How many times have you been squatting in a vacant building and thought ‘Geez, I wish I had a guidebook to help make this experience a little more enjoyable.’
Well, luckily for you, a Winnipeg-born architect is working to make that happen.
Although the project may seem irreverent, Henning’s intentions are nothing if not earnest.
“In many ways the book is a tongue-in-cheek project that promotes a friendly and wholesome movement of people, of squatters, that are surprisingly well-organized, productive and skilled. Who are simply frustrated with the norm and seek a different kind of life,” she says.
But the project goes much further than that.
“It’s also a response to an urban and rural landscape that is just littered with discarded and abandoned space and materials. And to show that there is value to this…and that there is a whole culture of people out there that make something meaningful out of it.”
The project began as Henning’s master’s thesis in architecture at the University of British Columbia.
Inspired by one of her favourite buildings in Winnipeg, the Watkins Building at 90 Annabella Street, Henning reimagined the largely-vacant space as one that could be repurposed to house people, with urban farming and small-scale economy components.
“The project would be about inhabiting this somewhat vacant building and establishing an informal make-shift community that would scavenge for materials and build itself up in a grassroots kind of way,” she says.
However Henning quickly became aware of the inherent disconnect of a planned make-shift community.
“It felt really contrived,” she says of the idea. “As an architect trying to start a grassroots community, that’s totally opposite to the whole future of a community like that…So I thought maybe it makes more sense as an architect to not be so prescribed and just to make a handbook of my suggestions.”
The handbook is intended for use by anyone attempting to squat in a vacant building or on a vacant site. It includes handy tips on building a solar oven out of a pizza box, picking a lock, fixing a broken window, establishing a community garden, canning vegetables, and building a market stall to establish an economy and revenue for the community.
Henning realizes her project is anything but a conventional approach to architecture.
“In a lot of people’s eyes what I made wasn’t architecture; it’s really kind of tangential to architecture.”
But she also believes it represents the changing nature of the field.
“The role of an architect is no longer what people thought it was. There’s all kind of ways for us to engage in architecture other than the conventional.”
Henning has some experience with a form of squatting – while living in the Netherlands she spent time in an “anti-kraak,” which can be translated roughly to “anti-squat.”
“It’s like a legal version of a squat,” she explains. “Squatting used to be legal in the Netherlands but they recently just changed their laws to make it illegal.”
The term refers to a government-approved vacancy management system that allows people to “squat” in buildings that are destined for demolition or redevelopment so long as the “squatters” register (for safety reasons) and pay for the building’s utilities.
The building was filled with young professionals. Henning shared an entire floor with her boyfriend and one other woman.
“It was an office building so our bathroom was an office building bathroom, so we had the men’s washroom, and she had the women’s. It was stalls and urinals,” she says. “We had set up a kitchen but there was no hot water.”
All the residents in the building shared one shower on another floor.
She has also often camped on people’s property for a night or two, which is technically squatting.
Henning supports this kind of living – and she attempted to portray it as positive in her work.
“I tried to make the book as light hearted as I could to show the world that this movement is growing, in fact it has always existed, and it’s positive, it supports a positive way of life.”
Henning tried for some time to have A Practical Guide to Squatting published without success. Fed up with getting the run-around from publishers, she recently turned to Indiegogo.
Indiegogo is an international crowdfunding site where anyone can raise money for film, music, art, charity, small businesses and more. Anyone can make a pitch for funding, and anyone can support the projects. The site gained notoriety last spring when over $700,000 was raised to send bullied bus driver Karen Klien of Greece, N.Y on vacation.
Henning aims to raise $6,300 by June 26. Her current total is $1,726. A $30 donation will get you a copy of her book and your name listed as a contributor.
“By contributing…you are not only helping to promote this movement but you are supporting me; a young emerging artist and designer, establish myself. I have since defected from architecture I suppose, to pursue my other passions and well live out my project.”
Henning hopes to pen a follow up about squatting in some of downtown Vancouver’s vacant condos.
For more information on Henning’s work, visit waxcastle.ca.