In the spring of 1969, a publication entitled Handleiding Krakers1 appeared in Amsterdam. The title translates into English as “Squatters’ Handbook” except that in Dutch the term kracken refers to the act of breaking into or “cracking” a building rather than its obstinate occupation. The handbook’s publishers are listed as the Federatie Onafhankelyke [sic] Vakgroepen, or the Federation of Independent Departments, and the Buro de Kraker, or Squatting Bureau: two activist groups named in parody of the state agencies—the planning department and the housing bureau—which they sought to oppose and counter. Despite being a thin booklet of only fourteen pages, Handleiding Krakers manages to communicate a precisely targeted political message and function as a planning document, positing a future state of the city and supplying a set of instructions for creating it. Unlike many speculative, utopian architecture projects contemporary to it, the handbook does not provide pictorial images of spectacular “future” possibilities, or include maps or plans of completed ideal conditions. Instead it assembles a collection of rudimentary instructions for breaking and reinstalling locks, fixing toilets and repairing damaged floors and roofs. These are paired with a sharp critique of planning and development policy, and an assertion of modes of spatial and political practice oriented towards autonomous self-organization and community mobilization. The publication is thus architectural in both its content and effect. But rather than engaging with techniques of drawing and rendering, it operates within the register of the other half of architectural production: the schedules, specifications, instructions and other instruments of service that dictate “methods and practices,” and choreograph the processes of construction. The Handleiding Krakers was part of a larger effort to galvanize popular opposition to the Wederopbouwplan Nieuwmarkt or Nieuwmarkt Reconstruction Plan, an initiative of the Amsterdam municipal planning authority that had been on the back burner since the mid 1950s, but which had suddenly become a matter of pressing concern as eviction notices were sent out to clear a path for demolition and new construction. The handbook’s intention was not only to critique the plan and propose alternatives, but also to provide a basis for the creation of a self-organized, autonomous counter-agency that would be able perform its own ongoing work of analysis and projection in opposition to the planning authority.
PLANS AND COUNTER-PLANS
The Nieuwmarkt Reconstruction Plan was part of a larger effort to create a modern, central business district in Amsterdam and to connect the city center and central rail station with the regional highway system and commuter transits lines to newly constructed, satellite housing developments at the Bijlmermeer and elsewhere in the southern and western suburbs. The planning authority began work on Wederopbouwplan as early as 1950, and its first complete iteration appeared in 1953. Subsequent years were spent navigating a protracted process of research, analysis, discussion and political wrangling—such that the proposal did not significantly emerge into public view until 1969, when the city was ready to begin construction. The plan was to cut a “transit corridor” through Amsterdam’s dense, fine-grained urban fabric. This corridor was to include combined infrastructure for rail, subway and motor vehicle traffic, and was to be lined with high-rise housing and large-floor-plate office space. Amsterdam had very little of these two building typologies, and the lack of large-scale, flexible, rental office space, especially, was seen as a hindrance to the development of modern business activity in the city—especially for the finance industry, which demanded space to set up trading floors. The plan required both significant demolition of the existing built fabric and the reinscription of new circulation patterns over the system of canals, trams and mixed pedestrian, bicycle and slow vehicle traffic that defined the spatial condition of Amsterdam.
