Bottom-up: Six projects

Bottom-up is hot. You would almost think that it is something new. Of course that is not so; the current media attention is fuelled primarily by the stagnant situation – that may never again be alleviated – of top-down urban development. Will small-scale, often informal, bottom-up initiatives become the new driving force behind urban development? With this question in mind Arcam organised two meetings in early April. Six of the fifty projects that were put on a list by Arcam were presented on 5 April. Arcam director Maarten Kloos defined bottom-up projects as projects that are not thought up and initiated institutionally (i.e. by municipalities, corporations or project developers). Despite this – or in fact thanks to this – it was remarkable that most of the speakers were professionals in the relevant fields, including four architects. Architect Bastiaan Jongerius, for instance, presented a project comprising six family residences (including his own) situated between Elandsgracht and Lijnbaanstraat at the heart of the Jordaan district, that was commissioned through a collective private initiative. His presentation further pointed out that the realisation of the project had been contingent partly on the municipality’s facilitation of the purchase of the plots to cover the initial costs. This construction – not one that the average layman would come up with – provided the impetus for the project. The result was an attractive and well-suited housing project, that in appearance was nevertheless very ‘normal’. The only difference was that the ‘institutional’ role of the property developer now coincided largely with Jongerius’ role as an architect, which he experienced as the most difficult aspect of the project. Creative Cargo is a plan by Björn van Rheenen (Sponge Architects) that is bottom-up in the sense that it was not devised within institutional frameworks. This concept aims to convert sea freight containers into studios, thereby creating a flexible and potentially nomadic ensemble. This cheap form of housing for artists and other professionals in the creative industries could provide stagnating area developments a considerable impulse. The audience found this an interesting idea. However, setting aside the nomadic nature of the project, it would still remain a leased building with the accompanying business case. The business case, incidentally, has not been rounded off: the necessary funding for the project is still lacking. Without some clever idea the concrete realisation of this project is still very far away. In 2008 architect Peter van Assche (bureau SLA) and a group of his friends came up with a plan for a coffee bar at Noorder Park. Housing corporation Ymere, the area’s developer, wanted to collaborate in the plan, but only if it was carried out but a ‘professional’ organisation with a corresponding budget (€ 300,000!). Regretfully, this proved impossible on account of the economic crisis. That marked the moment when the Noorderparkbar became a genuine bottom-up project. Van Assche spoke with humour about how the project was continued, without a budget but with the slogan:”Everything will work out fine in the end.” With second-hand materials and without permits they built the bar single-handedly and installed it this year. An official on an inspection round was halted by an alderman who had just ordered a cup of coffee. The bar has since become a highly popular venue. The Glamour Manifest that Saskia Beer presented for Amtel III echoed the same ‘just do it’ frame of mind. Trained as an architect, Saskia started making ‘traditional’ architecture plans at her own initiative for the mono-functional area, with which she had become acquainted through a part-time job. The plans, however, bled dry (lack of funding) but after exploring several other avenues the idea came to her to translate the institutional ambitions for the area into more high-profile and ‘sexy’ goals: a concept such as ‘more facilities’, for example, became ‘hard workers deserve champagne on a rainy Monday morning’. The first activity, which immediately led to a lot of discussion, was to decorate the entire area with gold-painted garden gnomes. With her positive, concrete and playful approach Beer succeeded in building bridges between building owners, companies and the municipality. Although her work may have little to do with concrete architecture – which she pities – she is nevertheless able to play an active role in the development of the area. As a ‘traditional’ architect it would never have been able to been given this role. The fact that bottom-up initiatives are nothing new was apparent from Eva de Klerk’s presentation. She has been actively involved in bottom-up projects in Amsterdam since the nineteen-seventies, particularly in conjunction within squatters’ movement at first. One of her most recent projects is the ‘Art City’ in the NDSM Hall. (The NDSM is the Netherlands Dock and Shipbuilding Company). She contributed to launching a bottom-up initiative that was funded party through crowd sourcing. Thanks to her many years of experience her oeuvre is suffused with a certain sense of professionalism. The fact that De Klerk’s knows her way around municipal organisations, subsidies and the complex processes of area development were crucial factors in the realisation of the art city. In this respect, her presentation appears to be the only one to offer an interesting vista of a business-like approach to ‘bottom-up’ development that surpasses the small scale of the other projects presented here. Could Eva de Klerk be the property developer of the future? The last project to be presented was that initiated by Imre Doff and Daniëlle Sonder and involved a squatters’ initiative, or ‘neighbourhood project’, as the called it: De Valreep, in a former Animal Shelter in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark district. After many years of being uninhabited, this listed building was occupied by squatters almost a year ago, and has been a venue for numerous, mostly neighbourhood-oriented, activities since September 2011. But how will this continue? The initiators are organising numerous informal activities to engender support among the district council. The outcome is still unknown. If you could designate a ‘bottom’ with respect to the successful projects, this would be the personal commitment and passion with which the initiators embarked on their given projects and saw them through. These qualities were often crucial factors to compensate for the lack of funds that each project had to cope with. Enthusiasm and perseverance ensured that the projects were realised – often pitted against business logic and better judgement. The architects, in particular, were forced to actively look beyond the boundaries of their profession. Perhaps passion and perseverance will be the future pillars of urban development.