Vacant NL

Suena tan obvio que casi pasa desapercibido, pero el tema de esta Bienal de Arquitectura marca un punto de inflexión en su historia. Después de más de treinta años pidiéndole al público que mire la arquitectura, en esta ocasión la atención se centra en algo que el mundo ha sabido durante mucho tiempo: que, en primer lugar, la arquitectura pretende ser un lugar de encuentro. Kazuyo Sejima ha convertido la arquitectura en un verbo: un buen edificio hace que suceda algo que va más allá del propio edificio.

It sounds so obvious that it almost passes unnoticed, but the theme of this architecture biennale marks a turning point in its history. After more than thirty years of mainly asking the public to look at  architecture, this time the focus is on something that the rest of the world has known about for a long time: that architecture is in the first place intended as a place to meet. Kazuyo Sejima has turned architecture into a verb: a good building makes something happen that goes beyond the building itself.

What the building itself wants to say, is of secondary importance. This biennale tones down the importance of the architectural expression in order to give increased prominence to the architectural performance. At the same time it makes architecture extremely relevant again, because if there is anything that this profession needs at the present time, it is the proof that it matters not only in the Arsenale and the Giardini, but also in the everyday lives of people –in fact, that it can enhance the quality of those lives. We can call this shift from individual expression to collective performance the Architecture of Consequence. The NAI launched its innovation agenda at the end of 2008 in  which the terrains are determined on which this performance can be made very substantial. Architecture was presented that formulates answers in an improbably creative way to the existential questions that challenge us all over the world. It is an architecture that is no longer a social liability by the choices that it makes of the wrong materials and building techniques, the wrong way to climatize environments, the wrong locations, the wrong investment horizons, and by producing outdated typologies, but is a social benefactor by making the right choice on all those fronts. Architecture was also shown that helps people to meet one another in a way that promotes increasing mutual acceptance. To put it mildly, there is plenty of need for that at the moment. That is also why we chose Rietveld Landscape for the Dutch contribution.

The firm stands out for designs that, rather than presenting themselves, solve problems – if possible even a couple of problems at the same time, no matter if they do not appear to have much connection with one another at first sight. Sometimes those problems cannot be solved with new architecture at all; sometimes they are problems that can be solved with old architecture –architecture that has been in existence for a long time and is no longer appreciated by anybody, or has fallen into disuse. You would not normally expect to see this architecture at a biennale because it was written off long ago. That is why we are doing precisely that as a radical homage to Sejima. People meet in architecture of the past for the future’s sake. Is there so much unused architecture in the Netherlands? Few people think that a lot is left empty in the Netherlands. On the contrary, many in the Netherlands and abroad regard the country as densely populated and heavily occupied. Some even regard the Netherlands  as full: there is hardly any room left for anything or anyone. It might therefore come as a surprise for them to know that a large part of the Netherlands is indeed vacant and is growing more vacant by the day.Millions of square metres to which no one pays any heed are at stake. And they are often beautiful buildings.

The Dutch contribution to this biennale brings this forgotten treasure back in circulation. Entirely in the spirit of Architecture of Consequence, it does so not in order to rescue the architecture of the past from a certain death, but to drastically improve the future that lies before us. This is where the Netherlands and the world meet one another. This is the innovation that we have in mind, an innovation that starts with the right environment and that, if you ask us, could not succeed at all without that environment. It is an environment that is so inexpensive to inhabit, that it saves you time to rethink the world, an environment that makes it easy to meet other people who are involved in the same thought process and to be stimulated by that encounter, an environment that is easy for people to cherish, an environment that is immediately sustainable by recycling alone, an environment that uses well-considered reuse to stimulate the craftsmanlike capacity to make unique details, an environment that helps to preserve historical awareness. The future that still has to be written, with thanks to the past that seemed to have been written off. The Dutch pavilion at this biennale is an offer to the world, that even takes our own breath away. Occupy our empty space with your ideas and receive an original Dutch architecture in return, making both you and us happy. Welcome to Vacant NL.

