For my fellowship I will write about Huis VDH, which I introduced earlier. In short:
Huis VDH wants to give time and resources to people to experiment, try, fail and succeed around new models for the present and future of Brussels. We are convinced that the magic happens by connecting citizen’s skills and needs. We aim to become a laboratory for urban change hosting citizens in search of anchor.
But Huis VDH doesn’t fall from the sky. For me, being in good care in the city has always meant having a healthy living environment. To create such a good environment we need good city planners and a great vision on public space. Something Brussels is still lacking…
Once upon a time, there was public space.
From 2012 onwards, I got fascinated by the concept of public space and how to bring it back in the center of everyday life in the city. After reading a call by philosopher Philippe Van Parijs about the urge to design new ways to interact in public space because of the limits of private space in the city, I got involved in Pic Nic The Streets and Canal Park BXL that both asked the government to urgently work on citizen based public space to better the living conditions of each citizen. Both won the political battle, but the result wasn’t really what we were hoping for. Pic Nic The Streets led to a carfree city center, but so poorly planned that a strong movement of anti carfree people could rise and are now threatening to stop further reorganisation of the city center. Looking at the plans for the big park, we are scared that gentrification will become an even bigger issue now in the zone around Canal Park. We were hoping for an inclusive design knowing that a lot of poor people are living in that neighbourhood. Now we are continuing to work as an observer with a cargo bike installation called Canal d’Accroche (part of the project Vélo M2, explained here) in that neighbourhood, hoping to bring them some resilience.
From Maison Du People to Huis VDH, a story about citizen centred design.
Since I was a guide and learned about the architect Horta and his Art Nouveau Style, I’m fascinated with the Maison Du Peuple, a building from the end of the 19th century that housed all kind of projects and people wanting to better society. It was a place where ideals could grow, and people could come listen to each other in an open dialogue. I started working on an open call to repurpose the empty Bourse building into a new Maison Du Peuple, right in the hearth of the city. But just days after finishing the text the attacks in Bataclan occurred and life in Brussels changed dramatically for a couple of weeks…
I gave it a rest and set my focus on a vacant building above the well-known music bar Bonnefooi: 4 floors, 500 m², and lots of potential, but also lots of work to be done. Without any budget or action plan, I started gathering people in the house, now called Huis VDH. The only thing I knew was that I wanted an inclusive project build from a common idea: Designing a semi-public space in such a way that the wellbeing of the neighbourhood / city improves. Huis VDH will therefore become a test case, because it isn’t the first or last vacant space above a shop in Brussels: there are more than 23,000 m² documented.
So there we were, having a space, an open concept and a lot of potential. The first thing we did was taking time to create a common practice: we designed our way of gathering through a futurism session created by Fo.AM that allowed us to gather all ideas from each person who wanted to get involved and, like a funnel, filter only the most common. For us, it was important to make Huis VDH as open as possible, so that any new member with the right mind-set could easily become a full involved partner in the building process. After a philosophical six months, we had the sprout of an idea: Huis VDH was born.
It’s all in the name, for Huis VDH it is no other. ‘Huis’ means ‘home’ in Dutch and that is what we are aiming to become for people that are drowning in a sea of complexity of city life. We try to not judge each other, but rather think solution oriented: Help out where we can, and bring the right people around the table. Our space is designed to welcome each kind of small organization working on local issues: cultural, social or technological. We try to design each space so it can be multifunctional and become a temporary rest spot for thosein search of an anchor. We believe like edgeryders: “ that the power of a community is bigger than the sum of all parts.”
One big challenge we will be facing in the next couple of years is to use our talent to organize ourselves within crisis. Big problems are ahead and we need to build up resilience to react quickly to an ever changing surrounding. Huis VDH is trying to take that challenge inside our own development. For us resilience can be developed on four levels: knowledge, vulnerability, out of the box exercise, and modification.
Open Source is all around us, and also in Huis VDH. After living for 5 weeks in an open source innovation camp called POC21, I find solutions to every kind of problem through this model of thinking. Knowledge is there to be shared and if we create the right methodology we will find more easily solutions to any kind of problems. That is why we started mapping out every encounter we had through metamaps, we budget our work with cobudget and use a sharing file system inside the house.
Showing your vulnerable self
When working in a collective environment, we tend to show our better self, hiding our flaws in the first place. But a strong collective group is as strong as its weakest link, and therefore we find it important that we are open and honest to each other. Having personal problems is something common, but sharing them is less. We try to create a trust field around Huis VDH where personal development is as important as the common goal of the organization. Caring about each other as a human being before seeing it as a resource for a project. In order to bring this theory into practice, we have made the first floor as cosy as possible, so people can just hang around and talk freely to each other. We make meetings short and efficient so there is time to discuss at the bar the more intimate stuff, not with all, but with whom we trust.
Putting ourselves outside the system
In the first six months, I was convinced we could create a complete system without the need of money. Only through exchange we could rebuild the house. This gave us a clear barrier to work around, and even if after six months we partially let money in our system, we were trained to think about solutions without money by using the skills, knowledge and resources of one another. This is one of the many ways we try to build challenges to ourselves to constantly think out of the box. When crisis occurs, we need to think and find solutions fast. Creating these exercises in a calm period will help create resilience in all members.
Modification as constancy
Finally, another way resilience can be created is by being in a constantly changing environment. Therefore Huis VDH doesn’t have fixed spaces. Every room can be rearranged to have a different use. Having this as one of the ground rules, we create a constant reality of change that makes us well trained in the art of adaptation, a virtue needed in times of crisis. In September, we will be, thanks to @Nadia, hosting the Open Care Weekend for Brussels.We see it as an opportunity to use our space for a common goal and adapt it while having people using the space. It will be our first external happening and we are really excited.
When working for Huis VDH, I have a phrase by Bachelard that always comes to mind: “Our House is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word” We can’t forget about the complexity of a home when we want to harmonize it. In cosmos, planets collide, new stars are born and a black hole sometimes sucks up even galaxies. This will be the same for people, ideas and principles. The most important for the wellbeing of this microcosm will be the search for constant balance.
In September we will be co-hosting the Brussels OPENandChange Workshop and that will kick off our Huis VDH. In the follow up we are working on a concept called Pirate Kitchen: using the resources from dumpster diving or own grown combined with hobby cooks we want to bring each week around 10 people gravitating around the same interest / problem / field but don’t know or rarely meet. We wouldn’t give them any explanation about whom they will meet, only that they will have a dinner with interesting people. They will have to find out why they are all here, and what they could bring to each other. A sort of blind date for change makers. Could this be an interesting form, or does it already occur in some places?
I’d appreciate any feedback in a comment below, and see you on 10-11 September for the workshop!
The production of this article was supported by Op3n Fellowships, an ongoing program for community contributors between May and November 2016.