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Crisis-proof Urbanism

Originally published at as a two-part article on July 25 and July 31, 2013.

The financial crisis is freezing cities all over the world. While vacant blocks are held hostage by real-estate prices, though, architects and urbanists find ways to make the current instability a strength rather than an obstacle. Four virtuous examples from the Netherlands.

Rem Koolhaas wrote Delirious New York during times of crisis. The architect’s retro-active manifesto for hyper-density centered around the rise of the skyscraper as the celebration of a new “unknowable urbanism”, a kind of “programmatic instability” that disjointed a building’s shape from its function. After the skyscraper, the “generic city” (to use another Koolhaas concept) comprises stacks of content-blind cells, legitimated and temporarily inhabited by business and yet destined to be taken over by other forms of culture. Today, as we experience a recession rooted knee-deep in real-estate speculation, “unknowable” and “instability” definitely have a chilling ring to them. Still, and more than ever, they are crucial concepts in the imagination of a sustainable — while crisis-ridden — urban environment. Office buildings and outdated models of social housing alike are paralyzed between impossible renovations and expensive demolitions, unable to keep up with the pace of the surrounding cities and inevitably lagging behind. Unlike the bulky remnants of the industrial age, though, these relics of the present retain the functional flexibility described by Koolhaas, albeit their connection with the market has become more complex.

To fend off squatters from re-occupying the buildings, in fact, the Dutch have come up with a solution called anti-kraak (anti-squat): vacant properties are rented for a cheap price to tenants that stay ready to leave on very short notice. As a win-win solution for both owners and (non-uptight) renters, the anti-squat formula is spreading out to Belgium, France, Germany and the UK. But the research around new formats goes beyond that.

Putting Buildings in the Snooze

Rotterdam, Central District. When Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman came to town to found ZUS [Zones Urbains Sensibles][] in 2001, they were attracted by the low density and the vast space for experimentation it entailed. It turned out the space was even too vast. After moving into the building now known as the Schieblock, right by the central station, they were shocked to find it pretty much empty. “At the time the Schieblock was just an investor’s object with no name” Kristian explains to me via Skype. “We were alone with our 800m2office in there, apart from maybe other four tenants.” They paid a mere 100€ a month to keep the gas running and, if the owners changed their mind, had to be ready to disappear on cue. “This is what we call putting buildings in the snooze,” says Kristian.

Experiencing the paradox of a huge empty box first-hand made the ZUS guys curious about the system. “We noticed that most of these anti-kraak organizations are part of development companies.” In fact, proving there was clearly a gap between investor interests and local needs, a new plan for even more office space was launched in 2007, despite the existing vacancy contributed to the neighborhood’s bad rep. Two years later the councilor put the Schieblock up for demolition, to be replaced by a parking lot that would have made up for some of the developer’s financial loss. That’s when ZUS started to become an active part in the renegotiation of the area.

The office teamed up with CODUM, a young urban development studio, and (presenting Exel sheets rather than Autocad models) outlined a five-year business plan proposing the building as an urban laboratory. “Eventually the developer said OK, but they didn’t want anything to do with it.” So, taking all the financial risks and setting up a micro-credit system with the owner, the municipality, and the contractors (“To this day we haven’t seen one euro ourselves”), they unlocked and re-branded the newborn Schieblock for new tenants.

By renting below market price (90€ per m2versus 200–240) and with longer-term contracts than anti-squat (3 years), Koreman and his partners were able to attract a dynamic crowd of entrepreneurs. Exhibition spaces, cooking workshops, mini-warehouses and dance schools were popping up in the formerly deserted building. And when they left, others took their place.

“It’s not just some temporary art project, we really want to make city and demonstrate alternative planning models. We need a cultural shift in real-estate.” That’s why ZUS caught the chance to showcase the transformation of the Schieblock and the nearby MiniMall (a former train station turned creative hotspot by the Crimson office) as a Test Site in occasion of the 2012 International Architecture Biennial in Rotterdam.

To “make city” even more, inspired by New York’s famed High Line, ZUS also built a crowd-funded bridge across the road that separates the Schieblock and the former Shell building, an even bigger brutalist tower now re-baptized Hofpoort. “The owners –German investors– gave us the keys to the building to program it in a super temporal way for two years.” By the principle that designing time is more important than designing space, in occasion of Architecture Day the Hofpoort was open for 24 hours, hosting a different activity on every other floor: food, music, shopping, camping. Even roller-skating, which brought the most heterogeneous crowd. “We’re trying to take some distance from the “creative” tag. Architecture Day is normally a very vernacular event, with families and kids finally visiting a building that is normally closed off. But of course creative people understand this way of doing things better than others.”