The Nieuwmarkt neighborhood was chosen as the first site of intervention, in part because it contained—in addition to sections of badly maintained working class housing—the former Jewish quarter painfully haunted by the deportations of its residents under German occupation. This added a sharp immediacy to issues of preservation, cultural value and the politics of memory that would animate much of the most militant opposition to the plan. To the planning authorities, however, the reconstruction of the Nieuwmarkt was but a phase in a longue durée process of converting Amsterdam into a modern, or at least more modern, city—a process that had been unfolding in stages throughout the twentieth century. A significant point of inflection in this process, which would explicitly tie it to both architectural modernism and modernity as a broader historical phenomena, came in 1931. Cornelis van Eesteren—who was then serving simultaneously as head of the Urban Development Section of Amsterdam Public Works Department and as director of the Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM)—used the plans he was developing for the westward expansion of Amsterdam as the basis for the Functional City project, which he had been charged with coordinating. While Van Eesteren’s choice of cities was likely made out of simple expediency, it made Amsterdam the somewhat unlikely model for CIAM’s collective work of mapping and analysis, which was to apply concepts of the linear city and the delineation and separation of the “four functions”—industry, habitation, recreation and circulation—from Le Corbusier’s plan for the Ville Radieuse to urban contexts around the world. The Functional City would later be codified into a set of planning guidelines in the CIAM’s Athens Charter and used throughout the period of postwar reconstruction to inform an array of circulation-based, linear urban development projects organized around the movement of people and material between functionally differentiated zones of the city. Despite Amsterdam’s role in establishing this urban model, it remained a difficult site for the application of linearity and functional separation as planning principles. This was, most immediately, because it had escaped the kind of wholesale destruction that created, at least, the appearance of tabula rasa conditions in cities like Rotterdam, which offered up open spaces for figuration and pattern making to planners inclined to draw urban schemes as graphic compositions. Amsterdam would, however frustrate modernist planning on a more structural level, in that it had never not been a functionalist city. If the Functional City had been figured against monumental capitals of state power given form by symbolic rather than functional orders, then Amsterdam had historically been something else altogether. Developed as a center of commerce and exchange, driven by the abstractions of finance and the imperatives of logistical systems, Amsterdam’s functionality had always depended on the integration of networks rather than the separation of assembly-line industry. As such, Amsterdam not only assumed a different form, but also developed through processes of planning and design more strongly aligned with non-visual, quantitative and analytic processes that tended to relegate the composition of objects in space to a secondary role.
Beginning, as it did, with the modernist gesture of drawing a new set of lines across the city, the planning of the Nieuwmarkt transit corridor ran headlong into this contradiction. While the project initially appeared in the public consciousness as a set of maps, the process of arguing for and struggling against its implementation quickly turned away from drawings or pictures and towards competing presentations of compiled data and statistics, which included estimated shortages of public housing stock, vacancy rates, rents on apartments and ground rent offered to developers.2 These presentations were paired with plans for action set in agonistic pairs—relocations and reoccupations, evictions and resistance to them, demolition and construction, etc.—transmitted through official notices from the city and opposing sets of counter-instructions put forward by the Buro de Kraker and other members of the Federatie Onafhankelyke Vakgroepen.
As a “handbook,” the Handleiding Krakers suggests that its readers carry it, in hand, as a guide for action. This idea is reiterated by the graphic on its cover, which depicts a crossed sledgehammer and crowbar, referencing tools for action in a direct, non-symbolic way—the hammer strikes, and the crow bar pries.3 Within the booklet, the shortage of housing and the paradoxically concurrent abundance of vacant space in Amsterdam is discussed in relation to real estate speculation and the inefficiencies of state housing and development programs. The booklet applies a political valence to this policy discourse by framing it as the local manifestation of capital remaking the city. The handbook synthesizes political, spatial and material practice by pairing its polemical writing with practical (if alarmist) information about evictions and relocation, and instructions for breaking into and reoccupying empty buildings. The technical information in the Handleiding Krakers is not comprehensive enough to actually function as a primer for building reconstruction. It does, however, articulate an ethos of political empowerment through direct, productive action, and suggests a reskilling of its subjects as a means towards these ends. These assertions situate the handbook in relation to a then-emerging “new left” politics oriented towards defining and creating autonomous social formations, the mobilization of political communities defined by their roll as consumers, and culturally constructed “identity” rather than the position they occupy within the relations of production. In architecture, this complication of strict—or perhaps “vulgar”—materialism and concepts of class struggle would cause the emphatic, though not uncontested, relationships between politics and architectural form, set up by van Eesteren and his colleagues in CIAM, to appear increasingly fraught and incoherent relative to contemporary conditions. These contradictions would inform an array of subsequent projects—some articulated as “post-modernist,” others not—aimed at affecting a redefinition and realignment of these terms or, failing that, their disengagement.
NEW FORCES, NEW FORMS
The strikes and uprisings in Paris in May of 1968 are often cast as a watershed moment, both in the formation of new left politics and the “failure” of modernism as a progressive project committed to radical social transformation. This dissolution would take place parallel to a similar fragmentation in leftist politics in which conceptions of class struggle and international workers movements were challenged by alternative formulations of political subjectivity and projects oriented toward autonomy rather than revolution. In being both emblematic and symptomatic of these struggles and realignments, the movement to resist the Nieuwmarkt Reconstruction Plan sits firmly, if uncomfortably, within the “post-1968” context. It also, however, serves to complicate many of the established narratives on the relationships between politics in the 1960s and 70s, and the various manifestations of post-modernism in architecture.
