MA Studies > Interior design > Interior design alumnus > Martijn van Wijk

Martijn van Wijk

Alumnus
Artists of Vacancy
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Renaissance of the Ruins

 

Seeing the Netherlands as a dense and heavily occupied country it might come as a surprise hearing that there is plenty of unused architecture. At the moment we have at least eight million square meters of office space plus thousands of government owned buildings lying vacant. Therefore the Dutch contribution of last year’s architecture Biennale in Venice did not show new architecture. Titled Vacant NL, the Dutch pavilion exhibited a blue foam landscape representing over four thousand existing government-owned vacant buildings (Fig.1). More on this exhibition later.

 

As an introduction it is more interesting to look at the first reactions on the Dutch pavilion. A panel discussion called Renaissance of the Ruins was held after the opening where Volume magazine editors Arjen Oosterman, Rem Koolhaas, Mark Wigley and Jeffrey Inaba gave some first thoughts and suggestions on the issue of vacancy. How do we deal with vacant buildings as a social, economical and cultural challenge? How do we access the enormous potential of vacant buildings and what kind of design attitude does this evoke?

 

Arjen Oosterman ensured that there is still enough to be constructed in the world (just look at Asia where buildings still pop up like mushrooms). Nevertheless, being a designer operational in Europe new buildings will not have the big priority. There is a need for cleverness in reuse: use what we have and deal with the already existing. We have to maintain a healthy lifecycle of buildings and surroundings. Educational institutes should also adapt to these changing conditions. What are for instance the possibilities for temporary use? Shifts in education and a change of the designers’ mentality are necessary, but that is not all. Economic and political conditions need to be questioned and changed. At the moment building new is much easier then adapting or reusing existing buildings. Regulation, laws and habits are at the moment obstacles for progression.

 

Another, more calm, take on the subject was by Rem Koolhaas who suggested not to look at it as a big problem but as a collection of previous access that we should try to make our own. He explains that the presented buildings are often dating from periods that were more generous then ours. They are often bigger then necessary and they have absurd dimensions of halls and staircases. It is these elements of access, redundancy, absurdity and exaggerated sizes that, in Rem Koolhaas’ opinion, are often missing aspects of our current thinking and can be extremely fertile in provoking imagination.

 

Jeffrey Inaba on his turn connected Volume’s then latest issue on counterculture to the current problems of vacant buildings. In the late sixties there was a sense of refusal to engage mainstream society. Dropping out of society was considered to be an act of rejection and non-participation. But upon closer inspection the idea of refusal was a way to produce alternative realities and alternative architecture. The Dutch pavilion being vacant and not showing new architecture but a collection of the unused and existing is in a way also a refusal and a call to look for different opportunities in architecture to built and create things in architecture that haven’t been fully explored.

 

Last one was Mark Wigley who explained that the notion of vacant specifically does not mean empty. It is a capacity, an essential structural element; it can actually be seen as a material. He referred to the ‘no vacancy’ signs in classic movies that were lid up meaning there is no room, or turned off meaning that there was room. Looking at the inspirational and stimulating aspects a certain percentage of vacancy is normal and even necessary. You don’t want to have too much vacancy but you definitely don’t want to have too little.

 

We need artists of vacancy.

   


Mutable Space

 

Following Jeffrey Inaba’s suggestion to look at people that wanted to produce alternative architecture Gordon Matta Clark is an obvious one to begin with. Not only because of his struggle with architectural discourse but also his relevant focus on abandoned structures. After graduating as an architect Matta Clark decided to make buildings and the spaces around them the subject of matter. In his brief career (cut short by his death from cancer 1943-87) he had a negative view on modern architecture and society. He felt that modern architecture was not meeting the needs of people but only created inhumane situations. Buildings were made about function and machines, not about use. Most practitioners of the profession were not solving human problems except how to make a living for their own. Architecture was a costly undertaking and therefore came equipped with its own propaganda. In the fifties and sixties American cities evolved into a completely International Style steel and glass megalopolis. In the contrast, great areas of what had been residential were being abandoned. Matta Clark would cut out sections of such buildings with a power saw in order to reveal their hidden construction, to create previous non-existing views, and to create metaphors for the human condition. He questioned the meaning of home, property, the private vs. public, and architecture as spaces themselves. What defined them, and what would it take to tackle those conceptions. Take for example his work Bingo(Fig.2). Like a dollhouse Matta-Clark had cut off parts of the wall on one side of the building. This enabled a view into the building immediately changing the private into public. In one gesture people were now able to look into the interior and imagine the people who had lived inside. The space of the building had merged with the space of its surroundings and neighbourhood because it no longer had walls to contain it.