Rietveld Landscape has been invited by the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) to make a statement in the form of an installation about the potential of landscape architecture to contribute to resolving the major challenges facing society today. The installation ‘Vacant NL, where architecture meets ideas’ calls upon the Dutch government to make use of the enormous potential of inspiring, temporarily unoccupied buildings from the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries for innovation within the creative knowledge economy. Our starting point is the political ambition of the Netherlands  to attain a position among the top five knowledge economies in the world. Last year the Dutch parliament supported this ambition unanimously. The transition to a knowledge economy of that kind calls not only for excellent research, education and cherishing of talent, but also for specific spatial conditions. Partly due to a one-sided focus on traditional economic parameters, so far little attention has been paid to the spatial conditions for innovation. Five ‘key sectors’ have been identified in the widely supported Dutch Knowledge and Innovation Agenda: water, high-tech systems, creative industry, chemical industry, and food & flowers. We focus on the specific conditions for what the government calls the ‘key sector creative industry’: architecture, design, digital media, games, fashion, graphic design, etc. The creative sector can make a relevant contribution to the complex challenges facing society.

Cooperation between creative industry and scientists is crucial in this respect. Design and architecture have remained isolated from other disciplines for too long, and science was on an island too. Innovation stands to gain from cross-fertilisation and face-to-face contact between pioneers from the creative industry, science and technology. After all, innovation often results from considering the same challenges from different perspectives together with other people. Moreover, the availability of affordable, inspiring places of work is very important for young talent precisely now. As a result of the current economic crisis, many of our colleagues have lost their job, students of design and architecture graduate without any prospects of employment, many freelances have started to use up their savings, and the government is preparing unprecedented spending cuts. How can we invest in innovation at a time of scarce resources? The large number of vacant public buildings means that the government is failing to make use of an enormous potential. These vacant buildings are costing society a lot of money at the moment, while they can also be used to accommodate the next generation of innovators. The large variety of empty heritage offers all kinds of possibilities for use. Especially in combination with related more flexible regulations, interim use can challenge creative entrepreneurs who are starting out to come up with innovative experiments. Temporary locations are excellent laboratories for a government that wants to try out non-regulated zones in which there is maximal scope for innovation.

Vision on Vacancy
Although vacant property is often left unutilised, interest in the recycling of existing buildings for a different purpose is growing in the Netherlands and elsewhere. In some cases, such as Tate Modern in London or Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam, that is highly successful. However, as far as temporary reuse is concerned, as a property owner the government opts only too often, for instance in the case of vacancy (or “anti-squatter”) management, for a defensive way of filling the void. We call for a more socially relevant and innovative use of these public assets. A few key points of our vision: — Top 5 ambition for the Dutch knowledge economy A novel feature of our project is its link with the Dutch Knowledge and Innovation Agenda.We take seriously its aim to attain a position among the top five knowledge economies in the world. If you set out from that national political ambition and strategy, you make different choices. With respect to reuse this could mean, for instance, not just filling up spaces that are empty, but using attractive vacant places first of all for people who are stretching the boundaries of the design and architecture disciplines, or for creative initiators who are dedicating their efforts to excellent education in digital media or resolving an urgent societal issue. ‘Vacant NL, where architecture meets ideas’ is thus a call to the national government, and in particular to the future Minister of Innovation, to make use of vacant property for our creative industry’s Innovation Programme. — First use vacant government property Since the innovation ambition emerged from national politics, we primarily target government property that is vacant for a period between one week and ten years. Of course we hope that the good example (vacancy for innovation) of the government will have a spin-off towards the market. A special feature is that there is a vast number of spaces that are not monotonous, but are very diverse because the buildings were once designed for a specific purpose: lighthouses, hospitals, water towers, factory buildings, airports, hangars, offices, forts, bunkers, schools, swimming pools and many more. Thousands of vacant buildings are not privately owned but are state property. In principle they belong to us all. It is often forgotten that vacant property costs the taxpayer a lot of money: the case of Radio Kootwijk in Apeldoorn cost around €200,000 a year.

