Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn have a passion for urban transformation. Both grew up steeped in architectural theory and both have fathers who were noted urban planners in Holland. Yet this Dutch artist duo—who operate under the moniker Haas&Hahn—affect change not through books and discourse, but through exploring other cultures on the ground, in the streets of North Philadelphia and Pachuca, Mexico, and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
Most recently, Haas&Hahn have spent the last two years living and working in Philadelphia’s Germantown revitalizing a downtrodden commercial strip by hiring local youth to paint the facades of buildings a rainbow of riotous color. More than just a band-aid project, “Philly Painting” is the most ambitious and complex initiative underwritten by the city’s Mural Arts Program in its 30-year history, resulting in more than 100 buildings painted.
“Philly Painting.” Photo: Steve Weinik
The experience of working with the Philadelphia community on such a monumental project has reignited Dre’s and Jeroen’s desire to return to Rio de Janeiro and paint an entire hillside favela. The duo have recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to complete what they had started seven years ago.
I caught up with the Dutch dudes (an expression of affection for their swagger and impressive physical builds) during a boozy evening in New York City where they poured on thick, true and truly crazy anecdotes. I share a couple of my favorite stories.
Favela Painting: Boy with Kite, 2007
Dre: “While painting “Boy with Kite,” a family offers me a small room in their favela house. Their home consists of a bunch of kids, cats and mosquitos, non-stop protestant pop music, and a whole lotta love.
“Living in a favela is a very social event. Your neighbors hear every fart—and vice versa. When taking a shower, a large hole in the wall offers an open view into the next-door living room. Upon seeing our neighbor, I’m waving and shouting good mornings to a startled guy who does everything possible to ignore my greetings. Half an hour later—bathed, dressed and opening the front door I see him again. And he looks genuinely surprised to see me. ‘Hey, you still here, bro?’
“A great social solution to a crowded living environment? Simply ignore each other while in ‘private time’ and acknowledge each other’s existence at a set point. I call it virtual privacy. It takes me a few months to grow accustom to the toilet that is en-suite to the dining area where a small bed sheet doubles as a door. Virtual privacy apparently also works for sounds and smells.”
Favela Painting: Rio Cruzeiro, realized in 2008
Jeroen: “I’m on a bus to Vila Cruzeiro with Rob Admiraal, the tattoo artist who is helping us lay out the design for the River with Koi Carp. Rob has his suitcase with him because we’ll drop him off at the airport later. As we drive into Vila Cruzeiro an armored police vehicle pulls up beside the bus. All of a sudden we hear shots coming from all angles. Rob sits motionless in his seat until I gesture for him to get on the floor like everyone else. The driver steps on the gas. We get out at the next stop and wait inside a local bakery with a few locals. One guy shows me a gunshot wound in his shoulder. A mom grows impatient and walks out into the street with her two children while the shooting continues. Then the shooting stops and Rob and I walk with his suitcase past an empty city bus parked across the road, making it impossible for any other vehicle to pass.
“We meet up with Dre, who is waiting in a local bar with friends. The shooting starts again, ricocheting from opposing hills. Rob really needs to get to the airport or he will miss his plane. We ask our local nonchalant friends what to do. ‘Why don’t you just walk down the street and get a cab?’ Bullets are flying above us but they reassure us we are not in the line of fire. We hesitate until one of them offers to walk with us. We half run with Rob’s suitcase, past the abandoned bus while two armies keep each other under fire. It feels like an eternity to find a cab but we finally arrive at the airport. We get our Hollywood-ending, Rob and his suitcase make the plane.”
I live vicariously through my friends Dre and Jeroen because I don’t have the guts to get out of my comfort zone. They are my heroes who cross literal and metaphorical borders to reimagine the built environment. Join me in helping Haas&Hahn make a collective dream come true by pledging here.