 

In an interviewwith Donald Wall he mentions thathis workhasaclose connectionwith the process asaform oftheatre in which the working on the building and the made structural changes are the performance. Pedestrians passing by stopped to view the revealing of the cut-out openings making them the audience. It seemed that they were fascinated by space-giving activities. “Buildings are fixed entities in the minds of most – the notion of the mutable space is virtually taboo – even in one’s own house.”

An experience in Milan gave Matta Clark an interesting thought of how his work could develop in the future. After founding a factory complex to cut-up it turned out to be occupied by a group of radical Communist youths. They wanted to prevent possible intervention of real estate developers from exploiting the property. Instead they wanted the area to be used for a much needed community service center. Matta Clark: My exposure to this confrontation was my first awakening to doing my work, not in artistic isolation, but through an active exchange with peoples’ concern for their own neighbourhood”. He then wanted to take this idea to New York where he imagined working with an existing neighbourhood youth group that could be involved in converting abandoned buildings into social spaces. The group could get practical information about how buildings are made and, most important, some experience with the very real possibility of mutating their own surroundings.

 


Play the void

 

The revelation of being able to change own surroundings (mutable space) can be found back in a lively political movement called “Reclaim The Streets”. In the book No Logo (2000), written by Naomi Klein, a chapter is dedicated to this movement. She explains how in the late nineties the privatization of public space was causing erosion of neighbourhood and community. Everywhere started to look the same and locality was nowhere to be found. It was a time where the street was only a place for advertising, a place dominated by cars and a place to only move through not to be in. That was why countercultures as ravers, deejays, squatters, anti-corporate activists, political artists and radical ecologists formed a group that wanted to reclaim space for collective use, as commons. They organized spontaneous gatherings on the streets stopping traffic, starting a rave, planting trees, and everything else that would help reclaiming public space. Naomi Klein: “In an instant, a crowd of seemingly impromptu partyers transforms a traffic artery into a surrealist playpen”.They were new ways of imagining freedom without commercial control, a freedom that was not about escaping the claustrophobic city, but a freedom that was about transforming the here and now. Squatters claiming a building were no exception.

 

In a book by Bilwet (Bevordering van de ILlegale WETenschap: Geert Lovink, Arjen Mulder, Basjan van Stam, Lex Wouterloot en Patrice Riemens.), calledBewegingsleer (1990), describes squatting originally as nothing more then breaking a door. It was the inclusion of living space without having the necessary permits. It was proof that, apart from political faith in regulation, concrete problems could be solved on a highly practical level. Because of the ‘vacancy law’ (a building being vacant longer then one year was allowed to be squatted until the owner found a new function for it) unused spaces were now enabled for usage. It seems that squatters were not alien by the notion of mutable space; in a way like Matta Clark they were artists of vacancy exploring new concepts of home, ownership (simply forgetting it) and regulation (ignoring it). Bilwet: “Squatters were artists because they entered the void to play it not to decorate it.” The actual ‘squat’, the process of entering a vacant building, is being described as a ‘sensory sensation’ starting with a violent breaking of a door. The door was seen as the ‘magic’ object where the normal and ‘other’ reality converged. Once opened it became a suction point that would pull you in immediately and would let you enter what Bilwet calls the ‘collective space’. Bilwet: “In the middle of the city, among theconcreteformsof everydayboredom, theyenteredwithinaspace ofinfinite possibilities.” The entering of this specific ‘collective space’ was not about standing up for your housing rights nor was it about resisting the repression of the state; it was an exploration of space beyond the existing order, something new that you shared with co-squatters.

