Surprised UCLA donor receives royal honor at annual Dutch Studies Lecture

In recognition of his service to the Dutch community in the U.S., Johannes van Tilburg was made a knight of a chivalric order of the Kingdom of The Netherlands on February 23.

  • Los Angeles architect and UCLA donor Johannes van Tilburg on the occasion of becoming a knight of a chivalric order of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. (Photo: Hyun Soo Chung/ UCLA.)

  • Jan van Tilburg is congratulated by Vincent Storimans, deputy consul general of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in San Francisco. (Photo: Hyun Soo Chung/ UCLA.)

  • Maaike Bleeker, professor of theater and performance studies at Utrecht University, delivers the 2023 Johannes van Tilburg Lecture in Dutch Studies. (Photo: Oliver Chien/ USA.).

  • From left to right: Laurie Hart, Alexander Swart, Peg Jacob, Wiljan van den Akker, Maaike Beeker, Jan van Tilburg, Jo Anne van Tilburg, Martin Kast, Henk Hanselaar and Deputy Consul General of The Netherlands Vincent Storimans. (Photo: Oliver Chien/ UCLA.)

  • Jo Anne and Jan van Tilburg. (Photo: Oliver Chien/ UCLA.)

  • Jan van Tilburg's grandfather, Johannes Franciscus Pieter van Tilburg, receiving the Royal Distinction of Knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau in 1961. (Source: A.S. van Tilburg, 2015, "Van Tilburg in Nootdorp Tekenen en Bouwen, 1870–1980.")

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, February 28, 2023 — In a surprise ceremony that followed the Annual UCLA Lecture in Dutch Studies endowed in his name, Johannes van Tilburg was made a Knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau of the Kingdom of the Netherlands on February 23.

The royal honor capped a discussion of striking intellectual depth and breadth led by Maaike Bleeker, professor of theater and performance studies at Utrecht University, who delivered the 2023 Johannes van Tilburg Lecture. The evening was hosted by the Center for European and Russian Studies at the UCLA Faculty Center and moderated by CERS director Laurie Hart, professor of anthropology and global studies at UCLA.

Bleeker described several intriguing contemporary research collaborations that are bringing together experts in Dutch theater — whom she called “theater makers” — with experts in such diverse fields such as robotics and science. Theater makers bring skills in imagination, dramaturgy, movement/dance and collaboration to these projects, which are generating reciprocal illuminations for both the experts and the disciplines involved, she said.

The theater arts scholar traced the development of these interdisciplinary research projects to a specific type of alternative theater that has flourished in The Netherlands since the 1970s due to generous government subsidies. Rather than present texts, theater makers in this tradition create processes that directly involve audiences in investigations of a topic or issue in order to spark creative thinking and engagement.

“Such process-oriented ways of [theatre] making … are based on the conviction that the world and life do not offer up their meaning,” said the speaker, but require investigation or research. “So creating compositions becomes an act of making sense.

“[T]hese developments have opened the possibility for understanding theories in the context of research and the context of experimentation, the context of exchange of expertise, the context [of] crossing over with other fields of expertise.”

After a question-and-answer session with the speaker, Deputy Consul General of The Netherlands in San Francisco Vincent Storimans presented a surprised van Tilburg a Royal Distinction of Knight in recognition of his service as Honorary Dutch Consul in Los Angeles from 2010 to 2022.

“He’s been absolutely instrumental to the thriving relationship between LA and The Netherlands, and was the driving force behind the establishment of The Netherlands visa support office,” said Storimans.

“His work is internationally recognized and visible throughout Los Angeles, a prime example being the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade. Jan embodies Dutch excellence in architecture, urban development and sustainable construction on the U.S. West Coast.”

An “11th-generation architect/builder,” van Tilburg moved to Los Angeles in 1965 and founded an architecture firm that subsequently became Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh, or VTBS. The company has offices in Santa Monica, San Jose and Denver and is known for redevelopment and urban renewal projects, as well as low- and high-density residential and mixed-used buildings.

In addition to the lecture series, Jan Van Tilburg and his wife Jo Anne van Tilburg, director of the Rock Archive at the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, support study abroad students in the Dutch Studies Program at UCLA. They are also financial supporters of the Dutch School of Southern California.

Throughout his career, van Tilburg has taught courses in architecture and urban design at U.S. universities, among them, USC, UCLA, Harvard University and the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

The successful architect has also long been an active member of the Netherlands-America Foundation (NAF), serving on its national board and that of its Southern California chapter. (Prior to the lecture, Alexander Swart, a fellow member of the board of directors of the local NAF chapter, made a generous contribution to the UCLA Dutch Studies Program on behalf of the foundation.)

Short speeches by van Tilburg’s wife and several friends and colleagues — kept on a timetable in “typical direct Dutch fashion” by Storimans — revealed the depth of affection and respect that he enjoys in the Dutch community near and far.

“Jan, you started initiatives to strengthen the bonds between the USA and the Netherlands in a broader sense of the word,” said Wiljan van den Akker, professor emeritus at Utrecht University.

Van den Akker and his Bruin colleague Margaret (Peg) Jacob, UCLA distinguished professor of research in history, initiated a faculty and student exchange agreement between UCLA and Utrecht University in 1999 that subsequently grew into the UCLA Dutch Studies Program. In fact, the annual lecture series was initially funded by Utrecht University.

Van den Akker used several catchwords to describe van Tilburg: “His modesty… His generosity — and I mean generosity not only in the financial sense of the word, it’s mostly in the intellectual sense of the word: sharing his knowledge with young people, with everyone, always — never holding back. [His] zest for life, his work ethic, his broad mindedness, his expertise, ingenuity, broad fascination, especially, his unbelievable creativity… And last but not least, his incredible sense of humor.”

“The thing that that makes Jan and Jo Anne so special,” added Jacob, “is not simply that they are very generous and gave us something that we desperately needed to put Dutch studies on the map in this university, but they take an interest in what’s actually said in the lectures, in the process by which someone is chosen, [in] the intellectual stimulation that the lectures give. And that means the world in a university.”

Martin Kast, a professor at the Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center of USC, whose own research has been supported by the van Tilburgs, reflected, “It was a big loss for LA when the consulate moved to San Francisco [in 2010]. However, that is when you [Jan] stepped in and became the honorary consul… and right from the start, your presence in the Dutch community in LA was felt all over. You created an office for consular business at your architecture firm, but more than that, you showed up at almost every Dutch event.

“For me personally, in my perspective, you were a knight in shining armor all along. And I’m glad that the Dutch Kingdom has now acknowledged that.”

Van Tilburg thanked Deputy Consul General Storimans for the Royal Distinction and his wife, family, friends and partners for their support, joking that he had trained four Consul Generals from The Netherlands during his time in Los Angeles.

“Some things are true that were said, other things I still have to live up to,” he reflected. He then delivered the last surprise of the evening, noting, “My grandfather, Johannes van Tilburg, also received this distinction in 1961, when he was also about 80 years old.”

The evening closed with a reception for the architect and the audience, which included family, friends from the Californian Dutch community, UCLA faculty, a number of Dutch diplomats and several members of the recently created Dutch Network for Academics in the U.S., known as DNA-US, which promotes bilateral scholarly ties between the two countries.


Updated March 2, 2023.