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The Power of Beauty

A graffiti gang, a beauty parlour, and an old man with his newspaper. How one public space designer created a community that made everyone feel at home.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 10-10-2008

As part of the Sunday Adventure Club’s trek into the mind’s of the world’s best urban pioneers, curator Ester van de Wiel asked five local space designers to get involved. She asked each one of them to manipulate available plots into unexpected adventure grounds. The result offers everything from boat building, to fish preparation, a dog playing field and the chance to explore the diversity of urban flora.

Perhaps the most indulgent experiment was designed by Henriette Waal who turned an inner city garden into an outdoor beauty parlour replete with recliner chairs and mirrors.

When Waal first visited the garden she noticed that two schools used the space as a recreation area. And that got her thinking. “I looked at what sort of people were around,” she says. “There is a beauty school on one side and a health club nearby so I thought it would be best to incorporate that sort of thinking into my design.

The difficulty though was that beauty is something very intimate and the people involved are unlikely to want to have their activities scrutinized by onlookers.

Taking a risk, Waal erected old-fashioned barber chairs on abandoned metal pylons. She fitted the exterior windows of the school with surround Hollywood lights and mirrors.

“My plan was to get the students to put away their fake heads and instead give hair cuts, massages and body treatments to real people, people from the community,” Waal says.

And it was a success. The student beauticians, the public and the community have risen to the occasion and embraced Waal’s project with more enthusiasm than she could have imagined.

Best of all, she says, has been the way the local community have accepted and worked around their new surroundings. Before the opening, an elderly man settled into one of the barber chairs and opened a newspaper. A beautician approached him and asked if he wanted a massage.

“It was really very beautiful,” says Waal. “I got pictures of it, and they weren’t staged. The beautician explained what she was doing and then they just started to talk.”

During opening hours, women and men lie horizontal to be picked at and stroked. “They almost look like monkeys,” says Waal. “And it’s initially quite shocking because lying down and having people pick at your scalp is not usually ever seen in public.”

The other potential problem was the local gang of youths who hang out in the garden in the evening. “I was wondering what would happen with them,” says Waal. “On the first day I noticed that they spray painted my storage caravan …. I ignored it and later asked them if they knew any spray painters. They said they didn’t and then I said that the tunnel at the entrance to the park had some horrible graffiti and I wanted some new work done. They looked at each other and said nothing but then one of them sort of mumbled that they might be able to find someone to help … it was so funny.”

The city would never allow Waal to officially set up a beauty parlour in a public garden; to erect mirrors and lights outside. “They’d say people would ruin everything,” she says, “But all it took was a bit of genuine communication with the locals. Now we all understand each other and it’s fine – even spraying my caravan was just their way of asserting their presence and claiming their ground. And that is fine.”

The community, the students and the people at the nearby health club have been urging Waal to create something more permanent out of this event.

“I’m not sure,” she says, “but maybe we can transfer this idea to Dam Square and really get the broader public involved.”

Images by Lotte & Sterre Sprengers

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