"The problem and at the same time the advantage of Das Packhaus is that it is a hybrid project."
Veronika Kovacsova & Margot Deerenberg will participate in the New Europe City Makers Summit on May 27-30 2016. Find out more about the programme and register below.
Paradocks sees empty buildings as unused resources. The organisation works with temporary use, and currently manages a formerly empty office block of 3500M2, called ‘Das Packhaus’ in Vienna. We interviewed initiators Veronika Kovacsova and Margot Deerenberg about how they started the project, how they manage the building and what the main challenges are of Das Packhaus.
Can you briefly explain what Paradocks does?
Margot: We started some years ago with the idea of unused resources, we want to see temporary use as a challenge, not as a problem. In Vienna, there is a large theoretical discourse about temporary use. We wanted to have an actual project where we could show what the positive results of making use of empty spaces could be. We got this large 3500 square meter building after a certain process, it has a very good structure to put different offices inside.
Veronika: We are basically opening up a formerly closed and unused building. We wanted to open it to the public, as well as to small entrepreneurs so they can use it as their working space. The ground floor is a public space of about 600 square meters.
Margot: With this public space on the ground floor, we offer add-on space for the offices upstairs. We provide these companies with meeting spaces, workshop spaces and even exhibition space. They can do all of that here. Basically, they get the complete package, it is not only about office space, it is about flexible use of the building. We developed the ground floor space very minimally so that the companies upstairs can decide for themselves how to use it. Everyone can help develop this office.
Veronika: At the beginning we never thought that we would fill this building, or that we would even reach 80% capacity, which was our minimum to do the project. But then, when we had our first two open days, they turned out to be a huge success. People started showing up in front of the building as if a new store was opening. They wanted to be the first to have an office.
Margot: That was a really big surprise, and still we get so many requests. There are so many innovative interesting projects in need of a space.
“We wanted to have an actual project where we could show what the positive results of making use of empty spaces could be.” – Margot
How did you find the building? How did you know this was the building you wanted to do your project in?
Margot: Other people also wanted to have the building, so there was a big round table meeting with directors from universities all over Vienna. We were chosen because we had the least capitalistic and the most interesting idea for the real estate owner. Initially we only asked for one floor in the building, but they called us two days afterwards and said that we had to take the whole building. We shortly thought about it and then we said yes.
How do you select the companies for this building?
Margot: In the beginning we had a small questionnaire on the website with questions about the kind of businesses people had and what their expectations were. With the set up of the project we wanted to be very heterogeneous: companies in different sectors like art, technology and NGOs could apply. Nowadays, if we have a good feeling about the first contact, we give people an office space.
Veronika: We have more start-ups now than when we started. In the beginning we had more artists and students.
Margot: I think change occurred because we raised the prices. In the initial stage, some people were just using the space after work as a hobby space, which is nice, but also a shame since you don’t want to create emptiness in emptiness. The start-ups that we have now are there from 9 to 5.
Do the different companies inside the building work together?
“There are connections between companies that we never would have imagined would work together.” – Veronika
Margot: More and more so. I know about 10 cases where people are really working together on a business level, and this happens mostly on the ground floor. I know that there is a lot of exchange on the other floors as well, but that is something we are not always aware of.
Veronika: The building has seven floors in total: the public ground floor and then six floors with office space. We know that collaborations happen more per floor, between different types of businesses. Last week for example one of the entrepreneurs who is developing board games, used the sound studio of someone else. There are connections between companies that we never would have imagined would work together. And there is a lot of knowledge and social capital inside the building. We see that people are very open to sharing their knowledge, skills, and even tools. For example, someone person has a printer that you can use, and another person has a sewing machine.
Do you monitor or mediate these cooperations?
Margot: No, I write them down, but we do not want to enforce it. We now have an Open Thursday every month or so in which one office or one floor is open up to the whole building, so that they can show what they are doing. I think that is a nice way to communicate, but no, we are not monitoring as such.
You both come from different countries, do you think that because of this, you do things differently from locals?
