A place to dream. Infrastructures for activism.

Pq

The Persistence of Questioning

Kritische reflecties voor de toekomst, over architectuur en meer.

As part of ‘The Persistence of Questioning’, Archined asked various experts how they think architecture should now develop. Looking at activist initiatives from late last century, Veerle Alkemade and Catherine Koekoek discuss ways that architects could contribute to the creation of settings that enable people to dream of a brighter future.

Denise Scott Brown, Las Vegas 1966 / photo Robert Venturi / Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.

Dordrecht, 8 June 2021

Dear Veerle,

Whit Monday and it’s raining. I’m sitting with my parents on a terrace on the market square in Wageningen. Delft School architecture around me. Rebuilding work in the bombed city centre started before the end of the war. Now that restaurant doors remain shut, the facades are nothing but a backdrop. I ask my parents about the city during their student years – that same backdrop, only almost 40 years previously.

In a book I recently borrowed from my mother I discovered extensive inscriptions from friends wishing her success on the final leg of her dissertation. I also came across a bookmark from Shikasta, a women’s bookshop. A bookshop for women in Wageningen?

Dozens of women’s bookshops opened their doors in the Netherlands in the 1970s and 1980s. The first is the only one still in existence: Savannah Bay in Utrecht, the successor to the ‘De Heksenkelder’, which opened in 1975. The women’s bookshops bore such names as De Feeks, Dulle Griet, Dikke Trui, Sappho, ’t Wicht, Xantippe. When did they disappear? In a 2005 blogpost I read a guide to bookshops in Wageningen. Shikasta is praised for stocking ‘reading for the feminist woman’. De Gelderlander newspaper in 2008 makes mention of a weaving demonstration.

‘I didn’t know about it at all, that women’s bookshop,’ I say to my mother. She tells me that she occasionally took part in campaigns, organized by the squat where her friend Erica lived. She herself remained somewhat neutral; she was just about radical enough to join in, though she wasn’t one of the in-crowd.

You might be wondering what sparked my interest in women’s bookshops, now vanished. In her 2017 book Public Things, the American philosopher Bonnie Honig writes about the importance of the public things that maintain democratic infrastructure. According to her, the continued existence of democracy is partly a material matter: voting stations, pencils, parliament convening in a new venue. The same applies to activism: an infrastructure is needed in order to dream, a network of places and people where and with whom you can imagine how the world could be improved.

Alongside and opposite the dominant public sphere, there were always other public spheres that made space for another form of discussion and publicity. In a well-known 1990 article, Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy, philosopher Nancy Fraser notes, as an example of those other public spheres, the extensive feminist networks of magazines, bookshops, publishers, film and video distribution networks, research institutes, academic programmes, conferences, festivals and local women’s centres that emerged in the second half of the 20th century in the Unites States. But such subaltern counterpublics also arose in the Netherlands and in other places and periods. All that suddenly felt very close when I found that bookmark from Shikasta bookshop in Wageningen.

So where have those counterpublics gone? Our student years were coloured by the economic crisis of 2008. We are told that the starchitect was dead, that for collaboration and taking sustainable building seriously, it was time for new architects – or The New Architect who, it must be said, looks suspiciously like the old starchitect in his oneness and maleness. Now that we’ve been graduated for a few years, we’ve discovered that practice is more conservative than we had been taught during our studies. At the same time, ever since we started reflecting on the profession in our podcast Respons, we’ve often been seen as the voice of the new generation. A generation that is said to be more critical and activist than the previous one.

But that feels harsh. All too often, pointing to a new generation shifts the responsibility for a meaningful practice, one that treats people and the environment responsibly, onto the shoulders of young people with little power. Moreover, it does no justice to the activists who came before us. Decades ago, feminist groups such as Vrouwen, Bouwen, Wonen (‘Women, Building, Living’), the department of Women’s Studies, and many other forms of social design examined issues similar to those that now occupy us. They offer inspiration for alternative forms of architecture that are not based on the ‘star system’ where one leader, usually male, is seen as the author, and all other staff as ‘second bananas’ or drafting clerks, as Denise Scott-Brown so aptly put it in her 1975 essay Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture.

To present diversity and the climate crisis as new challenges for a new generation is to forget a history. After all, how come we have to reinvent the wheel if the questions and problems we address are not new? Why is it that the counterpublics of the second feminist wave have disappeared?

