Urban and architectural researcher, writer and activist René Boer is part of the curatorial team of the exhibition ‘Architecture of Appropriation’. He made the following presentation at the Thursday Night Live event 'Squatting the Archive.' "Kraken is often associated with this specific period in the seventies and eighties. In popular culture, it is often presented in relation to the subcultural aesthetics of that time, while in academic research it is frequently approached as a historical social movement. What is less known, however, is what we are attempting to communicate in the exhibition is that, from its early days, squatting in the Netherlands has developed into a highly institutionalized spatial practice."
Squatting (kraken in Dutch) refers to the occupation of a property without its owner’s permission. Squatting has occurred throughout time and in many different places. It still takes place widely around the world, as is shown by contemporary examples from the well-known and recently evicted Torre David skyscraper in Caracas, to the 20 homeless people who took shelter last month in a 15-million-pound mansion in central London, owned by a Russian oligarch.
In the Netherlands, squatting thrived in the dilapidated inner cities of the 1970s and 80s, developing into one of the most significant social movements the country has ever seen. A sometimes fierce struggle for people’s right to the city resulted in serious confrontations with the authorities, for example in 1980 on the coronation day of the new queen, or during the eviction of the Vondelstraat in Amsterdam, when even tanks were deployed.
Kraken is often associated with this specific period. In popular culture, it is often presented in relation to the subcultural aesthetics of that time, while in academic research it is frequently approached as a historical social movement. What is less known, however, is what we are attempting to communicate in the exhibition Architecture of Appropriation: that, from its early days in the 1970s onwards, squatting in the Netherlands has developed into a highly institutionalized spatial practice.
Whereas squatting in other countries has often been incidental and a matter of improvisation, squatters in the Netherlands have developed an extensive set of institutions over time. In this context, institutions means all kinds of formal and informal social structures, agreements, traditions, roles and ways to deal with specific situations, which have been continuously transmitted to each new generation of squatters. Kraakspreekuren, or squatting information centres, are one such institution. These are hubs where squatters come together to inform and assist each other. Other examples include the meticulous research that is conducted on squattable buildings, the preparatory protocols and the urban choreography involved in a squatting action. Another special example is the tacit agreement between Dutch squatters and the police about how both parties behave and deal with each other during a squatting action.
All these, plus many other institutions, have allowed various groups in different parts in the Netherlands to use squatting as a highly efficient tool for intervening in the built environment according to their own ideas. Some people have simply wanted to house themselves or create non-commercial cultural and subcultural spaces. Others have tried to campaign against urban vacancy and housing shortages, or attempted to save a listed building or an entire neighbourhood from demolition. Interestingly, this institutionalized spatial practice has not changed much over time. Squatting has obviously become a much smaller movement than it was at its height, yet despite nationwide criminalization in 2010 it still happens across the country today. Squatting didn’t come into existence because it was allowed, but because there was a need for it.
The case studies in the exhibition Architecture of Appropriation clearly show how the application of this spatial practice still leads to a constant conflict for space in the Dutch urban landscape. Where squatters have established a free-zone, the municipality wants to expand a harbour; where a property developer plans to transform social housing into luxury apartments, squatters try to intervene by creating a commune and community store, and so on.
While squatters see the occupation of a property for a limited amount of time as a success of a kind, in the end they often lose the battle when police evict them – as actually happened with one of the exhibition case studies a few weeks before the opening. In some cases, however, squatters and owner settle a rental or user agreement, which basically amounts to the legalization of the situation. Over the last few decades hundreds, if not thousands, of squats have been legalized and are still functioning today as cultural venues, artists’ studios or affordable housing.
Until recently, the State Archive for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning, located here in this building, has paid only token attention to squatters and their spatial production. Instead, it has focused largely on ‘official’ architecture by ‘real’ architects who design the initial concept of a given building. An architectural archive should perhaps also look into the afterlife of a building – its transformations, appropriations, struggles, failures and successes. Documenting squatters’ struggles for space – buildings, terrains, neighbourhoods – and the architectural heritage of their efforts (the saved buildings, subcultural infrastructure, free-zones) could be an interesting start.
In the mean time, squatters will be busy squatting. Ban or no ban there are plenty of reasons to continue.