'RAUM der Lusten' - photo: Ossip Architectuur Fotografie

Co-creating the city – in conversation with RAUM

Issue no2
apr-mei 2023
de horror, de horror! + cookbook + metropolis m boeken/books #2

Nestled in the relatively newly built neighbourhood Leidsche Rijn in Utrecht, ‘city-lab’ RAUM projects a futuristic vision of an active city-community. RAUM der Lusten –currently on view– is the latest result of this on-going communal reconsideration of public space. Alyxandra Westwood visits RAUM and meets with its director Donica Buisman.

How do we value and use public space in the city? Considering how all necessary elements must come together in order to form a welcoming space for the diverse publics of our contemporary cities, designing social space seems to be a difficult feat. Enabling city inhabitants to respond to, and critique, the ways in which communal spaces are changing around them is of huge importance. After all, people use public space in different ways, and these diverse perspectives all have places in the fabric of our communities.

This being said, city councils have done just the opposite, says director and co-founder of RAUM Donica Buisman. By decreasing the appeal of a large majority of urban spaces and diminishing facilities like benches and rubbish bins, they have continued to undermine these locations as congenial social destinations. Such seemingly small gestures encapsulate the essence of executive decision-making over public space, primarily in the name of ‘public safety’. While this may be well intended, it highlights how connections to local communities can, and do, break down. What cost does this pose to the inter-relationships between locals within the community? And what would happen if communities reversed these actions and redefined public space in their own terms as an ongoing project?

These are some of the major questions which RAUM, a cultural organisation and self-proclaimed ‘city-lab’ located on the Berlijnplein in Leidsche Rijn, Utrecht, holds at its core. The ethos of RAUM balances between making space more inclusive for a wider audience and posing critical questions which make us aware about what it means to co-inhabit urban space in a sustainable and inclusive way. RAUM is part of a new movement of cultural organisations in the Netherlands that work in collaboration with city councils to innovate the way in which we consider and use public space, while accommodating the increasing density of our cities.

RAUM is part of a new movement of cultural organisations in the Netherlands that work in collaboration with city councils to innovate the way in which we consider and use public space

'RAUM der Lusten' - photo: Ossip Architectuur Fotografie

AVL at 'RAUM der Lusten' - photo: Ossip Architectuur Fotografie

Maarten Baas at 'RAUM der Lusten' - photo: Ossip Architectuur Fotografie

Buisman recounts a major question which recently helped RAUM and their collaborators – the architectural bureau based on Rotterdam ZUS (Zones Urbaines Sensibles) – in forming their newest project. Working on the recently opened interactive exhibition RAUM der Lusten, they continually wondered: “How can we develop something that people can enjoy but also balance it with real issues? How can we remain critical, yet make people feel comfortable at the same time?” This notion of making visitors feel comfortable in learning about uncomfortable subject matter is a goal of RAUM, achieved through accessibility for diverse audiences, in the variety and modes of programming which they employ during their exhibitions.

RAUM first came into being in the newly built neighbourhood Leidsche Rijn in Utrecht: “Nowhere in the Netherlands has seen such an increase in inhabitants in such a short period of time.” Describing her first impression of what was soon to become RAUM in 2016, Buisman calls Berlijnplein a “large 7 metre deep ditch” she fell in love with immediately. Since then, RAUM has transformed from an experimental cultural start-up of exploratory events, ‘place-making’ and co-creation, to an organisation that connects the diverse publics of Utrecht and Leidsche Rijn. Design of public space and architecture acts as a starting point and support for achieving these ambitions, but ultimately it is the interactions that occur as a result of the events and installations that assist RAUM to achieve its purpose within the community. Inviting the public to share their thoughts on what they find lacking within their community spaces, RAUM aims to build a collective future.

Buisman has been on both sides of the partnership between city councils and cultural organisations throughout her career. Previously, she was the business director of the Tolhuistuin in Amsterdam Noord. She has always been deeply interested in the urban side of the art world, and her inspiration has primarily found its place in art that originates or arises from the city itself. Her interest can be recognised in the focus of RAUM and its over-arching question: “How can we get more people to co-create the city and feel more ownership and sense of belonging to that city?”

“How can we get more people to co-create the city and feel more ownership and sense of belonging to that city?”

