Vacant NL: Renaissance of the Ruins

This year’s Dutch pavilion at the Venice Biennale hosts ‘Vacant NL’, an inventory of empty buildings irrespective of their age or former function. Five thousand of these dormant shells, all government property, are shown as miniature models to indicate the millions of square meters vacant (floor) space in the Netherlands alone. Volume editors Rem Koolhaas, Mark Wigley, Jeffrey Inaba and myself gave a first reaction on the theme, and presented some ideas for further exploration during the opening weekend. In particular, Rem Koolhaas presented OMA’s experience with changing an old prison in the Netherlands in the early 1980s; Jeffrey Inaba connected VOLUME’s latest issue on counterculture as a mentality and socio-political experiment with respect to the task presented here; Mark Wigley stressed the normality and necessity of a certain percentage of empty building stock, pointing at the inspirational and stimulating aspects. My five remarks, presented while seated below the ‘low ceiling’ of the blue foam marquette in the Dutch pavilion, reappear below.

1. If AMO/OMA, in one of the rooms of this exhibition’s main pavilion, states that it ‘has been obsessed, from the beginning, with history’ (propagating an ‘almost doing nothing’ approach), I can also remark that VOLUME/Archis has been obsessed from its beginning with empty buildings. The reasons may in part have been banal – the need of cheap office space – but the engagement was and is sincere. Archis is currently housed in the former health service center of Shell in Amsterdam and is involved in the reuse of other buildings on this huge inner-city site. We are also addressing the issue of what to do with the larger part of the former Shell terrain that awaits redevelopment, after most of its abandoned laboratory buildings have been demolished although the projected residential buildings have been put on hold. The expected delay in redevelopment will be 5 to 10 years, leaving the site as a fenced-off, empty sand pit for years to come. So my first remark is: vacancy is not only about empty buildings, but also about empty land and vacant plots.

2. During the Dutch pavilion’s opening ceremony, Mr. Cor Zadelhoff, retired real estate agent, expressed his mea culpa for the pitiful real estate situation in our country. He pled guilty for introducing lease and rental constructions for offices, where in the past firms would build and own their own office space. This freed capital to be used for the company’s core business, but this also produced a serious number of technical and functional crappy office buildings that are empty today. Yes, self-accusation is interesting as a signal (real estate developers and agents being instrumental in producing the situation we’re in, comparable with the bankers’ role for the credit crisis), but the problem as indicated is only one element in a larger whole. So my second remark is: crappy buildings and empty offices are only part of the problem. Fundamental economic and cultural shifts (products and production methods) have changed the footprint of our economy. This sheds new light on the relation between function and use.

3. After seeing the Dutch pavilion, there is no need to panic for Dutch or European architects; the globe still needs a lot of new construction. But if you’re primarily designing for the local or regional European market; ‘new’ may not be the main focus. My third remark is: architects must become smarter in the art of reuse.

4. Reuse was about taking apart and constructing anew with existing elements, components, and materials (instead of demolishing and starting from scratch). It was a revolution that is still gaining in attention and popularity. ‘Cradle to cradle’ is one of its mantra with two Americans (McDonnough and Baumgarten) as high priests and Mr. Gore as nuntius. Future reuse will be about refraining from construction at all. So the fourth remark is: use what we have, deal with what already exists. Architecture schools and specialized firms will focus on matching demand and supply, on adaptation, and first of all on the notion of temporary use versus the permanence of construction.

5. The issue is not simply about the designer’s mentality and educational focus, it is about economic and political conditions that have to be confronted. What in heritage is the norm – do not harm the buildings main structural components and preserve its character as quality – is still alien to redevelopment and refurbishment. Economic mechanisms give preferential treatment to stripping and fitting out anew if demolishment is avoided in the first place.

Regulations, laws and habit prevent reuse of the existing. To demolish and build something new is much more easier than to keep and change what we have. This asks for some clever redrafting of the existing legal framework. My fifth remark is: remove the incentives to construct new building stock in a saturated market, to construct for emptiness. And clear away obstacles that prevent the reuse of existing buildings.

—Photos: Rob ‘t Hart

Rory Hyde made three radio shows during the Venice Biennial. Click on the titles to listen to the recordings (mp3): Venice show 1 (Australia, Ross Lovegrove), Venice show 2 (Ronald Rietveld, Saskia van Stein & DUS), Venice show 3 (Fuad Al Ansari, Momoyo Kajima, Ivan Rijavec).

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