Is it possible to un-see familiar elements of your city to envision new potential for their use, reuse and relationships? And can a seemingly innocent chocolate praline be a symbol for the confinement of ideas? New insights and old memories surfaced as I attended a seminar at the Architecture and Design Center of Stockholm.
The seminar was held in conjunction with the exhibition Reprogramming the City. Curated by urban strategist Scott Burnham, it showcased a range of innovative projects in various ways altering, retrofitting or adding to elements of cities around the world to make them perform new, improved or additional functions.
Bus stops can provide light therapy in dark places. Edible algae can flow and grow inside pipes mounted onto freeways. Water can be harvested from the very air by devices attached to the back of billboards – and why not turn the whole billboard itself into an elevated housing unit while you’re at it?
Tying the diverse projects together was a different approach to urban opportunities altogether. Rather than singular overarching schemes for better futures far ahead, Burnham, who gave a talk via video link during the seminar, advocated many small interventions targeting the things that already exist at our immediate disposal.
By designing with the city rather than for the city, he suggested that under-performing assets from the “city stockpile” can facilitate resourceful innovation and inspire urban play, acting as catalysts for far-reaching change. Not least in transforming people’s understanding as to what the city is and does.
Un-Seeing the City
Burnham noted that although the elements in cities are limited – there are only so many buildings and light posts and taxis at any given moment – we can potentially combine these elements in unlimited ways:
“The content of cities is limited, but the context of cities is not.”
Seemingly redundant things can again become functional and new synergies can emerge when we recast their purposes. An example Burnham made was of parking ticket machines turned into interactive information centers. By “hacking” their already built-in technology, they could connect city visitors to municipalities and vice versa. Reprogrammed and repurposed instead of scrapped and wasted.
Banking on these close-at-hand possibilities however, requires a change of perspective where future is not necessarily synonymous with brand new, but rather with adaption of what has already been produced and assembled.
In order to do this, Burnham suggest we have to un-see the city and its elements as we know them, and perhaps even un-learn how to interpret them, in order for different or additional potential to become visible. Oftentimes, the conventions of what things are and how they work prohibit fresh ideas about what they could be and how they could perform.
Burnham illustrated this notion with the example of an urbanized hawk. A presumably wild bird, it had been caught on camera making its nest atop a pillar under a freeway bridge. Hardly a conventional place for a bird it may seem, but from the bird’s perspective that is one killer spot to build a home! Structurally rigid, protected from the elements, great vantage point… Perfect.
And the domino of overturned preconceptions continues when we consider the young of this bird, who will hatch in a nest under a bridge. What will be their understanding of their natural habitat? Where will they look when time comes for them to build a nest of their own? Hardly up a tree.
But that precisely is the point – there is no universal law that says birds may only live in trees, nor that ticket machines may only serve to rid you of your change. Why, then, is it so difficult to wipe clean the slate of already established associations?
Trapped Inside the Chocolate Box
As Burnham’s talk came to a close, my mind wandered from the conference hall and back to a pre-school classroom I have not set foot inside for over twenty years. An arts assignment. I must have been five or six. On the table plastic chocolate trays had been filled with plaster to make decorative play candies.
Popping the solid white faux chocolates out of the mold, I quickly proceeded to cover them in brown acrylic paint. Chocolate-colored chocolates! Accurate. The thick dark liquid smothered the fine creases of the plaster pralines and turned them into even-sized brown lumps. Hrrm.
I looked up from my artwork. Across the table my friend Angelica was carefully putting delicate dots of light green paint onto her pink and blue pralines. The blood rushed to my face with indignation and jealousy. One couldn’t just make up new chocolate colors, it wasn’t right! And why hadn’t I thought of it? Out of line as she was, Angelica’s artificial candies seemed precious like some fairy food, while, to be frank, my authentic chocolate pralines looked disturbingly similar to something picked up after a dog.
I was at a loss. Even as a child whose imagination supposedly runs free, I was tricked to abide by some intangible rule of how things ought to be. As if that would make them right, or even good. It made a fool out of me then, and it continues to do so whenever I catch myself looking for answers as if they already exist pre-formulated at the back of the book of the universe.
A Hundred Little Chances for Improvement
This childhood memory has remained vivid for me because it refuses to stay locked in the past. Every so often it reiterates itself in new contexts, when I give unquestioned assumptions too much weight.
Looking back, I wish I’d been able to un-see my pralines and ask not “what is the color of chocolate” but “what would the most awesomely rad chocolate imaginable look like”, or perhaps as Burnham might suggest, “if this wasn’t a chocolate praline at all, what then could it be?”
Looking ahead in the context of sustainable urban development there is a lot more at stake than mere childhood pride. I think Burnham’s idea of un-seeing as a way to go beyond conventional solutions can have potential as a planning and design strategy. Not ultimately in the sense of omitting existing knowledge, but an attempt to liberate the mind trapped by conventions of seeing and thinking.
Un-seeing as a strategy promotes idea-generation through the discovery of new vantage points. And although the approach in itself does not judge as to whether particular ideas are good or bad, a bunch of ideas already hold more potential than a single one. A hundred small ideas quickly implemented, quickly evaluated, and quickly adjusted, may have a bigger impact on urban transformation over time than one top-down masterplan looking decades into the future.
“Cities are landscapes of second chances” Burnham noted in regards to adaptive reuse. Humans are creatures of second thoughts, I would like to add. What we covet today we will discard tomorrow in the ceaseless flow of objects, ideas and identities passing in and out of style. We know it’s not sustainable. But perhaps Burnham’s ideas can challenges us – city dwellers as well as designers and planners – to question our mindset and shift our gaze on the things that we already have.
What if we embrace that second thought without throwing the first one out the window? And don’t stop there, but keep going with the third thought and the fourth, collect them, compare them, turn them around, and think about what more they can do than the obvious?
Reprogramming the City highlighted opportunities for adding value to existing infrastructure and urban artifacts. Burnham prompted us to ask not what is a street, a canal, a railway and so on, but “What more could it be? What if…?” I was humbly reminded that it is in this very rephrasing of the problem that the possibility of arriving at more than ready-made solutions arise – not in the should and the is, but in the could and the if. I’ll try not to forget that. And hey, I still do love chocolate.