Clockwork Redevelopment

I meet Carolien Ligtenberg of Bureau ZWIRT at the Kleiburg, the most iconic building in the neighborhood commonly referred to as the Bijlmer — the CIAM-inspired vision that, back in the 60s, was meant to champion modernism in the Dutch capital. Like many of its kind, the project went from middle-class heaven to immigrant ghetto, but the formerly infamous neighborhood is now experiencing major redevelopment and a creative resurgence. Unrented for years, the Kleiburg was saved from demolition by a consortium of developers named De Flat. The organization bought the whole complex from the owner (housing corporation Rochdale) at the symbolic amount of 1€, at one condition: selling 70% of the apartments in the first “block” (out of four) within 8 months. A difficult task, but De Flat had an interesting idea: getting rid of the apartments under market price, without renovating them. This saves money, and attracts a diverse range of young families and creatives to the neighborhood.

In order to highlight the creative potential of do-it-yourself and low-budget renovation, the consortium hired Bureau M.E.S.T., an urbanist collective (of which Ligtenberg was a member) specialized in time-based planning. The group had previously helped housing corporation Vestia set up a temporary hotel (the Kus&Sloop) in Rotterdam’s Afrikaanderwijk neighborhood, to keep some of their buildings alive during a lengthy renovation process that could’ve resulted in prolonged and socially problematic vacancies. M.E.S.T.’s solution was to establish five pop-up hotel rooms in some of the non-renovated apartments, refurbishing them with very light, low-budget designs by local artists. For two years the rooms moved from building to building, turning the renovation into a dynamic and productive experience by at once employing exclusively people from the community and making it open to visitors.

Similarly, to draw attention towards the newly reopened Kleiburg, M.E.S.T. invited a network of designers to propose temporary interior refurbishments of many of the building’s apartments, with a budget of 2000€ each. To attract an audience for the interventions and present the architecture in a new light, they also organized events like in-house cinemas and a 40-meter table dinner in the once crime-infested walkways of the building, along with art installations and DJ sets with in collaboration with exponents of the local art scene (which I wrote about here).

M.E.S.T.’s approach proved quite successful, even though Ligtenberg admits at some point the communication office took over and adopted a more commercial attitude towards selling the apartments, installing an IKEA-style renovation model alongside the artsy, low-budget ones set up by the designers.

Much like the events it organized, Bureau M.E.S.T. disbanded after the Bijlmer program. “M.E.S.T. itself was more of a network itself, it doesn’t exist as this entity anymore.” Maybe its contribution to the selling of the Kleiburg apartments won’t be visible now that the building opens up to its newfound tenants, but their Rotterdam project lives on. In fact, the business model for the temporary hotel in Afrikaanderwijk proved so successful that Vestia decided to keep it going. “We found a local entrepreneur and she’s running it now,” says Carolien, satisfied. “Every once in a while a new artist is involved. If you visit it you won’t end up in same room twice.”

* * *

Visitors of the Netherlands pavilion at the 2011 Architecture Biennale in Venice will remember an ethereal installation consisting of a multitude of blue, floating buildings. The piece, conceived by the visionary Rietveld Landscape, represented the abundance of vacant space in the studio’s home country.
The crisis definitely played an important part in keeping so much room from being utilized productively, but the state’s crack-down on squatting has also been a signal that buildings can only maintain their market value if they’re empty. To fend off squatters from re-occupying them, the Dutch have come up with a solution called anti-kraak (anti-squat). Vacant properties are rented for a cheap price (some 150€ per month) to tenants that stay ready to leave on a notice as short as two weeks (usually students or workers who cannot afford a more stable accommodation).

We catch a glimpse of anti-kraak at its finest in Creativity and the Capitalist City, a documentary by Tino Buchholz (read the interview here) in which the German urbanist talks with an artist living in a former Air India office, smack in the center of Amsterdam, at the condition that he acts as a sort of keeper during his stay. Given anti-squat has a few controversial aspects, both renters and mediators between owners and potential tenants have found ways to circumvent its downsides and make the most of this fluctuating condition.

Offices on Wheels

Philosophy student turned urban facilitator Bart de Groot and architect Christophe Veen founded Beehives before the crisis kicked in, with the purpose of breathing new life into less-than-exciting neighborhoods in Amsterdam. They started from a former school in the Nieuw-West borough, a recent label that groups a range of neighborhoods where creative, community-enhancing entrepreneurship is scarce. The main challenge was mediating between market prices for rentals and the target audience, the creative class.

As Christophe tells me in Beehives’ studio, somewhere in the more industrial part of the Zeeburg area: “The value of property is defined by the projected amount of rent you can get in 10 years. You get a bank to finance that, but, if you decide to rent that building for less, the worth would be different and you have to refinance, because the building is not worth your loan.” There’s also the issue of tax benefits. “If you want to have any contract at all, no matter how short, you’ll have to pay a much higher rent,” adds Bart.

