Back in 2010 when squatting became a criminal offense it seemed like the end was nigh for squats all over the country. Two years on and a squat in Spuistraat, nicknamed the Snakehouse tells a different story.
The four storey building on 199 Spuistraat is located in the Tabak row, a cluster of squats running all the way down Spuistraat. The Snakehouse, as it is nicknamed due to the huge mural painted on its façade is a nugget of counter-cultural activity and which its 10 residents, nine of which are artists, have shaped into a welcoming hotspot of creativity. The exhibition space on their ground-floor is home to exhibitions by independent artists, weekly film nights (free of charge!) and theatre performances and open since march 2011 it has been a success amongst the local community. Upstairs, behind the colourful façade, is a set of studio-apartments housing artists from all walks of life who due to their low living costs have the time and means to create.
This set-up, which combines living and working space, is above all fruitful due to the community which it creates: a tight knit of artists who not only influence and inspire each other but who manage, maintain and improve their living spaces through cooperation and a rather democratic approach to problem solving. Being their own landlords, they hold monthly meetings where the latest issues are discussed ranging from fixing a broken window to the next court case that might see them evicted.
To me the giant painted snake was always playful, but not without a hint of prowess. This was indeed what I was to find out about this infamous squat when I accidentally walked into their ground floor exhibition space in the opening night of the art show Engagement. The objective was to write an article on the death of squatting so when I met Guy Pinhas, a photographer and musician who has been living at the address since it was squatted back in 1983 he laughed as he jokingly checked his own pulse. To Guy, who has been squatting for three decades even with all the ups and downs, the court cases, the changes in the law and the juridical victories, squatting undoubtedly still shapes his life and the city where he lives. To him squatting is more than just making it possible for a few groups of people to live for cheap (squatting is not living for free, as he reminds me, bills and maintenance costs are covered by the residents). Equally the practise underscores the fact that ‘having a house is a human right’. This is something that Guy links to the very foundations of the Squatter’s movement, which aimed at not only tackling homelessness by claiming empty houses but also by creating a discourse around housing rights and homelessness, by making it into a visible issue to the rest of the country.
The heydays of the Squatter’s Movement in Amsterdam can be situated somewhere around 1980, just before the Snakehouse was first squatted. In those days Amsterdam is believed to have been home to 20 000 squatters. The movement had been growing since the 1960 as a way to tackle the post-war house shortage which saw thousands of young homeless people whilst houses stood empty and boarded up. The riots on the Coronation Day on 30th april 1980 going by the moto ‘No housing, no crowning’ was a divisive yet iconic moment shown in the 1996, Joost Seelen documentary De Stad was van Ons to have hindered the movement’s unity, as violent tactics used by a few of its members affected the general public’s image of the ‘squatter’. The following decades can be described as a slow decline, as the numbers of squatters living in the city fell drastically and its political influence decreased until 2010, when the numbers of squatters shrunk to around 1500 and a ban was introduced to make squatting an illegal act.
The Snakehouse is in a relatively strong position within The Wet Kraken en Leegstand (Squatting and Vacancy Law). The ban introduced in 1st October 2010 is not retroactive, meaning that any new squats don’t stand a chance, whilst for an established squat it takes a lengthier process to evict residents who have made a true home in these otherwise empty buildings. As Guy concisely puts it ‘We’ve been here for almost 30 years and evicting us is not that easy mainly because its human aspect is not to be forgotten.’ However Guy’s downstairs neighbour, Mark Bakker, a film-maker who has been living at 199 Spuistraat for over a decade is quick to point out to the effect of the new law on the squatter’s morale: ‘ As a matter of fact, the change in the law has affected us instantly, because now we are considered to be breaking the law, we are criminals for living here’. This stigma, Mark goes on, has deeply affected their relationship with social housing company DeKey, who has owned the Tabak row since 2008. Unlike the romantic idea of the 70s and 80s of squatters inhabiting an exclusive, separate world, it seems like today’s squatters have to be less aggressive and more cooperative to reach their aims. It is through court, being in the good books of the council and by talking and co-operating with ‘people in suits’ that their existence is more likely to be protected. It is not about effectiveness Marks tells me, as their struggle is far from finished but about being part of a harmonious process. To this his partner, Eva de Wit who has been living at the Snakehouse for four years adds: ‘ The difference is that we are not young and jobless, we are all independent working people that deal with people in suits all the time so we know how that world works and we know how to use this advantage to get ahead in it’.
In the court cases the squat has been involved in, DeKey’s profit-driven plans to use the building for a new uptown hotel or luxury apartments has not swayed the judges who see more potential in the Snakehouse’s role as an important player in the local community. Guy tells me that there are very iconic bars in the area which have a strong, even personal relationship with the Snakehouse, including their neighbour, the popular Schuim Cafe and The Minds Cafe. The Bier Kooning, a respectable beer outlet just around the corner, used to even deliver beer to the squats around the area. And not just that, but even politicians have got on board with their cause as it was the case when the whole city council of the “Stadsdeel Centrum” led by Dingeman Coumou (Groen Links) and Luud Schimmelpennink (PvdA) voted unanimously for the Snakehouse to acquire a 900.000 euro subsidy to develop their creative projects. Being included in the 2007 ‘ Project 1012’ , an initiative by the municipality to reduce crime and ‘strengthen the unique character’ of the heart of Amsterdam, the Snakehouse ( and in fact the whole Tabak row) has not only acquired a grant to work on future projects but also been given the official status of a valued cultural slice of the city. Eva highlights their uniqueness within Project 1012, which also relocated prostitutes from the Red Light District area: ‘ This is different, this is working and living combined, so you have a more active social attachment to your environment, your neighbours and in addition what you do is reflected in your street’.
The Snakehouse strikes me as the epitome of the alternative view of Amsterdam, a view which places the social, cultural and historical beyond its well conserved architecture and its comical stereotypes of cheese eating, clog wearing milk maids. Borne out of the infamous Dutch ideals of tolerance and freedom, it is the counter-cultural, the subcultural, the hidden gems we will not find at the Rijksmuseum and the social movements that marked a generation that also strongly define this city and are to be found half way down a well known street called Spuistraat.
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