ZUS and the Schieblock, The City is Temporarily Ours

The City of Permanent Temporality by ZUS [Zones Urbaines Sensibles], a book that many people were eagerly looking forward to. A publication in which they chronicle their involvement in the transformation of the area around the Schieblock building in Rotterdam.

Airial view of the Luchtsingel, Rotterdam designed by ZUS [Zones Urbaines Sensibles], 2014

Luchtsingel, Rotterdam (2014)  / design ZUS [Zones Urbaines Sensibles] / photo © Ossip Duivenbode

There can be hardly any doubt that City of Permanent Temporality is a book about time. It is filled with memories about places and events that have shaped Rotterdam’s Central District. It is unusually full of nostalgia, and I guess this is what makes it feel so personal. After all, it is not only a story about a piece of the city, but also about it becoming a home, an office and a career for ZUS, the design office founded by Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman in 2001, and a vibrant place for so many Rotterdammers. In a way, City of Permanent Temporality is a dairy, which everyone who is even slightly familiar with the places around the Schieblock and the Luchtsingel, will be able to fill in with their own flashbacks and stories. For me, reading the book was like an exercise in time travel through Rotterdam from 2006 onwards, going through all the moments I experienced there, and all those I missed, underlined with a strange feeling of FOMO from the past for all those moments where I did not get to be there.

City of Permanent Temporality consists of many different fragments that are organized into four clear chronological sections: Paper 2000-2008, Action 2009-2015, Fall 2016-2017, and Future 2018-2036. Each features a guest essay, journals written by ZUS, and projects illustrating interventions in the period in question. I must say it’s pretty unconventional for three-quarters of a book on architecture and urbanism to focus on looking back at how things used to be. Such books usually focus on how a single spatial intervention has changed, or even on how it is supposed to change a place, always for the better of course. This book creates its own species of project monograph, which on the one hand has not yet been completed, and on the other has been completed many times, but in many parts. It is perhaps more common for artists than for architects to document projects in such a way. For all types of ephemeral art, documentation is key, because otherwise there is no physical record of the work. In the case of art that focuses on creating a temporary change, the most important change is to those individuals who experience it, and the record of an event is an essential part of the work. In the late 1990s, the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud defined a tendency in contemporary art practices called ‘relational aesthetics’. Those practices, he said, ‘take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space’. They also tend to take the art out of the traditional gallery and into the space of the real life and social relationships. Even though relational aesthetics is discussed in art and design context, architectural projects are rarely mentioned as a part of such practice. Perhaps it is because architecture, by default, is often expected to take the whole of human relations and the social context as its point of departure. But changing the perception of an urban grey zone through a set of temporary interventions and eventually turning it into a social ecosystem perhaps brings this project into the domain of relational aesthetics. The book records an ongoing process that has already spanned eighteen years and included a multitude of smaller projects that eventually come together, not as one physical manifestation, but as a story and a place that tells it, with all its convolutions and fragments that do not always seem to fit together. Also, visually the book does not resemble anything one would expect to find on a shelf among architectural monographs these days, but I see this choice as both a form of honest documentation and a statement that city-making is not about the glossy looks of its architecture. It is more about the maze of places, actions and events, about people who come together, about their relations and memories, and many short moments that build a city of permanent temporality.

Spread from the book City of Permanent Temporality by Zus

Pages from City of Permanent Temporality

Right at the beginning, an introduction by architecture critic Michael Speaks, entitled Yellow is the New Orange, summarizes the context of this book in a nutshell. At the end of the 1990s Speaks curated an exhibition at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, a gallery in New York, under the title Big Soft Orange showcasing emergent Dutch practices at the time. It described three conditions of globalizing neoliberalism that were shaping Dutch and world architecture. ‘Big’ stood for quantity, ‘Soft’ for managerial practices necessary to manage the former, and ‘Orange’ for the increasing dominance of the market, and the way in which the Dutch in particular were responding to it. Speaks notes that now all three are ‘[…] so ubiquitous as to be nonexistent. They are the very fabric of the city itself.’ Today they have simply become the context within which architects and urbanists have to work. He refers to yellow, the colour of the ‘Test Site’, as a new shade of those strategies that deal with this condition in its new mutated and omnipresent form. The public space in which architects work these days, says Speaks, is neither public nor space. Instead, it is private and augmented. He suggests that in this situation we are dealing more with a temporal, not spatial, reality, in which we are not designing for permanence, but constantly chasing chances to buy time to make space through actions which are fleeting and reversible.

What Speaks has sketched out and what unfolds throughout the rest of the book, suggests an important shift in the way we think about making space and the role that architecture plays in it. And it is something more than just the shift from creating perfect objects to focusing on the process. It is a situation where design is not focused on the end result and does not even know what the end result will ever be. It is more about putting a foot in the door of city development, about starting an initiative, experimenting, and through that building a narrative that will change the way people live in spaces, even if just for a while. The silver lining of this is that this change can become important in stimulating an engaged discourse between architects, city officials, developers and the inhabitants.