The Dutch analog of the Paris strikes occurred earlier, in June of 1967, when members—or hangers-on—of a radical-movement-turned-youth-subculture called Provo joined construction workers in an unauthorized, “wildcat” strike, which resulted in several days of intense, spectacular rioting. The Provos4 —named after the strategy of “provocation” they deployed—were a diverse group of self-described radicals and bohemians who took up the mantle of “anarchism” to define a leftism outside the established schemas of labor activism and party politics. The Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys connected Provo to the Situationists, who claimed a role in theorizing and instigating the “events of May ‘68” in Paris. As a member of the neo-Dadaist COBRA Group and one of the founders of the Situationist International (before his expulsion in 1960), Constant maintained a peripheral but active connection to Provo, and published manifestos about unitary urbanism and essays on urban “acculturation zones” in the magazine Provo, which he also guest edited. Constant’s contributions touch upon ideas behind his speculative project, New Babylon, itself represented using photomontage, cut-and-paste map collages and an array of fragmentary models and maquettes. New Babylon depicts a continuous world-city, which manifests what the Situationists called “unitary urbanism.” In New Babylon, diffusely defined zones of atmosphere were to replace functional separation. Rather than speeding efficiently along carefully planned trajectories, people would drift aimlessly and endlessly—perpetually reconstructing the city by playfully creating environments for themselves as they go. To Constant, the Provos performatively inhabited the contemporary city as a New Babylon. He would go as far as to claim that the Provos were a contemporary manifestation of the homo leudens—a concept of “man the player” taken from sociologist Johan Huizinga’s account of non-utilitarian play as the essential element of human culture.5
The Paris-based Situationists were less impressed with the Provos. For as long as they were friendly with Constant, the Provos were praised paternalistically in the Situationist International as theory-less, leaderless, beautiful hooligans engaged in pure insurrection without program. After splitting with Constant, the Situationists wrote off the Provos as an insufficiently radical, thoroughly mystified art project that had failed to achieve an authentic engagement with real, material politics. While these characterizations have an element of truth, they are also limited by the Situationist’s own— often narrow—focus on salvaging and reforming a particular Marxist mythos, and on maintaining control over the theorization of what, if any, changes were possible in the structure of capitalism. While not as integrated into theoretical discourse as the Situationists, the Provo movement instead developed in dialog with a constellation of avant garde art practices, in Amsterdam and internationally, which were concerned with performative, time-based, textual or otherwise “non-object” forms. This difference in orientation would inform an engagement with local political issues that—relative to the Situationist’s abstract calls for a total revolution of everyday life—was able to operate within the material pragmatics of planning, policy and the organization of urban space, in ways that refigured them as scripted performances, rule-based games or the chorography of movement and action in the city.
This connection to planning-as-politics is made explicit in the distinguishing element of Provo’s practice: the organization of actions termed “white plans,” in reference to the carefully-branded group’s signature color.6 Rather than taking the form of the protests or “demonstrations” that defined much of activist political practice in the 1960s, Provo referred to actions as “happenings,” referencing the Fluxus-inspired performance events that Provo’s initial organizers helped produce before their shift into direct political action. The white plans would retain traces of a model of performance formalized and imported into art from music by John Cage and his students at the New School, who would later found the Fluxus Group. Similar in structure to happenings—in which an event is performed by an actor following a notational, open-form score or script, and then documented and archived—Provo actions presented plans for restructuring urban space. The white plans typically listed a set of demands to the municipal authorities and “scripted” an action, usually involving the painting of some iconic, totem object white,7 to be carried out by the Provos and their audiences.
Staged in July of 1966, the Witte Fietsenplan, or White Bicycle Plan, is perhaps Provo’s best known happening. In a way that would prefigure the Nieuwmarkt struggles, this action identified a political conflict inherent in the concept of circulation framed in the Functional City. In this, the adaptation of the city to automobile traffic by creating functionally delineated, separate space for smooth, efficient movement of vehicles threatened the street’s existence as a space of sociability, communication and assembly where, in Jacques Rancière’s terms, political subjectivities “appear.”8 The “plan” was enacted by delivering a collection of white painted bicycles to Die Spui—a small square in central Amsterdam that the Provos had claimed as their “magic center” where happenings were staged regularly. Pamphlets were circulated, designating the bicycles and thus the space of the street as common property, free to be used by all. This was asserted as an alternative to planning initiatives focused on private cars, which figured the city in terms of traffic and parking, rather than as a space for cultural production and political formation. Rather than propose a practical solution, the performance of the plan was calculated to provoke a violent response from the police—and thus make manifest the repressive force underpinning the ostensibly rational administration of the planning authorities.
