Francine Houben about her childhood

Francine Houben

Francine Houben didn’t plan to become a world-famous architect when she chose architecture as a career, but that is exactly what happened. She tells us more about her childhood.

A safe home

My surname is Houben, but I think I would have preferred my mother’s last name, Cappetti. Not only because I like it, but also because I see how important she’s been for me and the family I grew up in. My mother was born in 1924, the only girl in a family of six boys. Her brothers were allowed to go to high school in the city, but she was sent to the housekeeping school in the village. During the Second World War, she was active in the resistance, as were her brothers and parents. She served as a courier and cycled, eighteen years old, from the east of the Netherlands all the way to Amsterdam (roughly 80 km/50 miles). After the war, she met my father and they married and had five children. I’m the fourth. My mother never had an official job; she ran the house and managed the family affairs, and did so with enthusiasm.

Because of my father’s work, we moved a lot and she was the one who always organized everything: finding a house, putting contractors to work, doing the paperwork, looking for new schools. She wasn’t one to watch our hockey games or talk to the teacher if there was a problem; we had to do that ourselves. She was there for us in a very natural way. It felt safe at home. This contributed to my happy childhood. I found moving around inspiring: going to new places and making them your own. And because I was the fourth child, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. I was the youngest daughter and perhaps the apple of my father’s eye, who was away for business a lot.

As a child and adolescent, I was a little naive — and I still am in ways. If you know everything in advance, you will walk around with an enormous weight on your shoulders, because you also know what will go wrong. By the way, I think today’s children feel that more than we did. I can see it in my own children. There is so much more stress, so much focus on achieving success. When I was young and made the choice to study architecture, it was not out of an ambition to become what I am today. I was ambitious in the sense that I wanted to learn something, but it didn’t occur to me that I had to chart my life’s path in advance. Or that I would later have a studio that is known all over the world.

A turbulent period

The early days of my company coincided with the most turbulent period in my life. I had just given birth to twins, already had a two year old, and we had built a house shortly before. I felt like the happiest woman in the whole world. Then my partner left me. My world collapsed; I hadn’t seen it coming at all. We had been together for seventeen years, for me the children were the crowning glory of our relationship.

I tried for a long time to understand the why of his choice, later I gave up — or, rather, simply accepted it is what it is. I probably looked like a wreck in those days, but I kept smiling. I had my own company, so I had to do well. Handling my responsibility for the studio as well as all my emotions, with three children in diapers and not a penny to my name: I was in survival mode. But — especially in the first years — I was really supported by my family: by my parents, my brother and his wife, a cousin who came to live with us, and our neighbor. My children were raised by an extended family and that may not be the way I grew up, but it’s beautiful and valuable in its own way: it takes a village to raise a child.

  • Read more about Francine’s life and career in Issue 32.

Text Clementine van Wijngaarden  Photography Bonnita Postma