Beehives’ solution was to have short-term rentals (“The shorter you stay, the cheaper the price”) and keep the interior re-design to a minimum. But while flexibility is part of Beehives’ identity and strength, their defining characteristic is the community potential they strive to unpack. For this reason, networking is always crucial. “We wanted to form a network of creatives over there, taking care that everybody knew everybody. You had to spend an hour a week on an autonomous project; in trade of a lower rent you give us some of your time.”

This formula is good for the creatives, for the network and, ultimately, for the surroundings. Apart reviving urban shells, like the school and even a funeral home (now turned into VLLA, a bar/club/theater), the newcomers attracted kids from the neighborhood and involved them in lively initiatives (for example an Art Club and a plastic recycling/bag design workshop). But, when the owner of all the properties they were mediating decided to stop the project and got rid of most of the renters (replacing them with less creative and scarcely visited enterprises), Beehives was reminded mobility is often more expensive and time consuming than it is stimulating.
Still, it was the dimension they wanted and had to work within. After moving to the Zeeburg, in the Eastern part of town, the studio developed their spatial format and Veen designed a more easily transportable office, the BeeBox (which they presented at Tuttobene at the latest Salone del Mobile in Milan).

Since the abrupt deflation in Nieuw-West the Beehives has expanded their network and their presence in the city, currently managing several spaces across Amsterdam that range from warehouses populated by DIY-looking structures to more office-oriented environments. Most notably, a new outpost in the spectacularly under-rented Zuidas business district is in the works. “When we started thinking about the Zuidas there was no program at all,” says Bart. “There’s a lot of space that was defined as shops, but the rent is very high and you can’t get anything under 300m2.” Since the costs are prohibitive even for brands like G-Star Raw or Levi’s, Beehives’ proposal is to lower the threshold and split each lot into 20 pieces, giving people less space to get the rent down. “We also give one-year contracts, renters know what risks they’re taking.” Ideally, the unrented office space in the shiny Zuidas buildings will be converted into a dynamic environment, a sort of pop-up department store.

Rather than developers, Bart and Cristophe consider themselves replacement developers, a qualification that is quite common in Holland. In comparison to anti-kraak, Beehives stresses the importance of community impact. “Anti-squat has a very negative vibe to it,” says Cristophe. “You put people in and they pull down the curtains, you never see them again. Our renters might help kick-start the neighborhood.”

Flexibility as Lightness

Mediamatic founder Willem Velthoven is the most outspoken in favor of flexibility among my interviewees. Across the last three decades his organization has had countless addresses, the last few of which in Amsterdam. I speak with him at the Mediamatic Bank, a former office building that has housed Mediamatic’s activities for a few years — activities that include exhibitions about arcade video games or mushrooms, social media and aquaponics workshops, and dinners based on expired food.

“We moved here from another office building, the old post office, where the temporary Stedelijk was housed. That’s where we started using temporary, leftover space in the city.” Since Velthoven prefers to pay artists rather than landlords (and their public funding was halved by the controversial axing of culture by the ministry in 2011), temporariness fits the organizations’ small budget. But that’s not only a necessity, it’s also a state of mind.

“Typically it’s unclear how long you can stay in these places and that means renters are not afraid of change. They are not necessarily poor, they are risk-takers. That makes for a much more stimulating environment than a legalized squat, of which we have plenty of examples in Amsterdam.” Which brings us to anti-squat. “The office space is not called anti-kraak, but it’s basically anti-kraak, we rent below market price. In our new industrial location we have a 3-month notice agreement, which is much more than anti-squat. These are habits, not legal categories.” Temporary use is usually limited to four and a half years, because after five years renters mature certain legal protections and, if kicked out, they can go to court. That’s why Mediamatic had to leave the post office two years before it was effectively demolished.

After the Bank, the most recently established Mediamatic Fabriek — where the organization invited people to participate in their monumental Freezing Favela — was chosen despite being shorter-term, simply because the space was perfect for experimentation. “We could have found other locations. There are all kinds of rough qualities to it [e.g. there is no heating] but we like to play and experiment with these spaces.”

Rather than designing mobile furniture, Velthoven explains how Mediamatic will increasingly move its activities and resources into the cloud, investing in a lightness that is also the subject of the organization’s next project, starting in October. Not everything can be uploaded on a server, but — if worse comes to worst — there is always a last resort: “The public library. Worst case scenario we can always work there, they have good coffee. Basically, what you try to make is as little compromise as you can.”



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Nicola Bozzi

Afternoon person, eternal beginner. Research on #tagging + critique. Writing about arts, media & cities. Serious about comedy.