Levente Polyák: Arts in post-industrial buildings

 Safeguarding, redeveloping, embedding spaces

Industrial areas are a primary source of inspiration and space for the renewal of European cities. Together with obsolete waterfront docklands, the long-abandoned factories, manufacturing halls, transportation depots and warehouses of urban industrial belts have been at the epicentre of urban regeneration in the past decades. Non-standard spaces can accommodate non-standard activities: this is why – with their generous halls, large ceilings, and high windows, as well as with their often impractical forms and dark angles – industrial complexes have been voluntarily reinvented as spaces for art, culture and creativity. However, cultural revitalisation in European cities has unfolded in many different ways. In some cases, ministries or municipal departments made decisions to turn unused assets into art centres. In others, local communities invested in their disaffected neighbourhood factory building to turn them into experimental spaces of inclusion and exchange.
Besides the symbolic re-appropriation of industrial buildings as images and stage sets, protagonists of contemporary culture turned towards industrial buildings also in their search for spaces of artistic production and display. Artists have been at the forefront of these transformations: they were key agents in discovering and inhabiting buildings, later suffering from the success of these spaces and the resulting displacement. The experimental occupations and temporary investments of art and culture to colonise industrial and manufacturing spaces converged with the interests of real estate developers. As Sharon Zukin evocatively described in her 1982 book Loft Living, the myth of gentrification about pioneer artists unknowingly, unwittingly exploring and giving value to the uncharted territories of New York’s SoHo neighbourhood is only partly true(1). While the first artists did indeed move into SoHo’s manufacturing buildings because of their exceptional architectural features and opportunities (and low prices), Zukin demonstrates in details how the first lofts converted into studio apartments were realized with attention (and help) from real estate developers: they observed from close the process in which the familiarity and popularity of lofts grew and helped it with the establishment of a new dwelling type through advertisement and standardisation.
The process of “patrimonialisation” contributed to the institutionalisation of society’s relationship to industrial objects. While the first cultural activities settling in industrial buildings, like Andy Warhol’s Factory, were the manifestations of grassroots, underground initiatives and required a lot of effort and official support to get stabilised, larger industrial buildings had quickly become targets of large-scale, high-prestige investments of state and city governments. With the recognition of cultural industries as vital ingredients of urban development, the 1980s and 1990s saw the cultural reuse of a multitude of industrial buildings integrated into broader urban regeneration schemes(2). In these schemes, cultural use began to diverge significantly from the bottom-up initiatives of the previous decades: combined with commercial features and encouraging the development of luxury residences, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris or the Tate Modern in London have become synonymous with government-led efforts to join forces with private investors in revitalising and gentrifying entire neighbourhoods and cities.
In most European cities, industrial regeneration was often led by major players of the real estate market. In many cases, interest in the industrial building stock arose earlier from the side of institutional investors than from the side of independent, grass-roots cultural and social initiatives: when the non-profit and cultural spheres discovered the potential of industrial areas, most of them had already been sold out. In some cases, however, some of the most interesting cultural productions of Europe found their venues in the gaps of mainstream development. Less central and economically less interesting industrial locations accommodated spontaneous processes of re-appropriation: Metelkova in Ljubljana, for instance, was the first Post-socialist organisation to become member of Trans Europe Halles, an international network assembling independent cultural initiatives operating in industrial complexes.
In these developments, arts were protagonists of safeguarding and upgrading industrial spaces, as well as reconnecting them with their surrounding social tissue. One of the most important cultural venues of the Hungarian capital, Trafó was the first institution to transform an unused industrial building into an art space in Budapest. The electric transformer building situated in the edge of the city’s historical core, built in the style of the industrial art nouveau in 1909, had been abandoned for more than forty years when the French anarchist artist group Resonance discovered it in the early 1990s and transformed it into squat, hosting a variety of cultural events, performances, concerts, presentations. After the squat was shut down, it served for years as a storage space for theatre and music groups. In the middle of the 1990s, using the money it didn’t spend on the 1994 World Exhibition, the Municipality of Budapest bought the building to transform it into a well-equipped contemporary art centre. The Trafó – House of Arts opened its doors in 1998 and had quickly become an important Central European centre for contemporary theatre, dance and music.
Other initiatives had shorter lives. In 2003, a group of young architects and cultural producers initiated Tűzraktár in an abandoned medical equipment factory, in the same street as Trafó. The group rented the 7000 m2 building from its owner for a year at a very low rent, promising the owner the valorisation of the building by cultural events and thus an increasing visibility. Tűzraktár opened with minimal architectural interventions in June 2004, and it was an immediate success: thousands of people invaded the factory’s empty spaces and courtyards already on the first days. Tűzraktár’s operation had to be suspended due to its popularity: the building and its temporary commercial spaces have suddenly become very attractive and the cultural function gradually disappeared behind the commercial activities.
A year later, KÉK (an NGO created by architects, artists and journalists, focusing on urbanism, architecture and design) decided to launch a space for discussing architecture and the city. The group fortuitously gained access to a former warehouse in the backyard of a museum. The warehouse, in the vicinity of Budapest’s relatively central but reasonably infamous Keleti railway station, was in bad shape. Unused for decades and tagged with Soviet graffiti, it needed significant improvements to accommodate events and the public. While the Tűzraktár experiment was endangered by a commercial takeover that gradually pushed cultural activities out of the reactivated industrial complex, KÉK’s 10-year contract was cancelled after two years by the neighbouring museum that originally hosted the initiative in a long-time unused warehouse. Both experiences highlighted the fragility of civic initiatives in precarious agreements with private and public actors, as they tend to be very vulnerable both to the mechanisms of the real estate market and to political pressure. Learning from many similar cases and understanding the importance of avoiding dependence on public or private owners, as well as the instrumentalisation of arts and cultural production for large-scale development schemes, the question of independence has become an important preoccupation for activists and organisations involved in artists- or community-run spaces.
