Amsterdam, March 2011
In Amsterdam’s financial district Zuidas, property prices are the highest in the Netherlands, and still office spaces remain vacant. This project is a way of using this space to satisfy a common need. Surplus is a bar which pops-up in empty office spaces at the Zuidas using discarded materials, objects and foods from neighboring businesses. This way excess materials can be reused to create a space for social interaction and meeting other Zuidas inhabitants and workers from all layers of society.
“From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly everything is possible again.”
- Mark Fisher, ‘Capitalism Realism’, 2009.
The Zuidas (South Axis) is a financial district in the south of Amsterdam which has been under development since 1998. The place was never particularly pretty or liveable, but it is strategically placed next to the A10 freeway, close to Schiphol airport, and has a train station where international trains depart. The city chose this connected wasteland to become the ‘La Defènse’ or ‘Canary Wharf’ of Amsterdam.
Architect Rem Koolhaas mentions the importance of the Southeast area in his plan for the IJ embankments back in 1991. Since the centre of Amsterdam cannot grow, new centres like the Southeast need to be explored: “It’s relatively simple to let these areas thrive; because `freedom is the decisive factor of these spontaneous developments, freedom in connections especially’. It has been said that these developments are also in the interest of the city. But this could be a dangerous paradox: the centre would become the appendix of the appendix”.
Limits of Growth
By 2006 the economy was booming and the Zuidas was growing quickly. All the big banks and law firms wanted a piece of it, commissioning architects like Norman Foster, Rafael Viñoly, UN studio, and Toyo Ito to build their new offices here. The Zuidas was making money fast and pushed forward in 2007 with an expensive plan in to move the freeway and train lines underground, thus creating a connecting ground surface for more real estate. The final step would turn the Zuidas into a secondary city centre.
As fast as the buildings rose from the ground, the construction stopped when the financial crisis hit in 2008. Banks that had just finished their new headquarters had to be bailed out by taxpayers. By 2010 many offices were vacant, 14% of all office spaces in total. Since the Zuidas is mostly made up of offices, the district is completely deserted after business hours and on weekends. In this scenario I was asked together with other students of the Sandberg Institute Design Department and VU University to come up with ideas to increase liveability in the Zuidas.
The Zuidas is an highly valued area. With every square meter counting, there was no incentive for architects and urban planners to add parks, playgrounds, or open water. The consequence is that unless you work at a big firm or you live in an expensive condominium, there is no reason for you to be there.
Many students that participated found the premise of the project questionable. Designing liveability in a district that only the most wealthy can afford to live or work in, is a rather paradoxal question in times of crisis. Therefore many of us started to investigate the fabric and structure of the area instead.
When I obtained a map with all the vacant offices on the ground floor, the empty overpriced office spaces were exposed as scattered physical voids of the value that had vanished after the financial meltdown. Like laid-off office workers, these were valuable assets that had been rendered obsolete by the market. My plan was to collect the materials, and spaces to organize a pop-up bar with. This bar would try to do what squatters had done for decades: create a cheap space for people of all incomes and backgrounds.
WHITE HOUSING PLAN
Amsterdam has a history of putting abandoned real estate to good use. In 1964 there was a massive housing shortage while entire city blocks were abandoned. Students saw the opportunity and started squatting empty buildings. In 1966 the artist and activist movement Provo started the ‘White housing plan’. The doors of empty building were painted white, encouraging people to squat them.
Since the 1960s squatting has been central to the cultural scene in Amsterdam. Today many of the most popular bars, music venues, galleries, and debate centres started as squats. Unfortunately since 2010 squatting has been made illegal in Holland and many collectively run cinema's, bars and other venues were forced to close. In that light, the question of ‘designing liveability’ stands in stark contrast to a city that forcefully closes down spaces for social and public gathering.
Someone who thought hard about the voids in the capitalist system was Karl Marx. Central to his critique of the capitalist economy is the surplus value created by workers. Ideally the product is sold for a price that is the value of the labor plus its needed materials. In the capitalist economy it is more profitable to pay workers a low wage and sell the product for a higher price. Therefore the worker creates more value than he/she receives in wages, which is the surplus value. This difference between material value and market value is similar to the housing bubble that led to the economic crisis of 2008. Value is created through speculation without any relation to the material value. When the market drops, value is lost and people lose their jobs, office spaces become vacant, etc. That is why the bar is named ‘Surplus’. It is a way to use this lost value and bring it back to the Zuidas in a physical form.
To find the materials for the Surplus bar, I went by the offices in the Zuidas. It was easier than I expected to find materials for the inventory. For large offices, efficiency in office supplies is not a priority. Rather than repairing something, they just order new supplies. The first company I went to had a large storage with four good as new office chairs that had been replaced by new ones. After visiting three offices I had collected seven office chairs, one desk, one drawer, two kitchen carts, a golfclub, a broken fridge and twelve letter trays. More than enough to set up my office-inspired squat bar.
Going around the Zuidas and visiting garbage disposal areas gave me some insights into how this ‘trash flow’ is handled. For instance, have you ever seen trash at a corporate headquarters? Trash remains hidden, kept out of sight in garbage disposal spaces within buildings to keep a clean architectural image. Only the garbage truck that picks up the containers every week is a sign of waste disposal. I found tons of cables, computers and screens which would all be incinerated, but which I was not allowed to use for legal reasons. The danger of sensitive company information falling into the hands of others was more important than reusing perfectly good computers and screens. Wasting resources for the sake of corporate accountability.
Finding surplus foods turned out to be more challenging. Supermarkets throw away loads of food, but do not give it away by policy. Restaurants I visited said they rarely had leftovers. Then I found a sushi restaurant, who said they had to throw out a lot of sushi each day which was still perfectly edible. On the day of the opening they had two trays full of Surplus sushi for us.
On March 1, 2011 the Surplus bar was opened as part of the exhibition in the Kunstkapel on the Zuidas. Every item I had collected was used in some way. Advertising material became tables, letter trays were used to serve cookies and snacks, the food warmer trolley as dj table. Each item had a sticker saying which Zuidas business it was from. A former Zuidas worker was hired as bartender, and drinks and glassware were supplied by the Kunstkapel. After the bar closed, the items were not thrown away but auctioned off for prices starting at €1. Proceeds were used to cover the project costs.
This pilot of the Surplus bar was an experiment to show how value is created and lost in our current economic system. I set up a recycle loop to use all the materials and food that is being thrown away every day, and bring those together with laid-off workers and empty office spaces. Businesses on the Zuidas were invited, especially those who supplied materials, but none showed up. It would have been a great way to start a dialogue about what value means in the most expensive area of the Netherlands.
Materials supplied by ABN AMRO, AKZO Nobel, WTC. Sushi supplied by Sushi Time WTC.
Fisher, Mark. Capitalism Realism, 2009.
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1887.