Written by Darrel Ronald

Action In The City

Action In The City by Darrel Ronald

Exhibition Entrance; Photo: Darrel Ronald

A new exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Actions: What You Can Do With The City, explores the thousands of examples around the globe of people reclaiming urban space through Do-It-Yourself (DIY) actions in order to humanize the failed urban realities around them. While urban action has become a hot subject over the recent years, the CCA has approached the subject from a broad critique that mixes 99 Actions done by artists, architects, designers, politicians, activists, athletes and most importantly average citizens. In many cases the actual museum artifact didn’t exist, thus giving the museum the chance to create the work.

Sk8 Pool Reconaissance; Photo: Darrel Ronald

The show has been curated by Mirko Zardini, CCA Director and Chief Curator (curatorial essay); and Giovanna Borasi, CCA Curator for Contemporary Architecture (curatorial essay). The show runs until the 19th April, 2009 in Montréal.

For many designers and artists, they will already be familiar with some of the work. And for many of us, we’ve already been involved with our own DIY actions for many years. In this regard, the exhibition is especially important in its presentation of these largely hidden actions to the greater public. In compiling the 99 works together under themes such as: Excess, Choice, Frictions, Guerrilla, Planning Smarter and Sharing; the public finds their own worlds recontextualized through an optic of change and imagination. This is hugely important to society, that an attitude of DIY permeates throughout or collective conscious so that our daily lives become more creative. In essence, this is a contemporary stimulation of the inner tendencies that many avant-garde urban utopias, such as Constant’s New Babylon (images) project, and the Situationist‘s Dérive championed. His work, based on theories of Homo Ludens, now finds itself in nearly all urban exhibits around the world, most recently in Amsterdam (related article).

But many of the actions are political and economic, with actions started by local civic groups, city councilors and mayors, as well as urban transport engineers. Many of these are the most interesting, because it signifies non-designers encroaching into design territory. Speaking with Mirko Zardini at the press opening, he signals a loss of faith in current city planning and urbanism practice. Citizens and users/stakeholders (ie. the public) are rarely the centre of design and planning decisions. It is therefore an intention of the show to stimulate the debate as to what we need as a society within our societies, and how can we get there. Perhaps it isn’t through the design practices that we actually arrive at a user-oriented, accessible and mutable urban environment.

But could there be such a thing as a pluralist approach to urban design where a sort of long-tail of urban activities can be integrated into the built shared built environment? Or is everyday life left to the citizenry and the urban design is merely the placeholder and facilitator of action. This question was exactly the goal behind a project by Maxwan a+u in Rotterdam. For the Port of Rotterdam, they proposed a “harbour park” throughout the unused strips woven between the enormous network of port activities. [Full disclosure: I worked on the project.]

Subversive Mapping, New York City; Photo: Darrel Ronald

Photos used to argue for the creation of The Highline project in New York City; Photo: Darrel Ronald

From the Press Release:

The exhibition and its accompanying publication present specific projects by a diverse group of activists whose personal involvement has initiated vital transformation in today’s cities. These human motors of change include architects, engineers, university professors, students, children, pastors, artists, skateboarders, cyclists, pedestrians, municipal employees, and many others who address the question of how to improve the urban experience. Their actions push against accepted norms of behaviour in cities, at times even challenging legal limitations. The individuals and groups presented in the exhibition employ a range of approaches, from skating and parkour to dumpster diving and urban foraging. Some engage architecture directly by finding new uses for abandoned buildings, while others create tools for guerilla gardening. In their individual critiques of urban modes of production and consumption, these actors share a conviction that the traditional processes of top-down civic planning are insufficient, and new approaches and tools must be developed from the ground level upwards.

Actions: What You Can Do With the City features international contemporary architectural projects, design concepts, and research conveyed through a range of materials including architectural drawings, photographs, videos, publications, artefacts, and websites. The 97 distinct actions presented in the exhibition are drawn from a larger number identified by the curators. They include projects related to the production of food and urban agriculture; the planning and creation of public spaces to strengthen community interactions; the recycling of abandoned buildings for new purposes; the appropriation of urban sites into terrain for play, such as soccer, climbing, skateboarding, or parkour; the alternate use of roads for walking or rail lines as park space; the design of clothing to circumvent urban barriers against loitering or resting on benches; and many others. The exhibition places particular emphasis on the activists’ tools, which comprise unusual materials ranging from large-scale inflatables and fruit-collecting dresses to seed-bomb rocket launchers and wheelbarrow-bicycle hybrids. Included are masks disguising children as horses, or sneakers customised for sliding along railings.

Exhibition View; Photo: Darrel Ronald

Over the past couple years, the CCA (Youtube Channel) has made a greater effort to extend itself publicly through digital media and it is working, with the quality of work and method improving with each new exhibition. An interesting website has been created, CCA-ACTIONS, and they’ve produced a promo-video (below).

CCA Launch Video for the exhibition

Another fascinating example of Actions in the city is the recent snowboard video (below), Forum or Against’em, from Forum. The just released video especially documents urban riding in Montréal and Québec City last year when we had a near record snowfall which left the city under meters of snow, turning the concrete and steel environments into an endless snowpark.

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