'RAUM der Lusten' - photo: Ossip Architectuur Fotografie

'RAUM der Lusten' - photo: Ossip Architectuur Fotografie

RAUM regularly forms its projects considering local aspirations. For their current project RAUM der Lusten, curator Tom Loois worked together with a team of students from the University of Utrecht to track local public discourse and opinion. Working with partners like educational institutions as well as other social and local initiatives has helped to develop and strengthen understandings of the city, building a sustainable network. Cities have historically been melting pots for culture, homes to people from all walks of life, where lines become blurred and softened. RAUM brings this aspect of metropolitan life to the surface by questioning the boundaries between various cultural media disciplines. RAUM der Lusten is a prime example: an open-air exhibition, public program and virtual experience (visitors can visit the exhibition online via a virtual game) that invites audiences to contemplate how our public spaces, neighbourhoods and cities come-into-being, posing the question: if things were different would our approach be different as well?

Drawing its inspiration from the famous triptych oil painting by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510), the public space of RAUM on the Berlijnplein is divided in to three clear zones – heaven, the world and hell – with themed installations. In the painting by Bosch there are clear divisions of what curator and collaborator Kristian Koreman (ZUS) calls “the extreme natures of humanity.”

Socially and politically, RAUM der Lusten draws on the varied and contradictory nature of the human condition bringing to light issues which are relevant in contemporary life – sustainability, consumption, global warming – and interpreting them into welcoming installations for public engagement. Local residents are invited to use the installation as a meeting point, much like a local park – to barbeque their own food, while their children play on the sculptures and sand installations. Exhibitions involve local and international artists such as Atelier van Lieshout, Andrea Hasler and Maarten Baas as a way to draw attention from different target audiences. Hasler’s visceral meat sculptures can be found in ‘hell’, the oozing pink surface at juxtaposition with the baron lifeless charcoal-brown of gravel distributed across the ground.

Atelier van Lieshout at 'RAUM der Lusten' - photo: Ossip Architectuur Fotografie

'RAUM der Lusten' - photo: Ossip Architectuur Fotografie

Cédric van Parys/Office CCXD called MonoXylon (2021) at 'RAUM der Lusten' - photo: Ossip Architectuur Fotografie

The central compass of the exhibition is a towering monument by the Belgian artist Cédric van Parys/Office CCXD called MonoXylon (2021) which was especially developed for this exhibition. The inspiration behind the sculpture hails from totems poles of First-Nation Americans, or the obelisks of Egypt, a meeting point or beacon bearing the marks of people who have visited and etched their presence into the base of the monument. The invitation to partake in such a social action traditionally considered ‘defacing’ has the opposite effect in RAUM der Lusten. RAUM asks us to question our social behaviours and what our role is within the context of community. Plaques that invite people to undertake actions are placed next to many of the installations with phrases like lay down and take a nap.

Alongside the exhibition, Utrecht based organisations form a multifaceted public program. Brommerbios hosts the Queer Film Festival Utrecht, Jasper Albinus and Grey Ravelli organize spoken word performances and Extinction Rebellion (XR) organizes workshops that focus on civic emancipation. A communal vegetable garden is initiated by Common Ground Two and a performance program is brought together by Leidsche Rijn local Caz Egelie.

RAUM pushes back against bureaucratic decision-making that neglects the city’s diversity, instead offering an opportunity for collaborations between people and cities

RAUM is nestled in the growing future of the metropolis as we know it, and so projects a futuristic vision of active community. It pushes back against bureaucratic decision-making that neglects the city’s diversity, instead offering an opportunity for collaborations between people and cities. Primarily based on the Berlijnplein, RAUM’s lack of a brick and mortar location have made it a unique contribution to the Dutch cultural landscape since 2016. However, RAUM does have plans to develop a more permanent project space indoors as well in the near future. One which will offer new possibilities and angles on investigating public space, with more potential for collaborative interdisciplinary work, which will no doubt bring to light new issues syphoned from the city. RAUM is transparent with the city of Utrecht and shares its social-research findings and plans for projects with them, which results in programs that are progressive cultural exemplars balancing the desires of individuals and communities to be pro-active in relation to ‘the bigger social issues’. It poses the thought that perhaps a collective vegetable garden and an installation where audiences can make their own pizza, visit the exhibition via an online alternative digital reality and experience an immersive space based on heaven and hell, might just assist us all to find common ground in complex, varied and troublesome times.

RAUM der Lusten is on view until the 29th of August: www.raumderlusten.nl 

Alyxandra Westwood
is an artist, writer and curator and is based between Utrecht and Melbourne

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