The Place As A Protagonist
Dutch artist Wendelien Van Oldenborgh takes buildings or places as subject matter and makes films around them, inviting past and present users to chat about their experiences on camera. In treating these places as a protagonist in the process, the result was a sort of script-less, no beginning no ending, quasi-documentary, art film.
Beauty And The Right To The Ugly (2014) was a film about Het Karregat (1974), an open plan, Dutch community center in Eindhoven which mixed all sorts of incompatible uses together. In the film, previous and current users, students, teachers, architects and planners were invited to discuss their memories of the place. That a bar, a school, a library and a bank would be placed under one roof without partition walls between them might seem baffling, which is why Wendelien Van Oldenborgh wanted to film it . Later scenes would depict more private moments within the building or its lack thereof, as sound is carried unimpeded throughout the roof.
Aside from the effects of what life was like for the users in this building, the underlying question of the film is; if this was a social experiment conducted by the city government, a search for a ‘utopia’ which might seem somewhat absurd nowadays, why did they do this? What was the vision that was so desirable to them to want to see it succeed?
The Open Plan
The idea of the open plan, where undelineated space flows effortlessly from one to another, has existed since the avant-garde of the 1920’s in projects such as the 1929 Barcelona Expo German Pavilion by Mies Van Der Rohe. Mies would take the open plan idea and incorporate it to larger spaces in the Crown Hall (1956) project on the Chicago IIT campus. There students sat in open studios separated by partitions, under a huge flat roof, humming with their activity.
But it would take the eccentric Cedric Price’s Fun Palace (1964), a mixed-use museum without exterior walls, where anyone could engage in any recreational activity for ‘self-discovery’ whenever they wanted, to take the open plan to new heights. A ‘laboratory of fun’ as he called it, here roof mounted cranes would allow modularized rooms to easily change size and location.
However compared with the Het Karregat, the Fun Palace did have walls, even if they were all movable. The distinct uses envisioned there were separated and enclosed by rooms. The Karregat therefore couldn’t have been modeled after the Fun Palace or otherwise there would be cranes and movable rooms everywhere.
There must have been something in the late 1960’s that caused people to have so much fun, some sort of unbridled happiness, spurred on by some ideology to carry out and believe in this sort of design. What was it?
The cuban missile crisis of 1961, the prevalent ‘we’re all going to die’ narrative, JFK’s assassination in 1963 and a bewildering, napalm fuelled Vietnam War caused many young people to become disillusioned and create what’s known as the ‘Counter Culture’. These ‘hip people’ rejected everything that they had been taught and sought to, in their own minds, live an enlightened life. They sought out like-minded people who were anti-establishment, anti-war and pro rock’n’roll, most of whom experimented with recreational drugs, to be connected together.
Out of the curvy, sexually liberated, LSD induced, rainbow colored ‘psychedelic’ aesthetic, the swinging 60’s would turn out to be a renaissance of pop culture. It became a confluence of radical new ideas in art, music, film, philosophy and literature. This was enabled by a new class of bohemian people, who had a lot of spare time and questioned everything. But within this movement, other social issues such as discrimination, environmental and anti-poverty issues were illuminated as young people began to shape a more tolerant, inclusive society.
Soon the hard-core counter-culturalists felt they needed to start living together in communes for ideological progress. Often in isolated, rural locations, they sought to create a self-sufficient, caring society, unhindered by conventional concerns, that gathered once in a while in various music or hippie festivals, such as the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
What startled everyone, was how well behaved these ‘hippies’ were. With almost 400,000 people showing up, organizers feared potential riots, robbing, raping and all sorts of criminal activity. But as it turned out, these young people were searching for something else; something as simple as love and peace, which showed how misunderstood they were. It was the idealistic hope displayed here, through 3 days and rainy nights of music, combined with Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech earlier in 1963, that galvanized some of the ‘grown ups’ to action.
Beauty And The Right To The Ugly
Thus the Karregat Community Center carried a vision of Woodstock within its DNA; a noble vision of social harmony, which drew loads of visitors even from foreign countries to marvel at this new idea, until it fell apart at the seams. This phenomenon was sarcastically ‘rapped’ in a song at the beginning of the film which set the tone for the remainder of it.
Divided into 3 main parts, the film would first show an overview of the place and how partition walls subsequently installed in 1978 awkwardly blocked certain areas off, preventing easy navigation. Interlaced within this, a group discussion reminiscing on how it was before, between present and previous users and planners was shown. Ending on the theme of walls, a tractor knocks down a partition wall to the school.
The next part would show the opposing viewpoints; those who hated it, the teachers who felt like they were left to ‘sink or swim’ by the city officials and the man who was able to adapt to the dynamic environment and use this knowledge to develop innovative new ideas for business productivity later.
In the final part, some of the current users were invited to become actors and express how they felt about the place. In one such instance, a man lies down in the middle of a corridor, and his girlfriend comes and picks him up to go together and ‘have it off’ in what looks to be a cafe with a photo studio room and ping pong table that actually functions as their ‘living room’ since they are caretakers or what’s known as ‘anti-squat’.
What may not be apparent that the film tries to portray, is all the contradictions in the place; the building is like a gold mine that keeps giving (issues to think about) as long as one digs deep enough. Here, a place that was supposed to be a model of social harmony and learning, turned out to be a pariah in the neighborhood because of the inherent freedoms contained within and is even described as dangerous by some.
Several ‘anti-squatters’ were employed to live in various places like the cafe, daycare center and library to prevent squatters from taking over, which, combined with the way they have to make do, is almost like paying a decent squatter to squat.
The open school and the community center itself, which was in effect a town plaza with a roof over it, embodied the concept of ‘homoludens’; the importance of play for the well being of culture. That people were encouraged to ‘hang out’ here shows how different the mentality in the 1970’s was at the time, which partly answers the view why life ‘seems better in those days’. Nowadays people are discouraged from staying in a public place too long, especially without buying something, which brings up the issue of what a public place is really used for.
And it doesn’t even stop there. For now are we encouraged to avoid direct contact with others through various forms of escapism, and when we must deal with someone, an invisible ‘social etiquette’ dictates that we shouldn’t call them directly, which would ‘intrude’ and is ‘uncool’, but to use a text messaging app.
The title of the film ‘Beauty And The Right To The Ugly’ is taken from the title of Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi’s 1981 exhibition which displayed her SESC Pompeia Leisure building in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Why Wendelien Van Oldenborgh chose this title is a bit baffling, for Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompeia building is widely accepted as a successful, socially inclusive building for multiple types of leisure while the Karregat is not.
For the title seems to critique what was considered ‘beautiful’ back then, which was to do away with the old and use expensive materials but to do what was conventionally considered ‘the ugly’, which might not be so ugly after all. ‘The right’ here, could mean ‘the correct (way)’, but I’m assuming it means entitlement; ‘I have a right to use (what you think is) the ugly’.
At the SESC Pompeia, the old ‘ugly’ factory buildings would be kept, and by exposing the old brick walls juxtaposed with polished concrete floors, they would illustrate a new ‘post-industrial’ aesthetic (not so sure I like the rough concrete finish of the towers though).
At the Karregat however, the initial ‘splendor’ of the design, of being able to see through the space and easily navigate as well as the shiny new air ducts and railings has been lost with all the partition walls installed in 1978. Everybody except for a few, seems to be glad to have left the place. What would be the beauty and what would be the ugly? Could it be that when it first opened, when people were forced to interact, to deal with each other to hang out, that it was actually beautiful thing, and not as ugly as portrayed by some?