Interview Lidewij Tummers

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Transcript interview with Lidewij Tummers

based on notes + memory, directly written after interview (audio file corrupted while saving)

Date: 13/10/2017

Location: Het Nieuwe Instituut Rotterdam

Speakers: Lidewij Tummers (Urban Sociology, TU Delft, former inhabitant)

Angeliki Diakrousi (student PZI)

Joca van der Horst (student PZI)

Angeliki: Could you introduce yourself and your work?

Lidewij: I teach at the department of architecture at TU Delft and I do research on cohousing. The presentation of my dissertation is on the 25th, you are welcome to visit. It is a public event. Next to that I am self-employed, working as a consulting engineer with Tussen Ruimte. That is on a lower level now, because of the dissertation, but I will pick up the work next year.

A: We also saw that you wrote a lot of academic articles.

L: Yes, the dissertation is a collection of these papers. I focussed on cohousing and the process of energy transition taken on by these cohousing collectives. By collaborating as a collective and working with the owners of the building, they enable ways to make buildings more sustainable.

Maybe it's good to explain how the Dutch system for rental housing works. Most buildings are owned by housing corporations. They were semi-public in the past, went private but after some were affected by corruption they were put back onder public control. So they are still private, but bound to rules. You either have the choice to be such a ‘toegelaten instelling’, or to work as a private organisation and then different rules apply.

Other countries, like Germany, and I imagine Greece, but also countries like Spain, they have more of a tradition of collectives that own houses. This is not really the case in the Netherlands. It was more so in the past – in the very beginning of social housing there were for example collectives of teachers that built housing for their members and in the end these organisations changed into housing corporations. But this part of history is not part of my dissertation.

Given these circumstances, most corporations are used to building non-mixed forms of housing. There is a lack of mixed forms of property.

As inhabitants, you need the collaboration of the corporations for energy transition. The corporations are big organisations, but when people are open to work with the inhabitants a lot becomes possible.

For example, there was the case of solar water boilers, which at one point were only used in lab environments. Then a cohousing group collaborated with the housing corporation to have them installed. The inhabitants found out that it wasn't working as well as was advertised. They talked with the manufacturer and the boilers were changed to improve their performance. In this case the cohousing collective were real innovators.

Joca: It’s interesting to see that a community of inhabitants takes up this role.

L: Yes, although I try to avoid the word community. I am an engineer and the community is not part of my expertise. Besides that I think it is a vague term, often abused.

Cohousing can make a difference, in the sense that sharing communal facilities can have a considerable impact, and in these situations there is space to invest in sustainable solutions. But for that to spread you need to change the current situation of individual housing with seperate systems for things like heating. It was done in the past, but it got a bad reputation. For example that you had to wait a long time for the heater to work, if your house was at the end of the pipe. However, I think the technology of today can make this work.


The Netherlands is not good in improving gender equality. A lot of people think the situation is already okay, so there aren't many initiatives to improve it.

The change of housing regulations in the 80's are interesting in that respect. Before that, not much had changed since the war. Housing regulations were focused on building homes for as many people as possible. Mostly the same type of single family houses, in suburbs which are sometimes called 'dorms', neglecting the invisible domestic labour done by women, that were isolated from public life. The new law gave more attention to more diverse family types and other types of housing to accompany them. Another new aspect was the role of sustainabilty in housing. One of the driving forces behind that societal change was the women's rights movement.

A: And tell us, what is your connection to the Poortgebouw?

L: I lived there.

A: Could you tell us how you entered the Poortgebouw, what was your motivation to live there?

L: I entered the Poortgebouw in my student time. I left Delft because I didn't like it and I heard from a friend about the Poortgebouw and that they were looking for new inhabitants. It was nice that I, like you do now, could include the Poortgebouw in my studies. I wrote several papers on the Poortgebouw, focusing on the process of renovating the building a few years earlier. I was lucky to have a teacher that allowed me to do this, so I could work on this as a replacement to doing the general exams.

A: When did you live in the Poortgebouw?

L: I am not sure about the exact years, but it was in the 1980’s.

A: What key events you remember from the Poortgebouw?

L: *Thinks* I remember that we had trouble with the housing corporation that owned the building. They were not used to dealing with a collective and they didn't answer our calls and letters. So we went together to the office and asked to meet the director. To our surprise, we were sent to a meeting room and the director talked with us. He agreed that the corporation made errors. It was an important moment for me, because I saw how strong a collective can be. We were so surprised, asking among ourselves which things to demand at that moment.

A: You also had a role in the court case later, could you describe that?

