Monday, 24 March 2014

Common People

'Common People’, the greatest social commentary pop song ever written, is playing in the van as we head towards Eindhoven looking for the HQ of Drent Dorps, which we are told is a wooden building underneath a flyover. As it turns out it’s no ordinary wooden building underneath a flyover. This wooden building underneath a flyover was designed by Piet Hein Eek, who is one of Holland’s most respected designers. But more of that later.

Our host today is Wikke Peters; one of the Drent Dorps Angels project. There were three of them, these angels, all women, running all kinds of arts interventions on part of a site of a huge former Philips factory, that was built in 1922. I never realised they were a Dutch company. The first time I saw the name was on my father’s electric razor. They were responsible for making Eindoven what is it today, we are told, bringing together a series of little villages into a city that employed thousands of people to make its many products here on this site. There was cheap labour. And there was sand. Which was needed for the glass. For the lightbulbs. It was when they had pretty much exhausted the lightbulb market that they branched out into other projects. This is a landscape drenched with a history of innovation.

But Philips moved out in the 90’s, went to China and took the jobs with them. The local authority took over the site; then the architect Piet Hein Eek moved in (the later bit comes later); and housing associations took over the housing stock. Mr Philips was a paternalistic employer. He apparently had a fondness for Marx. (I remember seeing a statue of Marx in, I think, Vienna, standing in front of the Philishave HQ, which was what my dad’s electric razor was called). Eindhoven has always had a more left leaning attitude in local politics; the recent elections have returned someone with a ‘socialist leaning’; whatever that means these days.

Wikke and the Drent Dorps Angels create work to deal with a range of issues on this site where new people have moved in and which is going through a major process of change and redevelopment. There were three of them; one a writer/illustrator, one a designer, and one a theatremaker/photographer. Now there is only one. After three years the Housing Association doesn’t need them so much. The residents themselves have begun to initiate projects themselves. And so Wikki is the last angel standing.

In Dutch ‘angel’ also means a sting; like a bee’s sting. And the work they have been doing has been spiky; dealing with issues amongst the residents head on and in a really engaging and amusing manner. This place, Drent Dorps, a sector of the overall development, is an island, rows of houses surrounded by the former Philips factories that are currently in transition. The housing association who now own these properties and the tenants weren’t getting on; there was a lack of communication; a sense of distrust. Renovation of the factories was about to happen and there was concern about what was going to occur. People in Drent Dorps were co-existing but they weren’t connecting.

The Angels were employed by a Housing Corporation, but were allowed to keep their distance from them. They wanted (were asked?) to find out what residents wanted from their housing – which is all social here in Drent Dorps. What did these people want to happen in the area; what neighbourhood facilities did they want? Wikki mentions the word ‘social cohesion’, adding ‘but I hate that word; it sounds official’. I suggest that it’s maybe about investigating the ‘soul’ of the place and she agrees. It’s in part a search for the identity of Drent Dorps.

The Angels, all three of them, like Charlie’s, rang everybody’s bell first of all, to say hello. There are around five hundred and fifty door bells here in Drent Dorps. They went out on guerrilla flower planting and graffiti excursions. They gathered thoughts on how the renovation that was happening should proceed.

Some things didn’t work. Eindhoven is seen as a major design centre (more on this also later). Last year it was voted as the smartest region in the world, Wikki tells us, but I’m not sure what in exactly. But it’s to do with design. The angels had a designer come in to work with residents to contribute a product for the major Design Expo that is held in Eindhoven, centred around the ex-factory site, which is known as Strijp S. But she told the residents what they should make rather than seeing what they wanted to make and they weren’t having that. The Angels tried to set up committees to steer projects but they didn’t really work either.

But what did work was the fact that they were here, right in the heart of the neighbourhood. They were able to change plans as they went. To be lightfooted. And to feel able to make fools of themselves. And it’s this sense of fun that attracted me most to their work. The idea of simple projects that are are faintly ridiculous. So – there are issues with domestic pets; dogs, cats and, we were told by several people, with rabbits (they run about all over the place apparently; we never saw one). So the Angels held an Animal Roadshow where people could bring their pets to a red carpet. Another project involved a tattoo table where people could come and draw out their tattoos on a large sheet of paper and tell stories about why they got them and what they mean. There was a real sense of play in these projects. Of mischievousness even. (It’s how I’ve been approaching people on this trip. Assuming that they won’t mind me being, well, a bit cheeky. It’s how I always approach people. I think people understand it; mischief. It’s a game; it’s play and I think that people, deep down, understand play, however much it’s been kicked out of them).

Wikki told us that Housing Associations are now paying less for cultural activities; there’s a developing belief that this is not their job. But that the people who live in these neighbourhoods where there is a tradition of activity are beginning to understand this and are looking for how they can raise money for themselves.

