Sunday, September 28, 2008

Copenhagen. Bikes

So, Copenhagen is considered the happiest city in the world. Why? Well, I have my suspicions that it has something to do with bicycles. And they are everywhere here. One of my happiest times of this trip is being able to hop on a bike and ride around the entire city looking at neighborhoods, buildings, and whatever else may draw my attention. Of course, the city is smaller than, say, Cairo, but there is a bike culture here. During rush hour in the morning, it is bikes that are backing up in the lanes, not so much cars. It is crazy, but beautiful. And, bikes have been innovated to do many other things that cars typically do: move children, goods, and a bit of everything in between. I think a lot of this has to do with innovation and commitment from many levels of society, industry, and government. I hope we can learn from Denmark. The connection to the high price of gas is telling...

Copenhagen. A few pics.

Copenhagen. Christiania

Christiania is a thermometer for the rest of society. It tries things out, tests them and reveals what is good and useful and what is misguided and does not work. Why not leave it alone to get on with the work, man?"
-Ole Kristenson

”This is a themepark, but you have to figure out your own theme.”
-Emmerik Warburg

I went to Copenhagen to explore Christiana, a unique spot of resistance in the middle of the city that has continued to thrive as a ‘social experiment’ for thirty years. For more background info, see here.

My first arrival into Christiana was that of a different place. As soon as cross the threshold of the formed by the old army barracks building on Prissengrade Street, and enter under the sign that says,”Welcome to Christiana,” (on the other it says, “You are now entering the EU”), something shifts. The sounds are different, the sights are different, everything is just a little different. Visually it is a little more chaotic, not too much though. The beautiful rigidity of the old historic tight urban fabric shifts to a more open space and flowing space, with boundary edges littered with graffiti, unkempt green growth and truly diverse mix of people. And that is one of the most interesting things about this place. Everyone is here. It was in my guidebook, I have seen it in tourist maps, etc. For a place that began as an alternative, drug using, hippie, revolt community, it is pretty well integrated to an extent. In most other places, outsiders would be afraid to even set foot in place like this, but not in Christiana. Its survival depends on the openness and integration of everyone except, mainly the police. But, its openness does not just hinge on survival, is very much at the heart of this once described ‘social experiment.’ Anyone is free to wander around the entire area. Having been spared the traditional development of most of the rest of the city, you find yourself in a weird mix of rundown historic army buildings and the, before you know it, you feel like you are in a rural area, with funky quirky self built houses, dotting the mote that originally fortified Copenhagen. The greenness, the lushness, the wildness of some of the houses, all give physical form to a different reality.

That reality is a community that basically governing itself since 1971, when a number of people stormed the barracks and began occupying the area, in response to the challenge of finding decent communities of affordable housing in Copehagen. The 85 acre establishment stipifies that the land and structures are owned communally.

Each day, I have ventured further and further into Christiana. I have been timid, because it is so different. Yet, I get a little more comfortable and more and more layers begin to reveal themselves and get me even more fascinated and intrigued with the whole thing. It is huge, it is crazy, it is so unique. It is what you would expect and so much more and so not what you would expect. The built environment and form is striking. There is a reason the form (or lack of) should be valued. It cannot be built or established anywhere else like this. Maybe a rural place like western North Carolina.

Rural gives you many possibilities with living your life freer, not being bound by so many rules, etc. You can build how you want (to a certain extent), what you want, but what happens when you live in an urban environment—how do you express that? Of course, it is not necessarily an expression, but a means of living. Do each one of the houses in Christiania represent a collective freedom that each one of us yearns for in the urban environment? Maybe—it is so different from the traditional housing options, where the consumer product serves as a means of expression. And could it have something to do with the fact that 3 out of 4 residents of Copenhagen want to see Christiania preserved….

I was lucky to meet some very interesting people in the area. One was a really cool artist, and lived in a crazy space dome that she had built with other artists near Christiania. The other one had spent time at Christiania doing research on private property and individualization. His basic theory was that the market does not allow for proper expression, creativity and ownership of the home. It becomes just a product, a commodity, an asset that is purchased for the pure intention of building assets and then selling and moving on. Generally speaking of course. The interesting thing is that Christiania offers a counterpoint to this notion. People have invested and taken complete ownership over things that they have no ownership of and no potential for financial gain. Yet, it is theirs, it is something they have done on their own right and have allowed it to grow along the way.