L: Yes, I gave technical advice. I worked together with Peter Voogd and Rogier, he was the lawyer for the collective. We went back to the documents from the beginning, like the first rental contract. It enforced the position of the Poortgebouw in the case against the Groene Groep.

For the maintenance, there is the problem of defining what is the interior and what is the exterior. What to do with a window for example? This still isn't clear amongst judges.

J: I saw in the plans for the renovation this divide in the maintenance of the building. Why did they choose this special construction?

L: Actually it is really common to have a divide between the interior and exterior for rental buildings. It is often done for office buildings, because it offers more freedom. Companies can have the interior in their own style, and they don't need to think about the exterior. It is actually seperating the use of the building with the property of it. It also helps with sustainabilty. The interior has a different lifecycle than the exterior. Interiors are changed more often, but the investment might be in the range of thousands of euros, while renovating the exterior will cost ten thousands, or hundreds of thousands of euros.

A: How would you describe the contact between the house and the neighbourhood?

L: There wasn't really a neighbourhood.

A: But there were talks between the municipality, the Poortgebouw and a group from the neighbourhood, right?

L: The neighbourhood councils were quite active and strong in that time. I know that the people from Feijenoord were happy that the Poortgebouw was squatted, because then the city couldn't turn it into an eros center.

J: I saw in the documents that the municipality sort of bent the law to get a subsidy to renovate the Poortgebouw according to the new building law. Do you know more about why and how they did it?

L: Not exactly, but I can guess. In that time there were some people interested in experimenting with housing. They were open for more citizen involvement. This attitude of the institutions helped. Although it was still a small number of people, they were from left wing parties, or interested in new forms of housing. That helped to convince people that had their doubts about the safety. In the end nobody wants a fire hazard, and there was a will to improve the plan.

A: Why do you think there are so many people interested in the Poortgebouw?

L: It is a little treasure. It's the only old building in the area. There is the wall next to the Jewish monument, the Poortgebouw and that's it. For a building owner it could be a prestige object, the one you put on an annual report.

A: Is it a chance to make a big profit?

L: I don't think so. Turning the Poortgebouw into luxury apartments wouldn't be profitable. I mean, an owner could even renovate the building and offer it as an artist space to show how socially envolved they are. In case of the Groene Groep the owner was so fixed on the idea of luxury lofts. If she was open to other situations, there would have been space for collaboration.

A: What do you think about the role of the municipality in maintaining the building, since it has a monumental status?

L: It is a scandal that they didn't do anything to maintain it in the past thirty years. It is a municipal monument. The traffic underneath the building is a problem. Maybe you already heard about it, but the municipality removed the signs that hung in front of the building, that warned about the height of the passage. It was a way to make the truck drivers at least slow down and to avoid accidents. But they took it away because it 'didn't fit the image'.

A: The HNI is currently archiving squatting as an architectural practice. One of the cases is the Poortgebouw, what is your opinion about that?

L: I haven't been able to visit the exhibition, but I am a bit afraid. In principle I think it is a good thing, but it is vulnerable. The history of the Poortgebouw is preserved. But as in the cases I told about before, these kinds of collaboration depend on people. What will happen in 10 years?

J & A: Explaining autonomous archive, and special issue #4 and relation to HNI

L: It is a really interesting project. Concerning the question about in which archive the information should be stored, I think that the HNI archive can have the information that should be as public as possible. It already is. Okay, you need to reserve items and read them with gloves, but that's purely for proper functioning on the archive. I don't think that all information acquired by the HNI about the Poortgebouw should be in the autonomous archive. Just like private documents from the Poortgebouw archive can stay there and don't need to go to HNI.

A: What was your favourite part of living in the PG?

L: Part of the building?

A: No, more favourite experience.

L: Ah, I liked most the times of building things together and making music.

A: Events?

L: No, but we had jamsessions on Sundays with the people in the house.

A: When was the last time you visited the PG?

L: About half a year ago.

A: Did many things change?

L: No… Of course there were little changes. The kitchen was renovated, a bad toilet was renewed while another one deteriorated. But in general things were the same.

J: How do you see the future of the PG?

L: Mmm, currently I don't see a long future.

J: Why, what reason?

L: The Poortgebouw has a lack of institutional support, that makes it vulnerable.

A: What would help?

L: To create institutional support they could create a foundation. If you get people from the municipality, and housing corporation to join, then you get expertise on housing aboard and the position against the current owner is stronger. In the end, to offer the Poortgebouw a future, the owner needs to be replaced. Not by a private party, but a public organisation like the foundation.

