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ZUS: ‘the end is not the end’

1 luchtsingel top roundabout zus © ossip van duivenbode

ZUS remain resilient and resistant under the threat of reflex demolition, marking out their own spaces for the city in unsolicited projects that bring life to areas made static by the city’s speculative value

A man in milky white coveralls leans atop a ladder, touching up the painted wall that surrounds a gleaming pink portal below him. A door swung wide reveals a bubblegum floor and a matching pink-and-palm-tree proposal for a public square at Rotterdam’s Delftsehof, laid large on a back wall. Above the man, the words ‘incomplete unfinished’ hum in bright white neon. 

Printed across the back cover of the new book by ZUS (Zones Urbaines Sensibles), this image stands insistent against the necessity of the final page. Split between essays, their own manifesto-statements, projects and journal entries detailing their passage through the last 18 years, the book forms a critical history of ZUS’s engagement with their urban environment, gazing at the city through their particular lens of pragmatic opportunism. Their neon motto opens the door to a praxis of trial and error, responsive to instability and liable to change; along the spine, we are introduced to the City of Permanent Temporality.

18 copt backcover spine lz

18 copt backcover spine lz

Courtesy of ZUS

‘Permanent temporality’ is a state created by sustainable urban development, with recognition of the city’s essential nature. Declaring the city’s fickle biorhythmic time as inescapable, as all-time, ZUS draws attention to the folly of the masterplan in all its finality, and speaks to a method of planning persistently, as ‘a focused thinking-on-your-feet’. The city is developed, permanently, through temporary interventions – incremental gains on existing conditions, rather than a policy of bulldoze-and-rebuild. 

Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman started ZUS while still studying, moving in 2000 from the stable and staid Arnhem to set up shop in an abandoned postwar office building on the Schiekade in Rotterdam. This ambiguously labelled ‘development area’ near Centraal train station has been characterised by an ongoing futurism: there has persisted an attitude of inevitability towards eventual densification, combined with a lack of investment and lack of interest in the area’s interim life – if not strategised neglect. 

17 luchtsingel delftse passage © ossip van duivenbode

17 luchtsingel delftse passage © ossip van duivenbode

The Super Zebra links the central station with the Schieblock via Delftse Passage, a cut that connects the Delftsehof to the station without total demolition. Photograph by Ossip van Duivenbode

Warding off plans to level their near-vacant building for the sake of speculative market value, ZUS initiated its renovation – levering a stack of contracts of intention to lease against a €1.5 million investment, they turned it instead into the ‘Schieblock’: six floors of central, flexible rental space modelled as an incubator for young creative entrepreneurial types. They began this regeneration in 2009, in the midst of the economic crisis; the realism in their understanding of the impact of market forces on both public and private construction is outmatched only by an astonishingly expansive vision of what it is nevertheless possible to do. 

A further example of this is the Luchtsingel, another ‘unsolicited’ project, declared the first crowdfunded piece of public infrastructure. A bright-yellow, 400m pedestrian bridge reconnecting the stranded islands of central Rotterdam, it shoots out of the Schieblock, over a six-lane arterial road and a railway, reaching out towards the old centre.

The fun and sunny appearance of the Luchtsingel belies its gravity, as a serious contribution to pedestrian life and in its empowering potential as a replicable model for emergent or ground-up urbanisms. The Crimson Architectural Historians raise the problem, however, that this model might become an excuse for a shrinking government to shift responsibility for civic development and maintenance to its citizenry – who, frankly, have enough to cope with, without municipal duties.

2 luchtsingel bridseyeview east © ossip van duivenbode

2 luchtsingel bridseyeview east © ossip van duivenbode

The light arm of the Luchtsingel bursts straight through the Schieblock, fanning out as it descends to the site of the popular Biergarten. Photograph by Ossip van Duivenbode

We are left in a bind: it is hardly a promising option to go limp, allowing the razing, displacement and homogenisation to go unfettered. ZUS’s methodological language offers some hope. It is reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s ‘making do’, involving tactics that fleet, slip between the cracks, just as the institutional walls begin to close in. There is an associated temporality in this, a sustained engagement of reassessment and correction of which ZUS also speaks. Still, there looms the prospect that one’s work might never be done. 

In 2017, speculation over the future of this patch of central Rotterdam resurfaced in earnest. Management of the Schieblock had since been passed on; responsibility for the Luchtsingel had been transferred to the municipality and it had been declared a permanent structure. As questions of carpet demolition re-emerged, however, ZUS returned to the conversation, inviting debate with proposals for the humane densification of the neighbouring Delftsehof. We don’t know what happens next; the book closes on speculation. In the words of ZUS, ‘the end is not the end’.

Lead image: the Luchtsingel roundabout. Photograph by Ossip van Duivenbode

This piece is featured in the AR February 2019 issue on Failure – click here to purchase your copy today