The architecture of Christiania is very much a result of the process of never being finished. The houses are constantly being transformed, little by little. In fact, many of the original houses were site trailers, but on the land, ready to be moved at moment's notice if the threat of eviction came. Over time, as Christiania's tenure has become a little more secure, these temporary homes have evolved into permanent ones. The trailers are now often buried in the maze of additions of many of the houses.

Christiania offers this crazy world of contrasts along the way. People have settled into their individual expressions and enclaves. It is a closed community, even though it is open for the world to see. The social boundaries are strong. My friend was talking about the aesthetic issues of Christiania (which has come directly from the vernacular of the vacation house, etc.). It has a look. And her floating house wouldn’t really fit into that aesthetic, Christiania told her. There is a world that they are hoping to maintain and hold. It is stagnate, partly because of outside pressures, and then partly because of their own doing. The drugs hold the power. The market economy is alive and well, although the whole notion of no private ownership is central to the whole community and what the government wants to normalize. Yet, this public right is so strong, yet the individualization of the spaces is almost just as strong. You can build your own house, live your own world, and do almost on your own.

The residents of Christiania hold what is dear to them, they know they have some special and specific, and want to keep it that way. Their lifestyle is very insular, their spaces are not. They are a microcosm of society, probably with two big differences. They don’t believe in private ownership and believe in the free use of soft drugs. There is the surface and what is hidden underneath. They don’t want cars in their community so they pile them up on the road outside the area. They believe in consensus and equality but most of the power is concentrated in four men who dominate the drug trade. They don’t believe in private property, but the houses are as individually expressive as any that I’ve seen. Some are statements of expression, some are expressions of power and wealth, some of craft, some of freedom, of not wanting to make an expression, a form or dwelling truly based on an evolution and what seemed right at the time.

So, if you live outside the rules, are you illegal? Should you be punished? In a more established democratic society, the rules are different. Do they have a right to and live above the law? If someone gets arrested for smoking or selling weed in central Copenhagen, how is it fair to not have that happen in Christiania? You can live there for free, don’t do any work, opt out of the social contract of citizen and then find a way to exist in beautiful, valuable property along the way. There are people who have worked very hard, but are nowhere near able to afford or access such a quality of life.

I guess the beautiful thing about Christiania with all of its problems is that it is an opening in which we are allowed to view new and different that help us rethink and continually revalue what a free and democratic society means and represents. As with the privatization and neoliberalization of so much world, it is happening everywhere, this is especially critical. But, it is probably more critical to have these nodes and methods of resistance in the developed world, where the product of lifestyle and dwelling have become so tied with consumption, lifestyle, and the so called ability to be free and choose. The middle and upper class (middle and high) continue to weild the power, or so called more access, but as usual, the low continue to mull about without any real access to change. The new European world of travel, high style, clothing, fashion, products, education, café living, etc. How much does all this influence and create a more active exchange of views and ultimately quality of life? What exactly is quality of life?

Finally, one big difference of Christiania is that of choice. Most of the people around the world in places like Kibera, Huruma, Karail, Dharavi, and Boulak, make a decision to live where they do based on a choice of necessity versus a choice of an alternative lifestyle, or experimentation. In fact, what has given Christiania its validity is that it was labeled as a social experiment. In much of the rest of the world, the necessity of informality and legality is blurring the notion of what is policy and in fact driving so much new policy, but in a defacto manner. When it is an absolute necessity and nothing else exists, this is a legitimate right. But, is it ever this clear and who decides this?

A few other links:

a striking house and discussion


Amsterdam. Branner Trio.

All three of the Branner travelers were finally able to cross paths in one place. Good times for sure, and it was great to bond a little bit. Amsterdam offered plenty of places and activities to catch up, and rejuvenate a bit. Asa has since hit the olympics in beijing, and Natalia is floating around between the americas.

Okay, so it was as like two months ago. But, I am slowly catching up on my blog, trust me.....

