Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

January 31, 2011

The Interventionist’s Toolkit (Part 1)

Provisional, Opportunistic, Ubiquitous, and Odd Tactics in Guerilla and DIY Practice and Urbanism


Articles, DIY Urbanism, Mark Shepard, N55, REBAR, Steve Rasmussen-Cancian, Urbanism

It’s been two and a half years since the financial crisis crippled the global economy. During the long slump that’s followed, the architecture, design, and construction sectors have threatened to hit bottom over and over, but a real recovery, which would signal a final flattening out, never seems to materialize. While some firms show signs of stabilization — but only after massive job shedding in 2008 and 2009, and largely thanks to projects in China and the Middle East — most practitioners are just eking by. [1]

In the spring of 2009, I interviewed AIA chief economist Kermit Baker for a piece in Architect magazine, on the likely prospects for young architects graduating into a recession. Based on figures from previous recessions, Baker painted a grim picture, and I wrote:

“Baker cites figures from the U.S. Department of Labor website: from the peak of employment in July 1990 to the lowest point in January 1993, 14.6 percent of positions at architecture firms were eliminated. The 30-month trough outlasted the overall national recession, which ended in late 1992. Baker notes that the downturn early in this decade is recorded as lasting from March through December 2001, but there was no upturn in design activity until 2004 and construction picked up only in late 2004 and 2005 — a chilling four years down to generate four subsequent years of growth.” [2]

The sluggish return we’re now experiencing seems discouragingly consistent with Baker’s models. If we follow his timeline, there’s still another couple of years left before we can expect any recovery within the design professions; and once we do, the profession will look like nothing we’ve ever seen before. So, what to do in the interim? Wringing hands over the misdirected funding and lost opportunities of the stimulus package is simply depressing.

In which case, here’s the question: what’s the operational mode of the bust? Previous economic crises have offered up examples: paper architecture, the growth of theoretical and artistic practice, in the 1970s and ’80s; the lost generation, young designers leaving the architecture for virtual realms, in the ’90s; and paperless architecture, the rise of formal digital experimentation, in the early ’00s.

Our current recession is inspiring its own strategies and tactics: It’s increasingly a catch-all for a host of urban interventions. This is a trend that I like to describe with a mouthful of a title: Provisional, Opportunistic, Ubiquitous, and Odd Tactics in Guerilla and DIY Practice and Urbanism. With this verbaciousness, I hope to capture the tactical multiplicity and inventive thinking that have cropped up in the vacuum of more conventional commissions. These days vacant lots offer sites for urban farming, mini-golf, and dumpster pools. Trash recycles into a speculative housing prototype (see the Tiny Pallet House). Whether it’s The Living’s Amphibious Architecture or Mark Shepard’s Serendipitor, the built environment speaks through mobile devices. Retail spaces hit by the recession are fodder for reinvention, as the art organization No Longer Empty transforms unleased storefronts into temporary galleries. Even the street itself is reclaimed. REBAR’s annual initiative, Park(ing) Day, urges global participants to use a pranksters wit to turn parking spaces into pocket parks, one quarter at a time.

Driven by local and community issues and intended as polemics that question conventional practice, these projects reflect an ad hoc way of working; they are motivated more by grassroots activism than by the kind of home-ec craft projects (think pickling, Ikea-hacking and knitting) sponsored by mainstream shelter media, usually under the Do-It-Yourself rubric. (Although they do slot nicely into the imperative-heavy pages of Good and Make magazines.) They are often produced by emerging architects, artists and urbanists working outside professional boundaries but nonetheless engaging questions of the built environment and architecture culture. And the works reference edge-condition practitioners of earlier generations who also faced shifts within the profession and recessionary outlooks: Gordon Matta Clark, Archigram, Ant Farm, the early Diller + Scofidio, among others.

A critical mass of projects was identified in late 2008 when the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s director, Mirko Zardini, and curator for contemporary architecture, Giovanna Borasi, selected 99 works for Actions: What You Can Do With the City. The design concepts, research and operational tactics spotlighted in the exhibition and related catalogue drew heavily on guerrilla art. Projects such as the N55 PROTEST Rocket, a militarized take on gardening that rocket-launches “seed bombs,” which explode in empty lots releasing “Superweed” seeds; the illicit Operation: Ivy League, created by the self-proclaimed anarchitects The Space Hijackers, who installed ivy on sites around central London as a protest against corporate architecture; or Sit In, a series of public benches deployed around Toxteth, Liverpool: all these function within a reactive, if not revolutionary, framework. As Zardini says in the press release: “They reveal the existence of a world rich in inventiveness and imagination, alien to our contemporary modes of consumption. These actions propose alternative lifestyles, reinvent our daily lives, and reoccupy urban space with new uses.” [3]

It’s a sentiment that brings to mind some countercultural activities of previous eras, such as The Real Estate Show, a 1980 exhibition staged inside an abandoned building in the Lower East Side, which addressed local housing and land use issues and led to the founding of the punk rock space ABC No Rio. (Video footage of artists occupying the space was featured this fall in Alternative Histories, an exhibition at Exit Art, conceived by Papo Colo and Jeanette Ingberman, that chronicled the experimental, reactionary, independent and/or activist art spaces in New York City since the 1960s.) In The Real Estate Show’s manifesto, the artist-populated committee laid out the mission:

This is a short-term occupation of vacant city-managed property. The action is extralegal — it illuminates no legal issues, calls for no “rights.” It is pre-emptive and insurrectionary. …

The intention of this action is to show that artists are willing and able to place themselves and their work squarely in a context which shows solidarity with oppressed people, a recognition that mercantile and institutional structures oppress and distort artists’ lives and works, and a recognition that artists, living and working in depressed communities, are compradors in the revaluation of property and the “whitening” of neighborhoods.

