What Art Can Do For A City

Source: An Artist’s Kiss to Awaken the City – LinkedIn

An Artist’s Kiss to Awaken the City
© Mark van den Brink

An Artist’s Kiss to Awaken the City

 Eva de Klerk – bottom-up project booster – Jul 29, 2015

What a beautiful image: The city is sleeping. Maybe she’s lost her pulse. Nothing and no one can awaken her. Then comes the artist with a gift for the city: A KISS. A soft delicious kiss on the mouth. A flowery kiss that brings back radiance, vitality and breath. A kiss is a powerful metaphor. I believe it takes two for a really good kiss.

Based on a case that I was closely involved with, I would like to observe the dynamics of a kiss between the artist and the city. Must the artist do all the kissing, or does the city kiss back? And what is the nature of their kiss?

The case study is about the NDSM shipbuilding yard. I would like to focus on the early phase of it’s redevelopment and on it’s background: From an abandoned shipbuilding yard to a cultural hotspot by the waters of Het IJ.

During the 80’s the shipbuilding industry of Amsterdam on the banks of Het IJ closed down, leaving dozens of empty hangars and warehouses behind. Het IJ refers to the waters separating the busy south side of Amsterdam from the sleepy north, and it was the natural location for the old shipbuilding industry. After the closure of the massive shipbuilding activities around Het IJ, the areas quickly deteriorated. As can be expected in any Metropolis, a mixture of city nomads, prostitutes and refugees arrived first, followed on their heels by artists, utopians and young people who were seeking to be creative and to play freely outdoors. This process is exactly what happened on the southern banks of Het IJ. At the time, the north of the city was barely on the map. It was somewhere far away on the other side of the water.

The rents in the city were high and the raw look and feel of the huge warehouses were attractive to creative people looking for affordable workspaces. The warehouses were inhabited, renovated and put to use again. All this off the grid activity was a welcome spark for the lively subculture that Amsterdam is often celebrated for: A liberal city of counter cultures, tolerance, cultural experiments and an internationally renowned Dutch avant-garde.

Then came the 90’s. The city and a consortium of bankers and developers drew up plans to transform the area into a Wall Street upon Het IJ. It was destined to become the new heart of the financial sector with skyscrapers, luxury apartments and sunny boulevards similar to the cities of Southern Europe. These plans were never realized, because eventually the financial sector decided on another location, De Zuidas for it’s new Wall Street location. The group of people who had put the warehouses back into use were threatened by the plans at that time. They founded The Guild of Industrial Buildings upon Het IJ. The guild did a study and wrote a book about the role of the user within the context of the redevelopment of the old harbor buildings. The focus was not only on Amsterdam, but also on other rainy Northern European harbor cities like Liverpool, Bristol, Dublin, Kopenhagen, Rostock, Odense and Szczecin in Poland.

Together with two Dutch housing corporations the guild launched the manifest The City as a Framework. The guild wanted to be recognized as a serious partner and to sit at the table and share its ambitions with the city and the developers involved in the area – why shouldn’t they join forces and think about the future of this part of the city together? However, there was a crucial difference between choosing for a commercial model of growth or for choosing for a sustainable model of development. You could see this moment of choice as an important preview of how the kiss was going to work out.

The City as a Framework is a method I could say many things about but it comes down to this: “Make money in the building, not on the building.” Attention please! Money is mentioned twice in this sentence. Believe me, artists are not allergic to money. We pay rent, do maintenance, pay taxes etc. Our costs are covered and this means that our revenue is generated by activity in the building and not by speculating on profits by selling the building or profits from leasing it.

We should also take note that the one-size fits all format that the city of Amsterdam applies to affordable artist’s workspaces is of little help: Throughout the city artists are measured by the same guidelines for workspaces. You must have certified credentials, and international top talent is given priority. Artists are expected to move along to more expensive workspaces and to meet income requirements that can get very complicated. The model of The City as a Framework requires none of these uniform regulations and requirements, but puts the power in the hands of the artists to take decisions themselves. Every building or initiative should carry it’s own responsibility for sustaining it’s own dynamic. After all, a bird builds it’s own nest.

The City as a Framework is a clear choice for a circular economy, instead of a linear economy based on 10% growth for the shareholders. The solid structure of the old warehouses and wharfs guarantee a perfect framework for the flexible use of the space by the users themselves. The buildings can change over time with the needs and the goals of its occupants. We have noted that this could lead to building new buildings as well.

Nevertheless in 1998, the city of Amsterdam closed down many warehouses and evicted over a thousand artists. The artistic initiatives suffered. Several youth initiatives like the famous 3rd Floor Skate Park in the Vrieshuis America were shut down by the city by the end of the decade.

This is when I made a plan for the redevelopment of a sector of the NDSM shipbuilding yard, on the lonely north side of the water. Armed with the The City as a Framework manifest, and with the help of the skateboarders and a mom on welfare, we called ourselves Kinetisch Noord (Translation: Kinetic North) and we described the I Jump (IJsprong) to the North (in Dutch IJsprong is a pun on eisprong, literally egg-jump, meaning ovulation. How fertile!).

The North was still an area where people wouldn’t be caught dead at the time. Our ambition: Go to the bank. Design our own city. Finance it ourselves and build it in a giant warehouse the size of two football fields. With this city in a city we can do things within our creative professions (experiment, innovate) like nowhere else in the city – Amsterdam was becoming a sanitized version of itself at the time.

In 1999 we seduced the city to cross the water to see the wharf though the eyes of the artists there. This turned out to be the gentle kiss that woke up the north of the city. The mayor then, Schelto Patijn cried: “No culture without subculture!” Now that was a good kiss back.

