Crisis-proof Urbanism 1

While vacant blocks are held hostage by real-estate prices, architects and urbanists find ways to make the current instability a strength rather than an obstacle.


Architecture / Nicola Bozzi

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 Office buildings and outdated models of social housing alike are paralyzed between impossible renovations and expensive demolitions, unable to keep up with the pace of the surrounding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.

Above: the Schieblock. Top: the bridge by ZUS. Photo Luchtsingel.

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.


Hofpoort. Photo Ossip van Duivenbode

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 800m2 office 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.

Bureau M.E.S.T., De Flat, Amsterdam

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 m2 versus 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.

Bureau M.E.S.T., De Flat, Amsterdam

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.”

Bureau M.E.S.T., De Flat, Amsterdam

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.

Bureau M.E.S.T., De Flat, Amsterdam

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.

Bureau M.E.S.T., De Flat

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.

Bureau M.E.S.T., De Flat, Amsterdam

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.”

(Two more case studies in the second part, online next week)