Urban design and the artist: the art of seeing things invisible

1384185600Written by Rosie Freeman. First published in the Urban Design Group Journal, Autumn 2013.

Cities are places of people and places of change which refuse to be fixed. When the writer Thomas Carlyle moved to Chelsea in 1834, it was a famously bohemian and affordable area for struggling artists to live; while the facade of many buildings in Bradford’s Little Germany which now stand empty and in disrepair belie the city’s extremely wealthy past. Our urban centres are living organisms made for people and by people, “continually building & continually decaying”. Their design and use is not only shaped by architects and landowners but by revolutionaries, gardeners, skateboarders, terrorists, drivers, hawkers, office workers, children…in this sense, urban design implicitly considers people because, first and foremost, our environments are created and engineered in our imagination. The role of the artist in this dialogue can both expedite and fertilise. Thoughtful, socially engaged artistic practices can not only provide genuine solutions to the challenges faced by our cities and communities, but can also provide alternative ways of creating them.

The arts can offer an appealing invitation for people to congregate and, in spaces which are for some reason underperforming, events and activities can be a means to a rather sociable end. There is an essential need to find ways to make spaces work for the people they serve, offering stakeholders a sense of ownership and pride. Whether it be the resurfacing of a new housing development’s forecourt or the conversion of some public lavatories in to a venue, creative thinking and activity can breathe life into our urban environments.

Not so very long ago it was unheard of to have people in Brixton Village Market at night; the 1930s covered avenues opened in the early morning and closed in the afternoon. But after many years of thriving commerce, the traditional market began to suffer from low footfall and closed units, culminating in the threat of demolition in 2008. The Brick Box was part of the exemplary effort which turned the market around. The market building was listed by the Friends of Brixton Market, its offer was diversified by the Spacemakers Agency (a civic ideas company employed by the market owners), and a new era began – the space was re-imagined. The previously untapped night-time economy was stimulated through the programming of public arts activities, the negotiation of late opening, and the issuing of entertainment and alcohol licences. Thanks to the tireless creative work of many, the award-winning market now enjoys an incredibly high footfall and the units are greatly sought after. These days it’s hard to imagine quieter times but in order to trigger this transformation someone had to have a vision of what could be, the conviction of possibility.

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Above: a live art performance in Brixton Village Market at night. Photo: Mike Barrett.

Similarly, in 2011 The Brick Box was invited by the owners of Tooting Market to invigorate their space in south west London, which suffered from critically low footfall. With Outer London Funding, The Brick Box developed and delivered a programme of day and night-time activities designed to boost the market and its customers. Local people and cultural tourists enjoyed workshops, aerial performances, theatre shows, film nights, supper clubs, live art, exhibitions, festivals, dance shows, live music, and much more. Traders and other neighbouring businesses benefitted financially from the increase in customers, particularly during night-time events as programme pioneered the use of the space after dark. Jobs and voluntary opportunities were created, and new ventures were trialed and incubated. The market’s offer began to diversify with vintage stalls and cafes, and a portion of the funding was used to provide bespoke furniture and redesign of the central market space as a response to the changing use of the space. In less than a year, the market had gone from having no night-time economy to events with almost 400 audience members!

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Above: The Brick Box cafe and Spring Festival in Tooting Market. Photo: Adrian Flower.

Artists can play in the realm between present and future, inviting audiences to engage imaginatively and to see ‘things invisible’. By its very nature, this realm is a place of dissonance: an old building marked for redevelopment, changing attitudes to neighbours, migrating communities. These points of dissonance are challenging but also productive and provide opportunities for creativity. Artistic playfulness and temporary interventions can really stretch the possibilities of a space, igniting ideas and encouraging alternative perspectives on how we interact with our urban environments.

In the case of the 2013 Wandsworth Arts Festival and Fringe Hub – a collaboration between Wandsworth Council, Assemble Studio and The Brick Box – the art project was conceived as a practical exercise in place-making. The chosen site of The Hub was an under-used piece of public realm land in Wandsworth Town, overlooking the river Wandle and the old Ram’s Brewery. Here a temporary structure in the form of a giant ‘cabinet of curiosities’ was adorned with items pulled from the river during The Wandle Trust’s monthly river clean-ups. By using items from the river, the cabinet tells the story of decline of the Wandle and other London tributaries – from vital assets of industry, to a dumping ground and ecological challenge.

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Above: The Wandle Cabinet for the Wandsworth Arts Festival and Fringe 2013. Photo: Ted Dave.

The commitment of council officers, the Environment Agency, the town centre manager, and other key stakeholders was far-sighted and progressive from the outset. Senior Planners at Wandsworth Council described the project as an opportunity to ‘create a tradition’ of animation and activity in the area. The site was reintroduced to many passers-by and, strategically, it signaled the broader changes to come in that area, advocating the role of art in place-making and the public realm.

The programme of activities at The Hub also aimed to reimagine and stretch the possibilities of the space, particularly through the use of creative lighting interventions. As part of the Unorthobox project series,  a site responsive night-time show was produced with the remit of exploring and reimagining space through light and performance. Artists responded creatively to the host space with a mixture of physical theatre, creative lighting design, interactive installations, and a specially curated programme of films and projections. Audience members were invited to be more than spectators: they ‘listened’ to the river, wrote about the objects found within it, and journeyed with the performers from the streets to the river banks and old brewery tower. This remarkable one-off activity made a connection between the two sites, raising their profiles and igniting an association between them.