Spread from the book City of Permanent Temporality by Zus

Pages from City of Permanent Temporality

In the essay Dancing with Second Order Effects, which opens the third chapter, curator Rory Hyde notes that this is still far from how architecture operates today and how it is represented. A typical publication would show beautiful images deprived of people or any form of life within them. According to Hyde, ‘good’ architecture is still often understood as that which is most in control, realizing an artistic vision of the architect without compromises. Yet what it often produces is an over-determined space that excludes any spontaneity of real life. He calls this mode of practice a ‘boutique consultancy creating forms in service of those who can afford them’. Its counterpart, represented here by the work of ZUS, he calls the architecture of second-order effects, which is ‘baggy’, unfinished, inviting to act upon it, and open to the complexity of its context.

ZUS itself compares its method of working to software development where the process lies in testing subsequent versions of approaches and cross checking them in real life with the reactions of the users. After all, looking at the relationship between the tech start-up culture and finance I am not quite sure if this is the most successful reference. We all know what happened to Facebook, Google and Amazon. Nevertheless, I guess the intended message here is that the result of that process is not something orderly and predictable, but at the same time it has been designed. It is the logic of designing that changed. In this ZUS brings up a question on the role of the architect and his or her relevance as a public figure moderating the discourse that is created in the testing process, rather than coming up with a single statement. In whose service do architects work nowadays, for whom is the city, and what models of ownership can exist in it? I see the book, in part, as an invitation to find more responses to those questions that will go beyond the relationship between the architect and the developer, and I do share the hope and the sense of urgency to hear more of those voices, especially among the architects.

ZUS criticizes the currently dominant model of urban development that favours large buildings with little co-ownership or flexibility because of what it leads to: vacancy and inertness. Additionally, it points out that the integration of the government and the market, where neither party can afford real risks, leads to calculated and mediocre solutions that are not meant to be socially sustainable. In other cities such as London and New York, where substantial areas already belong to foreign investors, the notion of local ownership has gradually been removed and, in the end, there is very little space left for people who actually live there. At the same time, the quality of those spaces seems spotless on the surface. They are clean and perfect, but they are also irreversibly finished, empty and non-negotiable. I guess the point to be made here is that Rotterdam is not yet one of those cities, but it is getting there. Can we still do something to at least slow this process down or to mitigate its worst-case scenarios?

Spread from the book City of Permanent Temporality by Zus

Pages from City of Permanent Temporality

City of Permanent Temporality calls for a city that is more than a collection of real estate investments. It asks if we can enrich our thinking dominated by financial capital with thinking in terms of public capital? Can we look at buildings in a broader spectrum than just as financial objects and allow other values to play a role? And if so, can green spaces, health, sustainability and inclusivity constitute such ‘public capital’? Looking back at their proposal for the Schieblock presented at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008, ZUS reminds us that we could look at buildings in terms of what they add to the city in a tangible sense, not in numbers that in no way translate to the wealth of its inhabitants. Even then, they suggested reviving the social importance of architecture by promoting Neo Localism, an approach that does not start from the speculative financial value of an area but from the real value of the place – what they beautifully call a tabula scripta of a city.

Because of its character, the book is not easy to summarize, and in a way perhaps it should not be. Everyone can pick out their assemblage of memories, projects and thoughts that they have learned from this project-process monograph. While I think it’s good that the book not only looks back critically, but also takes a sneak peek into the future, the last chapter of it remains the least impactful for me. Perhaps that’s because the ideas about the New Delftsehof are not yet tangible and some of them are hard to relate to. They also seem to be far more permanent than temporary to me. If this is the way to deal with the market and politics in the end, that’s fine. Though maybe that’s something for another book, one in which there will be more possibility to look back and discuss the relationship between the temporary activation of grey zones and the risk that they will ultimately lead to their gentrification. But it is hard enough to know what will happen next year, let alone in the next eighteen.

In spite of that, there are many other proposals sprinkled throughout the different chapters, and I think there are some really interesting and hopeful ones there. Those that I picked out, including the right to a minimum amount of public space per capita, Neo Localism, and the architecture of second-order effects, are perhaps more systematic, but at the same time I think this is also the strength of this book: that through seemingly small actions one can really start talking about big issues. And this publication shows that this way of thinking and acting can be extremely fruitful.

The first takeaway from City of Permanent Temporality, is a stronger sense of the need to increase the resilience of architects and policymakers to the forces of the financial mechanisms. Perhaps it sounds like a boring mantra by now, but architecture and urban planning are still too slow and too fixated on providing blueprints to offer valuable answers for a rapidly changing society. Following Speaks and Hyde, to engage in the big soft yellow, architects need to become designers of the second-order effects and orchestrate the complex frameworks of the production of space including all of its political, economic and social layers. This does not mean that everyone needs to start building temporary wooden structures now. Just more of the yellow that goes against, not with, the stream, please. The second takeaway is directed at the city council and the world of politics. It is a call for stronger governments that can act in a time of ecological crisis and a financialized world. ZUS argues that governments should stop trying to do a little of everything, and should start daring to choose, set limits, and take responsibility for the public domain, and I fully agree with that.

Perhaps, all in all, City of Permanent Temporality is not really about losing control. It is about not leaving it all up to the market.

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