Watery brownfields full of heavy metals and oil slicks
and toxic paint hardly seem like spaces ripe for development. There are bureaucracies to deal with first, chemicals to clean up, monitoring needed. That is, unless that brownfield happens to be a site so hopeless that the government says, “I give up,” and hands it over to a bunch of artists in houseboats.
That’s exactly what happened to De Ceuvel, a contaminated old shipyard in Amsterdam that the municipal government gave away for free in 2012. Whoever had a reasonable plan to return the shipyard a little cleaner in 10 years could take it. One more caveat: It also had to attract artists.
To Sascha Glasl, co-founder of design and architecture shop Space & Matter, the polluted dock sounded like a great opportunity. He figured that a cheap way to reinvent the space would be to take Amsterdam’s old, broken houseboats off people’s hands (you could buy a whole boat for a euro, Glasl says, because you’d be doing the owners a favor) and build an artist’s village around a boardwalk on-site. Meanwhile, a garden full of pollutant-filtering grasses would passively do the decontamination work over a decade.
“We won the competition, and then we had a problem,” Glasl laughs. “Because we had to realize the vision.”
Two years and nearly 100 landscape artists, collaborators, and sustainability consultants later, and De Ceuvel is open to the public. Glasl and friends were able to wrangle 16 houseboats, 14 of which are artists’ studios, onto 43,000 square feet of land. A boardwalk snakes through thickets of filtering grass monitored by environmental scientists from University of Ghent.
Glasl says he never anticipated how hip De Ceuvel would turn out to be. “At the opening there were 2,000 people celebrating with us,” he says. “Last week, I went to my hairdresser and people were asking me if I was planning on hanging out at De Ceuvel. I say, ‘Oh, I know a little something about it,'” he says.
That’s not to say getting the site ready for the public was easy. Glasl and his collaborators had to apply for a $250,000 grant as well as a $250,000 loan to develop the space. Originally, they hadn’t planned on turning a profit, because whatever revenue from the project would likely go back toward repaying the loan. Then, there was all the red tape to consider: Because Space & Matter would need special permits to spruce up the houseboats on land, the firm decided to rebuild the boats in water so they could avoid regulations. They then used cranes to hoist the boats back onto the contaminated turf.
Now, though, it looks like De Ceuvel might end up being profitable after all. It’s been such a success, Glasl says, that he doesn’t even want to give it back in 10 years. The sustainability consultants say that it would take at least three decades for the grasses to clean up the area completely, and Glasl hopes that if the De Ceuvel team does have to fork over the space, the government would keep the spirit of play alive.
“[The city] needs some places where you can experiment, where you can be easier with the rules to come up with innovation. History has shown us that other projects don’t build up social communities,” Glasl says. “My utmost goal is to keep that place as a playground.”
Glasl adds that projects like De Ceuvel can be replicated in other cities, as long as people are willing to look around at the resources they already have. For De Ceuvel, it was 16 rickety houseboats that would have otherwise gone into the scrap heap.