Interview Césare Peeren

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Transcript Interview with Césare Peeren




Superuse Studios, Rotterdam


Cesare (architect, former inhabitant)

Tash Berting (student PZI)

Alice Strete (student PZI)


T: Maybe you can start by telling us a little bit about yourself, and your connection to the PG.

C: Yeah, sure. What do you want to know?

T: When did you live there?

C: The first two years I was in Rotterdam, and I graduated in 1997. So that must have been 95-97.

T: And how many people were living there with you?

C: About 25 people. I come from Den Haag, I was there for the first 30 years of my life. I grew up with a father that was an architect, he was earning money by being an architect in a office and then buying houses and renovating them, and I was always working in the renovations too. Basically, we were tearing the houses apart and then reusing all the parts that we took out, so that was where my idea for Superuse Studios came from. Then, for some reason, I thought it was a good idea to join the army. It was still obligatory when I was 18, so I thought I would just do that before I studied. Somehow I believed it was a good thing to defend our democracy with weapons. While I was in the army, I had a good friend in Den Haag who was living in a squat opposite the Paard van Troje – this famous music venue – and every weekend I went to his place. So I went back and forth from the military to anarchist music parties at the squat. So I was in between two completely different cultures, at 18 years old.

Quickly, I understood or realized that I made the wrong decision, so I tried to get out of the service on conscientious objection. The reason I’m telling you this is that those two things together were important influences on my view of the world. I saw the army from the inside out, I saw the people in there and the way they were thinking. It was like seeing a cut through of Dutch society, I started to understand how people think. I had this stupid, naive question that I would ask people: “What if you would suddenly come across a boat full of missiles and guns and bombs? It’s yours and you can decide what you want to do with it. Would you sink it, sell it to the best offer, or sell it to someone you believe has an ideology you support? And most of them would sell it to the best offer. Regardless of what that person would do with it.

A: That's scary.

T: Do you still ask people that question now?

C: I don't do it anymore.

T: You don't want to know the answer?

C: No... for me that was quite a shock, I grew up with these kind of hippie parents, in safe and half-idealistic surroundings. I even went to the army for idealistic reasons. I read too many newspapers I think; got the wrong impression on how the world is organized. And then, at the same time, I was going to these squats, where I met anarchists who were – in my point of view – saying things that were much too radical, too black and white, too much the other side of the coin. “That's bad and that's good” – very judgemental. I didn't like that at all, but there was also a group of people in the squatting scene who were much more about taking responsibility and building their own culture. And that was the part I really liked.

T: Was that different in the Hague than it was in Rotterdam? The squatting culture?

C: Well, I lived in two different places. First in the Blauwe Aanslag, the famous squat in Den Haag. I think that was a really awesome place, it was the best – sounds stupid – but it really felt like the best years of my life, when I was living there. When I moved to Rotterdam I was looking for a place like that, and the only thing I found was the Poortgebouw; which was a bit of a disappointment, to be honest.

From there, I moved with a group of people to this street, and because of that we saved it from being demolished. But also that was a bit of a disappointment. So the first one, the squat the Blauwe Aanslag, that’s the one I would like to talk a bit more about. Because for me, that was quite an important step. It all started when I was studying architecture and I went to a student camp in Sweden, and on the way we stayed for a few nights in a house in Copenhagen. It was a shared house, and there were 15 people living in a villa with a garden around it, and someone was baking bread every morning, someone was doing something else, someone was repairing the house, and there was such a good atmosphere. I was like, wow, I love this, this is great, living with so many people in the same house, everybody does something, helps each other out, and so on. So I came back from that trip thinking that I want to live like that, I don't want to live in a house on my own. I had several reasons: first, it fitted my idea that if you share one washing machine with 15 people, the sharing makes you less of a consumer. You use less stuff. And socially it's interesting, everybody has different skills and they can help each other out with those skills; so I thought it was a good way of living.

I was working on a magazine with some friends at my university in Delft, at the architecture department, including Jan, who still lives next door now. With a group of 6 we looked for a house in Rotterdam which we could squat; but we didn't manage, we only found a few houses that were totally rotten inside. Also we were busted by the police immediately. Then I realized that I actually knew a few people living in the Blauwe Aanslag in Den Haag and asked them if there was any space in there. It was a really big house, and we found out there was a whole floor that was empty, so we all moved into that floor.

