Urban development Empty Spaces

Empty Spaces
Empty Spaces | Photo: Loredana Rocca

Vacant properties can be found in Germany and Ireland. They exist in Dresden, the city of Baroque art and culture in east Germany, and in Dublin, the hip city of young creatives. Both cities have over half a million inhabitants. How do they use their vacant properties for cultural purposes? Who takes the initiative here? Who benefits from such initiatives?  

When a building stands empty in a city, nobody benefits from it. Not the owner, who must observe and worry while it deteriorates and becomes a potential target for vandalism; not the city’s inhabitants and tourists, who view such bleak urban decay with surprise or frustration; and, above all, not the people who are looking for places to work but do not have pockets deep enough to compete with the young families gentrifying the latest ‘in’ neighbourhoods and driving rents up.

You could say that as far as Dublin’s artists were concerned, the economic crisis was the best thing that could have happened to the city. Vibrant new locations have been emerging in the Irish capital for some years now. As the British daily The Guardian commented in relation to the mood in Dublin in November 2010 “… it doesn’t feel that depressing. In fact, it feels quite exciting .” The recession had peaked by then – and artists were taking advantage of the crisis.

The journey to one of these hotspots of creative activity starts on the red tram line. You get on in the city centre and off again three stops later in Smithfield. The art organisation Block T is based here in a former brick warehouse with large window façades.  

A conversation with its Lithuanian director Laura Govn reveals that she originally came to Ireland to study art. Together with other artists she established Block T in 2010. “Some years ago every second building was empty in this area.” Block T moved to an old factory in July 2012 and then into the warehouse on Smithfield Square. Today, it has 80 studios, two classrooms, a dark room, a print workshop, a gallery and a small café. And a promising future beckons. “We are just beginning,” says Laura Govn. The project does not receive any state support and is financed through fundraising, art sales, workshops and events. The artists pay between 180 and 600 euro per month to rent its studios.  

Around the same time as Block T was established, an exhibition was staged on the other bank of the river Liffey – in an empty shop window in the pub district of Temple Bar. Art manager Louise Marlborough had just returned from a long sojourn abroad. “The number of empty buildings was incredible,” she remembers. “Not just on side streets and back roads, but everywhere and highly visible.” These spaces would make excellent galleries thought Marlborough to herself and the Prettyvacant Dublin project was born. That was in 2010 and there have been twelve exhibitions since then. It’s what you’d call a win-win situation: “The owner gets a tenant for the building, showing it is fit for purpose. We provide a positive and free advert for the building.” 

Block T and Prettyvacant Dublin are just two examples of the numerous projects of this kind in Dublin. Ideas are also emerging from the official side, for example Dublin City Council’s Vacant Spaces initiative which finds empty spaces for artists.

While a vibrant array of creative locations has arisen in Dublin in recent years in this way, Dresden is very much in the early stages of this process of putting empty buildings to cultural use. The city is growing and booming but – unlike Berlin, of course, and Leipzig, of late – it is not a place that attracts young artists in their droves. Nevertheless, Dresden has had its first ‘custodian’s house’ (Wächterhaus) since 2013. The idea originated in Leipzig where, due to the depopulation of the city in the 1990s, 35,000 apartments are now empty and investors cannot be found for many old buildings that are well worth conserving. The ‘custodian’s house’ principle is a response to this phenomenon: the owner ensures that all of the utilities are connected and that the building can be used and, in exchange, does not have to pay any running costs. Artists, associations and initiatives can use the space at a low cost. They become the ‘custodians’ of the building and take responsibility for its upkeep.  

Custodian’s houses can be found today in Halle, Görlitz, Chemnitz, Erfurt, Zittau – and Dresden. The first custodian’s house in the capital of the federal state of Saxony is located in Löbtau, one of the city’s outer neighbourhoods. The former residential building is managed by the association Haushalten e.V. It had been standing empty for ten years before the artists opened their studios there. “We were sceptical initially,” says Nicole Hoyer from the Haushalten association, “ because we did not know whether people would come as far as Löbtau.“ Artists and creatives prefer the Neustadt and Hechtviertel districts, both of which are now overrun and unaffordable.

One-off investments in the custodian’s house are financed by the owner; the operating costs are covered by the users, who pay rents of between 30 and 40 euro per room per month. “We are one of the few initiatives which ensure that artists stay in Dresden,” says Nicole Hoyer with a certain pride.

The association’s initial fears regarding the remote location proved unfounded. People came to Löbtau and Dresden’s first custodian’s house now has a waiting list with 20 potential tenants. Plans are under way for a second.