Site-Specific Urban Design: The Call and Response of Street Art and the City

RI >>>CHPOOR by Above

I think we’re missing the boat on street-level design R&D.

That’s pretty much the summary of my latest essay and photo gallery exploring the visual and physical interplay which is taking place between urban intervention, street art and the urban landscape which was just published in the journal CITY: Analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action. When they asked me to do a piece for them on a trend in urban aesthetics that I felt needed more attention, I gave them the above sentence, but they said that they usually like pieces longer than 11 word statements. Fine, I thought. I’ll flesh it out some more. So here’s some more of what I’ve been thinking.

As many people know, I’ve long been fascinated by the resonance between objects in the city and its inhabitants. My Urban Play project looked into this in great deal in both the exhibition and the city-wide design intervention project I did with Droog Design in Amsterdam in 2008. What continues to inspire me is the ongoing relational design that is taking place at the margins of urban culture – the interventions which form intrinsic relationships between individual creativity and the physical city.

Most dismiss these non-sanctioned urban interventions as playful tokens of creativity at best, and vandalism at worst. But there is a lot more going on beneath the surface of this activity. As I say in the essay:

If we were to consider the dialogue of design in the same way we do the linguistic development of a culture’s language, then just as informal street-level vernacular has innovated and filled in the gaps of a culture’s formal language, the street has as well developed its own vernacular to fill the gaps in the city’s formal design. This new street-level language of design – non-commissioned, non-invited interventions in the urban landscape – transforms the fixed landscape of the city into a platform for a design dialogue.

Take, for example, the work of Gualicho:

San Jose bridge support by Gualicho
San Jose bridge support by Gualicho

Interventions such as these, at their core, are more than simply creative play in the streets – they signal a new aesthetic correspondence between the individual and the physical city; a step-change in not only the street art scene but in the relationship between the power of the individual and the aesthetics of the city.

Of note are those works which not only reflect a specific relationship with space, but also with time. For example, the shadow skaters by Singapore’s TR853-1, which only have a terrain to skate on at night:


And of course, Montreal’s Roadsworth:

Bible Bench by Roadsworth
Bible Bench by Roadsworth

Some of the great victories in this genre are those works inspired by the cast-off, degraded objects and areas of the city. The objects kicked to the side of daily life in the city. It is from these areas of urban compost that new crops of work grow. DIY up-cycling? Creative urban re-use? For people like Jim Darling, the cast-offs you might find in an alley – old mattresses, discarded tires – become source material, returned to the alley in a new form:

Trash Dude Beacon by Jim Darling
Trash Dude Beacon by Jim Darling

Artist Mark Jenkins is in a category of his own in this field. For Jenkins, there is a dramatic tension in the objects and detritus of the city waiting to be revealed.

“Sometimes I’ll come across something in the city that will give me the idea to do something site specific. But other pieces aren’t so much about a particular site but more about affecting city objects and structures [and] exposing the vulnerabilities of these structures to be extended into the surreal.” – Mark Jenkins

At times, all that is needed is a discarded bed frame and an exposed lamp box for his characters to get up to mischief in the city:

storker play mark jenkins
Storkers at Play by Mark Jenkins

Or an overlooked trash can in Moscow to add a twist to people’s daily experience:

Trash Sperm by Mark Jenkins
Trash Sperm by Mark Jenkins

Echoing Guy Debord’s belief that “what changes our way of seeing the streets is more important than what changes our way of seeing painting”, there is an opportunity for contemporary urbanism itself to pay attention to the energy and innovation that can be found in the streets today and learn from the relationships it creates between people and their physical city. Just as online and digital media has been transformed by remix culture and open source methodologies, the same metamorphosis is occurring in the creative relationship of the individual and the physical city. We should be paying attention to this as an equally transformative movement.

The full text is published in the current issue of CITY, featuring Above’s signature work from Lisbon on the cover.

If you would like to read the essay in full, you can find it online here.

A PDF is also available on the site featuring an extended image gallery of some of the artists and works shown here.

If you’d like to keep in touch with my upcoming projects or publications, please subscribe or get in touch directly via the email address in the header.

Paris Report: Pixel Advertising Design

I was in Paris the other day and came across the latest campaign from French online clothing retailer La Redoute. The first thing that caught my eye was of course the pixelated trails that were coming off of the images of the models. At first, I thought I had stumbled across an always pleasing moment of unintentional design, the billboard print escaping some quality control, as celebrated perfectly in the book Glitch: Designing Imperfection. But then I realised it the pixel motif was intentional, and it then became even more interesting to me.