Another Provo happening, the Witte Huizen Plan, or White Housing Plan, that took place three months before Witte Fietsenplan in April of 1966, would not attain the same iconic status, but would in many ways have a more significant long-term impact on Amsterdam’s political landscape. The plan proposed that doors of vacant buildings be painted white and that lists of potentially inhabitable sites be drawn up and distributed to people in search of a place to live. This would be done under the auspices of a Provo Real Estate Office, which would later become the Buro de Kraker. At this point the informal occupation of temporary “crash pads” was already part of Amsterdam youth subculture. This had developed in part as an element of lifestyle, but was also symptomatic of a structural mismatch between demographics and work patterns, and the strictures of a highly regulated housing system left over from the rationing schemes of postwar reconstruction. The Provo Real Estate Office would formalize these occupations and invest them with a political significance that would lay the groundwork for a general refiguring of the politics of urban space.
The materiality of Provo white plans was primarily limited to simple, printed pamphlets and single-page flyers, which were either hand-written or clumsily typewritten, and then mimeograph-printed for distribution. Each plan nonetheless contained the elements of a Fluxus happening translated into urban spatial practice as the elements of a planning document in radically reduced form: an analytic statement about the current situation, a list of open-form instructions for action and a suggestion of the condition to be achieved. If the first term remains within the standard register of a political pamphlet, then the second evokes the instruction cards of Fluxus performances and the third appears as an architectural representation—one that, rather than drawing images of objects, projects the creation of relational structures through the production of events and the organization of action.
Paralleling Fluxus even further, print media production—both specific publications themselves as well as broader publishing and distribution capacities—would be an important aspect of Provo’s material practice. Early in the development of the movement, a print shop was established, not entirely by coincidence, in the Nieuwmarkt. This would provide a vital meeting place for the movement and continue to serve—along with the Provo Real Estate Office and the Buro de Kraker—as an infrastructure for radical projects even after Provo was “liquidated” by its leaders following the 1967 riots.
ACTION GROUPS AND EVENTSTRUCTURE
It was in this print shop that the Handleiding Krakers was produced and that resistance to the Nieuwmarkt reconstruction was organized. The leaders of Provo decided to disband the movement as an organized entity when faced, on one hand, with the bluntly literal violence of the riots, and on the other with the success that some of their more parliamentary-minded members had been able to win seats on the city council. The Nieuwmarkt activists would take up Provo’s project and extend it beyond its founders’ intentions by seeking direct engagement with the real processes of spatial production. This would force the new movement to give up the playfully asymmetric position of provocateur, and to fight a reactive, defensive, holding action. It would also, however, open the possibility of affecting permanent, structural change in the way that the city was planned and organized.
Also sacrificed was the clarity of identity that Provo had relied upon to pull its disparate parts together into a coherent whole. Though it was a “federation of independent departments” or “working groups,” the Federatie Onafhankelyke Vakgroepen acted as a united front: an umbrella organization that included a range of actors, from conservation-minded conservatives and libertarian small business owners concerned with holding on to their small shops to autonomist Marxists and militant anarchists intent on direct confrontation with the state. The most radical elements in the federation would later coalesce into the Actiegroep Nieuwmarkt, or Nieuwmarkt Action Group, whose members blocked the path of the transit corridor by taking up residence in the zone evacuated by evictions and taking it upon themselves to organize the work of holding, defending and living in the neighborhood. When the Handleiding Krakers appeared in 1969, the movement in the Nieuwmarkt was rapidly progressing form symbolic protest actions and temporary occupations into an entrenched, large-scale occupation of an entire urban neighborhood that, with each minor victory in planning department meetings or clashes with the police, seemed as if it would persist into the future.
Rather than constructing new physical structures in the already densely built occupied zone, the Action Group directed their efforts toward creating social structures for autonomous planning and organization, and developing alternative information and communications systems to support them. An ad hoc “planning office” was set up to hold meetings, compile information and draft and disseminate collective statements. Messages were delivered by volunteers—into the letter boxes of community members and allies, and through the window of opponents, via brick—and through a telephone network constructed out of wires shot across rooftops by bow-and-arrow. The telephones enabled the creation of a “phone tree” system that used call lists to summon specially organized defense teams in the neighborhood to resist incursions by the police. A network of suspension bridges across rooftops was also constructed to allow the neighborhood’s defenders to move between streets during battles with the police and the demolition teams that followed them.