“Since we were both not raised here, we don’t know what the unwritten rules are and how they work.” – Veronika
Margot: I think we do not fear too much and that we have been pretty pragmatic from the beginning.
Veronika: We know less about the social and cultural context in Vienna. Since we were both not raised here, we don’t know what the unwritten rules are and how they work. This means that we keep our eyes and minds open. We do not as easily see the limits here in Vienna.
Margot: I think in some ways it is good to be a little bit blindsided.
Veronika: That’s true, because you keep your horizon open, you don’t encounter the limits that locals would. More generally, I think it is also important to be positive, however this may sound very cliché. As soon as you come with a positive attitude and good ideas, people will start listening to you. And it has paid off, because we think that Das Packhaus is a very successful project in Vienna. This kind of attitude has paid off.
How do you financially sustain yourselves?
Margot: We rent out the spaces on the different floors, but we also have all kinds events on the ground floor.
Veroninka: We had festivals here as well, an open source festival called Vienna Open was hosted here.
Margot: And then we also rent out the ground floor space for conferences. We even see traditional and conservative organisations wanting to use these spaces. They rent these spaces because it is cool now, these companies want to open up a little bit and make use of different spaces.
Veronika: We manage to survive, and that was our dream. We don’t want to be rich, but we do want to make the project feasible so that we are not working for free, because a lot of hours of work go into what we are doing. That is the goal, to generate enough profit to cover the team, and not to rely on public funding.
Margot: We started with no investment at all. Now we built it up and have 6 people working for Paradocks.
What challenges do you encounter inside the building itself?
Margot: It is hard to set up a proper communication channel or network inside the building. We know from other co-working spaces that they cope with similar problems. It is hard to define what our role is, if we should organise events for everyone inside the building or not, these kinds of things. Because if the attendance is very low, it is not that interesting to organise them.
Veronika: There are about 250 people in the building. We struggle with how we, as an organisation, who manage the building, communicate with all of them. Since the beginning, we had very high ambitions to have this as a real community project, our expectations were higher than what is the reality.
Margot: It is not that bad, it is just that it could be better.
What are the challenges that you encounter with temporary use in general?
Margot: First of all, temporary use is a difficult topic in Vienna. Convincing real estate owners as wel as the municipality is challenging, because temporary use is a very scary thing to them. But the temporal nature of our project is the most important feature. If you take it away we would just be using the space. Second, there is a problem with subsidies. We always fall between being an economic project or a cultural project. We do not get enough profit to apply for profit-oriented grants and on the other hand, we do not only do cultural events. We also rent out office spaces.
Veronika: The problem and at the same time the advantage of Das Packhaus is that it is a hybrid project. We have trouble applying for grands because it is too hybrid. The municipality tends to reject our application because we are too diverse. There are more things happening in the building: both socially, culturally, and economically. I think this is our strength, this is the uniqueness of Das Packhaus.
Margot: The grant structure is very conservative in a way because people want to put you in a box, they want you to be either this or that.
“The temporal nature of our project is the most important feature, if you take it away we would just be using the space.” – Margot
This building will only available to you until the end of 2016. What is going to happen afterwards?
Margot: Basically, we don’t know. We have a talk in two weeks with the owner. The original plan for the main owner was to reallocate the building, but that was not accepted by the municipality. So the process of selling the building or selling parts has to start again. It is difficult to establish change in this building because it has multiple owners. The main owner has 85%, the rest is owned by private owners, so they cannot just tear down the building. This is why we don’t know yet if we will stay in this building for longer.
The problem and at the same time the advantage of Das Packhaus is that it is a hybrid project. – Veronika
Do you want to stay in the building for longer?
Margot: Yes! We want to stay, because it is centrally located and it has a very good structure. I don’t know many other buildings that are in such a good condition. But I also think it would be nice to start a new project.
Veronika: We are constantly in search of a new project, or a new building. We could even do it parallel to Das Packhaus, because even if this project continues, we want to expand.