Interview Marina Otero

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Transcript Interview with Marina Otero

Date: 13/10/2017

Location: Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam

Speakers: Marina Otero (Director of Research HNI), Tash Berting (student PZI)


T: Can you tell us more about yourself and how you came to work at HNI?

M: I'm an architect, originally from Spain. I've been working and studying in Spain, the Netherlands and the U.S. Three years ago, when I was in New York, Het Nieuwe Instituut approached me to see if I would be interested in creating and directing its new research department.I said, well, why not? So I moved from New York to Rotterdam to start the R&D department. It was a particularly beautiful challenge, because, until then, I had been working in the American academia, and the idea of doing research that is not necessarily connected to university but to a museum or institution, opened up a lot of questions about what research is and might be. And that's basically what I've been doing in the last three years, in addition to other independent projects.

T: What was your first impression of Rotterdam as a city?

M: The first time I came here was in 2004-2005, during an exchange programme I did in Delft as a Erasmus student. At the same time I was working at an architectural office here in Rotterdam. My first impression was of an industrial, grey city - but also an exciting one.  There were a lot of spaces that were not per se regulated; there was an underground scene of music and culture that I found liberating and inspiring. Yet when I came back in 2015, I didn't find those places, at least at the beginning. I thought: maybe it's because I'm getting old, and I'm no longer in the know of what happens in the city. Or maybe is it because Rotterdam is no longer the port city that it was before and has made a transition towards the creative industries. In a way, it is true that Rotterdam has transformed its model for cultural production.

T: It's interesting; I've lived here for six years and I also have the feeling that the city has changed so much. In some cases for the better. But there are spaces that I miss.

M: Yeah, it is an interesting place where a lot of artists, designers and architects live and work. Rotterdam is a city in a continuous state of becoming something else. As if it is always waiting to make it, right? But it never fully arrives there. I think that is liberating in a way, being in a city that is is always experimenting and really trying to transform itself, and sometimes allowing itself also to fail. What I like the most about Rotterdam is that I have the feeling that it's a place where you can take risks - and if you fail, it's OK, you start over again. The built environment is also full of architectural experiments that you might find good or bad; but it still gives you that idea, that it's a testing ground - for new forms of living and working. That makes me feel excited about living here.

T: Is that also one of the thoughts behind your research project, 'Architecture of Appropriation’?

M: Maybe, yes! Although the project initiates from a political question. To say, we are working at Het Nieuwe Instituut, a national institute for design, architecture and e-culture. And we have a national archive or architecture. So my first question was "What is the archive telling about what we consider architecture, and who is included?" And a big percentage of the material we have is from male, renowned architects. What should be in the archive, that maybe in fifty years time, a person that goes to the archive understands what were the forces and the agents that are transforming the city now? And we feel that in that sense the archive is not complete. So we started to launch initiatives such as Feminism in Architecture or Queering the Archive. We started to look at forms of practice that are communal, instead of just singular figures in architecture. We started to look at places that were overlooked in terms of architecture history but yet are defining what we know as the Dutch landscape. For example greenhouses, or the harbours, it's infrastructures. And obviously we also looked at the squatting movement, as it has played a major role in the transformation of Dutch cities. For instance in the renovation or preservation of certain spaces. But also in the culture of imagining new forms of living, new forms of domestic spaces, new ideas about property and ownership. These practices have to be acknowledged, we thought, as they are extremely relevant for any conversation about the future, a collective future. And that’s how we proposed to include these spatial practices as part of the National Archive. It was, of course, a political project. I consider that Het Nieuwe Instituut has a responsibility, as an institution that depends on the ministry, to also recognize the importance of the squatting movement for the built environment. Especially since squatting was banned a few years ago. I wouldn't say it was an activistic position, because I'm not an activist; I'm more like a civil servant... But yet I believe that institutions can be very active and have a role in this conversation.

T: It's also fascinating to me that squatting culture in the Netherlands has become almost an institution in itself. I'm from Indonesia and I have never seen squatting quite like I've seen it here.

M: Yes, squatting has indeed been institutionalized here for a long time; and it used to be legal. This spatial practice boomed in the post-war period in European cities, such as Amsterdam, where the urban center was devastated, affected by economic crises and decay, and mostly vacant. In that situation, how are you going to tell someone who's looking for a home that you cannot use those existing infrastructures? There are spaces that are available, and people without homes. What is the priority then? The right to property or the right to housing? I believe, as the squatting movement does, in the right to housing before the right to property. Also, there are many conversations about affordable housing nowadays, and squatting is precisely a lens through which to look at the question in a more fundamental way, for instance to explore alternatives to the market oriented housing policies.

