Moving towards the ideal of compact, transit-oriented, efficient and sustainable cities is not at all about new designs and technologies. If at all, it entails much thinking about retrofitting and re-using existing spaces and structures in interesting and useful ways. In recent times, we’ve been seeing instances of more tolerant attitudes towards squatters-people who occupy vacant spaces usually through organized grassroots mechanisms-in European cities.
In Amsterdam, the city has reached out to former squatters and professionals to set up systems to negotiate leases with owners so unused spaces can be turned into low-rent or even rent-free spaces for artists or as business incubators (read here). I’ve always been fascinated by instances in which formal and legal institutions engage with the informal (and often illegal) to create something in between. Something quasi that is granted, if only temporarily, a legit status in order to serve a need or create an interesting situation, add flavour to our cities. The constant pull and push between formality and informality, I believe, creates a delicious tension. A frisson almost, that creates a sense of surprise and delight.
On my too-short trip to Paris early November, the highlight was the few hours spent at a legalised artists squat at 59, Rivoli. On the recommendation of my friend Valerie’s daughter, we made it a point to put this on our list of sights on my one day of sight-seeing in Paris. The place was a sheer delight. A number of artists were in residence, all different styles (you can apply to go if you are an artist). The atmosphere of freedom and departure from rules was liberating, even as the spaces were well organized and managed. Chaotic and grungy, but far from the filthy grimy places that squats are imagined to be, neither Valerie nor me wanted to leave. You can spend hours watch the artists at work or you can walk through, you can chat with them and ask questions and of course, you can buy their art too!
59 Rivoli has been in existence since 1999 and Paris is now expanding the concept to take over more empty buildings to create such artist spaces. It’s very heartening indeed, for what is urbanity (or indeed life) without a chance to enjoy the alternative?
I’ve visited Amsterdam’s major landmarks iteratively and the Rijksmuseum has been a family favourite, home as it is to some of the most stunning works of famous Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. This time though, my trip was dedicated to discovering the results of the major rehaul the museum has been through, planned since 2000 and finally executed between 2004 and 2012!
This is a landmark building through which a zillion cyclists ride each day, that shows it’s severe face to the city and it’s fun side to the open grounds called the Museumplein. The beautifully detailed magnificent masterpiece was designed by Peter Cuypers over 125 years ago and has been a museum since. It was heartening to see that the renovation had aimed to restore it to its original Cuypers design and detail even as the atrium that links its two parts has got a modern twist and a slew of technological advancements to better preserve its precious artworks put in place.
Through my visit, my eyes were riveted by the elegant proportions, exquisite brick detail and stained glass lobby. Most fascinating was the library where Cuypers work has been best showcased. Hats off to Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz for their marvellously sensitive and meticulous work.
Of course, on a crowded Saturday, any attempt to see a museums artworks at leisure is a futile one. Still, I swung by the particularly well renovated Gallery of Honour and saw the crowd that was milling around Rembrandt’s famous ‘The Night Watchman’, then detoured to see my beloved Vermeers with a little more peace. Finally, I wandered through a few more galleries paying particular attention to the section on the East Indies, seeing Dutch colonialism in a new light post my Indonesia wanderings.
Stepping out into a drizzle and watching tourists enjoy themselves straddled across the giant ‘I am Amsterdam’ installation at Museumplein, I felt fortunate for this afternoon of alone time in the Rijksmuseum, the moments of contemplation and admiration, and most of all an appreciation for a culture that genuinely treasures its material history and celebrates it with no holds barred!
When you are in Holland, you always run the risk of rain! It’s the place that people always complain about the weather and the No. 1 nemesis for outdoors fun is the rain. And so, we thought it imperative to have other tricks up our sleeve the day we decided to wander around the streets of Amsterdam.
Plan B had to be put into action the minute we stepped out of the Central Station. Through the drizzle, we walked to the building I’ve always been curious about, but never been to- the strange maritime structure designed by Renzo Piano that houses the Science Center Nemo.
The children probably didn’t know what to expect, but they were delighted the second they stepped into a hall full of light, friendly volunteers helping them out with all sorts of simple science experiments and the promise of endless discoveries beyond.
Started way back in 1923, the museum took its present avatar, moving into the new building, in 1997 and has since become the 5th most visited museum in The Netherlands (the country has a plethora of museums and many world-renowned ones!). The interior is gigantic, with several levels that can engage children starting with toddlers going all the way up to teenagers. Udai and Aadyaa, who have become avid museum goers, tried most things out despite the crowd. It seemed like everyone had the same idea as us to shelter from the rain, plus it was a weekend. We were in there for hours, but I was the only one who got slightly bored out there. For Rahul and the kids, pressing buttons and making stuff, reading things and playing little games, taking on challenges and giggling, all of it was endlessly fascinating. It was a tough place for a photographer, the light being very strange, but I tried and here are some clicks that hopefully show how amazing the experience was.
We left the museum only to realise the sun was out! As we walked away, I looked back to click one last picture of Renzo Piano’s creation. Here you can see the crowning glory of the structure, the large terraced roof that offers stunning views of Amsterdam and is, in itself, quite a sight!