What I liked about the Blauwe Aanslag is that it had a function. It was interesting – there were about 60 people living there, which is officially a bit too much. Usually the maximum is about 25 people, if you want to keep communication lines open, make sure that everybody understands everyone, that there is enough empathy with the people in the group, that you can make decisions on a fair basis. If the group gets bigger, you get politics... I don't know. It was a bit... the dynamics there were crazy. The group was even bigger than the 60 people living there; there were also 10 different companies in there, including a metal workspace, a printery, a restaurant, a library, glass workspace, wood workspace, a little farm.

A: Sounds amazing.

C: It was an amazing place; we had a lot of facilities. We had a discotheque in the basement, it was big enough to host parties for 500 people. It was like putting WORM and the Poortgebouw and some workspaces that you have now near Marconiplein, all together in one building. 

A: So, compared to that, the Poortgebouw was a disappointment?

C: Yea, well, it was different. I used to characterize it like this: the Blauwe Aanslag was a working house in a city that was only about meetings, and Poortgebouw was like a house that only had meetings in a city that was working all the time.

But when I left the Blauwe Aanslag and came to Rotterdam, I wanted to continue living in a group. And I wanted to finish my graduation project; somehow I didn't manage that in Den Haag. I think there were just too many things happening – we were trying to save the building, all these people had big techno parties, there was too much to do.

T: During those times, did you have to deal a lot with the police?

C: Yeah, we had a few incidents. It's incredible how many confrontations you get and how much you learn from that about how the world is organized.

T: Because, actually, in those times, squatting was legal.

C: It was still legal, but the Blauwe Aanslag was a very active house. It had been there for like 30 years already when I came in, and it had been socially active, politically active, it involved the poor people in the surroundings. It was in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of the city, on the edge of the centre, and they were very socially interactive in the 70s. People of Den Haag knew the place and knew it positively – not as terrible squatters that are parasiting our society. It was more like an open place, which does all kinds of things for all kinds of people. And the local government wanted to get rid of it, because besides the social side, we also had a political side, of course, and there was always a lot of resistance coming from the Blauwe Aanslag. Anytime the government made a strange political decision, there was a response from us. Sometimes in the form of an action, in the form of banners – but there was always a response, we were always critical. And we were very organized: we had a printer, a radio station, so we could always communicate. The Blauwe Aanslag was a very strong community, and it was also strong physically, so we could build stuff, and we would always get media attention. It was an important player in the city.

A: And who owned that building, was it the state?

C: The Blauwe Aanslag was a tax office. The name comes from the blue envelope that you get in your mail when you have to pay your taxes. But in the end, the city said that they wanted to make a central ring road for cars there, and the building was in the way. They wanted to widen the street about 1.5 meters, but our walls were in the way. Of course since we were architects, we suggested alternative designs, we said: there’s a canal on this side, we can make a foot path over it. But they said no. We offered to move the facade back 1.5m and make a covered foot path inside our building, so the pedestrians can walk through it, and we make a kind of shopping mall with alternative shops… but no, that was also not possible. Whatever we proposed, they didn't want it. They basically wanted to tear the building down, and get rid of the people that were in it.

T: Did they end up tearing it down?

C: Yes, they ended up tearing it down, and left it empty until two years ago.

T: And the people who were living there, they were evicted by military?

C: It was. You know, the Blauwe Aanslag was a very positive place, it would never have had any friction like that with the people living there. But everybody left in the end. And the people who came back were the people I talked about in the beginning, the hardcore anarchists. These are the guys that make a bad name for the alternative scene; I don't like them at all. I mean, I think they have a function… I'm afraid that unfortunately, violence has a function; it’s the last thing that the politicians are scared of, even though I think it only works in their advantage. Because that’s how they get people to think we are crazy idiots that are totally violent, and that we’re against the status quo just to be violent, when its actually about something completely different. For me it's about not liking society as it is and trying to change it in a positive way; in a way that is more social and allows for more equal chances and that kind of stuff, and it's more fair on the environment and the animals. Its a very positive thing that happens in those places, actually.

