The Blue House, lJburg, Amsterdam
Location; IJburg, Amsterdam
Artists: Jeanne van Heeswijk, Yane Calovski, Dennis Kaspori, Hervé Paraponaris, m7red, Nicoline Koek, Silvia Russel, Marthe van Eerdt, Rudy J. Luyters, Cheikh ‘Papa’ Sakho, Barbara Holub, Paul Rajakovics, Orgacom, Joost Grootens, Marianne Maasland, Marga Wijman, Marcel Möring, Inga Zimprich, Howard Chan, Tere Recarens, Carel Weeber, Wilfried Hou Je Bek, Daniela Paes Leao, Amy Plant, Ella Gibbs, Jo van der Spek, Igor Dobricic and Johan Siebers.
IJburg is a major new urban district being developed on a cluster of man-made islands to the east of Amsterdam city centre. The whole development is governed by a highly detailed plan, the implementation of which is strictly regulated. This is certainly the case in Haveneiland (‘Harbour Island’), with its ‘Castellum’ (also known as 'Block 35') designed by TKA (Teun Koolhaas Associates, now Atelier DUTCH). The housing units are situated around a communal courtyard, which has a cobalt blue townhouse in the middle. Het Blauwe Huis (‘The Blue House’), as it is called, has been withdrawn from the housing market from 2005 to 2009 on the initiative of artist Jeanne van Heeswijk. For this period it will act as a centre for artistic and cultural production and research into what happens when such a radical approach to urban planning and community development is employed.
The demand for housing in Amsterdam has always been high, and remains so. Due to a lack of suitably sized new locations for residential property within the city boundaries, Amsterdam City Council agreed in the mid-nineties to build on a series of eight artificial islands in the IJmeer, a lake on the eastern side of the city. Construction of 18,000 homes in this new district, called IJburg, will be completed around 2015. IJburg by then will have around 45,000 inhabitants and offer 12,000 new jobs to the area. IJburg has been planned as a self-contained district with its own community facilities, shops, offices and schools. The housing in IJburg is varied, including low-rise blocks of flats and terraced and detached houses. All sectors are catered for, from social rentals to mid-priced housing and higher-priced, owner-occupied dwellings. Around 30% of all houses will be for social rent, and the remaining 70% offered for sale or rent on the open market.
Plans for this major urban expansion originate from 1965, when the architects/urban planners Van den Broek and Bakema presented their radical scheme for a linear city in IJmeer (‘City on Pampus’). This controversial proposal did not go ahead. However, a plan that had been drawn up in the eighties for ‘Nieuw Oost’ (‘New East’) was worked up into a proposal for a VINEX district (Vierde Nota Ruimtelijke Ordening Extra), under a scheme by which housing is developed in 'overspill' areas selected for their proximity to existing conurbations and their accessibility, especially by public transport. In 1996 the City Council gave its seal of approval to the construction of the residential site, which was renamed IJburg.
The urban design scheme for these islands is based on a grid of rectangular blocks, rectilinear streets, green strips and waterways. Most of the detailed design work for blocks is undertaken by a team of architects, with one architect acting as coordinator. In 2001, the first building was completed on Haveneiland West and at the present moment, in 2008, the development on several other islands is well underway. Extensive bicycle paths and a good public transport infrastructure, as well as park areas, have been incorporated into the EUR 4 billion development. Bridges have been built, schools, bars and restaurants have opened and the first streets are now well defined. In 2005, the IJ Tram came into service connecting IJburg with the city centre.
Being situated within one of the first blocks to be developed on IJburg, The Blue House offers an ideal platform to observe how the district takes shape and the way in which people go about using, appropriating and changing the public space. Inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s idea for a ‘Yellow House’ in Arles where he could offer hospitality to fellow artists and Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s 'Casa Azul' in Mexico, The Blue House is a place for living and working, presentation and debate. Over the four-year period, artists, architects, thinkers, writers and scholars of various nationalities are invited to be residents in The Blue House for six months. During this time, they engage in dialogue with each other and the public about the early development of the IJburg community, thus researching, documenting and participating in the shaping of its identity. A central aim of The Blue House is to support interaction between the research undertaken and direct community activism by members of the house. This is not a one-to-one relationship as in traditional models of ‘community art’ or artist commissioning, but a dynamic and multi-layered process in which new relationships are formed through the house.
As Jeanne van Heeswijk explains:
“As a new city, IJburg has been planned down to the last millimeter – nothing is left to chance. Given that, I wondered what would be left over for the unplanned, the things no-one anticipated. The Blue House was a kind of ‘objet trouve’ in the middle of the block. I felt that by being there and inhabiting the house collectively we could intervene in, react to and interact with that community in growth. We’ve come to conceive of the project as a Housing Association for the Mind."
The Blue House has already hosted many residencies by artists and creative thinkers, representing a wide range of practices and disciplines.
Whilst resident in the house, individuals respond to one or more of the three strands of The Blue House’s work – Instant Urbanism, Hospitality and Histories.
