In a contemporary society where isolation is a mean of self-preservation and alienation becomes a form of self-infliction, in which ways are we engaged in building a citizenship and a desirable public sphere?
Recently, numerous cities around the world have been the stage for the emergence of several new actors that have risen out of apathy to put the political system in a crisis, demanding reforms and the rights to the city. The crowd, as a political entity, used revolution and resistance as an act of catharsis, negotiation and mediation.
It became clear that people’s power was strong enough to tear down political regimes overnight. But the destruction of dogmas, the changes in behaviors, habits and postures, that prevent us from fully participating in the construction of citizenship, cannot be made at once. They are not the result of a single victorious coup, but rest upon a gradual sedimentation of new ways of dealing with the city and with each other that reconfigure our position towards reality.
As Mirko Zardini, Director and Chief Curator of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, acknowledges:
“What is needed is a shift from the passivity in which we comply with what is offered up every day, to an active posture, not so much of resistance, but of a quest.”[i]
This quest, could have been the starting point for each of the projects presented in “Actions: What You Can Do With the City”. An exhibition that resulted from a research initiated by the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 2007, and curated by Mirko Zardini and Giovanna Borasi, CCA Curator of Contemporary Architecture.
This exhibition presents actions that instigate positive change in contemporary cities around the world, that were carried out by several individuals or groups who were ready to take a different look at the problems in contemporary urban life.
Submitted by people from several fields of knowledge, the proposals range from simple ideas, to complex research-based investigations and also include artistic interventions and performances. This series of bottom-up Actions do not provide a painstaking analysis of the occurrences, instead, they are imbedded with the beliefs and impetus of all those who were directly and genuinely involved with them.
A myriad of spatial insertions were created which intended to offer opportunities for a newfound interaction with trivialized urban spaces. Simple interventions function as catalysts to the engagement with place and to the interaction of citizens with each other, across barriers of class and wealth. Showing the latent influence personal commitment can have in molding the city.
As Giovanna Borasi states:
“What seems important here, and what these individuals and the urban phenomena they set in motion perhaps have in common, is their prolific capacity to trigger a “disturbance,” a certain discomfort in the predefined system. They contribute to an erosion of some established notions of urban comfort; they undermine conventional wisdom but don’t necessarily confront it head on. Many of the projects presented here arise in a definite territory of friction and tension between the daily lives of urban residents and what would otherwise be considered the norm proposed by the city.”[ii]
This “disturbance” and “friction” is caused by the highlighting of the existing contradictions within each context. This triggers a general uneasiness that invites people to rearrange their pre-formatted mental schemes. When that reorganization occurs, the conditions are ripe for an action of destruction of those same schemes which contribute to an extension of a system based on the maintenance of people’s dependence and passivity.
The goal is finding, within people, the tools for introducing new priorities into society, in a Rube Goldberg effect where an action triggers several other singular Actions in an endless, inciting and complex flux.
The exhibition also tackles another underlying friction: the one between the fields of planning/ design, with the domain of “use”, which involves the critical and creative participation from the citizen.
By exploring projective proposals that are defined by the openness to the user, these Actions question the intent towards absolute order, which historically orients architecture and urban-planning. Opening these disciplines to daily practices, that escape, surprise and subvert any prior imperative.
Still, the exhibition does not attempt to break down our narrow concepts of the art of building by introducing the unfamiliar world of non-pedigreed architecture[iii] (as Bernard Rudofsky did in 1964). Nor claims to stand for a world that could reinstate the current one. What all these ideas offer is a “parallel system” of possible alternatives, a City 2.0, as put by Borasi.[iv]
With a simple premise, “Actions: What You Can Do With the City” proposes a reflection on the complex dynamics that build and rebuild the city in a daily basis. Questioning to what extent architecture and urbanism still have the systemic ability to incorporate a series of mutants and fluid social forces that do not fit the traditional state apparatus.
The fascinating aspect of the exhibition, accompanied by its publication and website, is that it functions as a catalyst to the conscious engagement of every person in the processes of construction and use of cities, pointing to a collective responsibility of a highly ethical nature.
Indeed, this research is not only bringing disparate practices and ideas together in order to design complex transits between and within them. It is also inciting the creation of critical vehicles that are able to navigate among heterogeneous and mutating contexts. In a way that transforms participation in a form of critical engagement, rather than an idealistic conception of agreement and camaraderie.
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[i] ZARDINI, Mirko, “A New Urban Takeover” in Actions: What You Can Do With the City. Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal, Canada; SUN, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2008, p.15.
[ii] BORASI, Giovanna, “City 2.0” in Actions: What You Can Do With the City, p.22.
[iii] RUDOFSKY, Bernard, “Preface” in Architecture Without Architects. A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture. Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, USA, 1964.
[iv] BORASI, Giovanna, “City 2.0” in Actions: What You Can Do With the City, p.24.