Schieblock is in the midst of renovation work when I meet Kristian Koreman and Elma van Boxel there for an interview. The transformation of the former office block — which they moved into nine years ago as anti-squatters — into a temporary multi-tenant cultural building is underway. Close to the city’s main railway station, it will soon house the IABR offices, Atelier Deltametropool, Studio NAi, Motel Mozaique, artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, writer Marcel Moring and other cultural entrepreneurs. As a test case for an alternative approach to the city, the building on Schiekade will be part of the next architecture biennale. But the mission of ZUS will not end once the renovation is complete. The building is only the start of a study into the gradual transformation of the surrounding district, within the context of the city of Rotterdam and in relation to the cities of Amsterdam, Antwerp, Brussels, where a total of 14 million square metres of office space is currently unoccupied. Schieblock is a city laboratory.

ZUS has acquired a 50% share as a joint developer of Schieblock. ‘We took the initiative, so taking some responsibility was a logical next step,’ explains Elma. ‘What’s more, it’s given us more influence on developments. Because we want to transform the building further in the years ahead. The idea of the city laboratory extends over a longer period, in which we always have to be able to make design adjustments.’

You’re certainly not afraid to get involved. You could just as easily get scared away by everything such a project entails, but you’re taking on this experiment. That requires a certain naïveté — in a positive sense.
‘That’s right, but we like adventures of this sort,’ answers Elma. ‘Otherwise you never get beyond smooth talk about how different and better things could be,’ adds Kristian. ‘You have to work in a proactive, almost activist way or else you lose credibility.’

‘When we moved in nine years ago, we tidied up and took out the suspended ceilings and realised what a beautifully simple shell it was,’ recalls Elma. ‘And then so much space so close to Coolsingel — we never wanted to leave.’ In 2007 Maxwan and the city of Rotterdam presented a development plan for the new station area, which included Schieblock. ZUS wrote a critical review about that plan for ArchiNed. 'There was a wide gap between the concept and the end picture,’ explains Elma. ‘Existing structures were to be demolished, and then the local economy had to flourish from nothing in the new situation. Even though, according to us, you could easily initiate many of the desired changes using the existing buildings. Moreover, at an early stage we could test how to achieve such ambitions as a lively ground floor, a mixture of functions, and public space on the roof and inside buildings. Then you could avoid a lengthy period of demolition and vacancy, and the local economy could grow in unison gradually.’

To avoid simply being critical and, instead, to offer genuinely feasible alternatives, ZUS elaborated its ideas for a multi-tenant cultural building annex city laboratory. Together with Marcus Fernhout and Michon van der Salm, the young developers who started CODUM, they drew up a feasibility study for the development of Schieblock. ‘We had already made an architectural and cultural statement, but if we genuinely wanted to be taken seriously we had to work out the economic aspects,’ explains Kristian. So plans were also hatched for a cultural centre at the base of the building. ‘The Dépendance is a reaction to the cultural liquidation of the centre of Rotterdam — for example by the relocation of the Academy of Architecture and the Lantaren/Venster cinema to the south bank of the river. We opened in the summer of 2009 with the graduation exhibition of the Academy of Architecture. There then followed lots of debates, summer schools, exhibitions, dinners and workshops with all sorts of parties. You notice that small initiatives need an affordable place to develop initiatives with other parties. When the Schieblock is finished, the Dépendance, together with the adjoining canteen and cooking laboratory, must offer something of an 18-hour economy with exhibitions during the daytime and debates in the evening,’ says Elma. ‘Like a living room for the whole block,’ adds Kristian, ‘where you can walk in and work on your laptop or grab a coffee and read the newspaper.’

As soon as Schieblock is finished it will be a commercial project. How will you ensure that the Dépendance retains a low threshold?
‘We have separated the Dépendance space from the operating costs,’ explains Elma. ‘We only pay services costs for that. At the same time, we want to generate turnover there; we will reinvest the profit we make in the Dépendance in the further development of the building. Eventually, we want to add a roof garden on top and a passageway with cycle lane through the building. In addition to these practical steps, we also think that something gradually has to be done to change the city’s development politics. Other forms of democracy that on the one hand safeguard the long-term public interest, and on the other are generous in terms of locality and temporariness. To that end we have set up a sort of shadow cabinet called the Public Development Board for Rotterdam. Its members are among a new generation of thinkers and doers from various professions — a social geographer, a journalist, an architect, a businessman, a cultural economist, a property developer, a photograph and a young political scientist — so that we can deal with the city in an integral manner. We see that the current system, with the market leading and the government following, is shaky. With this new board we are trying to think about and experiment with new forms of city production.’

So you are taking on tasks that are normally matters that the public authorities have to deal with?
‘It’s not that we want to take over those tasks entirely,’ responds Elma. ‘It is more of a search for how city development actually works.’
‘We are trying to activate parties that already play a role in the city', says Kristian. ‘On the basis of reality on the ground, not on the basis of paper plans or ideals. Not that we think that’s unimportant, but what we really want is action. In the Schieblock building we have defined the Dépendence as “public” and removed it from the commercial logic of land prices. The rest of the building bears the cost of it. That’s how we make that public space possible. In the process, we’re exploring other ways of increasing the value of capital.’

The situation in the building sector is very bad at the moment. What is more, the new challenge for the city is to transform the existing stock of buildings. Does your Schieblock approach point the way?
‘I think that our practice is based more on a genuine demand,’ replies Elma.
‘In Rotterdam there are 600,000 square metres of office space lying empty, much of it in the city centre,’ emphasises Kristian. ‘What we’re saying is that urban planning and economics have to harmonise with each other in a new way to deal with that lack of occupancy. That’s a goal that we’ve also formulated for the biennale. In 2012 the Marconi Towers will be vacated once the city departments relocate to a new building on Kop van Zuid. (A typical example of how the market and government are intertwined.) You could turn the towers into a wonderful housing scheme.’

But then you’re dealing with a totally different target group. You can’t activate big numbers of low-income people in the same way as you’re doing now with the tenants of the Schieblock.
‘That’s not necessary,’ answers Kristian. ‘You could set up a Public Development Board there too,’ thinks Elma, ‘which includes a housing association. We are now working on a project in Vlissingen. There we see that market parties, including housing associations, are much more willing to join forces with others now. If you see land prices dropping and existing plans are no longer feasible, then you have to try and work in another way.’

What do you think the next International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam should be about?
‘To us, the biennale should not just be about carrying out research; it should also put that research to the test in practice,’ replies Kristian. ‘Rotterdam Central District /Schieblock is a case in point. Internationally, too, test sites have been earmarked in other cities, among them Istanbul and Sao Paulo, which will be presented as research projects at the IABR.
‘“The city as exhibition and the exhibition that the city makes” is one of the slogans we are thinking about,’ says Elma. ‘Or “the future is not sexy but will be amazing”. We want to draw attention to a more evolutionary form of urban planning, in which planning can become much more specific. Through the concrete example of vast amounts of unoccupied space we want to examine the role that urban planning can play. And in addition, we want to find out what forms of spatial politics are needed for that.’