An outlying Amsterdam housing project is now the home to 800 square metres of ornamental friezes designed by Studio Job. Decorating the façade of 5 large new buildings commissioned as part of a development by Far West, the designs feature a rich collection of the Studio’s iconic graphics, from gymnasts to guns, insects to syringes, fighter jets to flowers.
We’ve been corresponding a lot recently with Studio Job – they’re putting together a special something for our Heritage issue in December – so when they send us a little email about a project they’ve been working on in Amsterdam, we felt that we had to go up and take a look. It seemed particularly intriguing since the work formed part of a social housing project and as such contrasted pretty dramatically with other their other recent activities (the giant Swarovski crystal-studded globe that they lent for the Viktor and Rolf catwalk show in Paris, for example).
The building project, Jatopa, is in the far west of Amsterdam, in an area known for its high unemployment and large immigrant population. It’s not the kind of area that usually makes it onto the route map of cultural tourists. After a long ride on the city’s light rail system I finally got to the area at the end of the working day on a rainy Wednesday. I (predictably) got lost (twice) and wandered around the streets checking out Turkish and North African bakeries, mother and baby care centres and schools for children with special needs. There were wide cycle lanes, clean playgrounds and when I finally stopped to ask directions, people were friendly and helpful – this may have been an area with problems, but it felt as though a large amount of investment, infrastructure and goodwill were being pumped into it.
Job and Nynke’s involvement dates back 5 years, when they were contacted by Gabi Prechtl of Kunst en Bedrijf, an organisation that matches artists to architectural projects. “When I went to the site a few years ago I saw a huge chance to make a change in Amsterdam, and I wanted to see if the director of the development was interested in combining it with an Art or Design project and he was, and this was the first big project.” At that time Studio Job was still a young and less known design outfit; this was to be the first time that they were involved in a project of this scale.
Because of the nature of the development, the budget for the art was tiny, so Gabi and the architect decided to use an existing aspect of the building’s design. “The lintels and concrete panels were already on the plan – so we made an extra effort to make them nicer.” Gabi’s brief to the Studio was to produce work for a public space that must be interesting to all kinds of people from different cultural backgrounds. “It’s not easy to find a new way of communicating with a society and community like this.”
Studio Job’s work has been known for its provocative edge, and certainly on other projects they have seemed to enjoy winding people up. This last April, for example, they displayed stained glass windows featuring missiles and monsters at a seminary in Milan and were certainly ready for the priests to raise objections. The friezes for Jatopa certainly pull no punches – there are spermatozoa and death’s head skulls laced in there alongside the flora and fauna, not to mention the reference to socialist art that comes from both the location and the format. “I don’t think it’s provocative,” shrugs Gabi with a smile. Well, this is Amsterdam – there’s a heck of a lot worse on public display around these parts if you take a wrong turning. “There are a lot of images on the friezes, so you can pick what you see; it can be nice and easy, or maybe not, like the real world.”
For Gabi, the architectural significance of the project is particularly exciting; “Dutch architects are wary of using ornaments,” she explains. “But now it’s changing; this project is quite big for Holland.”
Back on the street at Jatopa, residents are starting to come home from work. The housing complex covers almost a whole block of the neighbourhood and the buildings alternate between private apartments and social housing. I get talking to one of the residents of a private block and he lets me into the building to show me the garden – it’s communal, shared between private and social blocks. I ask him who maintains it? He admits that the space is paid for by the owner-occupiers, but he explains that he likes the idea that he’s part of an important social change in the area. The private block is fully occupied, and my new friend greets the other residents as they walk past him; they have formed a housing corporation and the buzz of social cooperation is in the air. I ask what he thinks of the artwork on the outside of the building – he says that he’s very proud to live somewhere so beautiful, (although he can’t remember the name of the artist).
When tenants started moving into the area at the beginning of September, Gabi helped put together a glossy brochure about the friezes that was given out to everyone in the block; “they can read about it, pick out their own building in the photographs and show other,” she explains. “You can really recognise the buildings now and that works – it’s different from the other blocks.”
Kunst en Bedrijf is still involved in two other art and design projects; a pair of sculptures that will be ready late next spring and a staircase to go into a building slated to complete in 2011. “This renovation and renewal project is a huge operation;” Gabi admits. “It will take a lot of time to change the area, but Far West is really interested in putting effort into the cultural and social side of the development.”