What I’m getting to is that, at some point, we had an action at the City Hall, where we were trying to make our point clear that we didn't want to leave, and the government was deciding whether they would knock down the building or not. We were in this whole process of figuring out all kinds of possibilities, alternatives for the urban plan. And then it just became a big fight. In response we had theatrical sketches; one of them was that we were going to tear the City Hall down. We got two people to climb up onto the City Hall and swing around a big wrecking ball onto the facade of the building. The ball was made from rubber mattresses, it didn’t do anything to the building. We were all dressed like it was in the middle ages, and I played the mayor: I had a suit on and a lot of very bad perfume, my hair was gelled back, and I had this golden chain. And at some point the others ran up against me and the politicians that were around me, and they “attacked” the City Hall, with a battering ram which was also made from rubber… You could even see that it was totally flexible. But the moment that they reached the door, the military police came out and started basically, knocking everybody down. People broke ribs, were blinded, got glass in their eyes… it was totally ridiculous. I could sit down, probably because I had a suit and I didn't look like a squatter, didn't have a hoodie... I looked like a normal person. I sat down on the bench and just watched it all happen. They didn't touch me, didn't ask me anything, because I didn't look like a squatter, so I could observe it all, and it was a ridiculous, ridiculous amount of violence for no reason other than being able to put in the newspaper the next day that we were violent, when it was the opposite. I’m biased, OK – but I was really in the middle of it all and I could see what was happening and Im absolutely sure that it started with the police. And it’s not the first time that I've seen it; there have been so many incidents that start with the police being violent, and the newspapers they say, the people were demonstrating, and the police had to defend themselves. They literally said in the newspaper that some of these anarchists had been holding a policeman down and they put gasoline over him and started throwing burning joints on him. That did not happen. No one in that group would do that. Maybe later in the shit fight with the anarchists, it could have been a scenario. But not that day, with that group of people.

A: But you didn't have any chance to defend yourselves?

C: From that moment, it was over. There was a reporter who was in the police station that night – we saw him – and he was talking to the police about what he was going to write up, and he wrote the front page article, the background article, the opinionated article… he wrote 4 articles about that event in one newspaper. And from that moment on, the whole city was against the squat. And so they freed their way to evict us and tear the building down. That’s how the media manipulates these things.

A; There's just one point of view, always.

T: Does the word ‘kraken’ have negative connotations in Dutch?

C: I think so, right now. Squatters have always been portrayed like crazy people who break everything, people who completely destroy the house that they squat. I mean, that has also happened. I’ve seen squatters go into a house with their dogs, make one room into the shit hole for their dogs, spit on the ground, and basically tore the building down while they were living there. That is also part of the truth. But it's the only part of the truth that is shown. The whole positive part, which is much bigger, is not shown enough.

T: Did you have any experiences like that at the PG? Big events that you remember?

C: No, luckily not. But in that way, Poortgebouw is kind of a positive place, but it’s never been really strong and opinionated. Much more mediocre.

A: So it's less about politics, more about housing?

C: Yeah, more about living together in a house. With pros and cons. The only action I had there – it’s probably why they still remember me – was when we built the garden. As a young architect I made a design for what our garden could be, and again, I hoped that by doing something and showing it to the politicians you could change their way of doing. At the time we had a garden, and there were four big poplar trees standing there that shielded the garden from the wind from the Maas, and it made the garden a place you could really enjoy being in, as opposed to now. Now it's empty, paved with stone. I think nobody is ever there; I never see anyone sitting there, and I find that so hard to see. We kind of tried to prove that it could be another way; we invited politicians to come and sit in the garden, we we made a fire pit… And then, in the weeks right after my graduation, I spent like one or two weeks literally living in those trees, trying to stop them from chopping them down.

T: What did they do, they wanted to take the garden away, or the trees?

C: They had this urban plan that said everything in that neighborhood had to be in these straight lines; everything had to be paved. And we had a pit of 15-20 meters of garden with 4 big trees and some small trees, and some little garden patches and so on. They weren’t part of the plan so they had to go.

T: What was around the PG, in the neighbourhood?

C: When I came, it was a harbour area, so mainly warehouses, and a lot was torn down already. A lot of empty space.

T: So you didn't really have neighbours.

C: Not at the beginning. That all came in the years that I was living there. The bridge was built while I was living there. We saw it swing in the wind when it was first opened; it was not designed very well.

A: It's still causing damage to the house, when it opens.

C: Ah that one, in front of PG, no I mean the big bridge, the Erasmus bridge. It wasn't stable. with the first storm it started going 1 meter side to side. Anyway... PG, what can I say about it. Together we were living there with about 25 people, divided in small groups.

