By Alessandra Goio
Today, the weather is very unpleasant in Maastricht. Even though it’s raining and cold, I’m standing outside the Maastricht municipality, waiting for my special guest. My idea was to interview him to finally write the article about the Landhuis which I had in mind for a long time.
For those who are not familiar with the name ‘het Landhuis’, in English the country house, is a very uncommon place in Maastricht. As its website suggests, it is a cosy place where you can chill out while reading a book or sipping a cup of tea, and its friendly atmosphere makes contact with new people easier. It is also a workspace where people can organise different activities and put into practice their own skills.
When I first visited the Landhuis, I was very impressed, and decided to learn more about it. Therefore, I had the idea to interview one of its members. Luckily, I was able to arrange a meeting with Bart Dekker, one of the co-founders. It was very difficult to make an appointment with him as he’s always very busy. For instance, today he had a meeting with representatives of the Maastricht municipality. When we meet, he informs me he’s still discussing some important issues with them. A little disappointed, I’m ready to take off and postpone the interview to 2015. Instead, he asks me to wait and invites me to grab a coffee together. After a few minutes, with a big smile on his face, he comes to me and we start the interview.
Bart is Dutch, but he’s not originally from Maastricht. He first came here six years ago, after obtaining his Bachelor degree in social work. It was during that time that the idea of building the Landhuis started to take shape. The opportunity came when Bart and some friends decided to revitalise an abandoned building. It took more or less two and a half years to finalise the project and in total they spent 5000 euro. This money came from donations from citizens and by organising events. However, the money was not the most important ingredient. According to my interviewee, another factor played a crucial role. Namely, the strong belief that goals can be better achieved when people are part of a community. Indeed, living in a community entails that everything is done together. This is very motivating as people work in teams and they help each other.
Another interesting thing to note about the Landhuis is the motivation that pushed Bart and the other members to create such a place. Today, Bart explains, our society promotes a lifestyle based only on consumerism. To make this system function, it is important that each person fulfils a specific role for the benefit of an ever-growing economy. If you don’t satisfy this role, you’re isolated from society. For instance, students are doomed to become workers, whereas the elderly have to retire, as they’re not economically efficient anymore. Opposing this trend, the Landhuis was built to offer an alternative way of living. “At the Landhuis you can be yourself because there are no roles to fulfil”, Bart affirms. He admits that although differences among people exist and cannot be neglected, at the Landhuis, the atmosphere is perfect to gather people of different ages and cultures together and make them interact. This is what he calls the creation of an intergenerational and intercultural community.
The Landhuis tries to correct another negative aspect of our society. According to him, throwing things away is the biggest disease of our time. In order to stop it, it is important that everybody adopts a more sustainable way of living. What the Landhuis tries to do is to show people that this is possible. In particular, recycling plays a crucial role. This belief is particularly strong with regard to food. At the Landhuis all the food comes from containers owned by the supermarkets around Maastricht. Every day, they pick up fruit, vegetables and other unsold items that otherwise would go to the trash.
As for the money, the Landhuis members do not personally own it. But when it comes to electricity and running water, obviously money becomes essential. To pay for these kinds of expenditures, the Landhuis has a common fund. This comes from donations and the profits of the Landhuis living room.
My next questions concern how the Landhuis practically works. Bart explains it is not a top-down organisation, as there are no leaders. On the contrary, everybody is an organiser. Having said that, it sounds like the Landhuis follows a democratic model. As soon as I write down “democracy” on my notebook, Bart asks me to change it into “sociocracy”. According to this system, decisions are taken by consensus and not by majority. To teach me how the sociocratic organisation of the Landhuis works, Bart draws a little sketch on a coaster. While we were talking, he received a call and wrote down a phone number on the coaster and took it with him when we were done. In the following sample, I tried to do my best to reproduce what he showed me.
Basically, the Landhuis can be represented as a flower. The General Assembly is the central body. Attached to it, there are the petals, namely the various sub-groups which are responsible for organising different activities. One of these is the Food Bank that consists of a vegan dinner, using the fruit and vegetables not sold at the Market. It takes place every Friday evening and everybody can eat the meals prepared by a group of volunteers for free.
My time with Bart is almost over and he is in a hurry, but I still have plenty of questions. Eventually, I decide to ask what the future of the Landhuis is. Is it going to last forever? He says that it is important that the project will last, for it offers new and positive input to society. Despite this, he’s pretty sure that someday all the members will be evicted from the building. Thus, the critical question is whether it will be possible to build a new Landhuis. This depends on the transformation our society will undertake. In particular, will we still believe in the power of community? Will we still be able to criticise the negative aspects of our society? And ultimately, will we still want to correct them?
By leaving me with these questions, Bart helped me understand many things. For instance, that the Landhuis is not the cool and chilled place where the Maastricht hippies live. It is an expression of the strong and serious conviction that a different way of living based on the respect of the environment and the creation of a no-roles community is possible. However, adopting the Landhuis lifestyle is not as simple as we imagine. In fact, it requires us to give up all our consumerist comforts. Will our society be ready to do this? If so, when?