Many public, accessible infrastructures of knowledge and activism have disappeared in our early years. Community centres and libraries have closed to cut costs. And that makes it more difficult to remember the activism that went before us.

And thus we still write in isolation – an isolation that is all the more palpable during this pandemic. In our neoliberal world we are all individuals: the social structures and institutions where we can unite are long due an overhaul. That is also evident in architecture where, after the 2008 crisis, numerous small architecture offices were founded, containing an infinite number of ambitious individuals who are not very united. There is still no real trade union. Few architects are members of the FNV, and the Royal Institute of Dutch Architects (BNA) is not a trade union but a professional association.

When I think of women’s bookshops that have disappeared, I see places and networks where we can dream of another future. Not as individuals but as part of a shared struggle. What is the relevance of architecture to today and to the future? To answer that question, we must first of all remember the past, and all the places where answers were previously formulated. Where do we find, or rebuild, those settings where we can imagine the future?

Affectionately yours,
Catherine

Schiedam, 21 June 2021

Dear Catherine,

Today is the longest day of the year, but it’s raining. Three goals by the Dutch football team against Northern Macedonia have pushed to the background the reports that dominated sites this morning, namely the demolition of the Tweebosbuurt neighbourhood in Rotterdam.

I understand your astonishment regarding the rise and fall of women’s bookshops. But the oblivion is not total, since histories can sometimes be re-ignited, luckily. By your mother’s bookmark, for example. The revival of vanished histories of feminism and activism in architecture underlines the importance of those accessible infrastructures of knowledge that you write about. The past can be brought to live once again. But that’s more difficult because of the effects of the neoliberal dismantling of institutes, because it’s impossible to remember everything individually. An event can then quickly recede into the distance, as we saw today with the demolition of the Tweebosbuurt after a football match.

Pictures of the demolition saddened me. “The city mayor and alderman have cut away a piece of my heart,” a resident says on the NOS news bulletin. Standing behind him is an orange demolition machine, which will shortly punch the first hole in the brickwork facade. The homes in the Tweebosbuurt have to make way for a more expensive new development – many residents will not return to their old neighbourhood. “The other homes they offer us are far too expensive,” the same resident explains. He is referring to Vestia housing association, which will replace the 524 demolished social housing units with just 137 new-build homes, roughly a quarter of the original number.

According to the city council, the demolition is necessary because the homes are antiquated and no longer meet current standards. Such an argument for demolition sounds all the more bitter because it’s basically the housing associations themselves that have let the homes fall into disrepair by not carrying out overdue maintenance.

The residents of the Tweebosbuurt protested against the demolition of their neighbourhood for three years. They also united with residents of other neighbourhoods to form the pressure group Recht op de Stad. Together they campaigned for a better and fairer housing policy in Rotterdam. Alas, their battle had no effect on the city council’s plans. Even recent criticism from the United Nations – of all places! – to the effect that the demolition possibly contravenes the human right to appropriate housing did not lead to any delay or cancellation of the plans.

It is disheartening to witness. You ask about settings where we can dream of another future, but then such settings should not be demolished. Events in the Tweebosbuurt show that the disappearance of infrastructures for knowledge and activism is not something just from the past.

The Tweebosbuurt is a working class district with a solid social infrastructure. Many residents have set down strong roots there. It’s been home to some of them for over fifty years. But the City of Rotterdam undervalues that infrastructure The demolition of the Tweebosbuurt is not an isolated incident but part of the Rotterdam Housing Vision, which states that one of the city’s aims is to ‘ensure a more differentiated housing stock in areas where it is still too lopsided and where the quality of living is under pressure’. In other words, too many inexpensive homes (social rental) grouped together is undesirable, at least in the opinion of the city council. But why exactly?

Thinking about the central question in this publication – what is the relevance of the architectural profession to the future? – I ask myself: whose future are we actually talking about here? What is happening to the people from the Tweebosbuurt, for whom there is no longer a place in Rotterdam, demonstrates that there is not one single future, and that the future does not belong to everybody.

As the women’s bookshops and many public infrastructures of knowledge and activism were disappearing, architecture became increasingly enmeshed in the market. And that market concerns itself with nothing but the future of property developers and other investors.

