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At first glance, the interior of the Dutch pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale seems like a whole lot of nothing. But venture upstairs, and an entire hidden vacant city awaits… 

By Jeanne Tan / 02-09-2010

The entrance hall of the Dutch Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale is totally empty. Not a flashy architectural scale-model, drawing or poster in sight. Where’s the architecture you might ask? Did I walk inside the wrong pavilion? The emptiness is a clue to the theme of the Dutch contribution and the suspended blue grid ceiling promises to reveal more.

Instead of showcasing the latest brand-spanking new architecture and urban design of The Netherlands, this year’s Dutch contribution takes a rather unconventional and unexpected look at the profession. The Dutch Pavilion ‘Vacant NL, where architecture meets ideas’ makes a plea to the government for the intelligent reuse of temporarily vacant buildings and calls for architects and designers to help set the ball in motion.

Housed in a Rietveld designed building – itself empty for more than 39 years – the exhibition is curated by Rietveld Landscape who were commissioned by the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) to explore how landscape architecture could help resolve complex issues faced by society today. Their proposal, was to highlight the potential of temporarily vacant buildings in helping The Netherlands become of the top-five knowledge economies in the world. Basically, help foster young talents from the creative, technology and science sectors by giving them access to temporary and affordable workspace through reuse of temporarily empty buildings.

For some reason or other  - permits, development delays etc – these buildings are unoccupied for weeks, some months, often stretching into years. Space-wise - and environmentally - in a densely populated country like The Netherlands, reuse is a smart way to maximise the buildings that already exist and adds value to what some might see as disused or abandoned. Staying empty is expensive too: one of the Netherlands most iconic buildings Radio Kootwijk costs around €200,000 per year. "We show that the design capacity is not confined to new buildings, but can also be found in reuse. Architecture is not just about new buildings for old functions, but also new functions in old buildings," comments Ole Bouman, director of the NAi.

Upon entering, visitors are confronted by an empty exhibition space. An intriguing suspended ceiling of a blue foam grid indicates there’s more. Exploring the space will reveal a staircase at the back that leads up to something hidden. Once upstairs, the blue grid reveals itself to be an impressive landscape comprising 4326 scale models of vacant buildings in The Netherlands all made from blue foam. “From the entry on level 0, the first thing that strikes you when you enter the pavilion is that it seems to be empty. Our inspiration for the form of the blue ceiling comes from images of the most recent innovative microchips,” explain Ronald & Erik Rietveld. “On +1 level, one sees at a glance the giant quantity of inspiring, vacant Buildings in NL. A special feature is that there is a vast number of temporarily free spaces that are not monotonous, but are very diverse because the buildings were once designed for a specific purpose: lighthouses, hospitals, water towers, factory buildings, airports, hangars, offices, forts, bunkers, schools, swimming pools and many more.” There’s even the Mayor’s house in Amsterdam which is temporarily unoccupied because the current Mayor is quite content to keep living in his own home. Opposite the blue landscape, an artpiece by Barbara Visser illustrates the potential of vacant property, making connections between architecture, professional expertise and societal issues. Designed by Joost Grootens, the ‘Dutch Atlas of Vacancy’ invites visitors to imagine the diverse possibilities of how these empty buildings could be used. For the exhibition, Rietveld Landscape focused on more cultural, unique buildings rather than office or corporate buildings.

‘Vacant NL’ was created by a diverse multidisciplinary team. “As curator Rietveld Landscape put together a multidisciplinary team to design the installation, consisting of people with an interest in the innovative potential of vacant property and international experience in the creative industry: Jurgen Bey (designer), Joost Grootens (graphic designer), Ronald Rietveld (landscape architect), Erik Rietveld (philosopher/economist), Saskia van Stein (curator NAI), and Barbara Visser (artist). Landstra & De Vries and Claus Wiersma (designer) are responsible for the construction of the exhibition.”

Ronald Rietveld: “We hope that the installation will inspire people and trigger a more ambitious way of thinking about the potential of temporary reuse. We also hope that the new Minister of Innovation will see that good spatial conditions are of inestimable value in the creative knowledge economy.” No doubt young Dutch designers will jump at the thought of being able to access more affordable studio space; Let’s hope that the coonfronting stillness and 'vacantness' of the exhibition makes enough noise so that the right people up there hear this message loud and clear.

The Venice Architecture Biennale takes place from 29 August to 21 November 2010. ‘Vacant NL, where architecture meets ideas’ forms part of the NAI innovation agenda called Architecture of Consequence.

Photography: Rob 't Hart

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