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31/5/2018 / Issue #018 / Text: Rob Talin

City Memento: Silosofie

Every issue of AA we will try to highlight a squat of Amsterdam. A lot of these places are now part of history, but they’ve contributed to what Amsterdam is. We speak to free spirits that have lived, worked or performed in these places and try to give you a feeling of what the place and its members were about.
There are specific spaces in the city that are especially worth to remember. Spaces that have been evicted, closed and gradually disappeared from our memory in the past few years. Silo of Amsterdam is one of them.

Silo used to be an enormous space hosting a very active squat on a prime spot on the shore of the river IJ facing the harbour of the Old Houthaven district. It’s initially been used for different purposes, but mainly as a grain silo for the city. In the 1980s the silo ceased its old functions. Shorlty after, it got squatted and became an independent venue attracting galleries, music studios and huge self-organized events. It became a a multi-functional space and one of the cultural landmarks of the city for over 10 years. It avoided demolition after being restored by the squatters and got listed as a ‘national monument’ in 1996. However, those living in Silo got evicted eventually at the end of the 1990s. Today, there is nothing about the building that would hint at its squatting heritage. It hosts luxurious apartments let by real estate agencies.

Rob interviewed Maik, a former Silo inhabitant, about what it meant to be part of the Silo movement during its golden days. 

Can you tell me a bit the story of Silo and the background of this period in Amsterdam?
The atmosphere was very free in the 90s in Amsterdam, compared to the ‘80s which were way more violent years with evictions and the riots happening. Silo was much more focused on saving the building to create a safe space for art  culture and improvised architecture, than it was on being a hardcore political squat. We were much more interested in constructing new things, making alternative plans and finding ways of financing them. Maybe that’s also why we eventually lost the building, i.e., because we didn’t have a barricades spirit. 

Those were different times: the 1980s were the height of violent squatting, no-future and punk movements, after which came the happy 1990s where people were more into constructing things, while the squats in the city centre were mostly gone. People who used to live in these squats had moved to the IJ-riverside, to places like Westerdoksdijk, Vrieshuis Amerika, Pakhuis Wilhelmina and indeed, to Silo.
Silo represented maximum freedom in maximum space when it got squatted in 1989. It was an incredible building to be in, constructed as it was like a machine; not made for humans to live but for storing and pumping grain around. So it was very solid and totally soundproof. 

Making it inhabitable took an enormous effort. There was lots of dust, rats, old machines and metal everywhere and we were only a small group of people. Then we started collecting material the city provided us with for free: stuff from containers, steel and wood. We were recycling materials from the inside as well: pipes, machineries, thick walls, all used to build improvised recycle houses and workshops. My flat was on the 9th floor and, of course, there was no elevator. Can you imagine? Eventually, there were about 40 flats and a total of one 150 people involved. Plus there was a massive basement used for huge parties and exhibitions. We started a gallery, a restaurant, an organic bakery, a music space, ateliers, studio’s and a radio station. It needed to be pretty well organized so there was a fairly strict policy for people who wanted to get in: you really had to contribute to the collective. At the time, I was completely new to Amsterdam, coming from Rotterdam, and Silo looked like a surreal dream and a community that I absolutely wanted to be a part of. It was open to the public 3-4 days a week at least and the events were most of the time SOLD OUT. In retrospective, Silo in the 1990s was an unintended trendsetter for today’s urban lifestyle: eating organic, veganism, recycling, DIY, partying and independent culture. Back then, we called this lifestyle Silosofie.

How did it get then evicted at the end of the decade?
In 1995 we heard that the city council and many influential politicians wanted to redevelop Silo into luxurious apartments. We were living there for 7 years more than and felt that we saved the building back in 1992, so we started talking to architects, city planners and a housing corporation to propose and finance our own alternative plan for development. Eventually, though, the Rabobank investors put so much pressure on the alderman that he went with the banks and the investors. 

There was one last big party on new year’s eve and thousands of people joined. Then the council didn’t want to wait any longer. In January 1998 we had two weeks to leave Silo and collect all our belongings. Politicians and officials suggested some of us to move to ADM (the biggest art space and residence of Amsterdam still existing and active) located on the west borders of the city. Others helped to build spaces such as Plantagedok and De Pepper cafe in the OT301. 

One of the positive things that came out of this sad story was the Robodock Festival created at the ADM wharf: a great cultural and experimental happening, focused on Robotics, futuristic inventions and performances combined with an ambition of political and social awareness. It got later moved to the NDSM wharf and then became one of the victims of the gentrification of Amsterdam Noord. And yet, Robodock was the living proof that the most exiting things in a city always start in the subcultural underground …

How do you see the future of these kinds of places like Silo and ADM?
ADM is now literally in limbo, I hope it survives. I feel actually a bit disconnected with city life as it is today. There is hardly any alternative space left and the temporary broedplaatsen always come with ulterior motives, functionalized for urban development purposes. Artist are made completely expendable this way. Hopefully the DIY culture still survives inside some smaller broedplaatsen and new squats through people taking their stands politically for the sake of alternative spaces and live styles throughout the city.