Eindhoven boasts more patents per capita than anywhere else in the world. What’s its secret? What does it have that other cities don’t?
A spherical glass object looking much like an alien’s egg is embedded in the ground in front of the station. Beside it stands a building at once antiquated and futuristic. The facade shimmers the myriad greens of tarnished copper. In Eindhoven, there’s nothing clear or organized; instead, rank growth prevails. Every few paces, passersby can have their photo taken at a flat pillar with a display – but these so-called “Citybeacons” also monitor air quality, provide information about what’s on when, and act as signposts for visitors to this city, which is reputedly more inventive than others. Eindhoven, with its population of just 225 000, is an architectural curiosity cabinet. Put another way: Creative chaos reigns. Every decade since World War II seems to have immortalized itself and its particular visions here. Every street appears to have experienced repeated new beginnings, each one adding something completely different. Beautiful Eindhoven is not, but beauty isn’t a priority. The important thing is to try things out, to live out ideas. Eindhoven has more patents per 10 000 inhabitants (22.9) than anywhere else in the world, San Diego coming in second with a ratio of 8.9 to 10 000. Does the city inspire its inhabitants to be creative or is it the other way around? Let them answer that question themselves.
“Eindhoven is a city of movers and shakers,” says Christiane Berndes, Curator of the Van Abbemuseum for Contemporary Art. In the 1930s, tobacco manufacturer Henri van Abbe bequeathed his valuable collection of artworks to the city. Pablo Picasso, Oskar Kokoschka, Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol and Paul McCarthy now hang in the museum, but the walls of the bright room into which Berndes leads us are bare. A break between two exhibitions? No! In a corner, there are drawers filled with paintings, posters and pop art. A gloved visitor pulls out a Warhol print, lifts it onto a rail on the wall, then places a punk poster beside it, appraises the effect, and then carries it to the adjoining wall. “In this room, everyone can put together their own exhibition,” says the curator, “we want our visitors to give the art a new context.”
It’s not a question of achieving a result, but of making a start
Berndes and her colleagues adore experiments. Their latest is a visitor robot (the only one in Europe), a thing on two wheels, somewhere between a segway and a hoverboard, with a built-in camera. People who cannot make it to the museum due to illness or disability can rent the robot online and guide it through the museum. “So far, a member of staff always has to go with it because of the stairs,” says Berndes, “but we’re working on that.” It’s not a question of achieving the perfect result, but of making a start.
Eindhoven was founded in the Middle Ages and remained a sleepy one-horse town until the industrial revolution attracted tobacco, textiles and soap factories. Hubert Van Doorne started out building truck trailers; his brother later joined the company, which became famous as “DAF.” Over a period of 20 years, DAF produced a small car that was rather like a Dutch take on East Germany’s Trabant. The Netherlands’ first traffic lights went up in Eindhoven courtesy of a family named Philips, or to be precise, its scions Gerard and Anton, who founded a technology empire with their electric light bulbs and radio valves. Nearly 40 percent of all Dutch investment in research and development goes to projects realized in the Eindhoven region, hence the city’s nickname, Brainport.
Heading along the Dommel river toward the main park, you can’t miss Parktheater. With its sturdy gold-edged doors and windows, it looks like a typical postwar building, but inside, a buzzing hipster café worthy of Brooklyn awaits you, where people pore over their laptops, paper cup in hand. The foyer serves as a co-working space by day, and the fee paid for using it is social capital. When you go online, you state how you could help the other people working here. Money only counts if someone wants to book the backstage rooms for meetings, conferences or workshops. Two of the guests who regularly book themselves in are Pim de Morree and Joost Minnaar. Self-styled “corporate rebels,” they advise companies wishing to change their work culture. The pair quit their former jobs with biotech companies because they found the work too limited, too superficial and too profit-oriented, and then spent a year traveling the world. They took a close look at job innovators Google and Spotify, but also at Belgian social welfare offices, where staff are free to choose which hours they work. Also, a care agency told them that it was up to its 10 000 employees to organize themselves into teams. “People want to be involved,” says Joost. “If you want to improve something, listen to your staff!” Involvement works best when hierarchies are flat or, even better, simply don’t exist.