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Above: Physical theatre performance for Unorthobox at the Ram’s Brewery. Photo: Libby Powell.

Arts projects can also serve as public consultations. As part of Brighton White Night 2011, a Victorian tower known locally as ‘the Pepperpot’ was transformed with a spectacular video mapping showing over the entire façade. Shared Space and Light, the production company, collected video footage of local people describing their ideas for how this unique Grade II listed building could be used in the future. For one night only, the much loved local landmark seemed to morph into each vivid imagining, from climbing wall to lighthouse, camera obscura to audio mixing workshop. These kinds of imaginative place-making experiments will linger in the minds and perceptions of those experiencing them and can certainly inform longer term plans with the right engagement from decision-making stakeholders.

Meanwhile activity – the temporary use of land or buildings during ‘pauses’ in the property process – can be another great opportunity for artistic practice. The nature of these projects can provide many benefits, from agile, ‘quick to market’ activities to business rates relief and the incubation of entrepreneurialism. The practical experience of working in such spaces is invaluable and can bring to light unseen restricting factors such as a building’s lack of soundproofing or compliance with legislation due to age. Indeed, meanwhile activity is a valuable way of working out what doesn’t work as well as what does! And the ‘pauses’ in property processes can be far longer than originally expected. The Shunt Vaults at London Bridge, for example, began as a six month use of a derelict space and ended seven years later as a 500 person capacity, internationally celebrated, arts venue.

But the arts can go one step further and celebrate the very nature of the intermediate in urban design. The Bureau of Silly Ideas is a street theatre company which specialises in creating ‘inspired madness and controlled chaos in the public realm’. Their mix of surreal humour and practical solutions produce enjoyable and truly accessible events. The Burst Pipe Dream project, for example, was a seven day performance installation commissioned by Brighton & Hove City Council in 2008. BOSi were invited to launch the finish of a building development, which had overrun by a significant amount of time, and restore the positive feelings with the site. They developed a piece to place irony on the completion of the build, setting up fake roadworks, and installation of ‘Europe’s first Giant Squid Farm’ under the guise of the Big Oriental Squid Inc. (BOSinc.) A complete story was developed to support this fictional tale, and local press were brought on board to ensure maximum authenticity was achieved. An estimated 31,000 people saw the project, which successfully created engagement and reformed positive associations with the new site.

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Above: Construction themed street theatre by The Bureau of Silly Ideas. Photo: Roger Hartley.

Lateral thinking and creative approaches can help people to enjoy what may have previously been unenjoyable and facilitate the difficult conversations thrown up by changes in urban landscapes. Debates around regeneration programmes, community identities and class migration are hotly felt and extremely complex, yet the arts can provide an interesting and emotionally safe arena in which to explore such issues. The opportunity for a creative and heartfelt response can give permission to act outside of formalised behaviours.

As part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad programme, The Brick Box hosted the Brazilian photographer Ratao Diniz. Ratao’s interest in street art led him to collaborate with London-based artist Mr. Dane. Dane worked with local people in Brixton to create a community mural, collecting their memories, recollections, thoughts and hopes before incorporating them into a final piece. The area was and is undergoing massive changes and Dane’s work gave local stakeholders a rare voice and creative response to issues which affect them directly.

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Above: Local young people consider their community and learn about mural painting in Brixton. Photo: Ratão Diniz.

Humour and performance is also a great tool to attract attention and draw out reactions. As part of Metropolitan Workshop’s Outer London Fund Round 2 contract in Balham, a thorough public consultation was required.

Performers from The Brick Box were used to give the exercise an extra dimension, making it more approachable and engaging for the public. Dressed up as hot-air balloon pilots from the 1950s, the performers invited passers-by to give comments and ideas for the future of Balham. The client reported that the genuine enthusiasm and curiosity of the performers offered new insights, capturing the views of people who would otherwise have been reluctant participants. Once again, we have a great example of how our urban environments can be shaped by asking people to engage imaginatively.

The arts can be truly transformative in many different respects and it is exciting to see the emergence of work which recognises this power. In the academic world, the London School of Economics Theatrum Mundi project brings architects and town planners together with performing and visual artists to reimagine the public spaces of twenty-first century cities. Their work seeks to understand what brings life to a city, particularly in its public places and asks how these might be better designed. Originally, The Brick Box began working in non-traditional spaces in order to meet new audiences and celebrate the creativity of everyday life. Yet the resulting experiences have led the arts organisation into a world of place-making, regeneration, and cultural strategies. This may seem somewhat incongruous but the lines between these disciplines are more blurred than we think. There’s evidence of citizens reimagining their environment on a daily basis: desire lines which bypass the intended routes across a park, notices for language exchanges which speak something of the contemporary urban condition, improvised skateboarding ramps, guerrilla gardening projects, and many more tiny alterations which go unnoticed. Just as the Ouroboros eats its own tail, it is this constant state of flux and creative alchemy which is at the heart of human existence, and which will continue to create our urban worlds.

Posted on 11 Nov 2013, under Blog.