 

In an issue of Archisabout ‘collectivity’ (2001), Arjen Oosterman wrote an article about a squatted building still existing today. Located west of the Amsterdam central station lies a working complex called Veem. With a total surface of 10.000 square meters it offers space for eighty small companies and artists, an art gallery and a theatre with café. About thirty years ago the lease of the former warehouse was at its end, which also included an obligation for demolition. To avoid high financial costs the owner, Pakhoed concern, deliberately gave away the key to the architect Jaap Baars. Together with three other pioneers Jaap pseudo-squatted (with key) the building and started a ten-year plan that would transform the building to the state it is in right now. Seeing the interior of the Veem it’s quite a contrast compared to your average squatted building, which often included secret walkthroughs, holes in the walls and sloppy disseminations of individual rooms. It was obvious that this building had a plan, an organization, it was well thought through. The presence of an architect is clear. From the start there has been a zoning plan: noisemakers in the basement, public attractors on the ground floor, art studios on the top floor and offices in between. Also dwelling was not allowed for it would mean building various facilities and regarding to legal, housing- and subsidy regulations that would provide problems. The plan was to create a building where people would work.

Among the group of users were photographers, a frame maker, graphic designers, artists, a printer, a research agency, architects and so on. Carefully they were permitted to be part of the building. They were people who searched cheap space that the city did not offer. People that showed commitment and had enough time to build their own spaces. People that took the time for the endless meetings that were needed to give the desired results. Sure the architect was decisive in many spatial and material issues, but decision-making was always treated as a collective responsibility. Veem had internal commissions for budget, construction, aesthetics, governance and more. There was for instance a decision to re-use wood leftovers to build new staircases (Fig.), a sculptor working in the building was commissioned to design matching handrails, and an artist was commissioned to do the colour schemes of the floor. The omniscient collective started as a foundation and later became an association; this gave every individual a legal form in the decision-making and also helped with establishing normal relations with outside parties like banks or the municipal. A low rent, an important mission, was accomplished by working on the building. Oosterman: “By making an individually estimated contribution in kind to the revamping everyone could accommodate the price per square meter for his or her studio, a principle also accepted by subsidizers and bankers.”

 

The interplay between architecture and user is what makes this project interesting. There was no finished design from the start; it was a participatory design, a mutual influencing; an open end. Users shared the responsibility for the design in a process initiated by the architect. A framework in the form of an empty ‘free’ carcass encouraged the users to complete it. Oosterman:“It is interesting to see that architecture can still be a process, a social factor, a resultant.” The colonizing and occupation of a building by private citizens, something a government would not allow very quickly, has resulted in something highly manageable. Together as a collective they were able to influence and create their own working environment.

 

 

Towards a new spatial politics

 

The activity of squatters, call it ‘squativity’,has greatly contributedto the improvement ofneighborhoods, wheretheownersjustleftdecayingbuildings. Veem, discussed earlier, is one of the many good examples for that matter. Other examples are the now popular music venues like Tivoli, Paradiso, Melkweg and Roxy, but also the working complex Tetterode. Nonetheless, after forty years of legal rights to housing in buildings empty for at least one year, squatting of vacant buildings in the Netherlands has been illegalized on October 2010. Squat a building now and you are seen as a criminal and you could even end up in jail. The effective ‘squativity’ has been forced into passivity.

 

This can be explained by referring to the text Artistic Delay (2010), written by Nicolas Bourriaud. According to him a distance has been created between the active and passive, the producer and the consumer, between political life and its citizens. It seems that our society is turning into the capitalist dream: a society where everything is completely abstract. Governments are becoming the market and seem to forget the importance of the inter-human sphere. Citizens are led to believe that they can partake in any political decision-making while in fact the market is creating more and more images for them. To reduce this distance activity seems to be an answer. Bourriaud: “Activity becomes really important when we talk about a subject, about a world, about the art world, where it is possible to inject humanity into every aspect.” He refers to his latest book The Radicant in which he describes an organism that is able to adapt to its surroundings. He mentions ivy and strawberry as two examples. Both living organisms are able to produce their own roots while at the same inventing themselves. They don’t need to be stuck into the ground to grow; they are mobile and can be taken to another place. This is reminiscent to the adaptive quality of squatters when they were forced out of their current building. Bourriaud argues that we should not stick to an already existing image. Instead of asking ourselves were we are from, we should always ask ourselves where we are going.

