From a Makerspace to a Community Center

We set up a meeting with a collective who revitalise a former cotton factory in the south of Bucharest. We took advantage of its location and decided to connect the meeting with visiting the Văcărești Natural Park.

The Văcărești Natural Park is the first urban natural park in Romania, only 5 km away from the city centre, being the largest green space in Bucharest. In 1986 Communist regime built a hydro-technical project but left it unfinished and unused after 1989. Gradually, nature took over and turned it into a place with unique diversity. It is a vast green area bounded by steep concrete embankments, the contrast of vast free space and urbanised land in the surrounding creates impressive images. There are few stops in the perimeter, where one can enter and go down to the park. There are few walking trails accompanied by educational notice boards about the local flora and fauna, at some sport are observation stations. It is good to keep the paths as the area is quite swampy. We walked from one side to another, but then we had to hurry up not to come late to our meeting.

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In the cotton factory, Iulian Canov took care of us – first he gave us a presentation about the whole factory area and later guided us through. We were astonished by the size and complexity of projects “occupying” space as we came to see the community centre La Firul Ierbii [Grassroots] which is actually a small part of a larger progressive and developing complex.

After the revolution and fall of the communist regime, the Industria Bumbacului [Cotton Industry] was “privatised” in the early 1990s – it was sold to the workers and former management. That was quite a good decision as these people had the best interest to manage it well. But when the factory closed in 2003, they did not really have a vision for the space. The buildings served only as warehouses, rented in pieces and lacked maintenance). Group of architecture students, including Iulian Canov, Tamina Lolev, Vlad Stoica who later established a studio Wolfhouse Production, were in need of a makerspace for their architecture models. As there was no such a place in Bucharest, they started to look for a convenient space close to the city centre and well connected to public transport. They found out about the cotton factory on the bank of the Dâmbovița River and approached the owners. Iulian said it was easier to negotiate with the private owners than with a public body – the agreement was conditioned only by the rent price, but a municipality might have different (hardly comprehensive) interests.

The NOD Makerspace was opened in 2014 and is the biggest makerspace in Romania. Initially, only friends from the architecture school shared it together but the interest grew, and today the space is accessible upon a membership. NOD is a “dynamic ecosystem that welcomes designers, artists, engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs. Anyone who has an idea, an invention or a prototype and aims to develop it will find the tools and the manufacturing equipment to make any project come to life.” The space includes an open co-working space, 15 private studios and manufacturing and prototyping workshops; its equipment ranges from cutting-edge electronics to wood and metalwork tools via just about every other creativity-enabling tool imaginable. The space runs workshops and other community events on a continuous basis, and much of the extraordinary hive of activity within is visible from the street outside, with the aim of inspiring passers-by (Macdonald, 2018).

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Although its “central” location (it is basically only one stop by metro from the city centre), it is perceived quite remote from the centre (e.g. where the universities lie) and the group was aware that in order to attract a wider audience, they need to extend the offer of uses. The vision is to recreate the former factory into a large (independent) creative industry centre but with the locals (not all of them creatives) in mind.

Later, friends opened a rooftop bar which attracted a wider public, “hipsters” from the “city” but also residents from the surrounding neighbourhoods. More and more people got to know about the place, and different creatives decided to rent there a space for their studio and workshops. Although the factory used to be (and a big part of it still is) in a derelict state, the community work – mostly voluntarily – on improvements. With their enthusiasm, they were also able to get free materials from sponsoring firms. Thanks to many donations, the materials library MATER was opened – the first one in South-Eastern Europe. In comparison to only-members-accessible makerspace and co-working space, the library is open to the public.

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At the same time, there was a spare time on the ground floor for which they were looking for a use. Coincidentally, another civic NGO – the Urban INC – was just looking or a space to open for community groups and were able to finance the reconstruction and operation. So the community centre La Firul Ierbii [Grassroots] opened. It aims to provide neighbour groups and grassroots movements a space to meet (with facilities, e.g. beamer or flipchart), such a space for civic organisations is not at all usual in Bucharest (at least not provided by the municipality). It is offered for free for grassroots initiatives with public or common interest, but also other groups or companies can rent the space for events, depends on each ones’ possibilities. But the political situation in Bucharest has worsened after the last municipal elections in summer 2016, and many local initiatives lost hope, e.g. the UrbanINC left Bucharest at all and now is active only in Cluj.

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The community works so far on a very informal non-hierarchical structure, they all communicate together, but there is no umbrella organisation or a name for the cluster. The next plans are to open the area more to the public and connect it with the river across the street. They are organising a Dâmbovița Delivery Festival which will take place in summer 2019 and be part of the Street Delivery Festival. They want to change the perception of the river and urban water in general which they consider “the most unused public space in the city”. The Dâmbovița River has a reputation of a very polluted river because underneath leads a sewage canal that used to leak but was fixed.

We were really amazed by how lively the place is. If it is not completely successful in attracting the general public and mostly hipsters and creatives come, it is definitely caused by its location too – connected with the image of remote place among (abandoned) factories close to a very heavy traffic crossroad. But the community definitely strives to do their best to be open to everyone.

 

References:

Bogdan, D. (2017). Bucharest Believes in Design – the First Romanian Library of Materials is on the Roll. A City Made by People [online]. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://www.acitymadebypeople.com/journal/bucharest-believes-in-design-first-romanian-materials-library-mater

Macdonald, K. (2018). Creative Bucharest: Step Inside the Art Hubs, Bars and Co-Working Spaces Reimagining the City. The Calvert Journal [online]. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/9596/creative-bucharest-art-hubs-bars-co-working-spaces

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