Time to move on … again

Dieneke Jansen’s timely exhibition Dwelling on the Stoep visits large-scale housing projects in Auckland, Jakarta and Amsterdam, giving voice to their inhabitants’ fear of displacement and anxiety about the future. Linda Tyler talks to the artist.

Working on state housing in the mid-20th century, Austrian émigré architect Ernst Plischke chafed at the inefficiencies of land use occasioned by the detached house model. He was keen to use his European-wrought skills in designing for high-rise living, but was told that in New Zealand “only prostitutes and intellectuals live in flats”. Neither were desirable as inner city inhabitants. Such was the stigma that Plischke’s kiwi colleague, Cedric Firth, felt obliged to elaborate in the State Housing booklet produced in 1949: “To the ordinary citizen, the term ‘flat’ is indelibly associated with a tall barracks-like structure with poor accommodation and poor appearance and with little to commend it … A title, then, is required to cover flats planned to meet the modern requirements of the family—a title devoid of so many unattractive associations. It is hoped the term ‘multi-unit’ will suffice.”

“Multi-units” never caught on, but led by the first Labour Government, New Zealand did venture cautiously into designing large-scale apartment complexes. Wellington’s Dixon Street flats in 1944 earned Government Architect Gordon Wilson (1900–1959) a gold medal from the New Zealand Institute of Architects. Under his leadership, the Housing Division conceived of a gargantuan scheme of 468 state rental flats for Upper Greys Avenue in Auckland. In one of the three parts to her exhibition Dwelling on the Stoep at ST PAUL St Gallery, artist Dieneke Jansen puts the circumstances facing the Housing New Zealand flats at 115–139 Greys Avenue in the spotlight, and examines the shadow cast on New Zealand’s current housing crisis.

Dieneke Jansen, 2015

Rather than romancing the look of modernist architecture as many artists have done in recent years, Jansen concentrates her practice on drawing out aspects of lives lived within the brutalist walls. The result is an exhibition that argues that rather than the physical properties of the architecture being to blame for the so-called failure of large-scale housing projects, any problems with these housing schemes are the result of government policies which create deprivation. “The architecture belongs to a larger conversation,” she says, “around the politics and social dimension of the way we treat our fellow citizens.” While an eye-catchingly large photograph of the façade of the Greys Ave building fills the Frontbox window for example, that is just the lure. Jansen makes sure that the voices of the inhabitants can be heard through her art practice, collaborating with Radio NFA (No Fixed Abode, a homeless radio station) to bring fear of displacement and anxiety about the future into the pristine university gallery space. Jansen points out that the people in all three situations that she looks at in this exhibition have been relocated, as part of a gentrification process: “It keeps a low income person out of continuous community, as their community and connections are continuously interrupted.”

Originally intended for “single people or couples with no children who preferred an inner city life” 139 Greys Avenue was completed in 1958. It was celebrated for its utilisation of new technologies with cantilevered reinforced concrete floors and glass curtain walling. The flats are still desirable despite evident maintenance issues, which are explored in the supplementary information on the buildings that Jansen provides in her exhibition. In 2014 there were 300 people on the waiting list for one of these 86 flats. Since then, awareness of inequality in New Zealand society has grown, along with understanding of the necessity for social housing provision. Yet Housing New Zealand has called for tenders for “creative development options for integrating private residential and possible commercial space” of 139 Greys Avenue, a site that has now become dangerously valuable. According to HNZ’s Auckland regional manager it is too early to discuss relocation of the tenants who currently occupy the 70 two-bedroom flats and 16 bed sitting rooms. Residents know what is up, however, with one glumly concluding: “That idea of housing for life is gone. It’s a dream of the past.”

Dieneke Jansen, 139 Greys Ave. Installation, 2016, St Paul ST Gallery, AUT, Auckland

Housing has been a long-term interest for Jansen, partly, she says because she has moved so often in her life, migrating from Holland to New Zealand as a teenager, and living in squats in Amsterdam. The different cultures of renting in Europe are heightened for her: “We don’t have a good or traditional protection for tenancy in New Zealand,” she says. Returning from an artist’s residency in Rotterdam in 2013, she immediately felt she had to respond to the clearance of state housing in Glen Innes: “I felt like I needed to do something here. Instead of photographing, the first thing I did was I set up a tent and camped.” She modelled her scarecrow for the guerrilla garden at 16 Taniwha Street on the founder of social housing, Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage. Gumbooted, he sat on a folding chair attired in suit and tie, “watching what’s going on,” according to Jansen, and presumably lamenting the systematic destruction of his dream for good quality secure accommodation for low-income New Zealanders.

Gallery goers have grown accustomed to seeing modernism and brutalism celebrated as an architecture of appearances. Dieneke Jansen can’t avoid the cliché, and her camera captures the impressive scale and bold design of mass housing, acknowledging the validity of the aesthetic. That is not where the art is for her, however. She gets under the surface of design, concentrating her attention on the people who build their lives in three such housing developments. In the past few years, artists’ residencies have taken her back to Rotterdam, the city where she was born and spent her first eight years, and to Jakarta in the former Dutch colony of Indonesia where she lived for three weeks in August and two weeks in November 2015, participating in the Jakarta Biennale that year, curated by Charles Esche. Despite being built just seven years ago, the colourful six-storey towers of the Marunda development look like a mid-century creation dreamt up in the Bauhaus, or in the version of modernism disseminated through America by European emigres in the aftermath of the Second World War.

As a New Zealand artist who comes from Holland, Jansen is in a unique position to be able to use her own hybridity to indicate the history of European colonisation of Indonesia and New Zealand. As an immigrant herself, she can turn her camera lens on those from colonised countries who have emigrated to Europe as the empire strikes back. “I’m trying to explore how a video camera might create a sense of social space … I don’t feel like I can speak on behalf of all those people who live there, but a very big part of what I’m trying to do is to create a space for people to speak and for people like me to listen,” she says. Four videos show Jansen standing outside the Kruitberg, Groenenveen, Kikkenstein and Gooioord blocks of what remains of the huge hexagon of the Bijlmermeer development in Amsterdam. She positions herself at the entrance of each block—dwelling on their stoep—and while occupying this intermediary place, she offers 40 bouquets of fresh flowers to the inhabitants as they come back home. In the soundtrack and in the subtitles we can hear and read the translation from the Dutch into English of her overtures to each person as she greets them, and explains that her gesture is a way of honouring their role as a host and hers as a guest.

Dieneke Jansen, Marunda: Dwelling on the Stoep (detail), 2015. Photo: Sam Hartnett

Critiques of modernism often trot out tired tropes of the failure of utopian visions for urban renewal, citing the demolition of the 33 eleven-storey blocks of Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St Louis, Missouri. Here the 2870 apartments were first occupied in 1954 but soon became infamous for their gangs, crime and segregation. Indeed, the moment the first block was dynamited on 16 March 1972 is often taken as the inauguration of postmodernism in architecture, since the homogenous design principles of modernism, when applied to high-density development, were blamed for the social problems which developed from their occupation. After a cargo plane flew into one block of the Bijlmermeer, killing 100 people in 1992, 45 percent of the 1968 complex with its kilometre-long corridors has been demolished, and those that lived there relocated. Allow people to express their individuality, architectural theorists have argued, and give them architecture which makes reference to place and history, and the problems inherent in such developments will go away. Jansen argues with this exhibition that the solution does not lie with the architecture: the answer is not that simple. The three housing projects that she has chosen to depict have a reputation for being dangerous and drug-ridden. Going in to each, she says her age and gender were advantages, “I’m neither a threat nor a target”. Her approach is to dwell a little in each place, and to build relationships with the people there, and then to create an event which brings people out of their private spaces into a public arena to tell their stories.

Assembling a comprehensive sense of each space through narrative and documentation, she collects incidental indicators of human responses to environment: pebbles set into concrete to massage feet en route to the gardens at Marunda, cats luxuriating on chairs in the meeting areas on each floor, window boxes of plants. These she presents in the gallery as colour photographs mounted on core flute board—the universal real estate hoarding material—leaning on the wall, provisionally arranged. The viewer is invited to visually shuffle through, mentally collecting the glimpses of social spaces with their residues of human interaction, and imagine these moments as the building blocks for future developments in low-income housing. Concrete and steel does not offer salvation from the housing crisis, but understanding this human dimension, our dependence on each other and on community does, but first we have to listen to the voices of those in need.

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