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Northern Europe. Wind

On the way from the Netherlands via Germanay on the way to Denmark, we passed a pretty rural area with large windmills everywhere. They are very elegant. I keep asking myself, why are we in the US not catching on. It is especially pertinent in light of Al Gore’s recent challenge to remove ourselves from any non renewable energy sources in 100 years. Obviously, it is a much more complex issue than I can to delve into here, but it is such a critical one. I remember a German I met in a hostel in Shanghai. He was a salesman for different wind generating technologies. And the new models that he was touting are very elegant. The blades seem to move slow enough to not cause major problems for birds. And for the aesthetic issue, I don’t get it. In fact, for me, it is actually comforting and inspiring to see such structures because it tells me something is being done. Surely, these could become profitable enough to put on agricultural land where wind is prevalent. People get paid large amounts of money for cell phone companies to put an antennae on their land, why not windmills? I find a wind mill is much more attractive than one of those damn cell phone towers (even the fake palm tree one, you know what I am talking about).

Well, just maybe we are starting to change. Check this article I recently found...Otherwise, it is drill, baby, drill....


So, I am learning a bit about the blog thing. I just found out that you can 'Follow' my blog. I know a lot of people are reading it, but don't really know who. So, if you are reading and checking it out on a somewhat regular basis, please let me know by clicking on the 'Follow this blog' link on the sidebar. Thanks!

Netherlands. MVRDV




One of the Dutch architecture firms doing very interesting work these days is MVRDV. Three projects in Amsterdam have drastically rethinking the form, typology, and density of housing.

Netherlands: Growth Dwellings

Diagram courtesy of the Architect

One of the projects offering greater consumer choice is the Growth Dwellings by Laura Weeber. Produced as part of the “Bouw Expo 2001” in Almere, these 37 units were commissioned to explore a new type of housing that utilized professional developers, but responded to various needs and wishes of the future owners. It was Weeber’s intention that the design would “provide enough possibilities to compose different houses for all thinkable lifestyles, it would guarantee privacy and it would generate an architectural form that would hold the whole project together as an entity, no matter the amount of accessories the owners wish add to their house.”

Each home is basically a modular design, with a base unit of three segments that can be easily added onto in the front or the back. The original siting is up to the client.

The form is striking, and the arched roof ensures a strong visual and formal connection to the entire community, even after additions are made. They are really quite beautiful and associate with what is a home, at least in the American sense, or maybe I should better say the bungalow. They are all staggered in their layout which gives it a nice variety even though it is the same house. I think the water really builds the character of them. You can feel they are more dynamic and changing. The porches are pretty nice, although probably not that functional. They make for great pictures.

As for the extensions, the architect told me only one has been added onto so far. But, on site, I couldn’t tell. I guess that is the point. If you do, you don’t notice it. It is precisely a hidden addition. It is controlled, and supposed to be able to use standard building products and materials. It is modular, but it is not. Even though there is flexibility, the product produced at the beginning is very much a product based a limited set of components. But it works well with or without additions, and the variety of the sizes bring subtle changes to the fabric. If someone wants to add on, they will have to hire their own contractor as the one who originally built the homes is too big for a job like an addition. And, you don’t have a lot of options, but you know it is an affordable option, and you wouldn’t have to hire an architect. You actually buy the product for the house itself and its expandability, as limited as it is. Is this better than most American suburban houses, which weren’t designed to be added onto, but often take many additions? Is there more or less variety? How much of an issue is form?

It would be nice to see more of these built, but I would not be surprised if they remain a one off project. The architect said she hoped there would be more built, but there aren’t any plans at the moment.

Across the canal was flexible housing by UN Studio, which was also designed to be extendable. While there were clear intentions for such to take place, I was unable to see any new additions. Each project does complement each other, though.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Netherlands: Open Building

One of the great leaders and visionaries of the open building movement is the Dutch architect John Habraken. In 1972, he wrote a book called Supports, An Alternative to Mass Housing. In it, he railed against the post war mass housing that had consumed western Europe and much of the world. His alternative was to provide a system of Supports, which people could then infill, which would allow them to have a much greater say in the establishment of their home and community. He describes a support structure as ,” a construction which allows the provision of dwellings which can be built, altered and taken down, independently of the others.” He raises numerous other important points that I find just as important today as they were 35 years ago:

“Who is to say how the living patterns of different layers of society will take place in the future? Even within the same income group there are many families and individuals with widely differing backgrounds, ambitions, and living habits. How can mass housing deal with that?” (p. 57)

“It does not mean….that our independent dwelling is necessarily a freestanding one. .. it means, therefore, that before we can introduce the natural relationship, we must find a way to build independent dwellings on top of each other.” (p. 71)

But one of Habraken’s biggest questions and concerns was to find a way this would benefit the masses of people, and not remain as one-off architectural experiments. This is such a huge issue, as some of the most brilliant architects have tackled the mass housing issues, only to have most of the projects end in complete failure or end up only being built once. (For more info, read The Prefabricated Home by Colin Davies). And, one great frustration for many of the projects I have been looking at is that they are precisely one off projects, never get replicated, and don’t end up serving the purposes originally designed. There are many reasons for, which I will try and expound upon later.