Though it is most likely an abstract of the intention of the design, the pixels provide a rare moment of authenticity in the design itself; transparency in a sense – admitting that for all the beauty and style being communicated, the poster is indeed a digital creation. There is an honesty in the pixelated traces coming from the models – the painter’s brushstrokes still evident in the final work. (OK, more like the Photoshop Jockey’s mouse strokes… but ‘painter’s brushstrokes’ sounds better.)

Of course, the actual intention is most likely less poetic and far more pragmatic in communicating the digital origin in the campaign. And that is obviously connecting the imagery directly to the store’s website. It is impossible to look at the adverts and not think one thing: digital. You see the clothes, and understand that the digital experience is directly tied to them. That the fashion and the lifestyle is accessible, but there is something in the way of it becoming real, and that thing is the digital world. So just visit the website, and you can remove this barrier.

Notably, when you do visit the La Redoute website, the pixelated motif doesn’t follow through online. It has already done its job, intrinsically linking the advertised imagery to its digital origins. And now you’re at the website, so the once digital images begin to become real. A great campaign that reaches a bit deeper than I suspect the agency realised. Analogue delivery of digital realities, which are all available…

SHIFTboston: Ideas Competition Winner

The winner of the SHIFTboston competition for new ideas for Boston has been announced. Congratulations to Andrzej Zarzycki and Sapir Ng of Arlington, Mass for their proposal for “The TUTS: Tremont Underground Theater Space”. As the TUT submission asks:

“WHAT IF the abandoned TREMONT STREET SUBWAY TUNNEL became an interactive social environment? What if we shifted these contemporary urban ruins into a network of underground, interactive social environments–experiential theatres and immersive digital (art) galleries—while celebrating the past through a media-infused trolley museum inside North America’s oldest subway system?”

As I posted a few weeks ago, I was on the jury for the competition, and for full disclosure, The TUTS received my vote. I loved the use of existing and overlooked infrastructure – in this case, an abandoned subway tunnel – and its benefits to the urban fabric of downtown Boston, linking the Green Line and the Orange Line of The T in an imaginative way.

SHIFTboston is gearing up for another competition for new ideas for my beloved Boston, so watch this space, as I’ll be sharing their future plans soon. In the meantime, I encourage you to visit the competition site to check out the other competitions entries that won Runner-Up and Honorable Mention. It’s always a pleasure to be on a jury for new urban ideas, and SHIFTboston held a bounty of them. I’m looking forward to the next iteration already.

Urban Hacks and Re-Use for 2010: The Urban Guide for Alternate Use

UPDATE: The Urban Guide for Alternate Use is now live!

I was recently asked by Die Fabrikanten in Linz, Austria for ideas for their upcoming Exchange Radical Moments Europe-Wide Festival. The result is The Urban Guide for Alternate Use – an open source city-specific ‘field guide’ for alternate uses for existing urban infrastructure.
It was a wide brief, but as I’m far more interested in exploring hacks and re-use of the existing urban infrastructure than air-lifting new creations into a space, I wanted to create a platform for exchange of ideas for alternate urban solutions based on existing structures and systems. The Urban Guide for Alternate Use is meant to be a platform for urban hacks, interventions, innovation and play with and in the city’s objects and areas. Projects such as Nina Mrsnik’s Open Chairs (pictured below) perfectly capture what the Guide is about – most people see a drab cement corner. Nina sees a chair.

Open Chairs by Nina Mrsnik

As the folks at the Exchange Radical Moments Festival explain in the festival catalogue:

Resourcefulness has become one of the most important skills for people to develop today. What resources do you see being treated as waste in your city that could be used to benefit others? The Urban Guide for Alternate Use is a catalogue of city-specific opportunities for resourcefulness  within existing urban environments, compiled simply by asking the city’s residents to devise alternate uses for things already present in the city. It is a guide that acts as a catalyst for a new form of resourcefulness in the city, and as a communicative vehicle for exchange among residents.

For the festival Exchange Radical Moments, a guide will be created for one of the participating cities, filled with the ideas submitted by the city’s residents, as gestures of donation to their fellow citizens. The city guide will be written by the imagination and resourceful thinking of its residents,  and can serve as an alternate guide to the city.  Together the different submissions will form a powerful collection of insights into how people mentally and physically play with the urban landscape  as a conglomeration of readymade objects ripe for intervention.

From hacks such as using traffic bollards as ladders to gain a better view of a football training session (top image), to re-imagining Amsterdam street sweepers as bird baths between shifts (as seen below), the Urban Guide for Alternate Use is an open platform for people to explore and re-imagine the uses of their existing city’s objects and areas. It’s early days, so release date, call for contributions, etc., still to come, but thought I’d share one of many things to come in 2010. Stay tuned.

