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This chapter is part of the publication Architecture of Appropriation. On Squatting as Spatial Practice.

Squatted communities were often still quickly evicted by the authorities until 1971, when a squatting group from the city of Nijmegen started a legal procedure. Their actions confirmed the early 20th century legal ruling which determined that those residing in a property with a bed, table and a chair could not be suddenly deprived of the ‘peace of one’s home’Huisvredebreuk” in Dutch, meaning that trespassing robs one offrom the peace of one’s home.. This marked the beginning of the squatting movement’s attempts to find legislative confirmation of their rights, and began the complicated, still ongoing legal balancing act between the right to property and right to housing. It also prompted a rise in squatting which in turn triggered the authorities to draft a preventive law in support of property owners, who at that time had to resort to civil procedures to reclaim their buildings. Yet, it was a critical report from the Dutch Council of Churches that influenced the Christian Democrats to block the procedure in a 1978 parliamentary vote. Seemingly unstoppable and with broad societal support, the squatting movement reached its zenith in the first half of the 80s.

A spatial practice

In this period, squatting in the Netherlands developed from improvised urban interventions to an institutionalized spatial practice that allowed squatters to operate effectively in urban space. A network of autonomous Kraakspreekuren (Squatting Information Centers), inspired by the Squatter Housing Agency, opened in almost all major cities. New squatting manuals were published regularly, including protocols for thorough research on the building and neighborhood level.

At the same time new legal, media and research collectives emerged, while nationwide meetings were organized. Even the choreography of a typical squatting action was protocolized and became a fundamental ‘squatting institution’. This ritual can be seen as a collaborative political act organized around its own rules, rhythms and expectations, which structures the way the occupation manifests itself in the urban environment, and even squatters’ interaction with the authorities. All these institutions turned squatting into a practice that enables anyone to intervene in the urban environment according to their needs, and transform the city after their hearts’ desires.     

Over time this new, ‘open source’ tool allowed many people to appropriate spaces for their inhabitation, and all kinds of other purposes. In some cities the network of squatted spaces started to amount to what could be described as a parallel society, consisting of alternative housing arrangements, subcultural venues, food distribution systems, people’s kitchens, legal support, media and medical services. Besides creating alternatives to market-oriented urban development, the practice of squatting opened up the possibility of defending strategic positions in debates surrounding vacancy, housing shortage, urban development, and heritage preservation. Overall, this new, widely applied spatial practice represented a radical new approach to urban development, especially compared to the then still dominant tenets of modernism. Squatting became a movement experimenting with all kinds of bottom-up, small-scale and incremental urbanism with a collective, diverse, but also antagonistic character, and with new ideas around self-organization, autonomy and ‘the commons’.

Legal complications

In the early 80s the rising influence and conflictual nature of the movement soon resulted in multiple confrontations with the authorities, among others, during the coronation of Queen Beatrix and after the eviction of several major squats. As a result the movement lost some of the broad support it had enjoyed earlier. However, the movement’s decline from the mid 80s onwards could probably be attributed to other factors as well, including the diminishing housing shortage, the changing zeitgeist, and increasing repression from the authorities. While there was not yet enough societal and parliamentary support to fully criminalize squatting, a new law introduced in the early 90s stipulated that only properties empty for more than one year could be squatted. Despite the gradual decrease in the number of squatters, their practice retained a considerable presence in most Dutch cities and continued to function as a spatial practice, one still handed over from generation to generation.

Coinciding with the wave of conservative politics that emerged in the early 2000s, a renewed campaign against squatting was initiated by right-wing politicians. Even though the mayors of the four largest cities argued against a new law, from 1 October 2010 all forms of squatting became a criminal offense punishable with up to two years and seven months in jail. A turbulent period ensued, characterized by numerous protests and evictions, as well as various legal procedures by the movement against the ban. Following article eight of the European Treaty for Human Rights, which protects, among other things, the right to the privacy of one’s home, a higher court concluded that a sudden eviction of a squat constitutes an infraction of this right. The final ruling stated that squatters should be notified about an upcoming eviction and be given the opportunity to challenge the eviction in court. In that case, a judge still has to decide, despite the ban, whether the need of a property owner to use their building outweighs the infraction on the private life of a squatter. 

In practice, this meant that the police were not requested to immediately intervene when a new place was squatted and, therefore, that squatters retained the possibility to sustain their occupation. Yet, there is a myriad of reasons why squatters don’t immediately get evicted. In some cases squatters made use of the new timeframe to start a negotiation with the owner, aiming for some kind of agreement. In others, owners do not file a police report in order to not draw attention to questionable business arrangements. If a report is filed and an eviction notice handed out, squatters could still argue in court that, in the case that an owner has no plans to do anything with the building, the protection of their new living environment is more important than leaving the property empty. While this new situation means that squatting is not fully eradicated, as the proponents of the ban were hoping for, it is increasingly harder to sustain a squat in the long term. As it became a criminal offense, squatting a building became less attractive for prospective squatters. As a result of the ban the movement has shrunk, maintaining active groups and information centers in only a handful of cities in the Netherlands.

Architecture of appropriation

A successful squatting action, whether in 1979 or 2019, always results in the immediate control and responsibility over a certain property. If the squatters manage to stay, they have the freedom to use and repurpose it according to planned or spontaneous intervention. As the selected buildings are often neglected and in poor shape or constructed for other purposes, this often requires intensive work. Therefore a typical kind of architecture starts to emerge which is the result of a combination of the immediate need and desire to transform the space, the ideology of collaboratively shaping and living in shared spaces, the lack of budget to make actual investments, the ease of adapting to the found typology, and the uncertainty of being evicted. Hence, this specific ‘architecture of appropriation’ can be seen as the immediate result of the collaborative application of the spatial practice of squatting.

The self-made, often unplanned, low-budget, and spontaneous character of this architecture, often built using recycled materials (found on the street, or taken from other squats), make it easily recognizable and give it many qualities not often found in ‘normative architecture’, such as a certain authenticity, material diversity, and a raw and immediate expression of creativity. After an eviction the interventions are often quickly demolished, making it a kind of architecture that is ephemeral and precarious, often existing temporarily and quickly disappearing or transforming again. Over half a century of squatting, thousands of squats have been opened and closed, but some have chosen to be legalized, whereby the property is bought or rented from the owner, or given in loan under certain conditions for a particular time frame. The ‘architecture of appropriation’ is often kept, altered to respond to official regulations, or completely revamped with structural interventions. 

The possibility of legalizing a squat has been dismissed by a large, generally speaking more radical, part of the squatting movement who regard the state of conflict with the owner and the authorities as a preferable end goal. The various legalization options, however, have allowed hundreds of squats across the Netherlands to retain their space for collective aims, even though the buildings are in a legal sense not ‘squatted’ any more. Generally these places still remain closely connected to the actual squatting movement which continues to focus on opening new squats. Over time, these practices resulted in a constantly changing archipelago of stable, legalized squats, and more precarious, but arguably also more urgent, actually squatted buildings. These communities still have a visible presence in the Dutch urban landscape, and remain an important site for alternative housing arrangements, subculture and radical politics.

René Boer, Marina Otero Verzier and Katía Truijen in collaboration with the communities of ADM, Plantage Dok, Poortgebouw, Wijde Heisteeg 7, Landbouwbelang and Vluchtmaat
Graphic design: Maud Vervenne (publication), Jakub Straka with Sepus Noordmans (installation)
ZUS [Zones Urbaines Sensibles]
Johannes Schwartz
Cathy Brickwood, Aurora Bertoli

This project is part of the programme track Landscape and Interior and the folder A series on the changing landscape.