T: Where do you think the squatting movement will be in 10 - 20 years? It's getting harder and harder to do anything outside of the 'normal' way of living.

M: Well, I'm not a futurist, so I don't have any predictions to offer. But what I understand - what I recognize - is that there will always be alternative forms of living. There will be always people challenging the existing norms, existing conventions, and the existing rules. I believe that while some models may be in decay, other are emerging. I don't know what will happen to squatting, but it is clear that certain forms of sharing are becoming popular, even being normalized and commodified, as is the case of AirBnB - which I don't support - but it proves that we want to test other ways of living, other notions of domesticity that are not only based on private property, or the single-family home.

T: Let's talk about your connection to the Poortgebouw specifically. Did you know of it before you started this project?

M: No, actually, I didn't know about the Poortgebouw until we started to work on the project. We were looking for squats in the city and spaces that had been previously squatted, and we ended up at Poortgebouw. We immediately established a very good connection with the community, who became an important and indispensable part of the Architecture of Appropriation project. We have been in conversation with them since beginning; sharing our excitement about the project but also our concerns about what's at stake. There were questions, like why a cultural institution like ours should be working on spatial practices that have been illegal for years? And what does it mean for a national institute to establish a one-to-one conversation with these communities and cultural spaces whose practices are to a great extent precarious, illegal and often criminalized?, How can we make sure there are not power relations at play? Our aim was to have a genuine collaboration and, at the same time, to be aware what this collaboration entails for all the agents involved. So far it has been extremely productive and beautiful. I'm particularly interested in the fact that Poortebow is developing their own archive. It's no longer Het Nieuwe Instituut attempting to include the architecture result of the squatting movement as part of the National Archive, but the community of Poortgebouw is actually constructing, documenting its own history according to their own terms.

We have also organized a series of events with the Poortgebouw, including some lectures and dinners. And I every time I am there I feel at home. After only 2 years living here, for me it is still challenging to feel at home in the city. What I like about the Poortgebouw is that I always feel at home. And I think probably that's because it's a space that is continuously negotiated... it's a place where many people live together. They are used to be generous, welcoming, to have respect for each other, despite differences, and to learn how to live and make decisions together. And that's something that you feel immediately when you enter. I remember the first meeting we had there, we were sitting around the table discussing the project, while in the kitchen one of the inhabitants, who had recently arrived to the house, was cooking dinner. He was cooking for himself. He didn’t know any of us. But he brought the food to the table where we were sitting, and shared it with us.

Similarly, when we jointly organize events at the Poortgebouw, people come to us saying 'This was the best event organized by Het Nieuwe Instituut that we have ever attended!' Which is funny because of course it wasn't even held at the Nieuwe Institute. So it's a special place.

T: Yes, I experienced that for the first time last weekend, at their 37th birthday event. They had a movie, a dinner, a circus performance... it was great.

M: It's also interesting what the space tells about the spatial practices of the people living or who have lived there - about their different personalities, about their traces and stories.

T: Have you been to any similar places in Holland?

M: Yes, as part of the project we have visited quite a few places that are squatted, or used to be, or are in the process of being squatted. They are quite different as well, but in all the cases, our experience has been positive. For example, last week we were visiting a community in Groningen, who lived in what it was a former hospital and which, I think, houses around 200 people. It was inspiring to see how they live together. In addition to the bedrooms, they have a bar, a cinema, a series of exhibition spaces, and all the corridors, all the in between spaces, are public, their doors are completely open, day and night. These spaces open up possibilities to think about new ways of living together. Compare the model of the condominium, based on segregation, with a space like this one. It gives me hope, it shows that other cohabitation and urban models are definitely possible.

T: Do you have any advice for us on how to maximize the impact of our publication? For example with our audience - should we focus on the neighborhood around the Poortgebouw? The city?

M: That's a good question. We wanted to collaborate with Poortgebow because we recognize its relevance as a unique place of cultural production in the city. We have to invite as many people as possible to visit the place and learn more about their activities, their contribution to the city.

