by Neometro

Zones Urbaines Sensibles: Urban Politics and Spatial Intervention

Architecture, Ideas - by Andy Yu

On a recent visit to Rotterdam, Melbourne architect Andy Yu met Elma Van Boxel, co-founder of  Zones Urbaines Sensibles, or ZUS, a young architecture practice of 10 staff in the centre of the Dutch port city.

ZUS’s work in following their values and beliefs has seen a forgotten corner of the city become its most diverse and animated. Their transformation a formerly empty commercial building called The Schieblock into a rich, muli-facited building has seen them become recognised as one of Europe’s most socially active practices. 

This is the second part of the two-part interview. To read the first part, click here.

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With such a strong republic ideology, would you ever see yourself doing a private home for the CEO of a bank?

Oh, that’s an interesting question. I recently had a conversation with Nanne De Ru of the Powerhouse Company, he also gets that question quite often, as he has designed extremely high-end private homes yet at the same time has also put together a publication and exhibition where he shows his research on where money comes from, where it goes, and where things go wrong in this system. Basically, he critiques capitalism and at the same time has worked for extremely wealthy people.

I think if you have the opportunity to take on assignments such as high-end houses and if you know as a company you can learn something from it, then I would say why not.

And in terms of if the client was a banker or someone who represents an ideology far from ours – no, we would not necessarily, them because they form part of reality. We’ve learnt in the Shieblock that in order to pursue our agenda, it’s crucial to go inside the other ideologies to understand them, and to translate them.

In this discussion perhaps we’re talking about whether architects are expected to carry some form of a moral compass? A set of principle, instead of a business convention?

We do think we are architects of morale, you must always be able explain what compels you to do things in the ways you do, and in our case we believe what we doing is right. As I demonstrated before, demolishing and building new offices is not an efficient method to bring vibrancy into central Rotterdam. If we were asked to do a new office tower we would most certainly refuse.

To be honest I don’t think we will be asked to do a private house, we wouldn’t be let in that door (laughs), and I think we’re in a different generation of practices where building buildings is the only way to be an architect.

Indeed, your practice definitely strikes me as one that is more interested architecture ideas rather than a single building. Speaking of practice, most firms rely on providing the services to a client who’d in turn pay for the services. How does ZUS maintain financial buoyancy if you’re not always working for clients who have money?

When we started, we did have 50% of our projects to be of a standard contract and payment, and next to that we did work such as the Urban Politics, which we initiated ourselves and wasn’t expecting to get paid. In a way, we shuffled our budget around.

Since commencing work on the Shieblock, we have broadened our clients. Now we’re doing a project in Almere, a neighbourhood of 30,000 dwellings, our client is the investment company called Amvest and they are different from the usual developer, where instead of selling the development upon completion, they retain the ownership for the next 30 years.

We’re also doing a lot infrastructure assignmenst with normal money involved. With our background and knowledge in re-thinking urban planning we’re getting assignments all over the Netherlands. We do attract investors with money who pay for our expertise; knowledge which we built up through the years with a clear ideology and strong morals.

What is the future for the Shieblock and ZUS?

A new development is that the Rotterdam city declared the ‘spatial crisis’ over – so development of the central district will again continue, and the Sheiblock was considered part of revenue generating ventures. Which puts us in a new position, we’re now considered to be working with the government and the developers to organise this area.

You asked at the very beginning how an ideology can give you a stage. And the answer to that is the power to create a movement. In a way now we are part of the stakeholders of the Shieblock, we do not own it in monetary terms, but in a sense of community, we are now part of this collective conscious embodied in Shieblock, a giant Co-Op. In that we can ensure we’re also creating architecture that is sustainable not in the sense of mechanical performance of the window sill or an air-conditioning unit, but an existence that appropriates a building to its location.

Rooftop garden beds, The Scheiblock

So to a few more general questions now… What is currently on your bedside table?

Next to our bed at the moment is a book of essays written by various graphic designers about their relationships with clients. Complicated, love-hate relationships to be exact. In this book you can recognise that the designers  work on regular jobs for paying clients, but on the side they pursue their own creative projects, which is a healthy habit to have in order to maintain creativity. We recognise the similarity in our work – we too have side projects that form our own thoughts into design.

Speaking of this parallel of artistry and financial pragmatism – how does ZUS operate to navigate between these two ends?

Well, through all of our paid work our focus remains the same, which is, how will the work make people’s lives better. However we also work on more art-based projects such as the Wunderbaum, a theatre group based in Rotterdam, where we’re work on their scene and set designs. They have given us the freedom to create their worlds.

Can you see yourself ever working in another field?

Sometimes I can see myself working as an artist – let’s just skip all financial reality and simply focus on things you’d like to make! Professionally though, I can imagine we’d be great at the re-organisation of bigger companies, governing bodies, policy makers etc; providing a re-structuring strategy to lead people into better work practices and better lives.

Do you have a favourite piece of architecture of late?

I’m not really an architecture fetishist. I am interested in the scene, and of course sometimes I feel that overwhelming sensation when entering a great building, but I don’t keep a mental tally or have a list so to speak. The group whose work I think most fascinating is the Urban Think Tank; I’m very intrigued how they are doing what they’re doing, whether it is through the formation of a traditional brief, or through self-initiation.

ZUS founders Kristian Koreman and Elma Van Boxel

Do you have any architects, artist/designer who you greatly admire?

The writings of Rem Koolhass have great influence on us, it’s inspiring reading and to really helps you learn to organise your thoughts. Diller Scofidio + Renfo is another practice we watch and admire, they’re always able to make a political statement within a spatial outcome. Team X, for the way they materialise their theories; And (art historians) Crimson, on how they deal with the questions of the context we live in now, physically and historically.

What is the typical work week for you?

Monday to Sunday (laughs). We don’t really count our hours, it’s all very organic. The day brings in its own goals, it’s a bit like sailing, and one must deal with the immediate vicinity of waves and sail towards to a goal.

We also admire people who have a 9-5 job, who are able to complete their work within the day; they’re able to see work as a means to sustain a life.

Given your approach and work practices, is maintaining balance an issue then?

Four years ago we had a child in the family, she taught us the importance of the work-life balance. We then found out how important it is to manage your life and mind, and to have time to rest and exercise, and to have the time to be away from work in order organise your thoughts.

At an early time in ZUS we made comparisons to the office of MVRDV, who are constantly working, and Neuteling Riedijk, who adopt the 9-5 approach, and we’re trying to be in between. We try to maintain a working culture that maximises our days so we can leave at a normal hour. Now we have 30 projects and 15 staff, 10 months of the year last year we were able to maintain the relaxed culture, and 2 months would be of a heavier load.

We also understand and harness the culture that develops from working to deadlines, as it creates a sense of comradeship and accomplishment. This sense of working like a family is vital. The balance requires a little intuitiveness to it though, we’re definitely not going to be able to write a manual for office management I’d say?!

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Zones Urbaines Sensibles
Rotterdamn, The Netherlands

 Andy Yu
is a Melbourne based architect


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