The former Government Advisor on Cultural Heritage, Fons Asselbergs, estimates that the number of inspiring, vacant buildings with a government or public function is between 50 and 80 per medium-sized local authority (of which there are about a hundred in the Netherlands). That means a total of thousands of vacant buildings, not counting around a thousand military objects and hundreds of state-owned vacant lots. And Vacant NL is growing: ‘A farm a day, two churches a week, and a nunnery each month. They are all becoming vacant.’ (Frank Strolenberg, Trouw, 19 June, 2010, p. 4). Temporary reuse can yield exciting labs for innovations, paid for with the money that the taxpayer is now paying for vacant property. — Temporary use as strategy We focus on the period (or “meantime”) between when a property becomes vacant and its renovation, reallocation or demolition.We primarily target buildings that are vacant for a period between one week and ten years. If the right people are in the right place, even a project that lasts only a week can make a difference. At the moment reallocation takes up an enormous amount of time because of endless consultations and a change in the zoning plan. For example, an unusual location like the Hembrug site with more than 100 buildings in Amsterdam  has already been “waiting” many years for reallocation. This is an unnecessary waste of time: there is a “waiting period” for the buildings and a “waiting period” for young creative entrepreneurs, often with scarce resources and limited networks, who are looking for inspiring space. — Cross-fertilisation and space for experiment Given the current complexity of cities, landscape and society, the urgent societal challenges call for an integral and multidisciplinary approach. That is why we are explicitly calling for cross-fertilisation between young creative entrepreneurs (or more generally, initiators of projects) and breakthrough science because it is at this interface in particular that innovation is to be expected. Online social networks have by no means made face-to-face contact redundant; on the contrary, the two forms of interaction complement one another. By offering young, creative pioneers and scientists joint spaces for work and experiment, it becomes easier for them to work together and to share their knowledge, creativity and social networks. — Interim use as test bed for reallocation The interim and experimental reuse of buildings can offer valuable insights into the longer-term potential of a location, as the interim use of the Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam, for instance, has demonstrated. So the interim can be deliberately deployed as an exploratory stage.

NAI Architecture of Consequence Agenda
The link with the societal themes that the NAI is targeting with its Architecture of Consequence agenda is fourfold. First, our proposal is about finding new economic value. Vacancy has an enormous potential for society and for the (creative) economy that is barely used at the moment.We focus on the transition to a creative knowledge economy.Moreover, a flourishing creative ecology leads to a lively climate for the setting up of small businesses, which is important for attracting and holding on to talent. Second, from the perspective of sustainability, the reuse of vacant property is often a wise option. Third, more of the scarce open space in the Netherlands is left untouched and the quality of the urban public domain will benefit. Finally, the urgent issues call for innovation, and not just a little, but plenty of it–in fact, for a culture in which design and innovation play a key role. An important question is: How we can activate very many talented individuals from various backgrounds, including young craftsmen, within the creative knowledge economy?

Site-specific team
The Rietveld Pavilion is the ideal location for the Dutch submission. The building itself has stood vacant for more than 39 years. Built in 1954, it stands on Dutch territory and is vacant for around 8.5 months a year. As curator we have put together a multidisciplinary team to design the installation, consisting of people with an interest in the innovative potential of vacant property and international experience in the creative industry: Jurgen Bey (designer), Joost Grootens (graphic designer), Ronald Rietveld (landscape architect), Erik Rietveld (philosopher/ economist), Saskia van Stein (curator NAI), and Barbara Visser (artist). Landstra & De Vries and Claus Wiersma (designer) are responsible for the construction of the exhibition.

We hope that the installation will inspire people and set in motion a more ambitious way of thinking about the potential of temporary reuse. At the same time we hope that the new Minister of Innovation will see that good spatial conditions are of inestimable value for innovation in the creative knowledge economy.


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