The two villages Ganzedijk en Hongerige wolf are situated in East Groningen, an area which is plagued by shrinkage. Less jobs, less (or no) public facilities and therefore demographic movement of, in particular young promising, people to cities. This leads to the aging of the population, empty homes, often resulting in deprived areas, and to a certain extent larger social differences due to the fact that rents are low compared to other parts of the country and some underprivileged people simply can’t or won’t leave. On top of this came the recent earthquakes which made the situation even worse. People feel abandoned in these areas.
To make the problems even more complex, most houses in the area were built in the 1950’s (before the oil-crisis) and not insulated whilst the country needs to focus on energetically improving homes to tackle climate change and to meet the climate agreements.
Should we intervene, and if so, how to?
The problem is macro-economic and there is not a simple solution. It’s partly a matter of acceptance, careful research and addressing the situation from both a top down and a bottom up perspective.
Building new houses isn’t economically feasible anymore. NGOs like Acantus think of creative solutions like “perspective-homes” (perspectief-woningen) which will be financially written off in 20 years. These homes are built specifically for elderly though, and often result in higher rents for the moving tenants.
Funding is definitely needed however top down solutions without community engagement and careful research could even worsen the problem. Interventions need to be very carefully made, if not it might lead to e.g. competing villages which clear out inhabitants from other villages which often means only the very underprivileged have to stay in their village/home, ever enlarging the social gap.
Bottom up initiatives are already developing and – important as they are – should be embraced rather than denied. Small communities are taking action themselves by improving homes (e.g. merging small houses into one bigger house) or demolishing (deprived) homes. The government is helping by providing funds but this is not enough and therefore small teams of jobseekers and volunteers are taking action.
The negative impact is sometimes being reversed by social inhabitants who put their time and effort in improving their neighborhoods leading to a stronger communal society. Villages are also increasingly collaborating (instead of competing) by dividing public facilities between villages (schools, supermarkets, libraries etc.). Some villages become “sport villages” while other villages become “knowledge villages”.
The intervention is carefully interlacing on these bottom up solutions – community involvement, strategic demolition and/or renewal and village characterisation – whilst only limited top down funding is needed.
The idea is to make the area between Ganzedijk and Hongerige Wolf a site of (bio) architectural (and biotechnical) importance. Some other villages might be characterised by sport or knowledge, this area could be characterised by rural (bio) architecture.
The intervention is inspired by the Piranesian “ruinscape” painting by Joseph Micheal Gandy of Sir John Soane’s Bank of England. The bank of England is painted both seemingly in ruins and under construction, representing past, present and future. Sir John Soane’s perception of time was unconventional to say the least. When designing the Bank of England he carefully designed with materials which would age (and even decay) nicely and therefore could possibly ruin nicely (like a Greek temple).
New houses could be built cheaply by using locally sourced materials like hay, clay and timber. All the intervening designs are focused on using only natural, durable, possibly reused and sustainable materials which age nicely and could be durable (in time) or even decay nicely when not being used anymore. Obviously hay need to be kept dry (and covered with e.g. clay plaster) so this will probably become an important feature of the architectural language.
Some of the homes which are struck by earthquakes or homes which are empty for a long time could become beautiful ruins, by carefully and controlled demolishing parts which might become dangerous or hazardous, leaving e.g. only some parts of the brick walls as a reminiscent of the old area. The inhabitants of earthquake stricken houses could move to a new bio-home next to their old house.
It could become a new Alberobello or Vlkolínec, villages whose initial limitations eventually became their strength; being poor forced people to build cheap and with locally sourced materials only and meant that over time, little changed, resulting in their current beauty. This strategy could be reused and tailored in a 21st century approach.
This concept could be part of a Master program architecture where a small group of students do research on materials and design focused on this area. The students could teach the locals simple (craftsmanship) techniques. Eventually the locals could take over and it might even become a local ritual. Something like the Ise Grand Shrine, a Japanese temple which is rebuilt by the community every 20 years. The people from Ise believe in the death and renewal of nature and the impermanence of all things and as a way of passing building techniques from one generation to the next. This is done for centuries and it makes for a strong community. The area has a lot of qualities like time, space and silence and this architectural strategy could further emphasize those. The emphasis is on the quality of life; the outdoors, gardening and community production are proposed as the glue to both establish and retain a sense of community.