Hof van Cartesius: a place where people thrive

What happens to a city when there are no stable or affordable spaces for small creative entrepreneurs?

Simone Tenda (MSc Sociology), initiator Het Hof van Cartesius
1 november 2019

Hof van Cartesius: a place where people thriveHof van Cartesius: a place where people thrive
Case Study published in Our City? Countering Exclusion in Public Space, published in July 2019 by STIPO Publishing and the European Placemaking Network

With many community work-spaces increasingly at risk of eviction, we began transforming a destitute plot of land into a vibrant co-creative space, the Hof van Cartesius (Cartesian Court), a project located on the outskirts of Utrecht (NL). Creating this pioneering space, an oasis of creativity within Utrecht’s urban jungle, took four years of bureaucratic battles. In 2014, we began conceptualising a plan aimed at particularly empowering creative makers with lower level incomes. This case study highlights the need to build upon these lessons, shedding light on the vital importance these new and sustainable bottom-up communities such as the Hof van Cartesius, have on local populations.

It started when an urban planner named Charlotte Ernst reacted to an ‘Open Call’, from the Municipality of Utrecht, to design an “affordable, modular working space for creative entrepreneurs in Utrecht” (Gemeente Utrecht, Ontwikkelingsvisie Werkspoorkwartier, 2012). With four base principles at its core – a) a bottom-up community, b) immersed in a regenerative garden, c) based on circular and material-driven design and d) serve as a catalyst for the redevelopment of the neighbourhood – the Hof van Cartesius won this ‘Open Call’. At that point, there was a shortage of affordable workspaces in Utrecht, as makers would temporarily reside in (previously) abandoned buildings with short term contracts.

This problem has its roots in high land and construction costs which increasingly price out civil society. The industrial ‘waste land’ in the Werkspoorkwartier neighbourhood presented itself as the opportunity to create a safe space for a community of creative minds who have been isolated by the growth of residential urbanisation. The plan tackled the lack of affordable workspace while simultaneously giving rise to a sustainable solution to the problem of growing urbanism.

We were eager and inspired to develop this project and identified three important stakeholders in the community: the municipality, inventors, entrepreneurs and creative makers. We took matters into our own hands and initiated this cooperative association to unite all the entrepreneurs and makers, creating a financially viable grassroots organisation and found a willing investor to buy the property from the municipality.

Architecturally, the construction of the Hof van Cartesius was based on a circular and material driven design where the makers would build their own workspace from waste or second-hand materials. On the one hand, this decision meant that the workspaces were constructed in the most financially viable solution for each individual on varying tight budgets. On the other hand, the makers could design both the exterior and interior of their space completely to their own wishes, greatly improving their sense of ownership over the building. Next to this, members all joined the cooperative association which enables the community to collectively determine the path of the community. This process is enforced through collective decision-making processes and joint missions, as for instance, the beautiful courtyard garden which was completely constructed by voluntary energy alone.

The secret to the success of this particular case is an empowered community just doing it: against all odds and the municipalities doubts over fulfilling the ambitious Hof van Cartesius, a bottom-up community of pioneers, passersby, refugees, retirees and neighbours who came together and worked hard, and often voluntarily, to make this place the magical place it is. With regards to inclusiveness, we strive to maintain an open and public attitude: this is reflected in the architecture of the workspace, with its central, publicly accessible courtyard and transparent facades.

Right now, one year after completing construction, the Hof van Cartesius is a thriving community, one that now attracts a variety of people to this once desolate industrial terrain. It serves as a case study for the neighbourhood, as more and more workspaces are being built according to similar circular principles. But also on a provincial and national level, we are profiled as the testing ground for Utrecht’s circular economy, DIY architecture and sustainable community building. The EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs & Fisheries stated in his visit to the Hof, during the EU Green Week, that “the Hof van Cartesius, which I officially opened as part of the EU Green Week in Utrecht really is a perfect example of economically viable circular economy in action – I strongly recommend visiting if you are in Utrecht” (KarmenuVella, 2018).

While not actively involving excluded target groups (i.e. retirees and refugees), they do approach us on a regular basis with a request for collaboration. We work with former refugees, retirees and neighbours, giving them space to utilize their talents and interests, most of whom became intensely involved with the Hof on a long-term basis. We strive to have open doors by encouraging individuals and organisations (from all background and ages) to use this public space in organising social and cultural events. In the near future, we will actively focus on programming more public events to widen our range.

As the demand for affordable and green workspace in Utrecht is still on a rise, we expect to grow and continue building in the following years. We are already talking to 40 new potential parties who wish to join in the next phase of building. We believe that the bottom-up creation of a mixed community and the circular building of your own workspace is a perfect tool for creating agency and ownership among a wide variety of people.


Gemeente Utrecht (2014). Ontwikkelingsvisie Werkspoorkwartier. De transformatie van een bedrijventerrein. Retrieved on October 14th, 2018 from Ontwikkelingsvisie-Werkspoorkwartier-maart2012.pdf

KarmenuVella (2018, May 22). “The @hofvancartesius which I officially opened as part of #EUGreenWeek #Utrecht really is a perfect example of economically viable #circulareconomy in action – I strongly recommend visiting if you are in #Utrecht” [Twitter post]. Retrieved on October 14th, 2018