The Nieuwmarkt occupiers also produced and consumed a steady stream of publications that, in different ways and to varying degrees, took up the form of planning documents or expanded upon the format of the Handleiding Krakers. In 1974, with demolition halted and the reconstruction plan again mired in political process, the city produced a revised plan: a laboriously researched set of studies arguing for the project’s feasibility, minimal impact and projected positive effects. The Nieuwmarkt Action Group countered this with their own study, Metrorapport van de Nieuwmarkt Report, in part produced with information stolen from the city by a sympathetic worker in the planning office who brought boxes of punch cards home overnight to have them read by the Action Group’s computer. The Metropapport contained the group’s own projections and analysis, including a catalogue of businesses that would be displaced by the project and a detailed mapping of property speculation around planned subway stations.
As the occupation persisted into the mid-1970s, the autonomous infrastructure set up in the Nieuwmarkt would increasingly come to support cultural and political formations extending beyond Amsterdam and the immediate issues of the reconstruction project. Fluxus-style performance art had developed into an array of collaborative and collective art practices both in Europe and the United States that would take up the organization of institutions and social relations of production and as their site of engagement. In this context it is possible to figure the “action groups” and “working groups” in the Nieuwmarkt as design objects themselves. A number of explicitly aesthetic, collective “group” projects also overlapped with the action groups and played significant roles in the occupation and the cultural formations that emerged from it. The most directly involved was the Eventstructure Research Group, which was comprised of four important action group organizers. The most committed activist and organizer in the group was Tjebbe van Tijen, who would later become an important archivist and historian of the Nieuwmarkt movement and of Provo. Theo Botschuijver, an artist and designer of inflatable structures, was the most practically oriented of the group. He was able to form connections between Eventstructure and discourse networks outside of Amsterdam—as he did when he constructed inflatables for the film Mr. Freedom by William Klein of the Paris-based Utopie Group. Sean Wellesley-Miller, the architect in the group, corresponded extensively with Constant and taught at Delft University of Technology with Aldo van Eyck, whose own long-standing friendship with Constant helped connect his work to discourses on structuralism in modern architecture. In his own work, Wellesley-Miller was interested in the urban and ecological implications of cybernetics and systems theory in relationship to structuralist thinking, and tried to secure support for the construction of “activation zones” created with interactive installations around the city. Eventstructure was named by Australian media artist Jeffery Shaw. Shaw had been a student of John Latham and was involved in the organization of the Artists’ Placement Group,9 which worked to “place” artists in positions within various industries, and thus engage art practice with the relations of production. Latham’s conceptualization of “eventstructure”10 expands the radical simplicity of Cagian event production into an elaborate cosmology. When, however, it is applied to the work of Eventstructure Research Group, it defines a practical formulation of the city and its socio-technical systems as a construction of eventstructure, into which both political and design practice intervene.
The collective work of the Eventstructure Research Group focused primarily on organizing public events that surpassed Provo happenings in their scope and technical development, and took on the scale of festivals or street parties. Rather than attracting an audience of passersby, these events provided the space, and thus the opportunity for a self-organized community to appear and collectively play-out the social forms they were engaged in producing. Favoring the immersive, psychedelic intensity of expanded cinema over the dryly conceptual, documentary style of the Artist Placement Group or the rough minimalism of Provo, Eventstructure projects employed a palate of pneumatic structures, projections, colored light, lasers, smoke, soap bubble foam and naked bodies. Their events featured geodesic domes and inflatables from the pedagogical and choreographic “cookbooks,” guidebooks and “games” produced by other experimental practices such as the Ant Farm Collective or Buckminster Fuller’s hybrid laboratory-studio. The aesthetic project of Eventstructure Research, and the politics of the Nieuwmarkt occupation would, however, diverge significantly from these practices. Whereas Fuller’s World Game visualized global systems and sought to bring them into increasingly efficient states of homeostatic harmony, occupiers of the Nieuwmarkt set their local mapping practices against those that would establish generic typologies and total systems. Also, while many of the radical architecture practices in this period sought autonomy through exodus from the city— whether by escaping into the desert or the hermetically sealed bubbles as did Ant Farm, or leaving the city to go “back to the land” as did the dome building communes inspired by Fuller —the Nieuwmarkt movement was committed to staying in the city and creating spaces of limited, provisional autonomy through contestatory struggle.