Then came the first obstacles: The ground was severely polluted. The roof of the warehouse was nearly collapsing and there were zero working facilities. The total costs to make the warehouse clean, dry and safe: 28 million euros. We already had 450 enrollments for workspaces. By creating 28.000 square meters of rentable space we could cover the full cost of the investment – that is if we could own the building. All this can be done without any help from developers. We can do it ourselves. However, ownership was not an option. The city was more interested in demolishing the site in the near future. The kiss was losing its passion.

We were finally given a lease for 10 years, and a few years later, with pressure from the neighborhood we won a 25-year lease and the warehouse was declared a monument. At the start we had been short eight million because we could not go to the bank for the first ten years. At this time the owner of the warehouse was the local district, and it had no intention of investing in their own building. The greater city and the national government were interested. Isn’t it a little odd that the boy who is kissing you back isn’t really interested, but his parents are? We had just been declared the best example of an innovative project in the Netherlands. With grants and contributions we bridged the gap to complete the overdue structural repairs and maintenance, clean up the pollution in the ground and finish the work on the infrastructure. The costs for the interior of the warehouse we financed ourselves.

In 2002 the feasibility study was completed and we were given the green light. Our approach is bottom-up: We want to put the people first and then work together on the designs of a building. We threw all of our artist’s impressions away, to the shock of the local district authorities. So one day, seventy creators entered the huge broken down warehouse. We demarcated the spaces with crayons. Everyone paid a fixed price per square meter right there on the spot. This was proof of commitment by the artists and entrepreneurs involved in the project. Now we were ready to create an organization: A temporary co-operative with a bank account number and a lean and mean working team.

We started workshops on the implementation of the building plans and the interior designs, and we mapped out in phases the building process for ten planned projects in and around the warehouse. A significant share of our funding was held in trust by the local district, our working partner and the owner of the yard. We would have rather managed the money ourselves. In unison we ratified a plan of action for the next years 2002-2012 that covered all of the construction projects, a multi-annual financial budget and planning schedules.

The first six building projects were distinguishable by the activities of the artists in different sections of the building. There were clusters of activity:

  1. Arts & Crafts, small-scale businesses and startups are in the central part of the warehouse called Art City;
  2. Set design, Theatre, Street Theater, Puppetry and Circus are in the East Wing;
  3. Youth activities and Skate Park are in the West Wing;
  4. Artistic Industrial Projects are in the South Wing;
  5. A huge exhibition space is in the North Wing;
  6. And outside of the warehouse is the café/restaurant location Noorderlicht.

The division into clusters was also the starting point for an organizational structure that included the 450 people who had enrolled for their space. Each cluster formed it’s own legal identity. We wanted to connect these entities by becoming a co-op: An association of owners with each cluster serving as a legal co-owner. In this case we did not succeed in becoming the owners – we remained invested renters. The exploitation deficit for the first five years was half a million and after ten years there was a positive balance of 300.000 euros. After the building projects would be completed, Kinetic North would transfer it’s activities to the self-organizing renters of the warehouse.

As for completing our plans, we found out to our surprise that we were lying in bed with the wrong partner. We had clearly been seduced because of our good looks and not for who we were on the inside. The kiss was over. After six of the ten planned building projects were completed, construction was put to a halt in 2007 and commercial development was back on the menu again. The new skate park that had been relocated to the NDSM yard was vacated at the end of 2013 to be replaced by commercial real estate. And our shipbuilding yard is now a festival site.

Besides our good looks we have an inner life. As artists we want to awaken the city with a kiss that will bring us closer to our goals of sustainability, following four paths of development:

1) Circular (economic);

2) Carried by the community and not by institutions or individuals (social);

3) Founded by all of the involved parties (administrative governance);

4) With respect for the surroundings and the environment (technical).

This is the kiss we have to offer. This doesn’t exclude enthusiasm for commercial companies or other users of the framework as neighbors. For example, we have founded our own energy company together with our commercial neighbors (now 70 companies such as Viacom/MTV, Brooklyn Hotel, Greenpeace, Shipdock, Red Bull, Pernod Ricard, BAM): NDSM Energy. In 2016 we shall have our own 4 MW windmill that will generate a third of the energy supply for the wharf.

Sustainability has a higher priority than commerce, because with commerce we break things down. Saskia Sassen warns us about this on May 18th, 2015 in her reading for the yearly Dutch event called The State of the City, in which she speaks of traces of destruction left by profit-seeking, and the economic cleansing of the low-income population that comes afterwards.

While judging us based on our looks, the city thinks it has found its trophy wife who will help to promote a hip city image, free of charge. As we speak, the pendulum has swung back to the linear logic of maximizing profits and regarding all non-profit initiatives as an expense or as something in need of funding.

This return to business as usual by the city throws a spanner in the works. When I read in the Boekman Magazine (issue 101, page 11) that Zef Hemel, the vice-deputy of City Planning reproaches us for not thinking commercially, this hurts, and it also is not true. We can paddle our own canoe in the waters of Het IJ, but we are not trading companies seeking profits. We are part of a useful manufacturing economy just like the local bicycle shop, for example. Oh city, wake up!!

So dear people, keep on kissing, but be aware of who is kissing back and how the kiss tastes. Maybe you are still living in a world of dreams and illusions that someone could help you out of. So bring on the prince but remember we are talking here about a kiss that awakens us and brings us back to life. There is another kiss and it’s called the kiss of death. An artist kissing the city should watch out to avoid that kind of kiss.

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