Improvised Amsterdam Bird Bath

In Discussion with Jaime Lerner

For most people with even a passing interest in innovative urban problem-solving, the words Jaime Lerner and Curitiba, Brazil will hold special reverence. Lerner is the urban planner and three-times mayor of Curitiba who transformed the once traffic-congested, economically and environmentally challenged city into one of the world’s most livable urban spaces. This Wednesday at the British Film Institute, London, a documentary exploring his innovative approaches for “transforming problems into solutions” in the city will be shown, and following the screening I will be joining Jaime Lerner on stage to discuss his approach and visionary techniques.

The talk will be hosted by Peter Jenkinson OBE, an exceptional individual himself for his work with creative solutions in the face of limited resources. For those of you in London Wednesday 4 November, please come join us at the BFI for this exceptional opportunity. More information on the evening can be found here. For those unable to attend, please watch the trailer above and go see the film as soon as you can. It is a game-changer for urban strategies.

Design Hacking available for download

From Left: Paul Thompson, David Godber, Scott Burnham, Colin McDowell, Otto von Busch

For those who weren’t able to attend the launch of my publication and the related debate on design hacking at the RSA on Wednesday (and for those who weren’t even close but still want a copy) I’m pleased to say that “Finding the Truth in Systems: In Praise of Design Hacking” is now available for download here (PDF, 291KB).

It was a fantastic night – the panel was sharp and the audience was on form with questions and debate afterwards. One of the great pleasures when chairing an event is opening questions to the floor and having a sea of hands spring up in front of you. And for that to happen with a packed house in the hallowed Great Room of the RSA is a special pleasure indeed.

Winding down later that eve I was glad to see that some live tweets were taking place during the session. From joannejacobs:


With some dialogue carrying on into the next day. From jasecoop:


Thanks to all who came, and for those of you who are just downloading “Finding the Truth in Systems: In Praise of Design Hacking” now, let me know what you think.

Design Hacking: Publication Launch

Mobile Phone Street Hack Station, Hong Kong
Street Market Hacking Stall, Hong Kong. Photo: Scott Burnham

To launch my publication “Finding the Truth in Systems: In Praise of Design Hacking”, London’s Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is hosting an event on 14 October 2009 to open the dialogue on design hacking.

The RSA commissioned me to write the text as an overview and exploration of ways in which individuals are taking design decisions into their own hands by hacking, reconfiguring and reworking the products, systems and spaces that make up our lives. The publication and event are part of the RSA’s Design and Society programme, which states:

“Contemporary society needs to be more resourceful: its citizens more engaged, self-reliant and collective in their striving. A combination of professionalisation, bureaucracy and consumerism has reduced our resources of common competence and as citizens we often appear to be less resourceful than ever. At the same time our consumption has diminished the earth’s resources and we now have fewer resources of energy and natural material at our disposal.”

– Emily Campbell, RSA Director of Design

It is from this perspective that “Finding the Truth in Systems: In Praise of Design Hacking” is launched. Design hacking is the resourcefulness of the individual stepping in when the products and systems we are offered fall short. In the text I explore ways in which this is being done as a response to both the limitations of resources and economies in the developing world, and the imbalances which exist in the products, systems and cities of developed regions. I feel that hacking methodologies and philosophies hold profound benefits, as I explore in some of the topic areas in the text:

  • Hacking creates new engagements between the product and the consumer
  • Hacking mandates relevance and necessity in design
  • Hacking is resourceful
  • Hacking creates abundance from limited resources
  • Hacking finds the truth in systems

And when it’s not being summised in bullet points, the text goes like this:

Hacking gives people a voice. Hacking creates new realities, options and possibilities from those we are given, whether commercial, social or civic. It offers forth the notion of a democratisation of design, by enabling the end user to be part of the process and not only on the receiving end of it. There is a triumphant message of individual resourcefulness and direct engagement when a hacker sensibility is applied.

Most of all, hacking is evidence of our fundamental self-reliance in spite of professionalism, bureaucracy and industrial supply. In many ways, it is a return to, or a rediscovery of, the skills which saw us through our pre-consumerist times, when ‘making do’ with what you had to hand required inventiveness. To relegate such activity to the realms of ‘amateurism’ is a dangerous dismissal, for it not only further deepens the ‘us and them’ disconnect between design and society, but ignores the vast potential of the creative energies at work outside established channels.

I will make the PDF of the publication available here after it is launched in dead tree form next week. For those of you in, near, or visiting London, I invite you to come to the event. Famed fashion hacker Otto van Busch will present an overview of his work, with Sunday Times journalist Colin Mcdowell, Dr Paul Thompson – RCA Rector and former director of London’s Design Museum and the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and David Godber of the Design Council joining to dig into the realm of Design Hacking. I will be chairing the evening.

The event is free, but booking is essential. For more details and to reserve a space, go here.