Staying in the city, with the entanglements it entailed, forced Eventstructure Research and the Nieuwmarkt Action Group to exist in uneasy alliance with other, more conservative forces, whose conception of “community design” sought to empower entrenched and intensely local cultural groupings rather than create new, radical forms of political community. In many ways, this compromise was symptomatic of a larger theoretical and ideological struggle over the assimilation of the conceptual schema of structuralism into architecture. These oppositions would pit the concept of a textual city written out in the language of power relations, social exchange and choreographed, time-based processes against the idea of another, equally rule-based, linguistic city coded in a largely visual “pattern language”—one that would reinforce a “timeless” continuity of culture.11 Despite these contradictions, the alliance succeeded in resisting the reconstruction project in public political forums and, in the streets, fighting the police to a standstill in a series of riots and violent confrontations.
Finally in 1977, after seven years of occupation, the scope of the Nieuwmarkt plan was dramatically reduced to a single subway line with discrete stations at Nieuwmarkt and Waterlooplein. The sections of the neighborhood that had been demolished were rebuilt according to a scheme developed by Aldo van Eyck and his partner Theo Bosch. The scheme, which retained the original building heights and footprints, did not significantly increase the neighborhood’s density or alter the grain of its urban fabric. The only new large scale construction was the “Stopera” city hall, opera house and cultural complex, which, despite great efforts to assert the building’s public nature, was received with a great deal of criticism and scorn.
COMMUNITY AND CONSTITUENCY
Both the radical and conservative tendencies claimed the results of the Nieuwmarkt occupation as a victory. The specifics of the victory, however, remain a point of contention. Amsterdam did not become a commuter city centered on the automobile and did not succeed in building a significant downtown business district. Instead, industry continued to move out of the city center. After a period of deep recession in the 1980s, Amsterdam developed into a center for media, technology, design and other industries—fields driven by the manipulation of symbols and the processing and exchange of information. The physical space they occupied, however, remained scattered throughout the city and concentrated more in the post-industrial harbor zones than in the city center. The architects of the municipal planning office would increasingly recede from their post-war roles as strategic master planners. In place of this mode of practice and the drawing-centered techniques that characterized it, the management of systems and open-ended, time-based processes became increasingly important in planning in both the public and private sector.
A squatters’ movement developed in Amsterdam in the 1980s that selectively appropriated forms, models and ideologies from the Nieuwmarkt movement and applied them to the occupation of spaces across the city. This movement took shape not in opposition to a single large-scale project as in Nieuwmarkt, but in response to the liberalization of the real estate market and a shift in housing policies towards increasingly privatized, market-based schemes. The core of the squatter movement was made up of people—especially young people left unemployed by the recession—who were shut out of public housing programs and unable to afford market-rate rents. Less localized than the Nieuwmarkt movement, the 80s squatters’ movement maintained only a few semi-permanent bases from which shorter-term occupations were organized, in housing left empty by speculators or by the chaos of the changeover in housing systems and in spaces vacated by retreating industry. The impermanence that defined this movement meant that the squatters were generally less engaged with architectural discourses than the preceding generation, and more focused on issues of policy and political economy. The techniques developed in the Nieuwmarkt for occupying buildings, setting up organizations, working cooperatively and negotiating with the authorities were however, passed along, and adapted to new situations. The new generation of squatters in Amsterdam extended their predecessors’ network-building practices from the phone-trees of the Nieuwmarkt to pirate radio stations and, in turn, to Internet networks in the 1990s.
TRANSLATION AND DISSEMINATION
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, squatters’ movements also formed in other cities across Europe and North America, and began to produce their own handbooks and manuals. In London, as the economy fell into decline and the council housing system crumbled—and with it the welfare state and the fortunes of the Labor government that had built it—the Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) was formed in 1976 to coordinate between groups that were occupying and attempting to repair and make habitable vacant housing estates and residential spaces. ASS published their own text, The Squatters Handbook12 , which, in response to the specificities of the local context, appears as a thick volume full of legal information, advice on how to deal with a hostile press and contact information for housing rights and homeless advocacy organizations. Now in its thirteenth edition, it has been continuously supplemented and updated, throughout the 1980s as the rise of Thatcherism brought intensive privatization programs and an increasingly punitive administrative approach to squatting, and into the present as gentrification and a hyper-financialized real estate market have created both intense pressure on housing and new opportunities to force open gaps in the system and exploit irrationalities and inefficiencies in the urban matrix.
