BlueCity in Rotterdam.
Aaron Betsky BlueCity in Rotterdam.

Jan Jongert takes reuse seriously. As he walks you through the buildings he has designed, the architect—a partner at global firm Superuse Studios—tallies what percentage of them was made from materials that were repurposed from other building sites or even other uses. He has found new ways to utilize discarded washing machine parts to create food stalls, use tire trucks for seating in a music club, and, in his most striking move, turn blades from wind turbines into either seating or play sculptures. Usually, the buildings he is showing you are made from at least two-thirds, and often close to 90%, of such bits and pieces. Jongert, an elfin presence darting through projects, is the ultimate dumpster diver in architecture.

His Netherlands office in Rotterdam is an example of such a place. Its site is remarkable in itself: You can find it tucked away into the lower floor of the former Tropicana, an elongated white building curving along the Maas river that opened in 1988 as a luxurious swim club and sauna. Over time, the Tropicana added restaurants and even a disco, but none of the functions or attractions really worked, and the enterprise, after changing hands and formulas a few times, went bankrupt in 2010. With its strange form and very particular spaces, it sat empty for many years—what can you do with an empty swimming pool and a fake beach?—before Jongert persuaded an enterprising developer to let him fix it up and help fill its snaking spaces. It is now called BlueCity and is a “meeting place for pioneers and enterprising minds, where they develop a framework for action, whether to grow their impact, live a zero waste life, or develop a future-proof material," according to BlueCity's website.

BlueCity in Rotterdam.
Aaron Betsky BlueCity in Rotterdam.

Walk into BlueCity and, once past the doors, you are confronted with an assembly of windows and doors, pieces of walls, fragments of furniture, and some bits and pieces that are difficult to place at first, all coming together to form the walls and furnishings of new offices, workshops and laboratories. Superuse Studios takes up one corner of the building, in a prime location looking out over the Maas River (although almost all spaces have a similar view), but most of whatever spaces could be used in the old building are filled as well. There is a brewer making beer largely out of recycled food waste, and a restaurant whose menu also makes good use of scraps, leftovers, and gleanings. Another workshop is experimenting with making building materials out of mycelium, or mushrooms, while through the recycled windows of an underground space you can see people trying to formulate paper out of waste.

The atmosphere is funky and rambling, and you will not find many straight angles anywhere. Instead, your eye keeps finding new compositions, whether it is the way pieces of lumber that came from different sources now fit together with the precision with which stonemasons used to dry-lay walls, or how the hopscotch rhythm of the different frames that now make up the wall of a row of offices moves through the space. Each element also has its own texture, from the previously used wood, sometimes with bits of paint still on it, to the rusted steel of structural elements, to the much sleeker look of wood panels that had been intended for a new school, but that were ordered in the wrong size and so were destined for the dumpster until Jongert found them.

Buitenplaats Brienenoord.
Aaron Betsky Buitenplaats Brienenoord.

The worn and fragmentary look of these interior constructions creates its own attraction, inviting you to explore the bits and pieces with your fingers as well as your eyes and making you wonder about their history. It is also the appropriate framework for most of the businesses that use the space: The users form a crowd that usually eschews fashion labels and sleek ways of appearing in favor of funk and thrift store aesthetics. The building, meanwhile, brings its own layer of history into play. The white-painted columns and beams, though covered with different coats of paint peeling at different rates, are still there, as are the curved glass walls and arched skylights. Even the stone borders that originally led bathers along tiled paths from the lounge to the swimming pool to the dressing room are in place. Some of the tropical plants and the paintings of jungle scenes meant to take visitors far from the gloomy Netherlands are also still visible. Finally, there are the new mechanical systems, the cuts through some of the walls, and the few pieces of newer furniture the users found that make the time period of BlueCity even more uncertain. The whole is a mess, but an endlessly fascinating one.

Another good example of how Superuse Studios works is its Buitenplaats Brienenoord project in Rotterdam. Situated on a small island in the middle of the Maas, the site was originally a camp where children from working families could come to enjoy the great outdoors. Superuse Studios reused 90% of the original building. Everything the firm added, except for five trusses, a few fasteners, and the bases for the columns, was also recycled. You would not know it from the way the place looks now. The building consists of interlocking trapezoidal spaces that rise up toward the island’s central open area. Clad partially in a translucent corrugated material, they only give you a hint of what goes on inside. As the roof lifts up from the ground in diagonal leaps, it makes way for stacks for reused windows in white frames, and through those you can get a sense of the space the structure contains.

Inside Buitenplaats Brienenoord.
Aaron Betsky Inside Buitenplaats Brienenoord.

The central room is a place of gathering, its columns supporting trusses that in turn help the angled forms of the roof reach their crescendo. Within the wood-and-steel armature, the glass, and the corrugated walls, kids are playing, helping to prepare food in the open kitchen, learning about nature, and dancing. The Buitenplaats (which means something like Country Seat in Dutch) is meant to carry on the tradition of giving young people a chance to explore the outdoors, but now through arts and nature study, hands-on crafts and cooking, and roaming around the island. What Jongert and his team have managed to do is create a space that has the character of a big tent, but that also recalls the kind of mountain lodge where you might gather for an après ski, while letting the worn wood and assembled fragments give it a look and feel that is closer to its natural setting.

The Superuse Studios team has applied this manner of working to a wide range of buildings, from discos to private homes. They have also created parks and playgrounds. In these open-air projects, they showed that sewage pipes and windmill propeller blades can be put to playful use. The blade is one object of which Jongert is especially fond. These large vanes are shaped in elegant curves that are also extremely strong and light because of their original purpose. After as little as seven to eight years, they must be replaced due to the huge stresses the wind puts on them. Their carbon-fiber construction makes them difficult to recycle, so Jongert puts them to good use as places to sit, or as play sculptures.

Aaron Betsky
Above/Below: Superuse Studios' housing cooperative project.
Aaron Betsky Above/Below: Superuse Studios' housing cooperative project.

Now Jongert is branching beyond such almost ad-hoc buildings, finding ways to create social housing at a larger scale while using scraps and remains. Even in this larger realm, where he must answer to many more rules and regulations, he has been able to create beautiful structures out of surprising materials: The staircase he added to the back of a burned-out row of social housing when he transformed it into a 46-unit housing cooperative in Rotterdam consists of panels and support structures that had been used in the entrances to several of Rotterdam’s subway stations before they were renovated. The loft-like interiors and the additions that open up to the rear garden make what were modest rowhouses seem spacious. It is a quality that marks the best of Superuse’s work: reusing the remains of the past to create a more open and joyous future. The team is finding gold, or at least golden opportunities, in them there dumpsters.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

Read more: The latest from columnist Aaron Betsky includes looks at the work of adaptive reuse specialists 51N4E, Jo Taillieu, and AJDVIV.