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.