During the 1960s in New York City artists of the Fluxus Group and other members of a newly revitalized avant garde worked to take over and convert empty industrial space in SoHo. The effort had been for the most part legal, without an investment in explicitly oppositional politics. This, however, changed dramatically in the 70s and 80s, when capital flight and a near-collapse of the city’s finances left many buildings vacant and derelict, as landlords abandoned their unprofitable properties in the residential areas that had formerly housed SoHo’s labor force. In New York, squatting developed through overlapping community networks rather than in the context of mass political movements as in Europe. Just as in the Netherlands, however, publications—produced simply and cheaply and intended to be photocopied and passed from hand to hand—were a dominant mode of production and communication. In these “zines,” information about squatting, and more generally urban politics and spatial practice, were often mixed with discussions of music, art and other cultural production. The zine Survival Without Rent13 published in 1986, offered a “step-by-step guide” to squatting that reproduced many of the elements from the Handleiding Krakers. The zine offers instructions for repairing roofs and floors, and for reconnecting water and electricity. Indications of the specific rigors and precarity of the New York situation appear in the sections on group organization, which advise against violence and “hard” drugs, and offer “security” tips for guarding against copper scavengers, police eviction squads, and thugs and arsonists in the pay of building owners.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the city being more completely organized by market forces and a legal code adamantly committed to the defense of private property, squatters in New York were more inclined than their European counterparts to adapt their strategies to legal ends as prosperity returned in the 1990s and the real estate industry was reestablished as a principal driver of urban growth. An “Urban Homesteading” program was set up by the city that allowed people to take ownership of abandoned properties if they repaired them and, in some cases, settled their tax obligations. A system of rent vouchers, termed “Section 8” for its place in the housing code, and other interventions in the rental market were also deployed as an alternative to public housing such that the state effectively came to support the rental market. In Amsterdam, an opposite approach was taken: squats were “legalized,” legitimized and even funded as publicly sanctioned cultural institutions and public housing. As Amsterdam worked to refashion itself as a creative city, radical spatial practices were reevaluated and refigured as instances of entrepreneurship and initiative that could be tapped to drive the city’s development. A program was put in place to set up broedplaats (“breeding” or “incubator” spaces) for cultural production and creative industries that would retain the openness of self-organized, occupied space.
From Handleiding Krakers to the broedplaats, the salient “materiality” of construction is defined less by physical matter and more by the tissue of relations—of power, of exchange, of communication—that make up organizations and condition social and cultural spaces, whether real or virtual. If squatting practices, and the discourse networks and media through which they are formed and propagated, are a radical—and often desperately marginal—limit condition to this, then they can be used to illustrate the ways in which the abstract processes of spatial production can be engaged as sites of design intervention. A conception of architecture that includes these processes and practices, not to mention the “instruments of service” that direct and choreograph them, will also be able to take into account the spatiality and designed qualities of both explicitly urban systems—like Airbnb or the neo-cybernetic sensor and control loops of “smart cities” technology—and the systemic hybridizations of culture, technology and political economy that condition urban space.
