“I believe in a scaled world,” said Jurgen Bey as he welcomed people to the 2019 Sandberg Institute graduation exhibition and events. He was probably talking about extrapolation from the incidental to the cultural, and about the lightness of things in the model world where things have an equal weight. But it made me think of Brats, the 1930 short comedy starring Laurel and Hardy in which they play not only themselves but also their two sons, Stan Jr and Ollie Jr. A simple scenographic illusion did it: the entire set, including the furniture, was built twice, with the second twice the dimensions of the first. All it then required was for the two actors to dress up in oversized children’s clothing (and for Hardy to remove his moustache) and the illusion was complete.
It is a trick often repeated. A more recent example is that of the Swiss contribution to the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture, showcasing an out-of-scale interior for their country’s pavilion. That was an Instagram hit and won the Golden Lion for best national participation.
I do not necessarily want to talk about scale here, though. Rather, I want to talk about how spatial interventions can rescript the narrative of a space, especially when that is more than a visual trick. It can be the politics, economics, ritual, touch, scent or history of a space that is rigged, hacked, rewritten or overlaid in order to create a different story for that space. Something else Bey stressed during the opening was that he hopes the graduates present us ways in which culture rather than economics can be the foundation for society. I was eager to find alternatives to dominant spatial stories.
Crossing the various Sandberg departments and temporary programmes, there were many graduates addressing the ills of social spaces governed by economic scripts. In her work, Tessa Meeus (Design Department) challenged the narrative of homes for the elderly. Herself living in such a home in Rotterdam for two years – an unfancy place where only those with little choice and little time left end up – she participated in its rituals. She describes it as institutional architecture; in much of the home the lights are always on. Standardization pushes out personal stories and cultural preferences. Creating work with residents in drawing classes, she retrieved memories and aspirations by talking and sketching. Later, she and the residents organized the growing of a garden on an empty plot next to the home. Instead of focusing on life ending and mitigating misery, notions with which such homes are usually associated, Meeus organized a collective project that bore a sense of creation.
More literally manipulating space, Younwon Sohn’s (Fine Arts) work Floor tested understandings of interior-exterior, material and habitable surface. The top corner of a three-by-four-metre piece of vinyl flooring, simulating herringbone-patterned wooden parquet, was laid in the corner of a modernist pavilion, with the other 90 per cent or so lying outside it – for the most part on a neat, decorative lawn and wet from the rain. This was confusing in that it was inviting and uncanny at the same time, and left me questioning why we design and use floors the way we do. I was also reminded that skeuomorphic design, or material mimicking, is a comforting human undertaking.
In the Radical Cut-Up Temporary Programme exhibition, Barnaby Monk’s Digital Riot Shield expanded my idea of space. Developing tools to “facilitate and drive a Postcapitalist transition”, he combined and appropriated symbols of what he would probably classify as Late Capitalism. As a badge of all-round financialization he took the stock-market digital ticker display, and from the militarization of public space the riot shield. The digital ticker was installed behind a transparent riot shield. Rather than communicating market fluctuations, though, I unravelled messages about global crises – some despairing, some hopeful. Bringing the shield and the ticker together, Monk changed an established space and the people interacting with it. He turned the hypothetical police officer holding the shield from a device of oppression into a person watching out for others and caring for the natural world. Perhaps the human protagonist of a Postcapitalist world.
The takeover of Amsterdam’s Van Ostadestraat by the Studio for Immediate Spaces (SIS) was a festival of rewritten space. The group who collectively squatted a vacant building at Schiphol Airport for their end-of-year assessment one year ago now rerouted the logic of a typical Amsterdam residential street. The work of all the graduates was situated in that street, playing out in real time throughout the day, turning public space into an urban interior. (Using simple plastic chairs and the steps of a structuralist former church right next to a busy cycle path, for example, they created a functional but confusing outdoor stage for their degree ceremony.) The graduates operated individually but shared a strong common attitude: one challenging the privatization of healthcare, housing and amenities and the transformation of public space from a collective arena of encounter, interdependence and productive conflict into a place of flow, efficiency and alienation.