The process of building an urban extension like IJburg is slow. Residents have to wait years for essential community facilities to be established. In IJburg the supermarket was initially housed in a tent and the local community centre was not scheduled to be open until 2008. The Blue House has sought to respond directly to the needs of fellow residents and to create some of the things that are needed in a fast and playful way. They describe this as ‘instant urbanism’ and artists have been involved in a series of small-scale interventions that deal with daily life on IJburg and some of the problems that have arisen because of an over regulated planning system. Jeanne van Heeswijk and architect Dennis Kaspori describe this series of projects as The Parade of Urbanity.
Specific interventions have included:
Boekenkas – a community library
With over 3000 houses, IJburg is still too small for a permanent library. On the initiative of local resident Johan Bakker, The Blue House opened a temporary library in 2007 housed in a specially developed greenhouse in the central square. The idea behind Boekenkas was to bring local people in contact with each other through the reading and exchanging of books. They join the library through a website www.blauweboekenkas.org and are encouraged to post book reviews and meet other library members. The library has been so successful that it recently moved to a more permanent location in ‘de Dageraad’, a local restaurant where residents come in to trade books and donate new books to the library.
Pump Up the Blue/Chill-Room
Marseille-based artist Hervé Paraponaris used scaffolding to increase the size of The Blue House horizontally and vertically. With his project Pump Up the Blue he gave the house four new facades and additional roof capacity. On top of the construction was a skybox with a rainwater collector and furniture made from recycled tyres on which people could relax and enjoy views of the island and the water that surrounds it. The whole structure was designed to support a six-month programme of musical and theatrical performances, open-air film screenings and events using the temporary viewing balconies and extra rooms that were created. One additional resource was the Chill-Room, developed by the artist Ingrid Meus as a space for young people to meet, hold discussions, play music and become involved in the creative life of the local area. As a direct result of the Chill-Room, the City Council has agreed to provide a new space for young people in the area called The Production House.
The Blue House Garden
In designing and creating a garden for The Blue House, artist Rudy J. Luijters was not interested in the aesthetic of gardening or the look of the plants alongside each other. All sixty different plants in the garden can be eaten or produce something that can be eaten, including the petals of colourful flowers that grow there which taste great in salads. As the only kitchen garden on the block, the gates are left open and people living in the adjacent houses are invited to share the harvest with residents of The Blue House, and to contribute suggestions around what should be planted in the garden.
ALMOSTREAL is a European Cultural Foundation initiated project supporting and researching artistic collaboration within different cultural contexts in Europe. Over the period 2005-8, ALMOSTREAL rolls out in five distinct stages each with an interpretative theme. These themes are: Confrontation, Storytelling, Research, Hospitality and Intimacy.
In early April 2007, Jeanne van Heeswijk sent a letter of invitation to ALMOSTREAL project officer Igor Dobricic asking him to become a member of the Blue House and to work together on delivery of the fourth stage of ALMOSTREAL. The aim has been to challenge existing ideas about hospitality and to explore the complex political relations that can exist between ‘host’ and ‘guest’ in collaborative situations. Part of the process involved Jeanne and Igor exchanging jobs one day a week for six months, providing an opportunity to experience each other’s point of view and to test how hospitable their respective organisations are in practice.
Another intercultural project for The Blue House is Chattheatre, an online international conversation on public space developed by Mauricio Corbalán and Pio Torroja of the Argentinean architectural collective m7red. Early sessions with participants from IJburg and all over the world addressed such topics as citizenship, immigration, integration and the role of new media in public space. After several sessions in and from The Blue House they presented Chattheatre at the Biennale of Porto Alegre in 2007 and are continuing to develop the Chattheatre software and model in other contexts.
In contrast to older districts of Amsterdam, IJburg cannot look back on a rich past and collective experiences over several generations that might serve to define its local character and identity. In IJburg it is only possible to look forward. As Jeanne van Heeswijk remarks:
“Though IJburg is not a ‘problem’ area, it is lacking something extremely important, namely a history – a social and human history, stories, life and a beating heart. Each of these qualities and elements must grow, and cannot be planned on the drawing board or built by a contractor. It has been demonstrated that these qualities are decisive for an area’s identity as well as for its inhabitants and users. They are therefore of crucial importance."
A project addressing this lack of community history was undertaken by the filmmaker Daniela Paes Leao during her residency at The Blue House in 2005/6. She conducted extensive video interviews with local people from all walks of life, capturing both the optimism of the IJburg ‘pioneers’ as they moved into new homes and the divisions that soon emerged in the community through living together and negotiating relationships in this shared public space. The resultant film was presented at The Blue House in Summer 2006 with the source material subsequently incorporated into an artist website Identiteitbouwer (Identity Builder) mapping the diverse ‘living history’ of inhabitants of Block 35. Although the project has received good feedback from artists, it provoked mixed reactions from local residents, some of whom did not like the way that film and website represented them and the local community.
