Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

“New ideas must use old buildings”

The other day I had dinner at a radio-station that was turned into a restaurant. My favorite events venue in Amsterdam used to be a printing press. And friends of mine are turning a massive sports hall into creative work spaces. The uses buildings were intended for, and what they’re actually used for, vary greatly. I’ve been interested in that process for a long time, initially as a metaphor for adaptation of software by its users, and now as an interesting thing in itself.

REM eiland

Photo of REM Eiland (cc) Arne Bolt.

I wonder in what ways this process can be understood as play.

Jane Jacobs writes about this at length in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, pointing out for instance that a city needs old buildings, because they provide low-risk platforms for entrepreneurs:

“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” (p.188)

And Stewart Brand’s How Building’s Learn is about this to a large extent. At one he wonders why it seems that old buildings seem to provide more freedom for creative interpretation than new ones do. Here, parallels with play and games start to emerge. On page 105 he writes:

“They free you by constraining you.”

Which is exactly what games do. The artificial constraints are there to allow you to experience a degree of freedom.

So Richard Florida’s creative class can be understood as gamers looking for an interesting play arena. This arena, it is clear, consists at least in part of cheap, easily adaptable housing. And through their play these buildings are transformed.

In Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman consider the transformative qualities of play at length:

“Sometimes the cultural rhetorics of a game can change the cultural structures in which they exist. This is the phenomenon of transformative cultural play.” (p.534)

It is this dynamic people run up against when seriously attempting to change something about how old buildings are used. Particularly, in the local context of the Netherlands, when it comes to temporary use of empty buildings.

At the Cognitive Cities Salon in Amsterdam on June 30 of this year, James Burke presented his concept for social software that allows you to search for and immediately book empty space in the city of Amsterdam. He calls it Placebook, if I recall correctly. At the event, James pointed out that what would probably be the largest challenge would be the legalities involved.

Vacant NL

Photo of Vacant NL (cc) Yellow Book.

Placebook was at least partly inspired by the wonderful Rietveld Landscape project Vacant NL. It consists of a huge 3D mockup of all the empty buildings in the Netherlands – a blue “sea of vacancy” – and is accompanied by an atlas detailing all structures it encompasses. The project, which was presented at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2010, can be seen as a challenge by Rietveld Landscape to Dutch politics which has talked about wanting to make our country one of the top creative economies of the world at length, but at the same time have allowed vast quantities of space, that could be used by the creatives, to sit empty and unused.

How the current political climate will affect the chances of new architectural playgrounds for creatives actually emerging is to be seen. But it is clear to me at least that people, when given the opportunity, can do wonderful interesting things with old buildings, and that these things benefit cities at larger orders of magnitude much more than they cost.

In the meantime, I will continue to consider how game designers can hasten change in this domain.

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  1. Posted July 26, 2011 at 10:10 | Permalink

    Nicely put, I am very curious how play can help transform vacant buildings. There is another initiative in Amsterdam that you might find interesting.

  2. Kars
    Posted July 26, 2011 at 14:47 | Permalink

    Thanks for reminding me about Nest, Alex. I’ll give it another look.