The story of modern-day Ruigoord resembles Copenhagen’s famous Freetown Christiania: It all started with a squatted occupation. Due to the scheduled expansion of the Dutch capital’s harbor area, the village of Ruigoord was evacuated – but the planned conversion never took place: In 1973, a group of artists, the Amsterdam Balloon Company, decided to seize and squat the empty village. Opposed to the listed harbor extension, they championed the preservation of our natural environment and founded the Freehaven artists’ colony.

Church in Ruigoord, photo: Arthur de Smidt
Church in Ruigoord, photo: Arthur de Smidt

And despite a brief confrontation with the builders tasked to expedite the demolition, the artists’ activities were soon condoned by officials. In the late 1990s, and in collaboration with Amsterdam’s port authority, they came up with an encompassing concept for Ruigoord as an artistic community. Today, the Freehaven is entirely legal and sanctioned by the city.

Tycho Hellingo, who grew up in Ruigoord, currently attends Amsterdam University to finish his Master’s degree, yet continues to entertain close ties to the artists’ colony as their PR and communications coordinator. When asked about his unusual roots, he says that “Ruigoord is completely different from ‘normal’ villages in every way.“

Life in the Freehaven revolves around a ubiquitous sense of community – an almost forgotten ideal that now enjoys a worthwhile renaissance. And while Ruigoord-based artists are free to pursue their chosen disciplines, there is a strong focus on collective projects. The entire village is dotted with studios, but exhibitions take place in the barn or church.

Four decades after its inauguration, Ruigoord has become one of the Netherland’s foremost cultural centers, appealing to fans around the world. And its founding fathers and mothers, the Amsterdam Balloon Company, continue to shape the project’s path and future with frequent happenings and expeditions. Their trusty four-wheeled companion – a bus bought in 1974, already sixteen years old back then – even took them all the way to India and Nepal. Now equipped with solar panels, it remains the community’s mobile HQ.

In 1990, shortly after the Wall came down, the Amsterdam Balloon Company ventured east to Berlin for a range of street performances and theatrical shows near their Brandenburg Gate “camping grounds.” Still an infant in those days, Tycho might not remember this particular outing, but a more recent venture to Christiania remains firmly ensconced in his mind: “It was an amazing trip.”

Ruigoord itself plays host to a wide range of cultural events throughout the year. Among the community’s seasonal highlights: July’s Landjuweel (country jewel) festival. To celebrate this year’s special anniversary, the residents went all out with a 100 m x 250 m Eye of Ruigoord sculpture and the world premiere of a Freehaven Ruigoord book that retraces the location’s eventful history.

Since the turn of the millennium, the Freehaven has staged its Fiery Tongues poetry festival on Whitsun, while the more recent Futurological Symposium (held at the same time as the Landjuweel festival) and international conference promotes the preservation of spaces for cultural exploration and highlights their significance for us all. This year, guests from the USA, Portugal, Russia, and even Mongolia were expected to attend – and later sign a “Declaration of The Universal Right to Free Cultural Spaces.“

But that’s not all: Since 2003, those who help the community and publicly voice their support for the preservation of Ruigoord receive the so-called Ruigoord Trophy. Previous award winners include American poet, photographer, and film-maker Ira Cohen or Dutch poet and author Simon Vinkenoog. Furthermore, each summer a prominent figure gets the chance to explore a particular topic through the Freehaven lens in a public “Ruigoord Speech.”

So, happy anniversary, Ruigoord! 40 years after its foundation, the Freehaven’s original values still apply as an aspirational social and moral compass. Always evolving, the project has not remained frozen in time, but continues to exert its siren call to both young new arrivals and seasoned veterans thanks to its great sense of community.

Text: Alexandra Schade
header image: Floris Leeuwenberg