- 1. Handleiding Krakers (Amsterdam: Federatie Onafhankelijke Vakgroepen & Buro de Kraker, 1969). ^
- 2. In contrast to cities elsewhere in Europe, Amsterdam and many other Dutch cities are were founded as trading centers by merchants associations and so are organized as corporations. In this model the corporation owns all the land in the city, which especially in the case of Amsterdam is often largely artificially constructed public infrastructure rather than demarcated and enclosed territory, and the citizens of the city then each own a share of the corporation. It is possible to build and own buildings but the land on which they stand can only ever be leased from the city cooperation on a long-term (often as long as one hundred years), automatically renewing basis. While this is in many ways functionally similar to land ownership, the city is able to dictate terms of the lease requiring building owners to make use of their property in ways seen as beneficial to the city or risk losing their lease. ^
- 3. In the symbolism of the Handleiding Krakers cover graphic, however, it is possible to read a replacement of the agricultural sickle of the communist emblem with the crow bar suggesting a call, not for the complete revolutionizing of production, but rater for tactical interventions that break into and open up existing urban structures. In the contexts of Amsterdam this can also be read as a dig at the Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN) who supported the reconstruction plan because of the promise it held out of affordable workers housing in the future and plentiful, well paid construction jobs for its constituency in the near term. ^
- 4. Further information on Provo can be found in, Voeten, Teun “Dutch Provos”, High Times, January 1990. And in “The Provo Bicycle Trick: Radical Form as Vehicle for Pedestrian Content”[Russian Translation], The New Literary Observer, September 2012. Available in English at: [http://www.alansmart.net/00_content/pdf/SmartAlan_ProvoBicycleTrick_20150704.pdf]. ^
- 5. See Huizinga, Johan, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, Beacon Press, 1971 (English translation). ^
- 6. Rather than deriving their critique of ‘spectacular’ consumer culture from Marxist cultural analysis, as the Suituationists did, the Provos had a more popular, and in many ways more ambiguous, relationship to mediated mass culture. One of the movement’s few, foundational texts was Vance Packard’s book on the advertising industry, The Hidden Persuaders, and Provo would consistently both decry the pervasiveness of advertising and consumerist propaganda, and avidly adopt as much methodology as they could from advertising. See: Packard, Vance, The Hidden Persuaders, 1959. ^
- 7. The act of making white is, of course, a hallmark of both modernist minimalism and a specific, also carefully branded, strain of post-modernist “formalism.” The former of these was explicit in Provo practice. Also, in the Dutch context and given the anti-iconic and anti-image ideological stakes of these actions, the destruction of representational sculptures and the white-washing of decorated, Catholic church interiors by Protestant iconoclasts is an unavoidably present, though never explicitly stated, reverence in Provo white plans. ^
- 8. Rancière contrasts spaces of circulation with spaces of appearance in discussing the contemporary nature possibilities of the political in his “Ten Thesis on Politics.” “The police says that there is nothing to see on a road, that there is nothing to do but move along. It asserts that the space of circulating is nothing other than the space of circulation. Politics, in contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’ into a space for the appearance of a subject: i.e., the people, the workers, the citizens: It consists in refiguring the space, of what there is to do there, what is to be seen or named therein.” Rancière, Jacques. “Ten Thesis on Politics.” in: Theory & Event. Vol. 5, No. 3, 2001. ^
- 9. For a short explanation of the Artist Placement Group see: Bishop, Clare, “Rate of Return,” Artforum, October 2102. ^
- 10. See Latham, John, Event Structure: Approach to a Basic Contradiction, 1981, Syntax. ^
- 11. Amsterdam had figured in one of the primary opening salvos of this struggle over the assimilation of structuralism when a rancorous exchange had taken place between Aldo van Eyck, who had allegorically compared the city (specifically Amsterdam) to a tree because of its multi-scaled complexity and metabolic growth, and Christopher Alexander who took the tree as a model for hierarchical information flow and instead asserted a nonhierarchical “semi-lattice” model in an article, belligerently titled “A City is Not a Tree” (Architectural Forum, 172 April/May 1965). In this exchange van Eyck appeared as the romantic relative to Alexander’s rationalist information theory but, by the later 1970s these poles had reversed. The structuralist modernism of van Eyck and his colleagues in Team 10 had come to inform radical experiments in “high tech” systems architecture, which sought to syntheses and transform both social and technological systems. Conversely, Alexander, who had always cast himself in bitter opposition to modernism, had become invested in a project of finding a universal, architectural “language” in the forms of vernacular architecture, which would underwrite some of the most reactionary and socially regressive tendencies in what became “post-modernism” in architecture. ^
- 12. The Advisory Service for Squatters, The Squatters Handbook, 1976. Available online at: http://www.squatter.org.uk/squatters-handbook/. ^
- 13. Anonymous author, “Survival Without Rent,” published as a pamphlet 1986, text available online at. [http://archiv.squat.net/squatbook2/index.pdf}. ^
Alan Smart is a designer, scholar and critic interested in issues of production, reproduction and political economy in art, architecture and urbanism. He is currently based in Berlin where he practices independently and as part of the design collective Other Forms working between architecture, graphic design and publishing. He received his Master of Architecture from Princeton University, his Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley, and will begin work on a PhD in Art History at the University of Illinois Chicago in the fall of 2016.