s indeed a notion of equality, then this shouldn’t be a problem at all. It’s not a label, it’s part of who you are, and what contributes to your special qualities.

Future research and projects

I have a completely new development! Together with two colleagues from Leiden and Amsterdam (Eliza Steinbock and Hester Dibbits), we were granted a subsidy from our national scientific organisation NWO, for a research project called The Critical Visitor, aimed at archive studies and museology to develop strategies to become more inclusive, using a methodology of intersectionality. It will be a five-year program with 15 partners in the cultural field, with a PhD program, field labs, archive interventions and queer salons.

I would also like to do a book project, ‘a queer guide to architecture and planning’, bringing out the full range of the special queer experiences and spaces that are out there. For instance, in the ALGA (Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives), I encountered some dossiers on gay communes, such as Mandala, and the lesbian Amazon Acres with a female architect involved – Diana King if I am not mistaken – from the 1970s. There’s amazing material and stories, both nostalgic and hopeful in a way. These stories need to be told.

Collaboration between Australia and Holland

It would be great to set up a network for exchange, to learn from each other’s experiences. That could be very helpful. This remains one of the immense advantages of the time we live in, the global connections through the new media. This has helped LGBT+ emancipation immensely. Each young person can go online and look for soulmates and support.

The Dutch paradox

I only recently learned there is something called the ‘Dutch paradox’. By law almost everything is organised very well, full equality achieved. But this is also an excuse to stop talking about the everyday issues surrounding diversity, being different. So, in a way in Holland we created a judicial closet, in which we are free and emancipated, but in daily life you encounter social and also religious bias. And it’s actually getting worse … more incidents in the street, more physical aggression. So, pro-active policies are much needed here. The work is not done.


Dirk van den Heuvel was a Visiting Resident at MADA, Monash University in May 2019. Thanks to Naomi Stead for the interview and Ella Mitchell for the photographs.

Dirk van den Heuvel is an Associate Professor at TU Delft, leading the chair of Architectural Design and Dwelling. He is the co-founder and head of the Jaap Bakema Study Centre at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, the joint research initiative between TU Delft and Het Nieuwe Instituut. His research is situated at the intersections of architecture, welfare state planning and modernity. His expertise is in the field of post-war modern architecture and planning, while his dissertation ‘A Brutalist Story’ investigated the work of the British architects Alison and Peter Smithson and their ideas on the city, housing and everyday culture.

A special research project concerns ‘Queering Architecture’, which investigates the connections between architecture, language and identity construction in terms of place and memory. He compiled a special issue on queer and trans studies with Footprint: Trans-Bodies / Queering Spaces (2017), and together with Eliza Steinbock and Hester Dibbits he was awarded a grant by NWO, the Dutch national science organisation, for their project ‘The Critical Visitor’ to further intersectional approaches in museology and archive studies.

Van den Heuvel received a Richard Rogers Fellowship from Harvard University in 2017. He was also curator of the Dutch national pavilion for the 14th International Architecture Exhibition at the Bienale di Venezia in 2014 ‘Fundamentals’.

Naomi Stead is Professor of Architecture and Head of the Department of Architecture at Monash University. Her research interests lie in architecture’s cultures of re/production, mediation and reception. She was the leader of the ARC Linkage project ‘Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership,’ which led to the co-founding (with Justine Clark and others) of Parlour, an activist group advocating for greater gender equity in architecture. Stead is an award-winning and widely published architecture critic, having written more than 50 commissioned feature and review articles in professional magazines over the past decade. She is presently an architecture columnist for the San Francisco-based online Places Journal, where she writes essays on concepts and mythologies within and without architecture.

Interview by Naomi Stead. Compiled and edited by Susie Ashworth.