Architects who are working for commercial property developers to implement policies of gentrification are therefore boosting the future relevance of these property developers above all else. Their renderings and pretty facade compositions help to win tenders, and they can even help push up square metre prices. The more architecture becomes enmeshed with the market, the more difficulty I have in imagining ways in which the profession can be relevant in the future.

Can architects also be of relevance to others for the future? In what ways could architects contribute to the rebuilding, as you put it, of those settings where we can dream of a different future?

Yours,
Veerle

Rotterdam, 25 June 2021

Dear Veerle,

Immediately after finishing your letter, I read the essay by Arna Mačkić in the latest Architecture in the Netherlands Yearbook. Mačkić discusses the urban renewal of the Schilderswijk district in The Hague in the 1980s. The case offers a painful counterpoint to the demolition of the Tweebosbuurt in Rotterdam today.

Back then, the same fate as the Tweebosbuurt awaited the Schilderswijk: demolition and new development that would be too expensive for the existing residents. But under the supervision of Alderman Adri Duivesteijn, urban renewal as a technocratic process made way for ‘Urban renewal as a Cultural Activity’. Instead of focusing on demolition and new development — ‘a revenue model that appealed to the interests of housing associations, contractors and architecture practices’ — Duivesteijn sought ‘’an architect who would take the identity and culture of the Schilderswijk residents seriously and regard them as equal discussion partners’, writes Mačkić.

That architect was Álvaro Siza. He visited homes as part of the design process. During gatherings and sessions held in a sports hall, Siza and residents built the plans out of wooden blocks. The project has often been described. Strolling across Giudecca Island in Venice in 2016, I happened upon the project in the Portuguese pavilion at the architecture biennale. I was deeply impressed by the sensitivity revealed in the films as Siza, thirty years later, visited residents living in his design.

Whereas the planned demolition of the Schilderswijk was seized upon to initiate a project packed with residential involvement that did justice to the various social structures and cultures in the neighbourhood, the Tweebosbuurt will soon be filled with homes that are too expensive. Perhaps, some years from now, we will come across the new development in the Yearbook.

I have to think about a meme I came across this week. It featured Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane, who says to Peter Parker alias Spiderman: ‘Tell me the truth… I’m ready to hear it.’ Instead of revealing his identity as Spiderman, Peter Parker replies in this Twitter version: ‘Contemporary architects are primarily valued for their capabilities in monetizing space.’

Defining relevance in terms of square metres of rentable space, and not in terms of networks of people and surroundings, means that places like the Tweebosbuurt get bulldozed and architects are forced into an oppressive straitjacket. They serve the market. No Siza in the Tweebosbuurt.

For us, the lack of room to manoeuvre and the narrow focus on financial relevance was but one of the reasons not to work as architects after graduating. Our frustration also formed the point of departure for our quest, through the podcast and in discussions like this, to find ways of doing things differently. We discovered that we’re not the only ones to abandon architecture: many women, as well as people with a migration background, are leaving the profession. The recent Jaarrapportage Ruimtelijke Ontwerpsector 2021 underlines their under-representation once again.

Yet the lack of diversity in the field seems to be not only a result but also a cause of the limited financial definition of what architecture can mean. In her Yearbook essay, Mačkić writes about the inadequate representation of people with a migrant background, women, seniors, people with a disability, and generally anybody who doesn’t fit the white male norm. Many architecture offices, she writes, have a way of working, ‘and how this had led to the inability of many architectural practices to empathize with and imagine different social worlds’. And when you cannot imagine the lives being led behind the facades, it is easier to design them bloodlessly, and demolish them without emotion.

You know what, we still don’t know what a non-sexist city, a just world, might really look like. Once in the while we catch a glimpse of it, like when we come across Christine de Pisan’s medieval City for Women of 1405, or women’s bookshops, or democratic urban renewal projects of the 1980s, and we think: ‘Ah, this is not a new question.’ But an omnipresent architecture that derives meaning from making space for equality remains a dream.

