The city, as it’s offered, is never the final word on urban design. Like landscape doctors, artists and designers look at what’s available and devise creative remedies. They set about painting it, tagging it, creating it and removing it. It’s usually illegal and it’s often swiftly removed by the authorities.
But some of the more progressive minds in officialdom have started to recognize the value in what these guerilla artists are creating - works rich in irony and social commentary. So much so that knowing how to deal with unsanctioned urban interventions is becoming a hotly debated public issue.
Scott Burnham, curator of the Droog Event 2: Urban Play event for this year’s ExperimentaDesign biennale recognizes the urgency. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “On the one hand you have big names like Banksy and Os Gêmeos being commissioned by prestigious galleries while on the other, local governments are authorizing the removal of the same artists’ work.”
Cities run as one-way streets. Everything from hospitals to park benches and train routes. What Urban Play does is normalize that situation by exploring the possibilities that two-way communication holds. “The potential is endless,” Burnham says. “Rather than only ever being spoken at, the public can enforce a true dialogue when it comes to their own urban environment.”
And whether cities choose to take this seriously or not is irrelevant. It is already happening. Architects like Spaniard Santiago Cirugeda are scorning traditional planning permits and getting creative on ways to dodge urban conservatism. Rather then build spaces and objects that will be deemed dangerous, they rent dumpsters and use the interiors to explore their own urban ideas. Cirugeda installed a see-saw in a dumpster for children to play on, a personal hack on the idea the planning permission phenomenon.
The exhibition chapter of the Droog 2: Urban Play event showed film and photographs of some of the world’s best urban interventionists. Mark Jenkins, who was in Amsterdam this week for some new urban play, exhibited his carousel horse intervention. On a dreary roundabout in Washington DC he attached colorful horses to street poles at various heights creating an animated carousel atmosphere for drivers.
Following on from the exhibition was the Urban Play Route. Burnham gave a group of designers a specific mission: to explore the potential of an urban design that is created to encourage rather than discourage physical and intellectual interaction with the public.
There was a movable park, flying fish, a park bench that could be personalized via an ipod and of course the controversial Euro cent project by Stefan Sagmeister.
Burnham’s goal in this project was not to convince the city to give the public free reign over the urban environment. He was simply celebrating the creative potential of interventions and challenging city officials and designers to recognize it as a valid contribution to urban design.
“I'm a firm believer that if you push people’s imaginations to one hundred times what they are used to, when it comes to reality they instinctively pull back form radical change, and may only go fifty percent of the way,” Burnham says. “But that’s still fifty percent further than they were at before, and that's how I like to push the boundaries using projects like Urban Play.”
As an example Burnham shows video footage of a recent intervention on New York’s video billboards. There are images of a group of artists building wooden grids and mounting them onto video screens that hang above the entrances to underground train statio. The results eradicate the loud and branded imagery of typical advertising to create interesting, pixilated graphics.
And Amsterdam, Burnham says, is the ideal city to experiment with Urban Play. It’s the right size and the people have the right attitude. “There is something so organic about Amsterdam,” he says. “You could do things here that you could never do in a more structured place like Geneva.
“Just sitting here looking at the way trams and people swim around each other. It’s like poetry of the individual. Big cities like London and São Paulo lack that sense of humanity. There, the individual is secondary to the urban machine.”
Add to that the very normal and accepted way a bourgeois family living on the ground level is happy to have passersby see into their living room. On warm evenings they appear even happier to bring their living rooms out onto the sidewalks for dinner. “There is a psychology about that, “ Burnham says. “The way interior and exterior life is blurred.”
A blurring that provides the ideal terrain for urban interventionists to have their creative say.
Images: Top - Children react to Mark Jenkins' intervention on a water bubbler in Amsterdam. Small from top - Nothing Design Group installing fish in the sky. A lone tree from NL Architect's Moving Forest and Droog Design's Gijs Bakker out for a stroll with one of the trees. Boom Bench also by NL Architects. Volunteers help create Stefan Sagmeister's ill-fated Euro cent project. Bottom image - Windowzoo's flamingo on the roof between tracks 4 and 5 at Central Station. The group's signature is to leave a flamingo at the highest point of a city's central rail station.
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