This has been done more often. Do you know about Woningbouwvereniging Gelderland? They act as a federation of collectives, helping these kind of groups with the things that they can't manage themselves. So they manage the maintenence of the exterior, and help to finance if the investments are too big for the co-housing group. Some collectives let the woningbouwvereniging also collect the rent, to avoid tension in the house because of financial problems. Depending on the needs of the inhabitants, they offer assistance.

The law required this organisation to stay in the region where they started. But it has changed, so they are doing new projects outside Gelderland. It is just that they don't want tot become a massive corporation, so their growth is slow by choice. Though, they are open to help other organisations to do similar activities.

J: Are they active in specific parts of Gelderland, like only in cities?

L: Their focus is on cities, but they also manage buildings in the countryside.

J: Would you live in a community like the Poortgebouw now?

L: Could I change ' community' to ' situation'? In general, I like to live in cohousing. It is the focal point of my research, but in the current situation I would not want to live in the Poortgebouw. At this age, it doesn't help that the place is under threat. I need different things now. What I also miss is a shared vision between all the inhabitants. It was there in the past. We didn't have the same opinions, but we all were activitists. From women's rights to labour rights.

J: What types of people lived in the Poortgebouw while you lived there?

L: All types of people. Students, people who were working.

J: And did they live there for a long time?

L: It differed, some left after a few years. Others lived there much longer. On average people lived for 5 years in the Poortgebouw.

J: That is long in comparison to the average now.

L: It has changed over time.

J: What's the best way to create a place like the Poortgebouw now?

L: I think it is via a foundation with institutional support, like the Woningbouwvereniging Gelderland.

J: Reading the documents, I saw that the municipality was struggling with how to deal with the Poortgebouw and the collective of inhabitants. After the renovation an employee wrote an article and stated that the Poortgebouw could be seen as an example. To what extent did the Poortgebouw inspire others?

L: Cases like the Poortgebouw were also present in other cities. Although in Rotterdam the Poortgebouw didn't directly result in similar projects, it inspired people to try to do the same.

J: Looking at the current housing market in Rotterdam and the Woonvisie (set of plans for housing policy in Rotterdam, which was part of a referendum last year), what is the role of cohousing nowadays?

L: It has no role in the plans of the municipality. The Woonvisie focuses on individual houses, strangely enough. There is room to build your own home, but it is based on making people buy a piece of land to build a home. That is a complicated process, so most people in that case buy a design from a catalogue, unless you are an architect yourself. Rotterdam missed the opportunity to do more in this field. Current examples of cohousing are the Klushuizen, old houses that people buy for a fair price, under condition of renovating it. These are individual homes, but some ended up being collective. Another example is in the city of Almere, where collectives started mostly out of financial reasons. But while working together, people intensified their collaboration.

J: Earlier you mentioned the innovative role cohousing collectives have for making houses more sustainable. Could you give an example for the Poortgebouw of that?

L: The whole idea of taking sustainability into account was already a big change. By sharing the general facilities the Poortgebouw helped in being more sustainable, other than that it also helped to have it on paper to apply for the housing law. It was a different time. With the knowledge we have now you wouldn't call the Poortgebouw a sustainable building nowadays. But it was that using the standards from that time.

J: Next to sustainability, a goal of the new housing law was to challenge the gender inequality. How was this done within the Poortgebouw?

L: Well, at the Poortgebouw we lived outside the traditional family cycle. Next to that we had a lot of discussions in the house, especially about cleaning. At one point we decided as women to get our own floor, in the attic. It had a clean bathroom and clean kitchen and everybody had to help in keeping it clean.

J: I heard about that from other inhabitants, but they knew it from others. Nice to hear to you were part of that! Was it indeed so that the people at the space were making zines about feminism?

L: Zines?

J: Magazines

L: Ah, they made them indeed. The women's movement was strong then. The activism returned recently.

J: What was the most difficult time?

L: The discussions when someone had to leave. It was hard, especially when the person in question was using drugs. Having a building that was open to visitors – it was impossible to combine with the use of hard drugs. It didn't work. And another issue is that it is really complicated to live with someone using drugs. People would say one thing and do the other.

J: What happened in the end?

L: They left. But it was a long and complex process to get to that point.

J: It is special to see that so many aspects of a society come back in the Poortgebouw.

L: Indeed! That is why in my research I support a view on cohousing that has attention to all these different aspects. Recently we formed a network of researchers on cohousing and it is really valuable to share our work from our different views.

J: Is this a new focus in research on architecture and urban planning?

L: It is. In 2012 I helped in setting up a conference about the topic. It wasn't the first conference on cohousing of course, the practice exists longer than the research about it. But it is good to have the research as a method to reflect on it.


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