T: You were responsible for different things each, you all had something to do in the house?

C: There were not really fixed responsibilities, I just took responsibility, I did whatever is necessary. I don’t like meetings, I just like to do, so for instance, if I thought it was a good idea to do something about the garden, I just went to the people who I knew had an interest in the garden, and I said, "Shall we do something about the garden? Yeah, let’s start tomorrow." Otherwise, you have to go through meetings, and by the time you're ready with the meetings, you don't feel like doing it anymore.

A: So they were very bureaucratic in a way?

C: Yeah, it was a bit too bureaucratic for me.

T: So did you change a lot in that house? Were you allowed to?

C: Nah, well in your room you could. 

T: Cause at that point the building was already legalized.

C: Yeah we were renting it. So we were responsible for the inside, and the people we were paying the rent to was responsible for the outside. But I think they still didn't do anything. And that's one of the weird things about the Poortgebouw - and I think it's the way they're going to get rid of them at some point. That's their strategy. Because the Poortgebouw is paying rent. But the Poortgebouw is known to the people around it as a squat, and so they are held responsible for the fact that the building looks like shit from the outside. Even though they have been paying rent for 30+ years now to a company that doesn't do anything about the outside. That rent money should be spent on the outside! Instead what's happening now is they're waiting, and waiting and waiting... until at some point they'll find a weak point in the group – I think – that they don't resist anymore, that they don't respond fast enough to the procedures that they're gonna try to evict them. And if they find that weak point, they will be out. And nobody is going to support their case; because the whole area around them has become so rich, and they look so much like the wrong thing there now, being shabby and dirty.

So what do I think they should do now? I think they should open up. Fuck the people that they're paying rent to; take care of the outside themselves. Put a kind of alternative grand café out there, with good food, responsible products. Open up, put a terrace. Offer a service to the people that live around them; invite them in, and slowly get to know their surroundings. That would be the way to survive, but they never did that. Even when I was living there, we tried to get to that point, but it was hard. Somehow, I think the people that live there are for a big part students, who are just temporarily there. And I think that was the difference between the Poortgebouw and the Blauwe Aanslag, because for the people living at the Blauwe Aanslag it was really their life. At Poortgebouw it seems people came just for the period that you study, because it's cheaper rent than other places.... and you just have to say that you're vegetarian and that you're social, and then you let them in. "Hi, I'm vegetarian! At least for these next few years." I don't know, I'm exaggerating a bit, but I think that's more or less a bit of the problem. And then there are a few people for whom this is really their life, and you always get this conflict between them and the people that kind of pretend; and got in somehow, who are there just because it's a nice place to live during your studies. But if it's not your life, you won't take the hard road, you won't choose to work hard to change something about your own building or the environment around it or the relationship between your building and its environment.

T: Do you know of any other places like the PG still active in Rotterdam?

C: No, not in Rotterdam.. Well there's one nice place, in the Burgemeester Roosstraat, where they do quite positive things. It's like three or four houses in a row and they have a bike repair shop, which really has a function for the neighborhood. So they don't scream at a lot, but they're quite nice I think. But I don't know many squats in Holland anymore. I think they kind of succeeded in getting rid of it.

T: Yeah. I wonder if there will be any left in 10 years. The PG is not even a squat anymore.

C: No, already for a long time... There's the ADM in Amsterdam, that's one of the last kind of free havens. But that's also gonna go.

T: Yeah, it was so much more prevalent in the 80s. I heard that Hotel New York and Worm were also squatted once.

C: Really? Hotel New York was squatted?!

T: Yeah, by artists, must have been some 20 years ago.

C: Yeah well I think squats are - or at least used to be - a really important thing in the cultural and political development of a city. And an opportunity for young people to kind of figure out who they really want to be or how they really want to live as an alternative to the mainstream culture. And, I don't really like the mainstream culture. So I think it's quite important that there's still a way out for some people.

T: Yeah, I still know some people who are still seriously in it - for whom squatting is still their life. But it's getting harder and harder.

C: Yeah, I'd be curious to know how the young people are doing it now.

T: Yeah, well they all have lawyers. They have to deal with so much legal shit.