Tijs Rooijakkers comes to talk to us and shows us some images of a beautiful project he has been doing with a rapper called Fresku. Fresku, who is to rap in Holland what Pietr Hein Eek is to design (this still isn’t the later bit), writes on strips of wood which Tijs then bends and shapes into fantastic structures. (Have a look at a really great film about this on After doing the first of these he developed the project further in Woensel, where a designers collective called Tante Netty live, making interventions in the area. They have made and given out bird houses. They have painted the houses that have been left empty before they are demolished as redevelopment happens. When they think of something, Tijs says, they just do it.

They are trusted now. They are embedded.

Tijs work in Woensel has been to continue with the idea of people writing on slats of wood, only these are written on by people who live there, and rather than being in an art gallery they are hanging in the trees. There are ten different areas in Woensel with over 700 slats suspended up above the heads of those that live there. He doesn’t call himself a community artist. It’s about power. He knows that he is making the work, the decisions; and that those who contribute are adding to something that he is making. 

And then a new word appears; almost out of the blue. Co-design. This is the term that the community artists and designers and social policy people appear to use. And there is a lot of it, this co-design. We walk past an empty tract of land that is designated as Space S where housing is to be built. There are co-design sessions where architects come to talk to potential residents about what they want to see in the new dwellings that will be put there. Four hundred ‘units’; around one hundred and fifty for students and some for the elderly. They have a Facebook page with around six hundred people conversing on it. People will be chosen to live in the new buildings on their level of participation. The more comments and likes you can get in the more chance you can live on this site where my Dad’s razor was probably made.

We go to a café to see Ingrid van der Wecht. She is an arch evangelist for co-design and is the Project Manager for Capital D. I’m not quite sure what she does. One of the projects she is involved in is called Proud, which stands for People Researchers Organisations Using Design. The door of their offices say Design / Cooperation / Brainport. It’s back to this idea about Eindhoven being very smart. Because of the innovation of the Philips factory. Where the people of Eindhoven used to work.

There’s something nagging at me. And it’s connected to Piet Hein Eek; the designer who is based here; who struck a great deal with the local authority. His work is made here; his show rooms are here; you can buy his stuff. It uses reclaimed materials. It is great. And hugely expensive. He rents out space to artists and designers. The café we go to for lunch is run by something called The Robin Hood project, a Jamie Oliver type thing where the unemployed work in restaurants that most of their friends probably can’t afford to come to. The restaurant we are shown, as we continue to walk around this huge ex industrial site, now a home for new tenants and those mainly employed in design, is one of those cavernous spaces with untreated walls. There are huge slabs of machinery and old radiograms. It is shabby chic at its shabbiest and at its chicest. It is, I suggest to Wikki, a temple of the middle class aesthetic; one that I recognise from the UK. ‘Where are the greasy spoons?’ I ask; ‘are they not allowed on this site?’ They are at the edges, she tells me, knowing exactly what I mean. The people who once worked here are not the kind of people that are being enticed onto this new site. (Wikki told us that many of the people that come to the Drent Dorps HQ don’t like the building. Even if it was built by some fancy well known designer. Like Piet Hein Eek).

And so, I ask Ingrid, from Capital D, is this design that you talk about basically all interior design; that cult that allows people to sink further and further into their own houses, the exact opposite of what perhaps they are trying to do here? But I am not understanding the situation at all. There is interior design, there is product design, there is housing design, there is scientific design. The first Television broadcast in the world was made on this site and now this is providing a vision for the future.

(I’ve just had a look and Brainport, which is actually yet another region in Eindhoven is ‘according to the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) the world’s smartest region in 2011, and a top technology breeding ground for innovation and home to world-class businesses, knowledge institutes and research institutions. Together they design and manufacture the technology of the future to ensure a safe, green and caring society and sustainable economic development of the Netherlands. The five focal sectors of Brainport Eindhoven region are High Tech Systems & Materials, Food, Automotive, Lifetec and Design’. So that’s told me).

There is lots that is great about it; but there’s something that I’m not quite comfortable with. Maybe it’s something to do with ‘Common People’, the song that we bounced along to on the way here. Maybe it’s because I have a sneaking fear that however much co-designing is done, there will be issues of taste, that are really badges of class, that may be a bridge too far for those who have the future in their sights. That those who live on the edges, where the Angels have been doing their work, will never truly be let in to the place where they once spent their working lives and made it the area of innovation that it became. But then again maybe I don't really understand what is happening here at all.

You'll never live like common people / You'll never do what common people do / You'll never fail like common people / You'll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw / Because there's nothing else to do.

Andy Barrett

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