 

An answer to that question is given in the book Re-public (2005) written by Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman from architecture firm ZUS (Zones Urbaines Sensibles). They underline the fact that the government’s responsibility of producing space has been contracted out since the arrival of the market. Like Bourriaud mentioned: the government has become the market. This is making it difficult for the government to develop frameworks for the long-term and the public interest, since market demands are based on short-term profits. Citizens are more and more seen as customers, which causes problems in the political sphere. The citizen as a customer wants to be treated as ‘king’ and want the government to do what they ask. As a consequence participation-processes have been developed to reduce the distance between citizens and political life. This is the distance Bourriaud means. But the reduction of that distance is illustrating a shift from a normal democracy to a so-called ‘reverse democracy’. The government of a normal democracy provides the population with leadership; they accepted their authority. In a ‘reverse democracy’ the government is not able or willing to provide leadership and the population doesn’t want to be guided. It is not bad to involve citizens in the shaping of their surroundings, on the contrary. But the main goal of the current participation is meant to speed up processes and to keep short-term politics running without any problems or rejections. The interactive domain should be about content, but now there is an obsession with the way things are created. The role of the architect has become weak. “Since they can neither rely on a strong government, prepared to take responsibility itself and sufficiently daring to set boundaries, nor become completely experimental, because they have to build for the market.” Where architects should be experts of space they are now acting as intermediaries between local authorities and the public or as image managers. This interpassive process created by the ‘reverse democracy’ produces mediocre spaces. Examples are the many industrial estates along motorways and in many suburban areas.

 

ZUS proposes a strategy that could have the power to break through our era of interpassivity. First a new balance must be created between the government and the market. ZUS:“…it would be good thing if government were to withdraw from the domain of diversity and the short term and concentrate on the big picture, on pragmatic frameworks and sustainability.” Public interest should play a central role in our current politics not economics. Issues like health, education, public transport and the public domain that were once government responsibilities should be secured again. The government should establish clear parameters that show the balance between scale and program. They could for example make clear how much public space can be issued to collectives and private individuals or what the proper ratio is of normal to special education. These new obtained responsibilities will be less in number but they will have a much bigger impact. The tougher occurred limits will result in more local freedom. The market will have no choice but to accept these new conditions and cooperate with local people to add specific content to locations. If the distribution of roles between the governments and market has been clarified new possibilities will emerge for a richer urban fabric that is able to adapt to local needs. In this strategy the architect can fulfil an important role by becoming involved in political and public affairs. “By generating new spatial models which can provide answers to new political and ecological questions and which can help to shape the ‘clash of civilisations’ and redefine the significance of location in a globalising world.” This calls for a much more pro-active design attitude.

 

A realised project by ZUS explains this new and important role of the architect. It started with the choice of their office space. The Schieblock, located in the central district of Rotterdam, is an office building that had been vacant for twenty years. It has been waiting for a redevelopment that will most certainly not start before 2020. A good ten years ago ZUS was able to rent a cheap space there via an anti-squat firm (to keep out squatters). After some cleaning up and the removal of some system-ceiling panels, they discovered that the building consisted of a very good and simple concrete shell. Because the enormous available space and its location near the central station they did not want to leave anymore. When in 2007 it became clear that the whole central district area, including Schieblock, would be demolished in favour of new developments, ZUS wrote a critical article explaining the importance of a ‘bridge’ between the present vacant situation and the eventual new developments. The development of the 500.000 m2 of high-rise would mean lengthy demolition and vacancy. The local creative economy that inhabits a lot of the existing buildings in that area would have to flourish out of nothing.

