The principles that drive the office of Zones Urbaines Sensibles, or ZUS, a young office of 10 staff in the centre of Rotterdam, are often extraordinarily simple yet somewhat foreign. Founders Elma Van Boxel and partner Kristian Koreman began their career not only with a desire to practice architecture, but also as a reaction to the scores of monetary incentives that had driven the inner-city of Rotterdam to desolation.
Occupying the once empty Schieblock building, ZUS’s central agenda of spatial intervention has seen a forgotten corner of the city become its most diverse and animated. Their work is the result of thinking about cities and the forces that shape them, combined with a valuing of integrity in one’s acts.
On a recent visit to the Dutch port city, Melbourne architect Andy Yu met co-founder Elma Van Boxel to discuss their work, values and the constraints facing the Dutch architecture industry. This is the first part of a two-part post.
ZUS founders Kristian Koreman and Elma Van Boxel
Your practice name is ZUS, Zones Urbaines Sensibles, or “sensitive urban zones”. This denotes a fundamental ideology and approach in your practice. Can you talk about the importance of such strong positioning for you as architects?
For us it is important to have an agenda and a conscious. During our studies and traineeships we realised when architects spoke of their buildings working in favour of the public, it was difficult and rare to see it materialise in the actual building. We wanted to ask how architecture could become involved with the community structure and work for the people, rather than the organisation.
In Australia a large part of our building industry relies on converting empty land into low density housing, or from that into higher density apartments. In the case of the Netherlands, what is its current scene in building and architecture?
At the moment Netherlands is operating in a state of tabula rasa. There are no new buildings being built, it is a crisis of stasis. Within this crisis there are a group of architects who are working at a small scale by investigating at how they can densify the city by placing new housing blocks intelligently within the existing built environment, however there are no big urban schemes anymore… urban areas are at saturation.
For example there are two billion square meters of unoccupied buildings scattered across the Netherlands. There are vacant buildings all over major cities and highways. It began a few decades ago, when the government placed no regulation over the building of offices in industrial areas, and municipalities had the power to sell public land. The result was that the Netherlands underwent a mass frenzy in privatising public land. In that period it was very easy for developers to privatise land and build new office towers without considering occupancy, as it was a purely used as credit leverage and proved to be quite a lucrative business venture.
As you can see out of our office window, that tower there is completely empty; the Shell Tower over there. It has been empty for seven years, and it is a mere 5 minutes’ walk from Rotterdam central station! So you can imagine other empty buildings along highways have an even more unfortunate fate. We had a state architect who spoke publicly recently, where he stated it is his hope that there are no new buildings to be built in the Netherlands. It’s a rather shocking statement for a state architect to make, but this is the severity of the situation.
On another occasion during my final project in school, I asked an architect to be my mentor and he was really quite proud to show me the towers he was commissioned to design, while being fully aware that they may never be occupied and will ultimately cause more harm than good. It appeared to me that the entire transaction was not to the benefit of spatial quality and the people, but an exchange of monetary leverages… and architecture was kind of just a by-product. In this case where the architect was so unfazed by the social impact of their designs, I think they should take some blame too.
Is this what spurred you to conduct the so called “Urban Politics”, where you send letters to the governing bodies and give advices to better use the spaces in Rotterdam?
Yes. Essentially we’re able to engage in the projects we currently have due to the success of “Urban Politics”. In 2001 we moved into the building we’re in now, called the Schieblock, and it was completely empty. We later received the Rotterdam Maaskant Prize for Young Architects, which is a grant that usually results in a reflection or publication of realised work. We had more paperwork and one realised building, so we thought it’d be more suitable for us to just put our thoughts in writing. In our observation of a liberal democracy, consumption was the act that justified the government’s spending and development, and the citizen was only able to see themselves as consumer. Our first thought was to have awareness and consciousness in the public domain.
The Sheiblock, Rotterdam
So your intention was to become advocates for longer-term benefits for the public, instead of being part of the back scratching relationship between the municipality and the developer, where the benefit for the state was for, say, five years.
Or two years, it was often very short sighted, and the problems of that linger for decades.
Is this when ZUS began to implement initiatives in the Schieblock?
Yes, The Schieblock is our home and our most important initiative as a practice. Upon reviewing the redevelopment plan of this office block, we advised the developer and the municipality that instead of having instant urbanism by demolishing and rebuilding, you can intelligently utilise the existing building and formulate programs to fit future ambitions. We offered an unsolicited plan to the owner of the building and to city officials to populate the building with various initiatives. Their response to us was a very intimidating phone call, demanding us to stop any further actions. We were later interviewed by a newspaper where we carefully chose our words in recount of that incident, and it was published with the headline “Demolition is killing the inner city”.
It had an effect – the next day the owner and a city official asked if they could look at the proposal once more.
So it was the exposure in the press that played a significant role in turning them around?
Yes, public voice did help to apply pressure. It’s a pity that we didn’t record that phone call; to make such a threatening phone call to warn us off, and then come back asking to if we could work together… It was extreme.
From then on our Urban Politics begin to take shape in the Schieblock. In another article we wrote, we proposed to start a Centre of Urban Culture – a pied-à-terre for cultural institutes in the city centre, many of which had been forced to outer areas of the city. After reading our article, one of the institutes requested to take a space in the Schieblock, and this initiative later became the Dependance Center for Urban Culture, which now sits at the ground floor of the Schieblock. Some time later OMA approached us and asked if they could use the space for their Harvard GSD Exhibition and the pre-exhibition of the Venice biennale. We agreed only if Rem [Koolhaus] gave a free public lecture, which he did, and it was a huge success.
Other groups then became attracted and asked if they could be part of it. We started asking for a small fee to start a co-op that would cover renovation of the building, so instead of drinking on Friday afternoons we just started to demolish the internal walls and renovate its spaces. Soon afterwards a cinema came in, and then a restaurant, then a bike service, then a dinner club on the roof.
After the initial success of the Schieblock, the Rotterdam Biennale asked us to join as co-curators. From here we gathered all the stakeholders of the area and collaboratively visualised initiatives for the Biennale together. We also asked all the restaurants in the area to participate in conjunction with the World Food Festival that also took place in Rotterdam at the same time. We made magazines, events, lectures and dinners, all held in the back garden of the Schieblock, which we transformed into an open-air bar and venue. There was also a separate event where we programed an empty building for 24 hour where we asked 24 organisations in Rotterdam to program each floor, giving the entire building a city-like experience. We had a yoga floor, a roller disco floor, restaurant floor, theatre classes, and we even had live bands playing in the elevator lobby which gave the entire building an incredible feeling.
Studio for Unsolicited Architecture, The Sheiblock, Rotterdam
It does sound incredible, a once forgotten building into all this… It’s a Cinderella story.
Indeed. We showed that you don’t need to demolish the building to create vibrancy. Just five years ago the Sheiblock area was “Zero Tolerance Zone”, at dusk time the Police would check any pedestrians for contraband. It was a really rough area.
As the buildings began to clean up we opened an info booth, showing a physical model of the building in progress, and we held “speed date” sessions with people who were looking for a space. In four weeks the once completely empty building was 80% full. At the building’s re-opening, both the owner and city appeared in local papers with big smiles.
A before and after… The Sheiblock, Rotterdam.
Part two of this interview will run very soon…!
Zones Urbaines Sensibles
is a Melbourne based architect