Habraken spent some time meeting with me while I was in the Netherlands. For a man of having such a great impact on the profession, he was as generous and down to earth as could be.

After 30 years of work and experience, open building (which is the current form of Habraken’s theories), flexibility, and adaptability are still on the margins and relatively limited to isolated projects. Why is this? Habraken described one big reason that the complex process of building involves a lot of people, not just architects and requires much cooperation and coordination between the different groups. It could probably very easily be solved from a technical architectural approach, but to get it to work with insurers, lenders, code officials, etc. has proven to be a great problem. He described the typical process in which housing gets designed. Architects will make the floorplan and then everyone will work their numbers and follow in after that. But what if there is no floorplan? His research at the SAR focused on developing models by which the other groups could understand. A lot of this work has given us great projects and information, and has laid the foundation for open building, which is basically a given in office buildings now, but still very much marginalized in housing. Aside from a few constant examples, it has still had a relatively small impact.

Netherlands: Amsterdam Squats

There were many interesting connections that come together in Amsterdam. One of threads that quickly became apparent to me was how squatting (and the ideals and realities they were exposing) in the 80’s and 90’s are now very intertwined with the new lifestyle of modern housing in Amsterdam. For all the information on the squats, I am deeply indebted to David Carr Smith, and his web book: Improvised Houses of Amsterdam and all the wonderful information he has unearthed and communicated. There are three buildings in which I uncovered some interesting relationships.

The first is Edelweis. This amazing industrial building is on the KMSN island and is surrounded by new buildings and housing, as this part of the Eastern Docklands development in the late 1990’s. As the shipping industry was transformed and the harbor moved to another part of the city, old industrial land was left. This beautiful building would certainly have been destroyed had squatters not occupied it. And of course, it leads to some amazing spaces.
The second one is Silodam. This project by MVRDV has become very famous in architectural circles and occupies a prominent spot along the IJ River in Amsterdam. It is actually a third building along an old pier. The first two (which have been converted to high end housing) were originally grain silos. After the industry had left, the first building, simply referred to as Silo had been squatted…..As the land become more valuable, and commercial viability of such projects became more lucrative for housing, the whole site was redeveloped, with the addition of the Silodam project. Of course, the squatters were consequently evicted to make room for higher-end and prescribed housing.

The last and most significant squat is Tetterode. It was originally squatted in 1982 as a result of people looking for a good affordable place to stay. It was increasingly difficult to find such places. The building (or series of buildings) used to be a factory where they made letter presses. As with many buildings of this type, the structural system and floor layout offered great flexibility by which to create dwelling spaces (as in the US, these types of spaces and people were the precursors of the modern loft movement). Many of the folks there were artists and designers and used the space as living and working. As the city wanted to demolish the building in the late 1980’s, a young idealist named Frank Bydendyk began conversing with the squatters. He was running a housing development company called Het Oosten. As it turns out, he was able to serve as an effective mediator between the squatters and the city. He also had a strong interest in providing affordable and accessible housing.
The deal which they agreed to had a number of different components. It is basically described as ‘casco’, or ship’s hull. Het Oosten (which just recently merged with Stadgenoot) would cover all the maintenance and upkeep issues for the core and the shell of the building. Basically, they would be responsible for the exterior, and any interior infrastructural issues (water, electricity, structure). The squatters, whom had formed a collective would be responsible for all the interior issues, but had basic freedom over what to do with the inside of the building, and the city has pretty much stayed out of their hair. Each tenant rents a space and pays money to the collective. The collective then pays Het Oosten at a rate that is renegotiated every fifteen years or so. In this case, the project was able to be formalized, in a way that still allowed the informal and very necessary components to exist. Since in most cases, there really shouldn’t be much distinction between informal and formal, I will just call it exformal, the intersection of the two.
The really fascinating component is that Frank Bydendyk was so intrigued with this idea of living, he has decided to push it and in a more commercially viable/market driven product. There is one big difference here. Many people have already found that lofts are successful and highly sought after, in many parts of the world now. However, it is still relatively a fixed product, and has been commodified and co-opted to serve a niche in the market of a higher end style of life, not anymore serving the flexibility, adaptability and affordability that such projects initially offered. While many projects have open space and allow some variety within the arrangement of rooms, but generally speaking, it is not very flexible.

