In this beautiful TEDx talk Michiel van Iersel, founder of the Amsterdam based collective ‘Failed Architecture‘ explains how and most importantly why more and more non-architects get involved in urban planning, and what this has to do with previous generations of ’Starchitects’: He quotes Dan Hill, a visionary design researcher focused on integrating design, technology, cities, media and people – “You shouldn’t ask an architect to reflect on the future of architecture, take someone from outside that world”.

Who are these new activists and stakeholders? What are the latest tools of dealing with architecture’s new status?

One of van Iersel’s answers is a quote from a Wired article by Adam Greenfield of think tank Urbanscale:

“Digital placemaking tools etch away at the professions of architecture and urban planning, eroding their claim to sovereignty over the authorship of plan, movement and the capacity for transaction.”

Politics of Space

The importance of bottom-up initiatives aka public engagement is feeding into the debates about what the the ever so smart ‘smart city‘ actually is: According to Dan Hill “the most important aspect of smart cities” are smart citizens. He connects the dots between recent social media revolutions and smart urban technologies in his essay “On the smart city; A call for smart citizens instead“.

Interestingly Jill Stoner, a Berkley professor elaborates as well on the relationship between spacial tensions and politics in her book ’Toward a Minor Architecture‘. This however happens in a slightly different context: Stoner draws on examples from ‘Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature’ by Deleuze and Guattari and suggests parallels in both, minor architecture and minor literature, dealing with structures of power and language.

(Writer’s note: The architects amongst the readers will understand how important the concept of ‘language’ is in architecture – I would recommend this tiny piece merging literature with current and necessary architecture practice as an obligatory read before graduating, next to Augé’s Non-Places and Levebvre’s The Production of Space. A preview are the pull quotes lining this article.)

Occupy London (by Crispin Semmens (Flickr: assembly time) [CC-BY-SA-2.0] / Wikimedia Commons)

Introducing Minor Interventions

The American Pavilion’s 2012 show at the Venice Architecture Biennale famously showcased ‘Spontaneous Interventions‘ featuring no less than 124 bottom-up initiated, temporary projects in American cities. It seems that minor interventions have the potential to create much larger waves of improvement than large scale investments and changes to a city’s tissue.

To mention just a few of these collaborative efforts, centring around basic urban themes – such as food, work, walkability, accessibility – pointing with ease at very serious problems:

  • Edible Estates: An ongoing initiative to replace domestic front lawns with kitchen gardens, allowing families to grow their own food, initiated by LA based artist Fritz Haeg.
  • Day Labor Station: The nonprofit Public Architecture developed the Day Labor Station to serve as a meeting place and amenity for day labourers, who are exposed to the elements and, often, the anger of those who oppose immigration.
  • Ghost Bikes: Many have seen these quiet protests for bicycle safety, not only in the US.
  • Local Code: Real Estates: Using GIS mapping, architect Nicholas de Monchaux identified over 1,500 vacant public lots in San Francisco in a matter of months. In the U.C. Berkeley professor’s eyes, when considered together, these residual, unmaintained spaces are a vast untapped resource.
  • Pop Up Lunch: A set of “mobile eating tools” for the urban nomad by designer Alexandra Pulver

Ghost Bike in Manchester (by user [Matt] / Wikimedia Commons)

From Temporary to Permanent

In her research publication entitled Urban Tactics, Alison Killing of Killing Architects dissects several temporary, bottom-up events and projects rooted in a new type of urbanism – participatory tactical urbanism.

The team behind the 72 Hour Urban Action competitions explains their success:

“Through the power of temporality and experimentation, it encourages participation and a lasting change of perception. Through an extreme deadline, a tight budget and limited space, Urban Action sets the imagination free to allow for new possibilities and players in public space.”

This technique of quick urban tests reminds of another phenomenon: The Turkish Gecekondu is a kind of informal housing created by a ‘legal loophole’ which offers anyone the chance to build a house overnight – without building permissions.

72 Hour Urban Action project (by user [ margoelena] / Flickr)

 

This principle crystallises further in another example of Killing’s study, another competition ‘Meanwhile London’: The following statement pretty much sums up the situation relating to the further development and potentially permanent nature of the projects drawn from temporary architecture proposals:

Shell Tower Amsterdam
(by user [Iijjccoo] / Wikimedia Commons)

“The temporary projects are mainly about changing the perception of the area and helping to attract investment, both by generating publicity and proving the viability of the sites in question.”

In the Netherlands, popular temporary projects often make use of existing structures, such as landmarks of postindustrial heritage in desperate need for a push into the 21st century. A much celebrated example in Amsterdam is the NDSM terrain, a former ship wharf turned cultural and artistic centre, despite its location about 10min  on a boat from Centraal Station at the North side of the IJ canal.

Other examples are club Trouw, in a building formerly housing the printing presses of a large Dutch newspaper, and the ‘Overhoeks‘ tower, also known as Shell Tower right behind Central Station, which will soon be turned into another experience club / restaurant.

There are more Dutch projects using this method of ‘improvisational planning’ – a fixed yet temporary test phase of 2 to 10 years to attract further, more permanent ideas and showcase the potential of the spaces to investors. Temp Architecture Urbanism in Amsterdam gathers quite a few in their publication ‘Time Based Interventions’ (available to download in English on their website).

I call this approach “Design Thinking gone Architecture”. One might define this as a carefully responsive, iterative approach to urban planning as opposed to large scale structures without relating to existing social structures, such as neighbours and users. But is this method strong enough to handle the latest challenges?

Tackling Vacancy with Creativity

As mentioned in a previous article on vacancy in European cities, one of the most visible effects of the economic crisis is the alarming number of empty office buildings afflicting our European capitals. For example, 18% of the office buildings in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, are vacant, or rather 1,300,00 m2 of idle space is available for conversion.

Temporary interventions seem to be the answer, the fuel to deliver change and ideas within the context of vacant properties. Sometimes the answer could be as simple as pairing two trends:

“In these and other instances powerful forces arise in response to vacancy – not just in the form of empty rooms adapted for reuse, but through an encoding of these vacant spaces, and a subversion of major architecture’s prevailing myths.” Toward a Minor Architecture

In the case of Paris these trends were skyrocketing property prices resulting in “a nation-wide homelessness crisis” and 2 million vacant office properties across the country – it doesn’t take an academic to understand that especially in the freezing winter cold, an office floor will always be better to sleep on than the street.

In the Netherlands however, the latest rise in vacant office space seems to be somewhat harder to handle than disused landmarks or idle but artificially created islands.

Acclaimed projects often only map quantities and locations of vacant spaces, but nothing is done to ease the process of actually initiating improvisational projects within these existing structure. Politicians have already announced that a ‘considerable’ portion of the vacant office stock in the Netherlands will have to be demolished, at the same time as Dutch bottom-up culture is being promoted at home and abroad.

“Like a book no one is reading, a vacant building vibrates with unseen intensities ready to shed its excess, its burden of overwrought grammars, its syntax of profitability: its closed interior and its brittle shell. If we can, let us imagine emptiness recalibrated, space unfolded toward smooth and slippery and nonconforming use.” Jill Stoner in Toward a Minor Architecture

Vacant Offices

Vacant Office Block in Amsterdam West (image by author)