Per Kæssler’s speech is slurred and his body convulses rhythmically. He suffers from cerebral palsy, a brain disorder that affects his ability to control his movements, but it hasn’t stopped him becoming a gifted craftsmen. He holds up a pipe, lacquered and smooth on the sides, and rough on the top. His hands shake so violently it almost tumbles to the floor.
“I’m scared,” he says in his tiny shed. “I’ve told my girlfriend that I will just set the shed on fire if we can’t find a new home for it.”
He’s joking about the arson, but less so about his fear of the future. His shed sits on the grounds of the disused Sadolin paint factory, located at Prags Boulevard 43 in Amager. Since 2011, around 150 creative entrepreneurs have turned the plot of land with its four buildings and large yard into a thriving and productive community dubbed PB43.
Per Kæssler makes pipes in a shed on the grounds of PB43. (Photo: Peter Stanners)
But in March it will come to an end. In 2014, the landowner Akzo Nobel, a Dutch chemicals company, put it on the market. Despite raising over ten million kroner in funding, PB43 was outbid by the storage company Pelican. The deserted space they brought to life will now make way for people’s dead belongings.
PB43 is one of Copenhagen’s most successful creative and user-driven environments, housing ski manufacturers, circuses designers, artists, records companies, event makers and architects. Unlike other user-driven spaces in the city, their shared vision isn’t political but entrepreneurial and social, and despite whatever differences they have, they share a passion to create and collaborate.
Their creative potential was only realised thanks to the land and four empty buildings, which users rented very cheaply compared to the open market. But flexible and cheap post-industrial spaces are getting harder and harder to find. As The Murmur goes to print, the users were negotiating a contract for a facility in Nordhavn, but it wasn’t large enough to house everyone, and some users have moved into another facility in Sydhavn.
As their era under one roof comes to an end, they talked about what made PB43 a special place to work, and why Copenhagen would be a poorer place without them.
A lucky start
PB43 would never have existed if it weren’t for the generosity of Akzo Nobel, who agreed to rent the space for free after being approached by the organisation GivRum.nu in 2010. The factory ceased production in 2006 and the plot of land stood empty, frequented only by graffiti artists and adventurous youths.
GivRum.nu, which means Give Space in Danish, seeks out these sorts of abandoned spaces to turn them into creative hubs. After agreeing on a two-year contract, they quickly found a number of small groups and businesses eager to move in.
The users then set up the cooperative society Arbejdsfælleskabet PB43, which is run by two part-time paid coordinators and a ten-person board that makes most major decisions, including which creative entrepreneurs to give space to. They charge users a nominal rent, normally about 300 kroner per square meter of space per year, which is reinvested in the facilities and new projects, for example covering travel expenses for artists and supporting different PB43 festivals.
Far below market rate, the rent is just one of the reasons that makes PB43 such an attractive place to work.
“We have collected loads of creative entrepreneurs who wouldn’t ordinarily have the conditions to live out their dreams and ideas if it weren’t for the cheap rent,” explains board chairman Pil Rix Rossel, who works as a producer for the new circus Tin Can Company.
“These companies are often in the start-up phase and have amazing ideas, but if they had to spend all their money on rent, they would have no money to develop anything interesting and creative. That’s PB43 – it’s a dream factory. Somewhere you can go and try out your dreams.”
This is certainly true for Petter Brandberg, an architect and craftsman specialising in site-specific urban architecture, ranging from public furniture to scale wooden models of elephants. Together with business partner Sigurd Elling, he runs the company WoodCouture in an ad-hoc extension between Building 2 and a container. The roof of corrugated plastic lets plenty of light into their thriving workshop.
“I’ve always found it difficult to find skis that fit me,” Brandberg says in the container next door. “I have drawn and designed skis for many years, but when I moved in here I suddenly had the time and the means. I didn’t mean to start selling them, I just wanted to make a pair for myself. It ended up being expensive and I spent 1,000 hours on building the machinery and trying out strategies.”
What started out as a hobby quickly became a business and he sells his custom skis for almost 10,000 kroner a pair to mostly-Scandinavian buyers.
“PB43 has an atmosphere where anything is possible. Just being in this atmosphere makes it easier to make skis. I needed those 1,000 hours to try it out, but I also needed all the people out here to encourage me and say they thought it was a good idea. This is a free-spirited community of yes men – it makes making things easier.”
Besides the cheap rent and DIY atmosphere, Brandberg and Elling also found all the open space really useful. When commissioned by the Danish Cycling Federation to build a bicycle obstacle course ahead of the 2011 UCI Road World Championships, they used the yard between the buildings and invited local children to test it out.
The large hall inside Building 5, normally rented out for parties and concerts, also came in handy designer when Henrik Vibskov commissioned them to build props. In both cases, not having to pay through the nose for space enabled them to stay within budget, while also thinking big.
Cheap space was also important for the independent art school FUKK, whose members lease a large room on the second floor of Building 5.
