The blue and white facade of the ACU building on Voorstraat belies a storied and interesting history. The buildings, originally 71 and 73, began as municipal horse stables. Then, in the 1920s and the meaning of horsepower changed, an auto garage took over the property. By 1935, the Maas family took over the property and changed the name to Auto Centrale Utrecht (ACU). The following are photos of the building from 1943 and 1950, respectively.
(Circa 1943, photo courtesy of Utrechts Archief)
(Circa 1950, photo courtesy Utrechts Archief)
Somewhere along the way, the right half of the building was demolished, but I’m not sure when that happened. I do know that by the early 1960s, the garage closed its doors as a business and the property was left empty and abandoned.
This is where things start to get particularly interesting. Under the cover of darkness on March 26/27, 1976, the buildings making up Voorstraat 69, 71, and 73 were squatted. Squatting and squatters (kraken), are probably thought of slightly differently in the US versus much of the rest of the world. In many countries, it’s a result of true need. For others, it’s a political or social statement. In the US, it’s almost always considered illegal and is usually associated with the homeless, gangs, drug addicts and criminals. Meanwhile, in many other countries, squatting has been legalized to one degree or another, or at least a certain truce has been reached. That was the case in the Netherlands until October of this past year when the Squatting Ban Bill was passed.
Squatting really gained momentum as a movement in the Netherlands in the 1960s, as a form of protest. There was a housing shortage (don’t forget that the Netherlands has the highest population density of any country in Europe) and property owners were intentionally leaving buildings empty to drive up market prices. Thus, squatting became, in this case, a political anti-speculation move. Eventually, in 1971, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that squatting was legal under the concept of huisvrede (domestic peace). As a rule, as long as a building had been empty for at least 12 months and the owner was not going to be doing anything with it in the next month, squatting was legal.
(ACU building in 1980, photo courtesy Utrechts Archief)
The reality is that many buildings taken over by squatters have benefited from their new inhabitors. Of course, there are always going to be bad eggs in the bunch, but many buildings have been improved and offered something for the community as well as the people living in them. Not all buildings squatted become residences only. In the case of the ACU building, the squatters also turned the building into a bar (opened in 1983) and cinema club, as well as a place for music performances, dance nights, a food co-op, and squatting consultancy. The ACU still serves these purposes and more today.
(ACU building circa early 1990s, photo courtesy Utrechts Archief)
Still, by 1993, the owner of the building had decided to sell it and the squatters were facing a decision. Ultimately, the users and inhabitants decided to try to purchase the building and make the whole thing legal. After forming the Stichting Voorstaete (Voorstaete Foundation), and after much negotiating, the buildings on Voorstraat were purchased, along with another squatted building around the corner on Boothstraat. The buildings on Voorstraat were renovated, and by 1999, the political culture center that is the ACU was complete. The building on Boothstraat is now the home of Strowis, a low-budget but attractive hostel perfectly located in the center of the city.
Over the years, various other squatted buildings have been legalized in one form or another, sometimes helping to save and restore historic buildings that might otherwise have fallen into complete disrepair. They also often serve as places for artists in all mediums to work. The ACU building itself had one of its exterior walls become a canvas for artist D. Dijkshoorn. In the early 1990s, he painted Bebop a lu la on the side of the building. The comic-style panel reads: “It all began in 1976” followed by “Hey Boss, there are still people living here.”
(photo courtesy Utrechts Archief)
I suspect that will be the case for many buildings that are squatted, squatting ban bill be damned. As I said, it’s not all positive, but it’s not all negative either. I’ve heard stories that go both ways. It seems like a case-by-case situation, and as a result, I’m not sure that the ban was the right approach to take. Regardless, I’ve enjoyed getting to know a bit more about a building I pass regularly.