As we studied in Delft and became familiar with feminist architecture theory – the relief! – names and books were passed from hand to hand. Hushed voices in informal networks told horror stories – a hand placed on a knee during a tutorial by a building technology teacher, a racist comment from another – but the names of feminist teachers were shared in the same way. Hélène Frichot’s How to make yourself a feminist design power tool, a tiny pink book whose pages hung loosely from the cover, was secretly passed around before it had to go back to the library. When I opened it again recently I read a recognizable quote. Frichot writes:

‘No doubt many who have ventured into the walled city of architecture have discovered, sooner or later, that they have something to complain about in terms of why they have not been able to ‘pass’ as an architect, or why they have been obliged to exit or escape, even once they have achieved their qualifications.’

The walls of the city of architecture are invisible, until you walk into them. For philosopher Sara Ahmed, who left the academic world for similar reasons, important knowledge can be acquired by rendering those invisible barriers visible. If we are talking about the relevance of architecture, then it is also important to make visible where social relevance ceases, where so few people remain after demolition and clearance, and where the architect is forced into such a straitjacket that we can no longer really talk about relevance.

And yet…
Catherine

Rotterdam, 27 June 2021

Dear Catherine,

Your meme made me laugh out loud. It’s a painfully appropriate depiction of our struggle to answer this question, and perhaps our struggle with the architectural profession more broadly too.

‘Do you still have faith in architecture?’ people sometimes ask me when I voice my concerns. We have to remind outselves now and again why we actually devote so much of our time, outside our day jobs, to investigating and reflecting on architectural practice.

‘And yet,’ you write. And yet I believe that we invest precisely because we still have faith in architecture, although it’s often put to the test. We believe that architects could have more impact than simply on the economic front if they and their clients were prepared to consider the multitude of lived experiences in a place or on a site. If only architects had the courage to take on other roles in designing the built environment.

Besides, we are simply curious to find out what the world would look like if it was built from a feminist perspective, if the teams that build the city brought to the table a diversity of expereinces and perspectives. For we simply don’t yet know what that would be like, what the city and its architecture would then look like.

When you wrote about those women’s bookshops, and about the essay by Mačkić, I had to think of the Zelfregiehuis, which until recently was a genuine counterpublic in the Bospolder-Tussendijken district of Rotterdm. A place where local residents could shape their future in various ways; a place packed with potential. Alas, the Zelfregiehuis has also fallen victim to city policy during the past year. Apart from the gentrification madness, Rotterdam is busy selling off its property, with little thought for the social consequences. In the summer of 2020 the Zelfregiehuis was sold to the highest bidder. The organization was housed on Taandersstraat in a building that had been a meeting point for the neighhourhood in different guises ever since it was completed in 1929 – first as a school, and later as a community centre and women’s centre.

I lived in the neighbourhood myself and graduated with a project about this building. I studied how users could become involved in its redevelopment. I asked myself: What happens when as a designer you shift your focus from searching for efficiency and formulating norms and standards to designing places full of potential? What if you could design places that can continue growing, that can let existing social infrastructures continue growing? How can you consider that multitude of experiences in a place not only in the design but also in construction itself?

The current construction industry and the policies of national and local governments make it difficult to create significance in architecture. Some years before the city put the Taandersstraat building up for sale, the Zelfregiehuis was busy making plans to purchase the building itself. Together with other neighbourhood organizations, Zorgvrijstaat West and Delfshaven Coöperatie, a ‘hybrid earnings model’ was being developed to ensure the continued social impact of the place. The plan was thorough, and even had the backing of Koninklijke Heidemij and Arcadis. The director of Rotterdam City Development had also been briefed. But alderman Bas Kurvers — ‘an inclusive city is also for penthouse residents’ — was in a hurry and the sale proceeded without interruption. There was no time to consider social value and output in the sale.

Despite the forced relocation, the Zelfregiehuis still exists, thankfully, although split into two venues in the neighbourhood: at Schiezicht and in the Bollenpandje. Here they are again succeeding in tapping into new networks, but these venues are also precarious. Under pressure from a landlord levy (a levy imposed on landlords and based on the value of their
social-housing units ed.), Havensteder housing association also has a policy of selling off properties.

Survival is possible, just as the questions from the second feminist wave and the democratization movements still echo today, albeit in the margins or online. Yet I am forced to consider what the city would look like if places like this did receive the support they deserve. Just imagine that, alongside their daily activities, they did not have to fight for their survival. Just imagine the significance that architecture might then have. What a wonderful world that would be…

Yours,
Veerle