 

ZUS proposed to use the Schieblock as a laboratory that could experiment with public space and various programs in the now lifeless plinth (ground floor of a building) to maintain and improve locality. When in the summer of 2009 the Acadamy of Architecture used the ground floor of the Schieblock for their graduation exhibition things took of. The plinth, called Dépendance, was becoming a magnet of urban culture where lectures, exhibitions, debates and workshops could be held (Fig). With the support of the owner ZUS developed a 5-yea plan for the temporary transformation of the Schieblock building. The profit that ZUS is making on the Dépendance is used for the further development of the building like a roof garden that could function as an informal meeting place or a bicycle path that goes straight through the building and provides easier access to different zones of the area. The spaces on other floors became places for work and encounter, intended for everyone involved with urban development. It houses designers, biologists, economists, architects, cultural entrepreneurs, artists and programmers. New ways of transforming the city are tested in this interdisciplinary team. The Schieblock is an architecture that is constantly inventing itself. Like the organism Bourriaud mentions that relates to squatters, it is able to temporary adapt to emergent local needs and influence future developments.

 

 

People meet in architecture (of the past)

 

Bourriaud’s question of where we are going seems evident. The recent Architecture Biennale in Venice aims to find out where our global society is heading. How can architects proof their importance in this growing abstract world? Kazuyo Sejima, architect of SANAA, was curator of that Biennale. People Meet In Architecture, the theme of the Biennale, was a reflection on architecture. Sejima: “The twenty-first century has just started. Many radical changes are taking place. In such a rapid-changing context, can architecture clarify new values and a new lifestyle for the present?”  In response to this question a selection of architects, artists and engineers proposed ways to investigate relationships among people. While the last thirty years the public of the architecture biennale was mainly asked to look at the architectural expression, now the focus lies on the architectural performance. Architecture, the theatre for men’s encounters, is in the first place intended as a place to meet.

 

Looking at the Romanian Pavilion, 1.1, it clearly shows that architecture is a discipline that can separate people through walls or bring them together through openings in those walls. They did not put it to the test like Matta-Clark, but they visualized it strong and clear. The exhibition space consisted out of two clear spaces: one that is controlled and another that is accidental and a result of the first. The controlled space is a closed space of 94m2 in the middle of the room, which represented the population density in Bucharest: 94m2/person (Fig). This is the individual, sacred, private and abstract space and can only be entered by one person at a time. When an individual has entered he or she will notice two small holes on both ends of the space and a larger hole in the ceiling. Through them you can see the other space where multiple people could walk: a collective, exterior, profane, public and real space. The tension created by the small peek holes kept them connected. Curators: “…one cannot exist without the other and both cannot exist without architecture.” Architects should be aware of the relationship between these two essential spaces.

 

Usus/Usures(Use/Wear) at the Belgian Pavilion, curated by Rotor, examined the relationship between people and their environment by focussing on the unavoidable transformation of materials by its users. They wish to underscore that architecture is more than just a matter of construction or formal language. It is essentially a response to a need, a way of involving people in their connection to the world, a means to create relationships with others. Wear, the result of use, can be seen as a way of reading architecture. In their published catalogue they even state that wear can influence action. They give an example of a person that is about to go through a double door. Both doors are fitted with handles, but the metal of just one handle is polished from use. The user will not be mistaken in assuming that this is the side that will open (Fig). Wear humanizes architecture and brings it to life. For the Pavilion Rotor designed a minimal art exhibition. After spending years touring buildings in Belgium Rotor documented and collected sections of walls, wooden floors, stained carpets, tired stairs, elevator cabins, plastic chairs and other worn out fragments of buildings. They made a selection, which they then exhibited on the white walls of the pavilion. The objects now looked like minimalistic sculptures completely taken away from their original context, which then invited the visitors to question their tolerance towards wear.

 

Also focussing on the existing stock was the Russian Pavilion. Curated by Sergei Tchoban, Pavel Khoroshilov and Grigory Revzin, The Russia Factory presented possibilities for the re-use of vacant factories in former industrial towns across Russia.