The new project that Bydendyk is involved in is called Solids. If many people were interested in such a flexible living type, maybe there is a greater demand for it in the market. Unfortunately, none of the buildings have been completed yet, and due to the merger, getting information has been pretty difficult. But, is based on the idea of open building, similar to how the Tetterode project has been set up. Het Oosten will build the building (skin, structure, infrastructure) and then tenants will come in and build out however and whatever they want in the space allotted. The big difference here with other projects is that there is no segmentation between commercial and residential. It will be determined by who wants to put what where. It is a natural and self regulating process, and then product. Additionally, each tenant has its own capacity to design out their space how they see fit. And, the price will be set through a public auction on the internet. People and prices will be offered as to how much they are willing to pay (not what the market demands they pay). And poorer people will be given a handicap, ensuring they have a stake in this as well.
It will be interesting to see how this project plays out. I particularly appreciate the notion that squatters/artists actually had a worthwhile interest and point of view. Especially since they have continually served as bellweathers for neighborhoods that will become hot and soon gentrify, eventually displacing themselves and their way of living. These pioneers often show a different way of living, and it is nice to a new manifestation of it, truly understanding the process of it, not the product of it.
The ad hoc corridor with rooms added above
An annexed space serving as a CAD CAM workshop for a resident
Loft Living
At Tetterode, I was able to visit two different residences, both of which have developed loft type spaces. The interesting thing here is the manner in which each of these residences have been developed in an adhoc manner, and how they have been able to grow and take over space on the inside of the building. They ended up adding more space by building over the public corridor, while one unit annexed a vacated to serve as a work space. I found this notion of growth and extensions and informal development within an existing building and framework quite fascinating.

Netherlands: Volkstuintje

An interesting part of the Dutch landscape that instantly caught my eye was the Volkstuintje. These gardening areas, which are very common to see from the trains, seemed to initially reflect some of the smaller, more chaotic shanties that develop in other parts of the world, as people search for a small space to build a small structure. The notion is similar from a formal view, but in reality fundamentally different. Since most traditional housing had been pretty dense in the cities without much individual space, these spaces allowed people to get away without really getting away. It is an extension of the home, but not physically connected. But, these spaces are highly controlled and regulated, and they cannot be built beyond a certain size, and it is prohibited to spend the night there. I found them fascinating, beautiful, and refreshing….When it comes to the built environment, the Dutch don’t play around. Most of them have sinks, wood stoves, and lounge furniture. Talk about garden sheds….


The Netherlands was such a stimulating exploration of architecture and the built environment. Not only are so many of the new buildings pushing the envelope and broadening the discourse on modern architecture, the quality of life there is amazing. Between the trains and bicycles (and infrastructure that beautifully supports both of these), and windmills (new ones), small population and lower densities, it offered a great alternative to the hectic and dense cities of Paris and London. And often times, the built environment is just fun as so many Dutch designers have a habit of thinking outside the box and are able to get the durn things built.

In talking with a number of architects, there seem to be a number of factors that make the Netherlands such an interesting place right now in terms of the built environment. First, there has always been a very strict control and monitoring of the built environment. As with Amsterdam, the city has been able to maintain and develop its wonderful character only through close monitoring of each new structure and addition. Whether or not this is good thing depends on who you ask. But few can deny the exquisite charm of Amsterdam (at least the older part). But, it continues to this day, and it seems as if most people are well informed about design and built environment. I was describing to some folks the extreme nature of controls and rules in many suburbs in the US that really have nothing to do with design, but everything to do with social control, exclusion, security and property values and they just kind of shook their heads.

Another reason is that from the 70’s to the 90’s, the Netherlands was generally a welfare state with a professional class in control. Most of the post war housing was subsidized and there was not much variety within it. Uniformity was the norm. It is not that people didn’t have money to buy housing, there just wasn’t housing to buy. Now, the government is withdrawing, and there is much more choice in the market. There has been basically a pent up demand for individual choice, and user oriented designs. As a result, there are now a great number of innovative housing schemes focused on consumer choice while pushing new design boundaries.