“A lot of us have had workspaces before and had to pay twice what we do now to share a small shitty room with twice as many people. None of us are professionals, and we have work and other stuff on the side,” explains FUKK member Maria Teilgård.
With the help of other PB43 users, they redesigned the space, lowered the floor to give them a higher ceiling and installed a wood stove to keep them warm. This flexibility was important to Teilgård and others at FUKK, who are trying to forge a new type of art education free from old artistic dogmas.
“We are incredibly in love with this room and we’ve been very lucky to have it,” says Teilgård, reminiscing about summer days when they would take to the roof to watch the circuses practice in the yard and the late evenings when concerts in the hall below kept them company.
“It has meant so much to us mentally to have free space. When you’re trying to experiment, it’s important to have a room where you’re not worried. We’ve found it difficult to exhibit at normal galleries, as our methodology didn’t fit because they had too many rules. But we can invite people to shows in here and not have to worry at all.”
Teilgård then makes an oft-repeated point: PB43 is not like the other user-driven communities around the city.
“People out here don’t necessarily agree on anything – the only foundation was free buildings with low rent. It shows that when people have good ideas and are given space to live out their ambitions, things will happen. We never planned to help each other out, it just happens naturally. People talk and overhear each other’s problems and before you know it, someone’s knocking on your door.”
Copenhagen has a long history of autonomous and user-driven communities. Most famous are the squatted naval barracks that became Christiania in the 1970s and the anarchist Youth House (Ungdomshuset) in Nørrebro, which was demolished in 2007, sparking violent demonstrations across the city. The Youth House now lives on in a new facility on Dortheavej in Copenhagne’s Nordvest district, a brisk walk from the non-commercial cultural centre “The Candy Factory” (Bolsjefabrikken).
PB43 users repeatedly distance themselves from aspects of these spaces. Almost everyone makes the point that there is nothing inherently political about PB43’s users except their desire to work in a community where they have the economic and spatial freedom to explore their ideas.
They are also relatively unsentimental about the land and buildings they have inhabited for the past four years. Above all, it suited their needs – they could tear down or build walls, install windows and build extensions at will.
“We were lucky the owner didn’t care,” says Steen Andersen, one of the two PB43 coordinators. “At first we ran ideas past them, but it quickly became clear that they didn’t care so long as no one got hurt.”
Like other user-driven centres, PB43 is run democratically through an elected board. However, the board is more powerful than in many other communities, having the final say on the allocation of money raised through rent. The board’s control is much stronger than most user-driven spaces, but Andersen argues that this is one of PB43’s key strengths.
“Working at PB43 means much more to users than simply having a space. You are guaranteed solidarity, inspiration, quick decisions and quick money. People feel like they are kicking ass because even though you’re working around a lot of people, it’s not bureaucratic – you can go to a board meeting and they can make a decision immediately.”
The new facility in Nordhavn that PB43 hopes to move into will unlikely be as flexible and cheap as their old home in Amager. At one point, finding a disused building would have been easy, but as the city redeveloped following its near-bankruptcy in the 1980s, few if any such buildings remain.
“It would have been awesome to start ten years ago when Copenhagen was full of empty spaces,” laments Mads Ellebæk Petersen in his office in Building 2. Self-employed and working mainly in the events industry, Petersen manages the hall in Building 5 rented out for events and parties.
“This place is so unique in Denmark. Most people think the council is running it, but we receive no support at all and we have to pay two people to run it. We are not going to be able to recreate it in Copenhagen. It’s simply impossible to find a space like this, where we can do what we want.”
The Nordhavn location is likely to be a temporary stop before they find a permanent facility. For that, they will need to raise the money privately, for while the City Council and philanthropic investors Realdania have expressed interest in helping buy a site for PB43, both acknowledged that if the community accepted the money PB43 would lose their autonomy and their energy by having to live up to new bureaucratic user agreements and pay far higher rent.
Nothing is set in stone, but the idea is to transfer ownership to a fund run by an elected board of PB43 users, private partners and the city, where each individual can wield one vote. One idea is to start new users on very low rent and gradually increase it over the years. Andersen says this will hopefully encourage users to professionalise and encourage well-established businesses to move on once they’ve reached market price. This is important, he argues, because everyone benefits from working in a diverse and dynamic space.
“There’s a cross-pollination out here. I used to work in an environment that was highly specialised and I needed knowledge and input from the outside. It’s much more fun to be around people like a guy who has travelled the world because he builds canoes. He could inspire architects to build a structure differently,” says Andersen, adding that these types of communities provide value to urban landscapes that are being increasingly zoned and sterilised.
“I have two kids and sometimes I think about what sort of city should they live in. I grew up in the aftermath of the industrial era with all these abandoned places that gave me so many possibilities to do my own projects. Will my kids have the same chance? Will office space be the new temporary spaces in the future? How will they be able to shape the city when it is designed with just one purpose in mind?” M