Daniela Paes Leao feels that:
“Not all residents understood that the project reflected the artist’s point of view and was never intended to be a celebration or showcase of the community. Dutch people aren’t always comfortable with expressing opinions in public, however by showing different perspectives I hope the project can act as a starting point for building community relations.”
As well as free accommodation, the Blue House offers each visiting artist a EUR 6,000 fee for the six month residency, plus travel expenses. As The Blue House has no single, regular source of public funding, artist residency costs and project overheads are financed from a variety of sources. Some artists secure funding for the projects they are undertaking at The Blue House from research budgets and grant giving bodies in their country of origin. Whilst resident at The Blue House, artists also receive assistance with fundraising and other practical support to enable their project to be realised.
- The negative impact of over-planning on community development. The highly regulated planning methodology used for IJburg and other urban expansion zones in The Netherlands is intended to create effective and sustainable new communities. However, The Blue House project raises serious questions about whether this scale of predetermined spatial intervention can ever work. The attribution by the planners of an unambiguous character to almost every building and open space on IJburg is at odds with the way that people interpret public space and collectively define the use and identity of the neighbourhood. As Dennis Kaspori comments: “IJburg is planned in such detail that any process that might be different is given no space. But people don’t fit into this vision and they soon start using their elbows to create space. As an example, the fences around people’s gardens are a particular height to encourage communal relationships and there are regulations to stop you building higher ones. After a few months the planners’ dream of collective space started to collapse as people erected steel mesh and grew ivy on it to segregate themselves.”
The Blue House has sought to intervene where there are lapses in IJburg’s over-regulated planning system, highlighting the need for community involvement and more flexibility in planning. By compensating for planning errors – such as a lack of social spaces and essential community infrastructure – The Blue House has influenced the City Council’s approach to the second phase of IJburg’s development. It is now looking at ways of reserving spaces that will only be used on a temporary basis, allowing ten years to explore various options before deciding how best to develop them in response to the needs of the community. The Ministry of Urban Planning has asked The Blue House to develop a blueprint for a more open and inclusive planning process, drawing on the lessons learnt.
- Organic communities versus socially engineered ones. As well as prescribing every detail of the physical environment, the planners had a particular vision for the community that would be established in IJburg. The plans made assumptions about the number of people living there and what facilities were needed when, about how many elderly people and young families there would be and the way these groups should or should not interact with each other. However, many of the planners’ assumptions were wrong. For example, a social centre for young people was planned to open in 2014 when it was thought that most of the IJburg children would become teenagers. In fact, there are far more 12-18 year olds than was anticipated in the culturally diverse families living on the blocks, and with no facilities they had no option but to hang out on the street. The Blue House tackled this issue through the Chill-Room, and although initially there was some antagonism towards the project from immediate neighbours, an accommodation was reached and the residents found a way to work together to create a new space for young people earlier than was planned.
The Blue House was never intended to be a community service, but its open and inclusive approach encourages local people to influence the way they live and to become involved in decisions that might otherwise be made on their behalf by planners. Dennis Kaspori believes: “A community is an organism and it takes time to build its character. The first four years are probably the most formative ones. By being present and intervening in these early years, and describing them, we are helping the community to articulate its character.”
For Jeanne, The Blue House’s specific role is: “To accelerate the process by which community is developed. We turn the process inside out and make it more visible and discussable.”
- An exit strategy. The Blue House is a time-limited intervention. There are no plans to extend the project beyond the agreed four years. This inevitably raises questions about what will happen when it comes to an end in 2009. Board member Merel Willemsen has concerns: “The house has taken on a life of its own. At the beginning we orchestrated projects, now ideas emerge from the collective energy of the house. Over 200 local people a week make use of the house. What started off as an art project is now rooted in the community and part of its history.”
Merel believes it is important not only to document the project and share the learning with a wider audience, but also to plan the exit strategy carefully because the house has raised community expectations and aspirations. Jeanne has a more philosophical attitude about the legacy of the project when it comes to an end:
“People will take fragments of what has been learnt and apply them to other situations, developing them further. It will be interesting for us to shatter the accumulated knowledge of The Blue House at the end of the project and then see where the pieces land. It may be in Hong Kong or Shanghai, but some knowledge will doubtless be embedded locally in IJburg.”
However the ending plays out, The Blue House has certainly been a valuable intervention at an interesting moment in time - the birth and formative years of a new urban community. In many ways the circumstances are unique. IJburg is such a large, complex and over-planned development that in four years The Blue House was never going to fully compensate for major errors in planning and their consequences for the community.
The impossibility of the project is also perhaps its strength. By intervening locally and inspiring a form of ‘instant urbanism’, The Blue House has been a catalyst for positive change on IJburg. It demonstrates that the right combination of people power and creativity can turn the public space into more of a shared space, without the need for large-scale planning interventions.
The Blue House
Jeanne van Heeswijk
Jeanne van Heeswijk and architect Dennis Kaspori working together as The Maze Corporation:
Rudy J. Luijters:
European Cultural Foundation:
Daniela Paes Leao
Identity Builder - Identiteitbouwer
© Copyright David Drake 2008