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research report - Freehouse-Oude Westen

30 nov '02
Freehouse (Vic.): A public house not bound to sell only one brewer's product, (Collin's Dictionary and Thesaurus, England 1991)

Motto: 'Volatile trade, according to De Landa, occurs when a city begins to replace imports by its own manufactured products and this sets a whole series of positive feedback loops into motion. To replace imports a city must develop new skills and procedures using its own human resources and local creativity. When a city begins to replace what is imported with local production, it stimulates the creation of skills, knowledge, and processes.
(De Landa, Manuel, The non-linear development of cities Oase 35, Sun 2000)

Freehouse started by Jeanne van Heewijk and Hervé Paraponaris is the name of a model for developing and transforming the public space mostly on the base of and with the help of this public space itself. Freehouse aims to research the possibilities for transforming ways of working in and with public spaces. To enable this it shifts the focus from the art object to the art objective. It sees art as a tool in a process of communication making visible and enhancing cultural production. As far as Freehouse sees it, cultural production is the whole of activities with which people express their identity and with which they attempt to come to grips with their environment, as well as with the ways in which they express the relation between their identity and their environment.

Freehouse brings in all different kinds of art and knowledge as tools (like a craftsman uses tools for production), to help people build their environment in such a self-conscious way they become aware of the importance of their share for community as a whole. In the case of Freehouse the end product is already given by the kind of communities it focuses itself upon (these can be all kinds of communities who need help with becoming more aware, and proud, of their own ways of dealing with their environment). It comes like a new initiator in a neighbourhood investigating who can use its tools to improve their own business and personal life related to the community one is living in. And so it helps with its tools to develop and improve the production of the entrepreneurs and people already there. To find the right tools for the given situation Freehouse investigates thoroughly the situation it is dealing with. In developing the needed tools it uses as much the information and/or the given products and infrastructure delivered by the neighbourhood or community it is working with as it uses the information and or/given art products or infrastructures delivered by the artists, philosophers, scientists, writers etc. it is working with, both influencing each other. So the final tools Freehouse can offer are not static but in a constant process of change and alteration based on what is needed.

A city of communities
A city is not only a collection of buildings and streets. It consists of energies, oscillations and atmospheres that constitute the daily life of an area. If the urban structure is the skeleton of the city, these every day activities and experiences can be considered its tissue, containing emotions, feelings, stories and relations. Freehouse is mostly interested in this tissue to work with because it thinks this tissue is underestimated in its meaning by city planners.

The city of today is a multicultural metropolis and a lot of energy is invested in projects of gentrifying and city branding to make the city function better. But do these projects do full justice to the versatile, multi-layered and hybrid city of today? Thinking about the city, we should also ask ourselves: what is it that brings people together and holds them together and what makes them belong here? What makes a group of people a community?

The transitory community
Freehouse studies at this moment the city of Rotterdam and specifically the neighbourhood of the Oude Westen. In this inner city neighbourhood, people of a large variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, live together. We call this a transitory community.

The typology of the transitory community coincides to a certain extent with the typology of the zone in transition as defined by the Chicago School. This inner city zone was considered the natural place for newly arriving immigrants. The continuous threat of the ever-expanding city centre made it hard for a community life to develop in this area. New immigrants followed old immigrants in a natural process of succession that ran through stages of infiltration, invasion and succession. Freehouse differs in opinion with the Chicago School as far as it argues that it is not necessary people are in a constant flux in these kind of neighbourhoods (the reason why they are this sensitive for the treat of the ever- expanding city) because in fact areas like this have enough possibilities in store to keep the people living there and they will do so more likely the moment they are helped to become self conscious of these possibilities and helped to become proud of and responsible for their own neighbourhood. Transitoriness should change its meaning from implying a temporary stay of those living in such a community, to the continuous development of the identity of the community itself. In fact, most inhabitants will spend a long time in the community already. Freehouse aims to help making them see they operate outside the realm of the global economy on a personal scale, which is a fruitful way of working with its own dynamic, and not one to overcome as soon as possible.

'Occupying a space as a transitory area holds the concept of hope.'
(Workshop 1, July 21)

In the urban system of Rotterdam, the transitory community of the Oude Westen has a vital function. It offers a low cost, relaxed and informal area that serves as a breeding ground for new comers who settle here. The amount and intensity of cultural production in a transitory community like the Oude Westen is much higher than in other urban communities. Its identity and strength lies in the coinciding and interdependency of the cultural production. It is a place for continuous development and reassessing of identity through the presence of others. It should be helped to see this value itself and to become aware of the possibilities for improvement and development. This kind of development inside the area will protect the area against the violence of the ever- expanding city centre because it will become a natural and appreciated part of this city centre. Appreciated by itself and by other urban communities of Rotterdam. But at the moment it is also under continuous threat of city planners. Especially the upcoming redevelopment of the city's central station area puts enormous strength on the Oude Westen as it is the zone immediately aligned to this high profile project containing shopping centres, business and expensive housing. Because of these ambitious plans, the space for neighbourhoods like the Oude Westen is becoming smaller and smaller.

Although some of the architecture in the Oude Westen is problematic Freehouse considers it important to investigate and enhance the intrinsic urban qualities and opportunities of this area, aiming to strengthen its cultural sustainability. This in reaction to earlier regeneration schemes for the area considering the area 'lifeless' without seeing the need and possibilities to improve the neighbourhood itself as part of these ambitious plans.

'The inhabitants of the transitory community are the citizens of the future. It is the new environment of the post-colonial era' (Workshop 1, July 23)

A thorough investigation in collaboration with the people living in the Oude Westen is done by Freehouse to discover and map all cultural activity in the larger part of the area. A special focus was put on those products, which are produced in the area itself. In the course of a year an extensive record of all products, shops and businesses in the Oude Westen was made. It resulted in Monster book 1 containing: photographs of the shops and shopkeepers and interviews with the shopkeepers. The research showed that, of 82 small businesses, 58 of the businesses manufacture products themselves. Forty of the shopkeepers were interested in working with Freehouse on projects people aimed at the surplus of art and craft.

At present six of them are together with an international group of artists and designers discussing and investigating a series of this kind of projects. These projects are not (as explained before) meant to be interventions, they will rather be inventions, proposing to combine skills and potential that is already present. The projects will be seeded in the community and Freehouse will assist -but only if necessary- their development. To enable Freehouse to achieve this a development company is set up, which generates funds to create micro-credit possibilities for product development.

'Projects in the area should build a community aimed at cohesion between the different groups that live there. The notions of diversity, transit and multiplicity form a starting point.' (Workshop 1, July 23)
related project:
Freehouse - West
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