Among the strategies to consolidate civic spaces and secure long-term community access and use, shared and cooperative ownership has proved to be a valuable framework. The potential of precarious tenants becoming owners of the properties they use was first demonstrated in Berlin by the ExRotaprint initiative(3). When their building complex was put up for sale by the Berlin Municipality’s Real Estate Fund, tenants of the former Rotaprint factory, led by two artists, Daniela Brahm and Les Schliesser, began to look into the possibility of buying the area. Teaming up with two anti-speculation foundations, the non-profit company established by the tenants became owner of the 10,000 m2 complex, accommodating a number of cultural, social and productive activities at affordable prices. ExRotaprint set a precedent in Berlin that inspired many experiments in cooperative ownership, and a campaign to change the city’s privatisation policy. The foundations that made this transaction possible, Stiftung Maryon and Stiftung trias, were established to help community groups and co-housing projects access financing: they work on taking land off the market by separating the ownership of land and buildings. Supported initiatives lease the land from the foundation in the form of a long-term Heritable Building Right (Erbbaurecht) and their lease fee is collected in a mutual fund run by the foundations where capital is accumulated for further property purchases in support of like-minded initiatives.
ExRotaprint’s model of ownership shared with anti-speculation organisations offered responses to dilemmas of gentrification, speculation and precariousness and has since been replicated by many other organisations, becoming an inspiration for initiatives aiming at changing the general policies of privatisation. By the time the ExRotaprint model became internationally known and began inspiring citizen initiatives across Europe, however, the possibilities opened in the real estate market through the crisis began to close. With the end of the crisis, at least concerning the availability of financial capital, real estate markets began to return to their pre-crisis dynamics. Although the real estate market’s return to “normal” endangered many civic initiatives, many of them were equipped with tools and skills that enabled them to take the next step towards stability. The end of the crisis brought up the question of autonomy and ownership even stronger: how can initiatives without much capital move beyond the vulnerability of short-term tenancies and changing prices? In contrast with the ethos of urban living in many European cities in the last decades of the 20th century, where renting enjoyed higher popularity, many initiatives found the answer in ownership or very long-term leasehold, but excluding private profit.
Space is an essential part of cultural initiatives and community organisations, but not the only element. Community-run spaces become much more powerful when they are embedded in a neighbourhood’s social fabrik, creating economic opportunities and empowering people to become more active actors of local economy. Operating in South Rotterdam’s Feijenoord area, the Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative is based in “a neighbourhood common” called het Gemaal op Zuid, a former water pumping station transformed into a public place for the neighbourhood(4). Evolved from an art project conducted in the area by the artist Jeanne van Heeswijk and the Freehouse Foundation, the Cooperative works on bringing together existing workspaces, entrepreneurs, producers, social organisations and the market. The Cooperative began its work by mapping the unrecognised skills and competences of residents in the Afrikaanderwijk neighbourhood, suffering from problems of low education, unemployment and a bad reputation. Based on these skills, the Cooperative created a number of organisations to help residents use their competences through establishing a neighbourhood kitchen and catering company, a textile workshop and a cleaning company, offering services on the market and bidding for municipal commissions, in order to keep revenues in the area and create jobs for locals. In this framework, while the Cooperative’s building hosts many events for the local community, it rather functions as a hub in a wider network of spaces, dispersed in the neighbourhood.
Both ExRotaprint’s choice of shared ownership and the Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative’s strategy of generating a tissue of local training and employment, make them indispensable actors of their premises and give them an important role in the cultural, social and economic life of their neighbourhoods. The adaptation their models in other contexts, however, is not without difficulties. While the strategy to turn privatisation into an advantage for a civic space has proven a feasible path for many initiatives in Berlin, the model cannot simply be implemented anywhere: its adaptability depends on the ideal combination of low real estate prices, relatively transparent public real estate management, stable and suitable legal environment and high purchasing power. In terms of accessing capital, the presence or absence of ethical financial institutions and community finance platforms has a great impact on the investment capacity of civic initiatives. Cross-border access to community finance could balance this situation but the difference between legal environments makes transnational transactions more complicated, where local counterparts are needed for “legal translation,” to clarify local financial, real estate and planning regulations.
Similarly, in order to learn from the achievements of the Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative, civic initiatives need to find new organisational forms that allow them to distribute decision-making power, resources and benefits in a shared manner, overcoming more traditional individualist and hierarchic models. To do so, civic initiatives must learn how to adequately engage local communities, in order to really respond to societal needs and ensure community support that can, when needed, create political pressure or economic support. These solutions will always need to be highly adapted to local circumstances: existing models and good practices can inform choices but cannot replace the courage and inventiveness of local protagonists.

(1) Zukin, S. (1982). Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press

(2) Bianchini, F., and Parkinson, M. (eds.) (1993). Cultural policy and urban regeneration: the West European experience. Manchester: Manchester University Press

(3) See more at https://cooperativecity.org/2017/07/17/exrotaprint/

(4) See more at https://cooperativecity.org/2016/12/23/afrikaanderwijk-cooperative/