With a philosophy built on ecology, collaboration, innovation and an unwavering passion for making the world a better place, Feenstra's mission is to create something
with a human purpose that stands the test
of time. The imperative is to improve the conditions for people who live in harsh environments by rethinking the notion of sustainability. According to Feenstra, he does so by combining "the spiritual wisdom and architectural vernacular of that part of the world" — wherever it may be — with his own knowledge as an architect. "We merge the best of two worlds and arrive at something truly amazing," says Feenstra, whose road to South Asia, where he resides today, seems almost inevitable although it was far from planned.
After graduating from Delft University of Technology in 1993, Feenstra worked in Europe but gradually saw architecture become too much about "me, myself and I — too much about 'starchitecture'."
So when the opportunity to teach in Afghanistan presented itself in 2004, it didn't take long for him to make a call. However, what was supposed to be a limited tenure at Kabul University would soon turn into a four-and-a-half-year pro-bono stint. Along the way, Feenstra met writer and editor Aunohita Mojumdar, who would later become his wife. He also started to initiate various projects and, as time went by, built a loyal team of locals to assist him in his endeavour to help rebuilding the country that he had come to love.
"I don't have a preconceived career path or a thought-out way of how I should live my life. I do what I deeply believe in and consider myself lucky to be able to do so. I'm a simple human being who relies on my team. As one person, you can only do so much. The values that I follow are pro-ecology, pro-local and pro-people," says Feenstra who has since gone on to do projects in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. No matter the location, the common denominator in Feenstra's work is that functionality reigns supreme. Purpose is entirely non-negotiable: "As an architect, my job is to give an answer to a real need. So before we start a project, I always try to get to the deeper layer of the why. This layer looks at history, culture, ethics and human behaviour. Why are we going to make this building, and how is it going to work for the users? If you can answer this clearly, chances are that this particular project will have a long life with more durability. It must have a strong relationship with functionality."
Among numerous projects, Feenstra is responsible for the buildings in the first two national parks in Afghanistan, five UNICEF maternity waiting homes, restoring historic buildings such as the National Museum of Afghanistan, a Nature Centre for Punjab's largest wetland and a Learning Centre at 4,200-metre altitude in Ladakh. With the Nepal team, he also developed transitional and model homes in the wake of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and currently works
on a Red Panda Network Outpost as well as the waste-upcycle/interpretation centre Sagarmatha Next at 3,778-metre altitude, near Mount Everest. With a body of work that speaks for itself, it is not without reason Anne Feenstra's methodologies are published widely, and he continues to give lectures and workshops across the world. In 2012, he was awarded the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in Paris.
"At university, I was taught that one plus one equals two, but I believe that one plus one should equal three. That's what I try to figure out in the projects we do", says Feenstra and adds, "Addressing the deeper levels of the why is what architecture should strive for. If you're just making a building for the sake of making a building, it can become very banal. Architecture is then reduced to corporate marketing or city branding. I understand that, but it's not appealing to me. Architecture can also work with larger ecological systems. Architecture is not only something nice to look at, it's not only art. It's fundamentally linked to human beings."
Anne Feenstra is not really one to follow the norm. His version of business-as-usual is a most unusual kind of business to the vast majority of Western architects. Spectacle, prestige and status are not at all compelling. Durability, climate-responsiveness and functionality, on the other hand, are. This applies to his architectural sensibilities as well as his choice of footwear. When Feenstra found himself constantly working in unforgiving conditions, he came to the realisation that all shoes are not made equal. Thus, on one of his annual trips to Europe, he decided to visit an ECCO store. This turned out to be a seminal moment, a revelation that would convert Feenstra into a loyal ECCO customer who now, ten years later, makes a point of buying two or three pairs of ECCO shoes every time he's back in Europe.
"In the challenging conditions of either wetlands, the desert or way up high in the Nepalese mountains you need shoes of a certain quality. On these building sites, having unreliable shoes is simply not an option", says Feenstra and elaborates, "If my shoes can't handle water, if they fall apart because it's too hot, or if they're torn by a sharp stone, it causes an immediate problem, and it basically means not enough effort has gone into the making of it. John Ruskin said, 'Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort. There must be the will to produce a superior thing'."
"ECCO shoes are a hybrid of craft and technology, and they're invaluable in my line of work. When I put them on my feet in the morning, it's a moment of assurance because they become an extension of my body. I have to trust them. They give
me the confidence that I'll be safe and that my feet, after 12 hours of intense work, will still be happy," says Feenstra and laughs. "The moment you craft something really, really well, you end up with durability, and this is an important component of sustainability. It takes a conscious decision to use your skillset and knowledge to create something durable and practical, and this applies to both shoes and buildings," explains Feenstra, who remains hopeful for the future: "In a world that is becoming more informed and aware of the consequences of our own behaviour, I think the choices that people are going to make will be more conscious. That's my hope, and I don't want to be part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution."