Exploring Interstitial Wastelands

Video on the Quarantine Station at Heijplaat Rotterdam.  

Exploring interstitial wastelands

Karin StadhoudersAn interview with Karin Stadhouders, researcher Industrial Heritage, affiliated to the Centre for Global Heritage and Development.

The Trevi Fountain in Rome, Il Duomo in Milan, Parc Guëll in Barcelona, and the Eiffel tower in Paris are all beautiful examples of lieux de memoire, monuments and heritage sites that we safeguard for their esthetical and historical values. Now what about heritage that is not perceived as beautiful or has been forgotten or repressed from our cultural memory? We interviewed Karin Stadhouders, affiliated researcher at the Centre for Global Heritage and Development at Leiden University, on the transformation of heritage wastelands.

How is your research on interstitial wastelands connected to the Centre for Global Heritage and Development?

My research project is entitled "From wastelands to creative hotspots. The changing appreciation of industrial heritage in the Netherlands”.

I study heritage landscapes that are vacant and pending new developments, or considered useless and without quality, or that even have been forgotten - they may be post-industrial sites, but also other urban and rural wastelands. I name them 'interstitial wastelands' - landscapes or buildings existing in an undefined state between past and future. Such ‘in-between’ places, sometimes with a forgotten or repressed past and generally with an uncertain future, often carry negative connotations; they may be in a derelict condition, have an uncanny atmosphere.  However, these wastelands are part of our cultural history, even if they are not (yet) officially valued as heritage. 

The phenomenon that specifically interests me is that these wastelands are often rediscovered by people who I would term ‘pioneers’ - individuals or groups such as urban explorers, squatters, artists, local residents or activists. With spontaneous, informal activities and on-site interventions, or by their engagement in issues of reuse and redevelopment, these pioneers influence the process of revaluation and regeneration of heritage sites. Or at least, they try to do so.  This process of cultural revaluation, during which wastelands acquire new meanings and functions, is the main focus of my research.

On a national and international level, there are numerous of such examples, for instance of post-industrial sites that have been discovered as potential catalysts for economic, social and cultural rehabilitation in relation to their environs. Early and renowned examples in the Netherlands are the Westergas factory in Amsterdam and the Van Nelle factory in Rotterdam (now on the UNESCO World Heritage List), but in the wake of these successful redevelopments many other plans and projects have followed.

Could your research contribute to enhance practices of heritage and planning?

It was my professional fascination for the interplay and the tensions between heritage and spatial planning that prompted me to delve into heritage studies. During my career in local and regional government I have encountered many redevelopment plans where past and future-oriented perspectives clashed, often resulting in impasses and disappointments. When studying heritage at VU Amsterdam University. I became inspired by the Belvedere policy that offered alternatives for the traditional perspective on heritage conservation and management. Belvedere shifted perspectives from primarily conserving the past to questions such as: how can this past be used to find new future-oriented functions for heritage sites and buildings? The leading heritage slogan then became: ‘conservation through development’. This Belvedere view has shed new light on the huge challenge of the reuse and transformation of post-industrial, rural and urban wastelands, both from heritage and planning perspectives.

Today the catalytic potential of such heritage landscapes is widely recognised, but there is no magic formula, no guarantee for success. In spite of the thriving forerunners, a considerable number of redevelopment plans and projects end in deadlocks and disappointments. Given the fact that the task of dealing with vacancy and redevelopment will even further increase because of major economic and demographic changes, it is important to analyse profoundly how these transformation processes evolve.  

Could you name an example of a ‘forgotten’ wasteland related to your research?

Recently I have become involved in the history and development of a heritage site at Beneden-Heijplaat in the Rotterdam harbour: the Quarantine Station. This place seems a textbook example of a forgotten heritage wasteland and will be one of the case-studies in my research project.

The complex was originally built in the 1930s to provide quarantine facilities for sailors and passengers who had been in international waters and exotic places. It made headline news for being a modern and state-of-the-art facility, but after the opening it hardly served its original purposes. The harbour hospital in Rotterdam opened its doors, and penicillin and other medical treatments for tropical diseases were discovered, so the need for quarantine amenities lessened soon after the opening of the prestigious complex. However, in the course of time, it served other functions. In the late 1930s it became a shelter for Jewish refugees; in 1939 the complex accommodated a group of Jewish passengers of the ocean liner St. Louis, who had in vain tried to reach the United States via Cuba. During the Second World War, the German Kriegsmarine settled in at Beneden-Heijplaat and used the complex as a marine station. After World War II, it subsequently functioned as an asylum, a sanatorium, and a nursing home. Thus, over time the Quarantine Station incorporated a variety of narratives, collective as well as individual memories and histories, most of them somehow related to its remote and isolated location in the Rotterdam harbour. However, the site became increasingly dysfunctional and eventually fell into disuse and oblivion.

Then, in the late 1970s, a group of artists 'rediscovered' the place. They squatted the buildings, made them into their homes and workplaces, and have lived and worked there since. The complex, thus being maintained and apparently rescued from further decay, is now recognised as a national monument. Recently a documentary has been produced on the Quarantine Station and its residents. Their 'in-between' use of the site will be terminated within a few years, as the owner, the Port of Rotterdam Authority, intends to redevelop the complex.

How would you relate the role of the mentioned 'pioneers' in the revaluation and rehabilitation of wastelands to the concept of the in-between?

This is what my research will be about, so I have no ready-made argument as yet. Questions that intrigue me are for instance: Which are the triggers that set developments of revaluation and transformation in motion? Which are the features that attract pioneers to rediscover and experience these wastelands? How do they represent their experiences and how do they influence future transformations by their performances and interventions?

My supposition is that some specific features of interstitial wastelands foster their appeal to 'pioneers', such as an uncanny atmosphere related to the concept of the sublime, and reminiscences to past memories and histories. At the same time, such heritage wastelands obviously inspire people to develop new ideas, to create new futures. A thorough analysis of some representative cases will serve to map relevant mental and cultural aspects of wasteland revaluation, as well as to explore how this phenomenon relates to philosophical concepts about the 'kairotic momentum', and about 'natality' as defined by Hannah Arendt. The work of the Dutch philosopher Joke Hermsen has inspired me to the latter theoretical perspective, which may be useful to better understand processes of wasteland transformation. The outcomes of the research project should contribute to enhance both academic knowledge and real-life performance.