A/D/O by MINI | Space & Matter's canal communities

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Architecture

Space & Matter's canal communities

From a floating neighborhood to a hotel in former bridge houses, this Amsterdam architecture office wants to empower us to build our own homes and communities.

Just across from architect Marthijn Pool’s office in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Amsterdam Noord, contractors are putting the finishing touches to a lively assortment of floating homes designed by his bureau, Space & Matter.

Several families have already moved into Schoonschip, as the new community is called. Unlike most developer-driven projects, Schoonschip was initiated by a group of enthusiasts based on their shared dream of living on the water, sustainably and off the grid. The group found Space & Matter – “they came along to a presentation we gave, and we started talking,” said Pool – and the community and the architects built the development of 46 floating villas together.

The Schoonschip floating neighborhood in Amsterdam. Photo by Isabel Nabuurs

“Our philosophy at Space & Matter is: if the city doesn’t meet your needs, why not create your own plan?” Pool told The Journal. Naturally, the work involved can exceed a typical architect’s brief. “We helped the Schoonschip group translate their shared vision into reality, and that meant creating a manifesto, a community, a legal entity, crowdfunding, lobbying the municipality, and acquiring the plot.” 

In this case, the plot is an expanse of water on a formerly industrial canal. “Water is highly symbolic when you want to step out of the system,” said Pool. “Schoonschip is independent of all land infrastructure. Each house is insulated and equipped with solar panels. They are heated by water pumps which extract heat from the canal water. There’s just one connection to the national energy grid, through which residents can trade their generated solar power. Each home has a battery that stores the energy surplus. Wastewater from toilets and showers is treated separately and converted back into energy.”

Space & Matter converted a former office building into the JFK Smartlofts

Schoonschip (schoon means both clean and beautiful, while schip is ship) is also sustainable in a social sense. “The residents plan to share a fleet of electric vehicles, rather than having personal automobiles, and a food cooperative is also in the works,.” Pool added. Communal spaces – a floating garden and a playground - will be added in the future. The community will have its own currency (earned by selling its excess energy) that can be spent in certain local businesses.

While each of the floating Schoonschip homes has been customized, leading to a pleasant variety of structures, for Space & Matter this is hardly optimal. “It adds to the costs,” said Pool. “In the future, by using a modular system, we hope to make this kind of living more affordable and accessible – for us, it’s all about standardizing the process.” The cost of a home in a community like this is reduced since a developer’s profits don’t need to be considered, yet Pool reckons that living off the grid in the city accounts for 20% of the price-tag. “But then you are independent and self-governing,” he said.

Sweets Hotel occupies former bridge houses, like Amstelschutsluis. Photo by Mirjam Bleeker

Space & Matter came to the Schoonschip project with considerable experience in alternative models of living, a strategy it initially tested with an apartment building project called JFK Smartlofts. “We took a former office building, added a floor and turned it into 36 different apartments, ranging from 28 to 220 square meters,” said Pool. “We also added a communal roof terrace and guest apartments, at the residents’ request.”

On this project, the office developed its community building process. “We open up the design process,” he explained. “We have the residents join us from the first meeting. They provide the input, we ground it in a realizable plan.”

Sweets Hotel was created in partnership with Amsterdam's Lloyd Hotel

The office’s sibling company is Crowdbuilding, a digital platform on which groups can build their own community using various digital tools. When they are ready, the groups can turn their plans into reality with Space&Matter. “The groups can identify important values that the members share, and use those to increase value and reduce cost,” said Pool. “For example, they might choose to have a communal fitness space or laundry, rather than everyone having their own gym membership or washing machine.”

“Our society today is highly individualized,” he continued, “yet it’s also more networked than ever before. The question we are asking is, can we take this networking behavior from social media and use it for architecture? So, if I like cooking and I can find 19 other people who also like cooking, why don’t we build our own apartments complete with a shared cooking studio?”

Each of the hotel suites is located on canals spread across the city. Photo by Mirjam Bleeker

Space & Matter was founded by Pool together with Tjeert Haccou (they met as architecture students) and Sasha Glasl (a colleague of Haccou’s) in 2009. “It was the midst of the financial crisis,” said Pool. “We had no clients and there was no demand for architecture. So we thought, well, we have lots of questions, let’s answer them ourselves. We were thinking about hotels, and how you choose a hotel by its neighborhood – so then we had this idea for a distributed hotel, with multiple locations across the city.”

While talking to the municipality about empty real estate, they learned about Amsterdam’s soon-to-be-redundant bridge houses. Once occupied by bridge keepers who were then being replaced by a centralized system, the bridge houses represented 150 years of architectural history and occupied stunning canal locations – perfect for the distributed hotel Space & Matter had in mind.

The office set out to document the bridge houses, producing a guidebook, and partnered with Amsterdam’s popular Lloyd Hotel to create Sweets Hotel. The project is almost complete, yet “it isn’t much to do with architecture,” Pool said. “For us it was more about branding and funding models, and a way of exploring our own ideas.”

The hotel room interiors are as varied as the structures they occupy. Photo by Mirjam Bleeker

De Ceuvel, a quirky pop-up development of affordable spaces for artists and others, shows a similar inventiveness. In a formerly industrial area of Amsterdam, Space & Matter acquired a site on a 10-year lease – for free, as the land was polluted. “We have to clean up the soil so we planted it with plants that will reduce pollution,” said Pool. Raised walkways meander over the site, which is dotted with reclaimed houseboats.

“We got those for free too,” he added. “They are rented out at a very affordable rent, but residents have to invest a certain amount of time in the community – for example, by renovating the boats and making them energy neutral. After 10 years, the cleaned-up land goes back to the municipality and the houseboats will sail away in an armada to a new location. Meanwhile, we’ve built up the value of the site and the houseboats by investing capital and time.”

De Ceuvel is a pop-up development of affordable spaces. Photo by Martijn Van Wijk

Thanks to this imaginative approach, Space & Matter and Crowdbuilding have grown from an office of three to 21 people today. However, Pool denies that they are carving out a new role for architecture. “It works for us,” he said. “But other architects can do other things. Our work isn’t about ‘iconic’ architecture. People can survive without architecture, but giving them what they want drastically changes things.” Space&Matter’s mission is “to empower citizens, build communities, and develop prototypes – both products and processes,” he added. “Everyone has the right to their own place in the city.”

Text by Jane Szita.

Images courtesy of Space & Matter.

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