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Amsterdam & New York celebrate 400 years

11 designers and urban artists from New York and Amsterdam are together in an exhibition that celebrates the cities’ 400 year friendship. Jeroen Koolhaas talks about his participation.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 26-03-2009

Ultra de la Rue: Contemporary Urban Graphics will open in a now empty former public building, which will later be developed into the first art’ otel in Amsterdam.

Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, who have recently received widespread international media coverage for their favella panting projects in Rio, Brazil, will participate.

A favella (slum in Portuguese) is a community of poor Brazilians who make their own homes and create communities within cities in Brazil.  During  Ultra de la Rue,  Urhahn and Koolhaas, who regularly illustrates for the New Yorker, will exhibit plans and study models of their next Rio project.

“What inspires us is the way favellas are designed,” says Koolhaas who also worked on Boy With a Kite, a mural that is now covered in bullet holes.

“It’s a horrible situation there,” he says.  “The drug gangs basically control the areas and every so often the army comes in with machine guns and fighting breaks out.”

Koolhaas, who graduated from the Eindhoven Design Academy in 2004, dislikes the term street art and thinks it denies the incredible impact that some of these projects have on the community.  “Favella have a really bad reputation,” he says.  “They are known for being violent, and full of crime and prostitution, but that misses the fact that very real people who are trying to make lives live there.  There are kids and families and people who are just trying to survive.  What our projects do is try to change the perception people have of these neighbourhoods.

“With graphics we can do this, in fact with beauty we can do this.  It changes the atmosphere and proves to people outside the favella that people inside do have a clue and are interested in culture and in taking care of their environment.”

Koolhaas stresses that graphic design in cities can mean different things depending on the culture.  He compares The Netherlands and Brazil pointing out that in his own country the signage is overpowering.  “It is ridiculous,” he says.  “Even in the countryside there can be 20 signs on one intersection telling you what to do … In Brazil it is less about rules and more about commonsense.  Here we always need to be told what to do, which is I guess why we are so organized.”

The difference also affects the way graffiti is accepted: in The Netherlands permission must be obtained and the whole scene is very regulated whereas in Brazil, graffiti media is encouraged and used much more to communicate messages.  “Which makes it more interesting,” Koolhaas says.

Talking about the large-scale Rio Cruzeiro project, Koolhaas says he needed to talk to local gangs to ensure that his team, which included Amsterdam tattoo artist and carp expert Rob Admiraal, would be left alone.

“They loved what we were doing, “ he says.  “At one point garbage lay in our way, we talked to the gangs and asked them if they could help.  The next day it was gone with big warnings painted up saying that if anyone put garbage there, they would be in trouble.  The place stayed completely clean after that.”

Koolhaas says it may be graphic design, it may be art, or it may just be a general sense of beauty, but that paying attention to the look of a favella has had a dramatic effect on the people.  “They really changed,” he says.  “They were so proud that the newspapers were finally writing something positive about them.”

Koolhaas and Urhahn are now organizing funding for their next project.  The plan is to paint a favella covering an entire hill, but to do it in one sitting (Rio Cruzeiro took 8 months to complete) with the help of volunteers.  

Their exhibition for Ultra de la Rue will show how they are devising the symbols and shapes for this project, choosing a location and playing with different designs to communicate a message.

And despite all the recent media attention, Koolhaas says he doesn't feel like a Dutch designer.  “No,” he says.  “Of course there is a lot of great design coming from Holland, but I don't really relate to it – to that tendency to be smart and witty and always outsmarting the next guy.  It’s too smart-arse for me.  I also don't think Dutch design pays enough attention to beauty as a primal way of judging things.  It always seems more concerned with concepts and matching concepts to materials, but I think that in most cases things should just be beautiful.”

The exhibition will start April 4th to April 12th at Prins Hendrikkade 33. On April the 12th the exhibition will close and a lecture series that dives deep into graphic design and its relation to the contemporary city begins.

Images all from Koolhaas’ most recent Rio project, Rio Cruzeiro.

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