When Floris told me this sentence I immediately realized that this was the best possible way to grasp the identity of the place. It was on a Saturday night. From Leidseplein, one of the most mainstream spots in the commercial center, it is very easy to access the gate of Vondelpark, the largest and most well-known park in Amsterdam. The whole area is packed with shops, boutiques, malls, hordes of tourists and overpriced bars and clubs.
I cycled my way through the park and on the first bridge I slowed down. I had to turn on the right. Passengers that don’t pay attention they don’t even notice the makeshift muddy alley. Only trees and a couple of benches are obvious from the main path. Other than that it seems like a dead end. Although when someone takes a closer look, a low door appears under what seems to be the base of the bridge.
The green entrance leads to what is today the Vondelbunker. The fact that it is hidden in open view is not random. The underground building was initially designed as a Cold Ward bomb shelter back in 1947. As part of the municipal property, it remained out of use for a long time until the Schijnheilig, a group of activists where evicted from a former school building that they were occupying. While searching for a new space they discovered the underground shelter. It was 2011 when the Vondelbunker was brought back to life.
Take me to the playground
Since then the free space has been a hub for experimentation. Experience and creation go hand in hand here. Newcomer bands who take their first steps in live performances, avant-garde artists who need a place for exhibitions, activists, theater and poetry lovers find their way to the Vondelbunker. The one day you can find a punk band playing here, the next day you can meet sports addicts working out in the sounds techno beats and the day after you can join a networking meeting for local activists.
“Everyone and everything is accepted. We never tell anyone on how to do things because there is no right or wrong way to do it. Vondelbunker is a playground. It’s a place for all those who want to experiment without the consequences of failure”. A laboratory model, Vondelbunker is a social space where the principle of unregulated freedom of expression values the most. As a center for creativity and counterculture it provides an opportunity to escape from the mainstream choices of entertainment and production of art.
It’s all about the people
Floris told me the whole story while we were seating on the bar and a band was performing next to us. Every now and then we had to raise our voices a bit more. The tram lines cross above the roof and each time the heavy vehicle rumbles above our heads the whole room rattles to the core.
He is one of the volunteers who run the Vondelbunker and member of the initial group of activists who believed in the use of city spaces as zones of creativity, innovation, and progress. At the door entrance you can read “Welcome to the Vondelbunker. This is a non-commercial cultural centre run by volunteers out of the conviction that space is political.”
As a non-commercial centre, the entrance remains always open for creators and audience with all the events to be free of charge. Financial profit isn’t the motivation, neither for the performers nor for the people working for the Vondelbunker. Unlike other cultural centers aligned with the conventional system of economic regulation, the Vondelbunker is an open space from and for the people of the city.
As a political place, ideologies are challenged and remain under debate. Visitors are attracted to political discourses either directly through regular meetings about legal rights for squatters and open discussions on social issues or indirectly by a poster “Refugees Welcome” hanging on the wall or the flyers “Fight for Free and Emancipatory Education” scattered on the bar table.
“It is also political because of its background and of what we went and are going through in order to achieve having spaces of freedom.” The collective behind the Vondelbunker and many other groups of activists and artists in Amsterdam have long realized that alternative choices are needed in modern cities. They have realized that in democratic societies spontaneous and unregulated self-expression and interaction, just like the kind of play that occurs on playgrounds, is the most beneficial process for the development of socially active and engaged citizens.
In order to protect this right many spaces have been established where creativity, counterculture are promoted. A challenge to the one-fits-them-all mainstream model, alternative Amsterdam venues and social spaces are scattered all over the city. You might need to sidetrack from the main road and enter the hidden alley to find them.