In his performance installation, Elia Costino exposed Amsterdam’s housing crisis, which is not usually played out in the street. With a handful of interior elements including a privacy screen, a rubbish bin and a cupboard holding essentials from tableware to pyjamas, Costino tested out how to perform conventional domesticity in the context of a stressed-out housing market. He used the street’s fixed furniture to enact the different scenes of typical homeliness around the clock. His domestic street drama is more than a satirical form of playing house. With flats becoming smaller and smaller to squeeze out more profit per square metre, fewer homes have enough space to hold all kinds of conveniences – from desk to dining table to washing machine – forcing their occupants to use collective amenities. The most positive projection of this development could mean a revival of public life. More likely and less communally, it will lead to the commercialization of everyday activities through increasingly automated services. A more sinister scenario foreshadowed in Costino’s work is a kind of designer homelessness.
In their works, Mathilde Stubmark and Elizaveta Strakhova reminded me of the usual absence of softness and care in public space. Stubmark introduced scent, textile and privacy with her installations just under the size of a fitting room. Stepping inside offered an experience of intimacy, stillness and softness, addressing the senses in ways unexpected in a space of concrete, brick, traffic and regular sensory stress. Scent is often a byproduct of spatial production. Stubmark’s attempt to start designing an urban setting with the nose is refreshing. Meanwhile, Strakhova created a large open-air communal foot bath, converting three parking spaces into a neighbourhood bathing facility. I remember bathing rituals providing a very bonding experience. As well as personal care, they can also nurture healthy relationships between the people using them. The bath is one of the few spatial typologies associated with letting go, along with the toilet, the sauna, the massage parlour and one or two more. Letting go is an attitude that is never quite achieved in the street, and with public health and care facilities disappearing it is in fact a radical act to situate one so out in the open.
Another graduate who reclaimed parking spaces – the infrastructure for one of the great forces of privatization, the car – for the public good was Antoine Guay. He identified and appropriated another device crucial in the urban transformation processes: the builder’s skip. The size of a car, this is always placed on a parking spot to collect the debris and rubbish torn from apartments undergoing upgrading (and so raising their cost). Guay discovered that no permit is required for skips left in one place for a maximum of six weeks. Skips are also perfect holders for ovens in public space – ovens always having been a central focus for Guay. Unlike barbecues, which are open fires, an oven inside a skip is considered a closed fire and that is allowed in the street. Guay is interested in the oven as an instrument to run a social space, saying that Amsterdam offers few places where it is easy and affordable to meet people. He used the oven he constructed to bake bread, which he swapped for anything but money that passers-by were prepared to offer in return, from cigarettes and toy dinosaurs to a dance. His ambition is to create a commons that surpasses this individual oven but also consists of similar meeting places in other settings. In order to do so, he has shared instructions on how to set up the same bread oven anywhere in The Netherlands (and beyond). The 3D drawings of the skip and the oven are accessible online.
Scaling these and other graduate works, we could start sketching a society of shared ownership, collective facilities and interdependence. Many of the graduates share a critical position toward residential stress, spaces designed for consumption, economies producing physical and mental exhaustion, unimaginative materials and spatial scripts dictating outdated social roles. Projecting the selection of model futures I encountered ahead in time, we would see the abolition of profit from housing, other basic needs and public amenities. It would also involve carving out space from the landscape of economic optimization and functional efficiency for personal care, collective health, idling and mutual support. The development of – or rather a return to – the commons would be a logical culmination. Common could be one of the most important words of a Postcapitalist world.
common [ kom-uhn ]
1. belonging equally to, or shared alike by, an entire community
2. joint; united
3. widespread; ordinary
Mark Minkjan is an urban geographer and architecture critic.