It is important to focus attention on the way artists get used as pawns by greedy white developers. …

The alphabet city occupation took place at time when downtown Manhattan was a clearly a different, rougher and edgier place; yet the artists’ actions do set a precedent for the more conventional, commercial pop-ups that we’re seeing a lot of these days, where fashion brands and trendy retailers temporarily lease a commercial storefront. The 1980 video captures artists who are taking risks to exhibit art (the building was shut down by the police as a result of the show) and taking a stand for social justice (the older exhibition argued that given a housing crisis derelict buildings should be reused).

More recently, these kind of interventionist practices were collected in smaller shows on the West Coast: Unplanned, shown at Superfront LA, and DIY Urbanism: Testing the Grounds for Social Change, presented at the San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association, or SPUR. Superfront founder Mitch McEwen considers the exhibition catalogue for Unplanned a kind of textbook for new interventionist practice. In describing the show, she evokes the language of counterculture (utopian and dystopian) sourcebooks such as The Whole Earth Catalog and The Anarchist’s Cookbook. This how-to immediacy is echoed in the introductory text that curator Ruth Keffer wrote for DIY Urbanism:

who: you
what: change
where: the city
when: now
how: do it yourself

Part invitation, part journalistic checklist, Keffer’s text sounds a revolutionary note with that now — as in response to the ’60s chant, When do we want it? Her call to action is an inescapable and essential tactic of the recessionary condition. “The current economic crisis has proven to be more than a challenge to our wallets: it has tested our faith in personal agency and our optimism in the future,” Keffer writes. Challenging the global downturn with fierce localism and references to the history of social activism, she continues, “But this malaise has met its match in the Bay Area, where a spirit of fierce independence has always thrived. Here the bad economy has a silver lining: it has reinvigorated and mobilized the community of do-it-yourself urbanists.” [4]

Clearly, a down market requires a hustler’s skill and a grassroots dedication to practice. To cite an example from DIY Urbanism: the unsanctioned, temporary street furniture, placed on West Oakland and Los Angeles sidewalks to form the project “Outdoor Living Rooms,” was, according to Keffer, routinely hauled off by city officials who cited the need for permits and insurance. Designed by The West Oakland Greening Project and Steve Rasmussen-Cancian, of Shared Spaces Landscape Architecture, these pocket parks were located in urban neighborhoods generally seen as hotbeds of crime and drug use; as such they offer frontline resistance to charges of loitering, drawing instead on the tradition of neighbors gathering on stoops and at street corners. In a 2007 story in Designer Builder magazine, Rasmussen-Cancian posited street furniture as a defense against West Oakland’s gentrification. “Gentrifiers and the diverse longtime residents they displace have very different ideas about what makes an inviting, attractive neighborhood,” he says. “Experience and studies show that working-class urban residents view the street as the center of the neighborhood, the place to hang out, to socialize, and to watch the passing scene. In contrast, most middle- and upper-class gentrifiers are looking for a quiet street as a gateway to their homes.” [5] Although city codes prohibited placing the semi-permanent furniture on the sidewalk, the persistence of neighborhood activists and designers eventually won over the municipal watchdogs.

Last April, in a New York Times article entitled “D.I.Y. Culture,” art critic Michael Kimmelman mused on the development of do-it-yourself-ness in the art world. His discussion countered the global market with homegrown practice. And surely parallels can be drawn between the recent art-market bubble and the booming architectures that went bust in 2008. Reflecting on the hope that priorities are shifting toward the localized maker, Kimmelman wrote, “[C]ulture (often unconsciously) identifies crucial ruptures, rifts, gaps and shifts in society. It is indispensable for our understanding of the mechanics of the world in this respect, pointing us toward those things around us that are unstable, changing, that shape how we live and how we treat one another. If we’re alert to it, it helps reveal who we are to ourselves, often in ways we didn’t realize in places we didn’t necessarily think to look.” [6]

Still, there’s a tendency to dismiss these kinds of projects as simply whimsical — to smile at their authenticity or their expression of clever détournement, but at the same time to suppress any uncomfortable restive rumblings. But these projects hold at their heart a belief that change is possible despite economic or political obstacles, or disciplinary or institutional inertia. And the prospect for real change builds as more and more works accumulate in exhibition catalogues and digital venues. Broadcast via Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and design blogs, these new temporary or provisional projects can be read relationally to each other without explicit contextual concerns. By aggregating and focusing upon these small-scale interventions, my hope is to reveal a larger framework — a network that makes nimble use of social networking and Web 2.0 technologies to transform local episodes into global outreach. Thus The Interventionist’s Toolkit — a series that will light upon Places from time to time this winter and spring — is not necessarily about featuring projects, but about finding new ways to practice and provoke within the fields of architecture, urbanism, and design.