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Spaces of Possibility: The Reimagined City

Gilabert and Kroloff offer compelling questions about the nature of community and the definition of public space


“The Reimagined City” was the first of three ArtPrize lectures, examining the relationship between art, citizens, and urban environments. Tuesday, September 24, Eva Franch i Gilabert and Reed Kroloff, engaged in a provocative discussion, the subject of which was described as, “architectural interventions in existing urban space”, but the emphasis was less about architecture, and more about public space and its relationship to community.

 Eva Franch i Gilabert is the Executive Director and Curator of the Storefront for Art and Architecture, and the founder of OOAA (office of architectural affairs). Gilabert was in Grand Rapids as juror for Best Use of Urban Space for ArtPrize. Reed Kroloff is the Director of Cranbrook Academy of Art & Art Museum.  Both Gilabert and Kroloff are educators and architects.

The conversation was framed around several questions that addressed such issues as:  What is public space, and who is responsible for its design, and maintenance? What can thoughtfully designed public space achieve? The responses to these questions overlapped and intersected. Instead of fixed definitions of space, or community, there are shifting layers of space and variations of what defines community.

Kroloff and Gilbert propose that distinctions between public and private space can be indistinct.  Is the public/private distinction merely a difference of scale, or intention? Is it even tangible?  Engagement with the virtual world, and acts such as entertaining in one’s home, conflate public and private space. Shopping malls are an example of privately owned public spaces.  Access to some public space is restricted, perhaps to specific hours.  There are also public spaces that we choose not to inhabit because they are inconvenient, unsafe, or just so unremarkable as to be nearly invisible.

The civil code that orders public space is similarly invisible, until we are confronted with deviance from these conventions in our community.  In the course of our lives we experience many different kinds of community—some we choose, others we navigate with varied levels of tolerance or awareness.  The act of sharing may be what distinguishes community from public, and we do “share” space with others in a public setting, but this kind of interaction doesn’t constitute an act of altruism.

Can public spaces facilitate a sense of community?  Do these spaces restrict or prohibit freedom? What occurs when public spaces are filled to capacity?  Do crowds empower by making the collective feel like a community, or does the perception of anonymity absolve the individuals from any sense of responsibility? Certainly we have seen how the anonymity of the virtual world can be empowering, but absent any moderating or mediating force, it can also seem like the Wild West.

It is critical that the community feels invested in public space, because absent investment and responsibility, we're mere collective of indifferent individuals—like  bemused tourists, moving through these spaces with a detached interest.  Responsibility however, is not the same as agency.  The former is polite, but can also be complicit.  Agency on the other hand, implies a conscience and active role.  Gilabert said that while those who are active can seem disruptive, even “corrosive”, they can also be effective catalysts for change.  Kroloff cited as an example Object Orange in Detroit, implemented in response to citizens’ frustration with the city’s slow response to destroy abandoned houses that were settings for criminal activity.  Once painted orange, the buildings were removed in an expedient manner. Object Orange illustrates the generosity, creativity, and perhaps utopian naïveté, exhibited by those who are active agents for change in their community.

Which segues into the third question, “What does good public design do?”  On a mundane albeit important level, public design allow us to live with a minimum of impediments to our daily existence.  There are also public spaces established to enhance quality of life like parks, libraries, or community centers.

Perhaps the most important consideration of the discussion is that good public design empowers people. If people feel empowered, they are invested in public spaces, and can be active agents for change. The High Line in New York, might not exist were it not for the passion, and hubris of Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who thought the rail line could be re-purposed in a manner similar to the Promenade Plantée in Paris.  Less than five years since it opened 2009, it is second only to Central Park in terms of popular appeal and use.  Crime is virtually nonexistent, which is attributed to the high visibility of the space, but also due to the fact that there’s almost always people in the park. According to Gilabert and Kroloff, a hallmark of good public design is that its full of people.

At its best, and most innovative, good public design offers spaces of possibility. It has the potential to traverse the gap between the bureaucratic systems of power and its citizenry—a rhizomatic approach instead of the conventional hierarchic arboreal model of urban development. Take for example, Superkilen, the temporary aesthetic intervention in Copanhagen, conceived by the Bjarke Ingels Group/BIG, that used color as a primary component to revitalize a disenfranchised neighborhood.

The organizations Creative Time and No Longer Empty, facilitate temporary aesthetic interventions.  Founded in 1973, Creative Time supports artists in the creation of socially engaged time-based projects.  No Longer Empty brings art exhibitions into unconventional settings, making curatorial decisions informed by the venue’s history, and incorporating outreach and education programs that successfully engage the community.  President and Chief Curator of No Longer Empty, Manon Slome, Anne Pasternak, President and Director of Creative Time, and artist Mel Chin discussed the relationship between art and community at the second ArtPrize lecture, “Can Art Save Our Cities” on Tuesday, Septemter 24 at the Ladies Literary Club.

The third and last of the lecture series, “Artist-Run Michigan”, takes place Tuesday, October 1, from 7:00-8:30 PM at The HUB, 41 Sheldon. SE, Grand Rapids.  Presenters include  featuring Paul Amenta of SiTE:LAB, Jerome Chu of Flint Public Art Project, Jenn Schaub of Avenue for the Arts, Geoffrey Holstad of Cabin Time, Wesley Taylor of Complex Movements, and Andrew Ranville of Rabbit Island Artist Residency.  Admission is free.

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