Editor’s note: Madison Worthy and Miriam Engle biked across Europe, where they visited different Makerspaces, and filmed Self-Made, a documentary about their adventure and the Makers they met. You can find a list of installments chronicling their journey at the end of this article.
We are Madison Worthy and Miriam Engle. From April to July we biked our way across Europe, visiting as many makerspaces and fab labs as we could. We filmed the documentary Self-Made, the story of creative communities, along the way, to be released April, 2016. On our “Tour de Fab” we visited a lot of cool labs. Here are ten of our favorites, definite “must visits” if you find yourself cycling through the neighborhood.
Fabulous St. Pauli
In many ways, Fabulous St. Pauli feels like the den for a well-meaning anarchists’ club. Maybe that’s because of its central location in the riotous St. Pauli district of Hamburg, where grunge and swank trot side by side down streets plastered with graffiti. Or maybe it’s because our weeklong visit coincided with Tag der Arbeit (Labor Day) which Hamburg really throws down for. Whatever the reason, Fabulous St. Pauli is fighting the good fight. In the spring, before our bike tour had begun, members erected a small studio in Park Fiction and taught more than 100 people, including many refugees, how to make their own cell phones for free. Fabulous St. Pauli is nestled against a bicycle repair shop and has had to be creative with its garage-sized space. We learned to solder within an acceptable margin of failure and celebrated with some good German beers, after which we tested Lab founder and manager Axel Sylvester’s pet project, a cargo bicycle.
Frysklab is a mobile Fab Lab that calls the Frisian city of Leeuwarden home. Even though the bright yellow truck is a road-tripping champ — in February of this year it traveled all the way to Florence — Frysklab luckily happened to be parked at home that sunny day in May, outside the Frisian Library Service Headquarters. Frysklab co-founder Jeroen de Boer led a presentation to local librarians and educators about integrating makerspaces and libraries. “Libraries are forced to reinvent themselves,” Jeroen said. “Libraries typically survived by lending out books. Due to technology, this is changing. The whole business model of a traditional library is changing. […] The maker movement is basically about the same principles as being a librarian: so it’s about sharing, it’s about open information, it’s about collaborating with each other.” Two weeks later, we had an opportunity to experience Jeroen’s vision firsthand during our final stop in the Netherlands at FabLab Zeeland in Middelburg, where Alinda Mastenbroek runs a very open Lab out of the provincial Zeeland Library and facilitates many programs for local youth.
Kaasfabriek means “Cheese Factory” in Dutch. This thoroughly unique Fab Lab got its name when founding member André van Rijswijck acquired a single shipping container in a near-empty parking lot. He painted it yellow and decided it looked like a massive block of cheese. André’s creative vision expanded, and so did Kaasfabriek. The Fab Lab is currently composed of five shipping containers — with a sixth on the way — stacked and built into each other. And because it’s not technically a building, they pay no rent. When we arrived after cycling 114km across windy northern Holland, the long May sun had set and Kaasfabriek was bumping. The age range really impressed us. Several kids younger than twelve were teaching adults five times their age. A group immediately attacked our Danish speaker project, and finally got it to emit sound. The maker party continued until the early hours, and we spent the night like princesses, in the topmost shipping container.
Amsterdam, city of 90 islands, was the third major stop along our bike tour. At ZB45 Makerspace we found an amicable group of women to discuss some of the diversity questions. “The context in which you learn is very important,” active member Donna Metzlar said. “Women have traditionally taken on the caring role,” she continued, noting that at ZB45 all tasks are shared, creation and cleanup alike.
FabLab Amersfoort is infamous within the Fab network for sustainably hacking it, financially and ecologically. They’re self-funded from within their community, so they have no strings attached, and there’s a strong sense of ownership and responsibility between members. Co-founder Harmen Zijp describes FabLab Amersfoort as “the very first entirely grassroots funded Fab Lab in the world.” They support themselves in part by renting out studio space to people like Flip de Leeuw, who is building solar-powered boats for competition.
“A lot of the other Fab Labs that started with top-down money in the first place have a limit to this funding period, and they all run into trouble after this period,” Harmen said. “Some of them survived, ready to change their mode of operation, others just quit, and they’re out of business. That’s something that cannot happen to us, at least not for that reason.” Other co-founder Diana Wildschut keeps bees on the roof of De War, a DIY artists’ collective that Harmen and Diana belonged to before they founded the Fab Lab next door. Diana’s bees pollinate the urban garden growing in the parking lot beside FabLab Amersfoort. In the lit world, we call that poetic justice.
While hosted in the home of the gregarious Bart Bakker in Utrecht, we checked out the MiniFabLab, the smallest fixed Fab Lab in the world. Bart built the entire Lab in his garage for around €6,500 and it features a model train studio and canoe rental, in addition to the standard equipment for digital fabrication. “The maker movement is at the moment a very small thing,” Bart told us. “But I think it can be a catalyst in the direction of education by demonstrating what you can do with technology. I think the catalyst function is the important thing, not the movement as such.”
Stadslab Rotterdam was one of many Fab Labs operating out of a university that we visited. Stadslab is open to the public, but their location particularly allows them to reach instructors, who in turn reach a wider audience of students. “People that come in sometimes have ideas, and they have those ideas for years in their head, but they are never able to work on it because they simply don’t have a laser cutter in their shed or their attic, or a 3D printer because it is too expensive,” said Lab manager Arnold Roosch.
FabLab Comtois is actually a network of rural Fab Labs in the Burgundy countryside. (We’re cheating; it’s impossible to narrow this list down to ten.) Each Lab in the Comtois network focuses on something different and quintessentially local: FabLab Chamblay focuses on woodworking, for example, while FabLab Champagnole on electronics and small business. Our time in Burgundy coincided with the opening of a new Lab in the network at Beaune, which focuses on design, wine, and robotics. We overnighted with local member Alain Cabrol, an avid maker who built his own salmon smoker. Guess what we had for dinner that night?
Artilect, France’s first and largest Fab Lab, is a major clubhouse. They have everything, from a huge warehouse in which ambitious architects, artists, and drone enthusiasts can go crazy, to a biohack lab, where they’re experimenting with mycelium and aquaponics, to a Fab Cafe, where members can socialize and share. “We are trying to build another world,” said project coordinator Constance Garnier, “and this other world is focused on how people are raised, how people are educated, how people are responsible about making by themselves and understanding what they do.”
In Barcelona, the final destination of our Tour de Fab, we encountered architecture-fueled evolution. FabLab BCN makes its home inside the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia and collaborates on projects such as the Green FabLab and the FabLab House, sustainable habitation. Under construction on the coast, the second iteration of the FabLab House will be a solar-powered yacht club/restaurant. “The Green FabLab is producing the tools and the means to actually get a closer dialogue between nature and technology,” said director Tomas Diez. “The message we are trying to send is that: we are not just thinking about today, we are thinking of tomorrow.”