At the same time we must not forget that there are people living there, and for them, being there is a continuous, daily struggle. They are always in risk of eviction, they have to continuously negotiate the rent, they have to take care of maintenance of a building that is cataloged with almost no support. I agree with you that working within the neighborhood is important; that is important that the people in the area understands the importance of the Poortgebouw and give their support. At the same time we have to develop mechanisms by which we continue supporting the community living there. To make sure that the model of coexistence, or living together, that Poortgebouw represent, are maintained. And that is a bit more complicated. That requires legal advice, acknowledgement of the municipality, for instance. And that's why we entered this project. That’s why we use architecture representation as a tool, through these drawings, we think we can explain the importance of the Poortgebouw to another audience, and also facilitates the inclusion of a new perspective about squatting, and its relevance, within cultural, political and legal and forums. And that's why it's so important that your publication also reaches the politicians. It should be in the hands of the owner of the building, the state architects, the mayor of Rotterdam. It should be in the hands of the people who can guarantee that these types of places will not disappear, and that we are not subjecting every single space of this city to the logic of the market. In order to do that it's not enough that we have a cultural discussion. We can start with that, but ultimately it’s a political, legal, economic discussion. So your publication also has to reach those actors; it has to use some language that is able to interpellate those interlocutors.

T: How is your experience working with the people from the city, when it comes to projects like this?

M: The institute develops some programmes in collaboration with the municipality, including ‘Studio Rotterdam.’ Yet I’m not fully involved in that project..

T: I ask because we are planning to talk to some people from the municipality in Feijenoord, and we wonder how they view the Poortgebouw. Do they see it like we do, or is it totally different for them, do they see it as a problem?

M: Yes, you're right. I think it's our task to explain that the existence of Poortgebouw it's not a problem, but rather an important space for cultural production in the city. Given the long story of squatting in The Netherlands, it was a common spatial practice, even among some of politicians currently in office. Therefore, I hope that many people would recognize the value of these types of spaces. What is needed is that Rotterdam looks at the errors and the successes of other cities. I don't think Rotterdam should model itself as a development driven city, with high end restaurants and very expensive apartments. That’s not what the denizens of Rotterdam are proud of, and it's not what attracts people to this place. We have to keep the essence of this city, and I think the Poortgebouw is part of it.

Through the Architecture of Appropriation project, what we have tried to do is also to talk about squatting as a positive force for the city. We claim that we can learn from these spaces and these spatial practices. Unfortunately the results may not manifest immediately. I mean, we’ve collectively produced drawings and even letters in support of some squatted spaces in the Netherlands that were going through court cases, and facing eviction. Unfortunately, some of these cases were lost. Thus, even if we try to intercede and participate in these processes, using our institutional support, we weren’t fully successful and we have to keep on working, collaborating with lawyers, with polititians, with different social agents and create new alliances, new strategies, as well as awareness.

T: I hope so. I remember speaking to one former Poortgebouw inhabitant, who was also an architect. He told us stories about his drawings and plans for the garden of the Poortgebouw, and how he fought against the municipality that wanted to uproot the trees and pave the entire thing. In the end they did, and until now it still saddens him to see what could have been.

M: I see potential in those moments. Because there are many questions that could be asked to me, such as why is the Department of Research involved in this project? Are you practicing cultural appropriation? We are fully aware of the problematic at stake. Yet I think these alliances are valuable, as there are common goals that we can accomplish together. I could imagine that an institution such as Het Nieuwe Instituut could go hand in hand with the Poortgebouw to City Hall and propose a project to recover that garden. .

T: Yes, and from the stories I’ve heard from other former inhabitants, about how difficult it is to get any new building / renovation plans approved, I think they need all the support they can get when it comes to maintaining the physical building of the Poortgebouw.

M: Yes, it’s not enough to say that we have to support them. There should be some mechanisms that allow these spaces to be self-managed. In the case of the Poortgebouw, the community tried to generate income to maintain the house though the bar, the circus workshops, and the performances. However, for the development of these kind of commercial activities the municipality requests licenses, which Poortgebouw didn’t have . We have to recognize the social value of these spaces, where people that host people with a lower income to live there. Therefore, you cannot ask this same people to renovate these spaces without any other support. It’s either the municipality supports them, or they allow them to develop certain economies that bring some income, and make it possible to maintain the space. Otherwise it’s not viable. But generally, this is one of the many ways in which, historically, the regimes of power illegalized and dismantle these alternative spatial practices: by mobilizing questions of security, safety and health conditions. We have to be very aware of how power operates on that level, and when these safety and security regulations are applied from an ideological perspective, and when to actually protect and support the community..






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