The exhibition focussed on one town, Vyshny Volochock, which functions as a model project for more then three hundred similar towns in Russia. The town is surrounded by four large industrial zones, all within walking distance to the town’s centre. The revitalization of these spaces as centres for the town’s development through use as cultural educational and social purposes could have an exemplary role to the other similar towns. The pavilion itself was divided into three rooms that you could only walk through in one direction. The first room showed a movie about life in Vyshny Volochock. Second room was an impressive circular room that presented an impressive panorama painting of the industrial town included with proposed redevelopments. A very romantic but realistic visual of how it could be in the future (Fig). The third room presented detailed information and design proposals. The curators had created a master plan for the reconstruction of the town and offered specific industrial sites as design projects to five architecture firms. The curators argued that today it is important that architects form their own agenda and offer society an idea that can serve as an aspiration.

 

The Polish Pavilion Emergency Exit strongly reminds of the Dutch squatting movement. With their exhibition artist Agnieszka Kurant and architect Aleksandra Wasilkowska are calling for ways to escape the health and safety regulations in buildings and urban space that seek to plan, control risk and prevent the accidental and unexpected. This idea was translated into an installation. Metal cages that were once used to contain birds and prevent them from flying were used to create a structure where visitors were able to climb to the top and jump off into an artificial cloud (Fig). It represented a way to escape urbanism and find ultimate freedom. Just like squatters that broke the door and entered their ‘collective space’.  It is a portable hole to the unknown; a catalyst for different, contradictory emotions and needs.” Emergency exitshows the emergence of in-between spaces such as abandoned buildings, illegal markets, rooftops and tunnels where people can free oneself from the current system. Kurant and Wasilkowska argue that spontaneity and risk are human characteristics that need space. A city will loose its balance if it cannot cope with emergent needs and changes.

 

Already mentioned in the introduction and used as a starting point for this essay is the Dutch pavilion Vacant NL. The curators Rietveld Landscape (Ronald and Erik Rietveld) see an important role for the architect in the temporary reuse of vacant buildings. During their exhibition 4326 blue-foam miniature models were shown to indicate the millions of square meters of vacant space in the Netherlands alone. All government owned buildings that in principle belong to us all. Do the math and this would mean that each vacant building is owned by at least four thousand people. In their curatorial statement Rietveld Landscape explains that we do not realize vacant property is costing us, as taxpayers, a lot of money. They give a shocking example of Radio Kootwijk in Apeldoorn, which costs the government (read: taxpayers) around €200,000 a year for being vacant only (Fig). There lies a huge potential in these spatial places and the Dutch government is failing to use it. All the shown buildings have a length of vacancy varying from one week to ten years. It is in these timeframes that these buildings can be used effectively. Instead of choosing a defensive mode, like anti-squatting, we need more socially relevant and innovative usages “The Interim and experimental reuse of buildings can offer valuable insights into the longer-term potential of a location” The Schieblock mentioned earlier proofs that this so-called interim can be deliberately used as an exploratory stage.



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Conclusion

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Instead of putting vacant property on hold for better economic times, it is smarter to run strategies that make the time before renovation, reallocation or demolition take place, productive and useful. They can be used as test sites to experiment with alternative uses. The discussed artists of vacancy Gordon Matta Clark, squatters and ZUS all show a deep concern about thecondition anddevelopment of ourpublicdomain. It seems that the era they are, or were, living in doesn’t matter. Wether in the seventies or the twentyfirst century they all acted from their own agenda and out of personal curiousity and ideals. With their often-unsolicited approaches and designs they not only rescue vacant architectures from a certain death, but simultaneously they drastically improve and change the future. They set in motions that go beyond the building itself. Whether with ‘illegal’ activities, resident participation, creative coalitions, critical articles, adaptive transformation, small-scale interventions or large-scale connections, they all add up to the expansion of concepts and values within social, economic and cultural conditions. In a time that the government has merged with the market architects at large have become passive. This asks for a pro-active or even an activist-like design attitude that does not avoid risks and takes on the experiment. It is a design attitude that doesn’t take a passive position sticking into the ground, it is an active attitude that adapts to current needs and is constantly able to invent itself. Artists of vacancy use vacant buildings to set the standard for a more sustainable future that reflects the local needs of a specific location.

 

 


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