C: Well, why is it so important to squat? I mean, I always had a conflict with my mother about it. She was always very strict, kind of like - "It's somebody else's property, and you don't touch it. Point." And in a way I can respect that, I can understand that's how it should be. But at some point the people who are owning property are not respecting the rest of society. And that's where I think things start to become less black and white. And the other thing is that I think the whole rent and buy system is a trap for a lot of people... The costs of living become so high that you become slaves to the wage system. And then there's no time left to help each other, or communicate with each other, or figure out what you actually want... [pause] One thing that I find very difficult is that I ended up living on this street, and I raised my two kids here, while I would have preferred to raise them in a surrounding like the Blauwe Aanslag. For all kinds of reasons, but also because I don't believe in the core family system that is now a part of our society, that it works. There's that saying, that "it takes a village to raise a child." And I think there's a lack of villages in this society. Everybody lives in their own little cabin. Even on this street, where I know most of the people really well, it's still too big of a barrier. I mean there's a few people who have closed off their gardens, so the kids cant walk to each other from the back, they have to go out into the street and ring the doorbell. That already changes everything. We had one summer when the garden was an open place - and the kids started playing with each other. They went out in the morning; they didn't have to ask me – if they would have had to go out through the front door they would've had to ask me. So it's a small difference but it makes all the difference. And they started playing with each other in the garden. It sounds like a stupid thing but creates more interaction.

A: Do you know of any other self organized living communities?

C: Hmm, no, well maybe I'm not the right person to ask about that. I hope there's a younger generation that you can ask. I've lost it a bit. I know some legal communities, that never were a squat. I'm working now for a community in the North of Holland, a few families living together, which was started in the 60s. But they're also struggling, even though they bought their land they still have to pay interest. I think the whole system is built in such a way that we are basically enslaved. And that sounds very harsh, and those are the things I heard the anarchists say back then, when I was much younger, and at that time I thought "Come on, it's not that bad. We are free, and we make our own decisions... la la la." But slowly over the years... I start to think, they're kind of right. It's a subtle system but it channels you into a situation where you end up feeling you're actually not that free. Even though I chose my profession and I'm doing my work exactly according to my ideals and so on. But even then, as soon as you succeed a bit, it gets absorbed into the economic system and you end up doing things that are like compromises to what you actually want to do. For example 'reuse' has become vintage, has become hip. And now you get clients who are actually not interested in the environment, they just want to hip and to show that by using stuff that we have designed. And it's such a waste of resources to throw away a whole existing interior for us to put in a 'reused' interior.

So these days I try to do different work. Like this house we’re building now, for a family who really needs a home and the whole thing can be made energy efficient and zero waste. There is a little bit more meaning in that; if I wanted to make money I would work for a big company that wants to greenwash their facade. I decided two years ago not to go that way, which is why I have my office here and not in the city, because the rent costs are so high that you have to take the commercial jobs; after building up that office I stepped out of it financially, I am now only involved in the pioneering projects that are pushing the ecological agenda, but they don’t make money… not enough… or enough if you have your office in your house to reduce the costs. That’s why squatting is important because it creates areas where the costs are less high, which gives opportunity to develop from content, even if that content is not considered commercial. The other option would be to find other ways to generate these systems, but this often results in a gentrification system, where the government or the housing corporation says you can use a particular space for practically nothing, but usually within a few years it has to generate money, and if someone can offer more rent than you, you are gone again.

These things take time to build up, they have found in recent research that you need ten years for any area to become solid enough; they tried doing that in Zoho. We have been there, we went out quite fast. Just for the motivation that they are trying to get a better price per square meter, which you can understand from the pint of view of their organisational structure, but I don’t think it works. It pushes everyone into commercialising vary fast and doesn’t leave space for organic growth. 

Q: Hmm. It’s depressing… I’m depressed.

C: I think society should just collapse and make it a bit worse. Let’s make it a bit worse! I don’t know, I think some fusion is possible, otherwise we have a big chaos. We never learn. With the last crisis I had a little hope that maybe they would put on the breaks… That people would maybe realise that something has to change, and a lot of things did start changing at that moment… But unfortunately the economy somehow recovered. So now we are going back to business as usual. 

I think we need a few more of those breaking moments, and then I don’t imagine it will go with a big collapse, but there will be a reevaluation. It seems there are so many people aware of the situation– and so many young people aware of the situation – that I don’t understand why we don’t all just get up and fucking change this thing. I never talk to anyone who is not aware of the situation; I talk to people from the elite, I talk to people from the lowest classes, I talk to scientists and everyone seems to agree. [[Project::Bed Chair Table| ]]


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