The use of aesthetics in social housing

When I came to The Netherlands almost six years ago I found an apartment in one of the oldest social housing projects in the city of Amsterdam. Untill then I had the idea that social housing was only for people with a very low income and I had expected the buildings to be in a poor state and condition. Soon, however, I discovered that the Dutch social housing system provides a relatively high living standard for low and middle class households.

I got interested in finding out more about the building I was living in. The Planciusstraat project is considered to be the first large scale social housing building within Amsterdam, erected by the Vereeniging ten behoeve der Arbeidersklasse te Amsterdam, to provide decent housing for the working class. The building was renovated by wooncorporatie Ymere in 2006 and is now considered as a monument. What interested me was whether the building had retained its function. Who were the people living in these apartments nowadays? Were they aware of the particularities of the building and their surroundings? I wanted to find out to what degree social status was reflected in the way people had decorated their house. I approached all the neighbors personally and had a chat with them. I decided to make a website where people could post a few photos of the interior of their house.

My Planciusstraat project incited me to do more research on the history, present and future of social housing. In the beginning of the twentieth century, thanks to governmental support, private organizations were able to build ‘for the common good’. The peak of the production of social residences was between 1916 and 1925. The new subsidized housing blocks that were constructed were affordable and aesthetically attractive. Notably the Amsterdam School brought status to the concept of social housing. Then, during the years 1933 till 1939, the production of social residences decreased significantly. Moreover, during WWII many social housing blocks were destroyed or got severely damaged. Because of these reasons there was a huge demand for new dwellings during the post WWII reconstruction period. But the overwhelming demand, and the poor financial state of the country, led to a situation in which houses got constructed with relatively cheap material and little attention was given to the esthetic quality. The mass produced buildings were characterized by their soberness and functionalism. I am interested in particular how aesthetics were used in the context of social housing and how this changed over the years. There seems to be a big difference between the architectural quality of the buildings from the beginning of last century and the ones built more recently. I wonder how and to what degree aesthetics influences the inhabitants of social housing blocks and what role it plays in the emancipating developments of the lower and middle class. My proposal for No Academy is to create replicas of public sculptures that exist(ed) on and around different social residences in The Netherlands that were created in the first decades of the twentieth century. With my project I intend to investigate the value and function of ornaments and sculptures on buildings. Are they iconographical manifests and figurative symbols representing a certain zeitgeist or do they still affect the inhabitants? There are many examples of successful social housing projects made in the beginning of the twentieth century and many unsuccessful ones made after WWII. For this reason, I choose to make replicas of sculptures of the first period in order to indicate the fate of aestheticism for society’s sake. The replicas I will hold(HAND??) out may function as reminders of a favorable historical architecture that once fulfilled its expectations and got its message across. Making replicas of historical sculptures will create a way to imagine the future. They will create awareness towards the things we forget to remember. What visions do we want to keep and what kind of visions do we want to leave behind? I will start by replicating two sculptures, which are part of the buildings of the De Dageraad housing organization at the P.L Takstraat in Amsterdam (1919-1922). Inscribed on the bottom of these sculptures are two curved lines that devote the project to the Social Democratic alderman of that period Pieter Lodewijk Tak and to De Dageraad. On the bottom of my replicas I will place led displays with scrolling messages posted by the inhabitants. These messages will show the opinion of the people related to their house/building/environment and change according to the number of participants. The sculptures will turn from monuments of a socialistic ideology of the past into a manifestation of the new tendency: expressing the voice of the people. For the first time my work stems from intensive research. It makes me understand the context better and I can convey knowledge to the community I am going to work with. For me it is important to create circumstances in which people can reflect on the consistency or development of ideologies in relation to the aesthetics used in their direct surroundings.