A declaration of love for the city as it is

Sooner or later many urban neighbourhoods have to contend with a lengthy period of decline, demolition and new construction. This ‘interval period’ offers opportunities for alternative uses and new initiatives. Many of them disappear again, however, as soon as renewal is complete. A half-finished block of houses in the Transvaal district in The Hague formed the setting for the workshop entitled ‘Urban Transformation in the Interim’ on Thursday October 15. The workshop reflected on the qualities generated during this interim period and on ways to ensure that these qualities don’t vanish.

The workshop formed the presentation and closing event of the ‘Laboratory for the Interim’, a series of studies in which architects, designers and artists examined the restructuring of the Transvaal district over a period of two years. They looked at the possibilities that open up in the ‘interim period’ to use vacant premises and disused sites, and asked whether transformation should take another course. The laboratory was a follow-up to Hotel Transvaal, an art project that took place in Transvaal from the summer of 2007 to the autumn of 2008. This hotel lodged itself in temporarily vacated houses scattered across the neighbourhood, with breakfast provided by a local caterer. The period of transformation, often experienced as negative owing to decline and vacancy, formed the impetus for hospitality and welcome.

The laboratory participants found inspiration in the charm of empty places, in informal use, and in the liveliness of small-scale business ventures. They devised concepts in which the available spaces could accommodate and stimulate commercial activity, proposing everything from a car-repair garage to a constitution for the interim. In addition, the participants questioned the way in which the transformation process is now tackled. Would it not be better to stop viewing this as a project with a starting date and completion date and, instead, approach it as a continuous process? After all, the city is constantly subject to change.

Bernadette Janssen (urban designer at BVR), Corine Keus (E19 architects) and Henk Jan Bouwmeester (philosopher/artist/designer) came up with an alternative model in which the transformation of Transvaal Noord, a section of the neighbourhood that has not yet been tackled, is spread over a longer period. Their advice is not to wait until decline sets in everywhere but to invest right now in qualities. Don’t focus attention on problems but strengthen existing qualities in the housing stock and public space, is their message. If the basic value of a neighbourhood is maintained and pearls are created here and there, then the value of property, and of the entire urban structure, will be boosted. That will allow a neighbourhood to develop very gradually, with just minor bad patches though no major ruptures.

The results of the ‘Laboratory for the Interim’ reveal the ideal of a healthy and dynamic urban ecosystem that gradually adapts as time passes. To achieve this, many projects place emphasis on strengthening relations and exchange between residents, housing stock, economic activity and public space. But how do you change an area – where a large number of homes are owned by one housing association: Staedion – from a centrally run structure into a self-organising system? For the men and women at the wheel, it’s as though they have to transfer their passengers from a sturdy ocean-going steamer to wobbly rowing boats.

But it hasn’t come to that yet. During the morning session philosopher René Boomkens spoke about the memory of the city, a memory that consists physically of buildings, streets, parks and squares, but to an important extent also of the everyday environment of residents and occupants. When large-scale demolition takes place and residents have to move elsewhere in large numbers, this memory is largely erased. In Transvaal one can clearly see how that works. On the walk from the tram to the workshop location one can see how ‘radical’ the restructuring has been undertaken up to now. Whole streets have disappeared to make way for brand-new development that bears no memory of what used to be there. This is not a subtle facelift but a complete makeover.

Boomkens also points out another problem. According to him the ‘Laboratory for the Interim’ relates to the dominant city development in the same way that the Slow Food movement relates to McDonalds. In this comparison, the fast food giant stands for ’the same taste, the same smile, the same turnover – everywhere’, while Slow Food stands for ‘inefficient, slow, different every season, local, small-scale, yet extremely profitable in spite of all that because it’s expensive’. The danger of this comparison for city development, says Boomkens, is exclusiveness and elitism. For problem neighbourhoods like Transvaal are mostly home to immigrants and low-income white residents with little education – typical McDonalds customers, according to Boomkens. He wonders whether initiatives like the ‘Laboratory for the Interim’ – whose participants are usually members of the creative classes who have little in common with the residents of the neighbourhoods in which they operate – can bridge that gap.

Enthusiasts of the interim therefore steer a middle course between two gaps — that with administrators and that with residents. It is the paradox of designers and artists drawn to the plight of problem districts. They argue for a bottom-up approach and for engagement with events, yet at the same time they are relative outsiders who project their ideas on a situation that they are scarcely part of. That distance is also their strength, however. For they can put their finger on the tender spot without having to be brought to account immediately. They can reveal, depict and highlight hidden qualities. And that is therefore what Boomkens advises them to do: compile an archive of special and everyday urban phenomena — from the history of a neighbourhood supermarket to interventions in the interim — and then make that archive available on Internet. A declaration of love for the city as it is, and an inexhaustible source to build on – though that isn’t always so easy in practice.