A good example of this philosophy can be observed close to the Parktheater, in an industrial building on the edge of the city center. This is where Philips once produced transformers. Today, it’s where Piet Hein Eek turns scrap wood into furniture. But the boss, who is also working on a collaboration with Ikea and an exhibition for Dutch Design Week, is not sitting in his office. His clothes covered in dust, he moves swiftly down the rows, where his 100 employees are busy sawing, cutting and welding.
Industry made Eindhoven great, and now it has space for new creations. When the old industries moved abroad in the 1980s and 1990s, they left behind huge, empty sites like Strijp-S, a city within the city northwest of downtown Eindhoven. Now tiny labels sell clothes and jewelry there. There’s also a restaurant that trains socially disadvantaged young people and the country’s most exciting ice-cream parlor, thanks to flavors like mandarine-cumquat, lime-coriander and pineapple-red pepper. Full, cold, amazed and happy, we return to the heart of Eindhoven.
the lamp designer
The lighthouse Lichttoren also belonged to the old Philips production facilities, but today houses a hotel, a restaurant, and the Design Academy Eindhoven. If an epicenter for creativity exists at all, then it’s here. Teresa van Dongen studied at the academy. She meets us in the studio between heavily laden shelves, where, very much in the city’s tradition, she now designs lamps – and rethinks lighting. Instead of electricity, bioluminescent bacteria give her designs their blue shimmer. Van Dongen won the Dutch Design Award a few years back for that “light-bulb idea,” and Ambio, her debut model, hangs in the Expo of the Kazakh capital, Astana. She has long since moved on to her next model, which uses microorganisms that produce electricity, which in turn powers LEDs. You have to think pretty much out of the box to even consider such ideas.
We have enthusiastic, inspired people and lots of space
Could she come up with her lamps anywhere else? Van Dongen ponders the question: “There’s plenty of space here for little money, unlike in Amsterdam. But what’s far more important is that there are so many enthusiastic, inspired people here working between disciplines: craftsmen, technicians, scientists and artists.”
Spaces with new faces
Restaurant, workshop or art gallery? This former bar-racks is all of them at once.
An institution for creatives who shop, network, even exhibit (themselves) here.
Inntel Hotels Art
The old Philips factory has ample space – also for an elegant design hotel.
All the company’s inventions are on show here; first and foremost, the light bulb.
THE JUNIOR CEO
Our bus carries us silently (it has no exhaust) to the High Tech Campus. Eindhoven’s fleet of 43 electric buses is Europe’s largest. Once on the campus – the site of the former Philips research center – we are surrounded by concrete blocks resembling flotsam and jetsam in an artificial lake. This is where tiny startup Amber Mobility is developing a huge idea: a driverless electric car that won’t be for sale. CEO Steven Nelemans, 21, thinks that owning a car has become totally superfluous. “Many people drive to work and back, so most of the time, the cars just stand around on parking lots. We want to change that.” With fellow students from the Technical University in Eindhoven, he has designed a car they say weighs just 650 kilos, making it lighter than a Smart. The engine is built to run for 1.5 million kilometers, three times as long as today’s record-breaking models. The cars will drive independently through urban areas to wherever their users need them.
Sounds amazing, but it’s more than just a crazy notion. In January, Amber Mobility will be allowed to test the concept. The present prototype, which resembles a miniature space capsule on wheels, is still at the wood and polystyrene stage. For test drives, a BMW i3 will glide phantom-like through Eindhoven by night, past the old factories and new alien eggs, the Parktheater, and the Citybeacons. The inventors’ vision is still not quite reality, but at least they’ve made a start.
Getting there from Germany
Lufthansa flies six times daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and up to six times daily from Munich (MUC) to Amsterdam. Continue to Eindhoven by train. Visit meilenrechner.de to find out how many miles you can earn.