Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tactics v. Strategies- What Would Juvenile Do?

Recently that sweet blog DPR-Barcelona made brief mention of the group Supersudaca and their response to an article in the recent issue of Volume regarding the future of public housing.  Their poignant- if awkwardly worded- piece "LA Collective:  Latin America's parallel history as Occident's laboratory backlash" is a good read.  Supersudaca is generally a fun and provocative bunch (and you can find a couple of their fun, provocative projects written up in the latest Praxis).  Curiously, they share ther delightfully tacky aesthetic sensibility and sense of levity with another one my favorites- Tom Leader Studio.

The thing that fascinates me, besides the tackiness, is their approach to architecture/landscape.  They focus on projects that are often tiny in scale and of dubious legal legitimacy.  In this approach a central theme arises:  urbanism as the dynamic between tactics and strategies (as opposed to the brainchild of the singular genius, or the deterministic result of market forces).  Their "Arquitectura Directa" is a messy little publication showing many projects, all in Latin America, that focus on tactical urban interventions as a way of affecting change in the city.  This blurring of the line between architecture and vandalism, this guerrilla architecture, is a fascinating study in architecture-as-catalyst, where the result is a new social or market dynamic, not a beautiful building; working with limited resources, focusing on the social dynamics catalyzed and created as opposed to built form and expression of power.

These minor interventions happen as people take possession of a space and make it their own.  A good example of what I mean are the bird houses that have sprung up in the last year along the Gowanus Canal here in Brooklyn.  Called the Gowanus Nest Colony, the pretty-painted birdhouses are a perfect foil for the for the macabre beauty of the canal along with the wildlife that carves out habitat on its soiled banks.

These interventions and their effects- the ability to work on a small scale in ways that regular people can understand and contribute to- are a fertile field in the profession of landscape/architecture.  It's a demystification of the professions that shape cities, in turn encouraging democratic compliance, not merely tacit approval, among both professionals and the public.  This small scale, tactical approach as opposed to an over-arching, all-encompassing urban strategy is similar in many ways to Twitter versus the New York Times, Wikipedia versus the Encyclopedia Brittanica sold door-to-door in the 70's.  Both ground-up and top-down approaches have strengths and shortcomings and are more or less appropriate depending on the situation.  However, the power players who make their money and draw their security on the specialization and institutionalization of the right to make urban interventions (through laws, money, expectations, and accolades) have tended to dominate the conversation.  But this is not always appropriate.  And if design is a search for the appropriate intervention in a given place at a given time and not a clamouring for notoriety, then there should be more Canal Nest Colonies. 

The missing link is how does one monetize this ethos?  How does one make a business model from this tactical approach to landscape/architecture?  This is not easy; even twitter and youtube struggle to turn a profit, despite their popularity.  For the last fifty years the answer has been to parlay a few interesting ideas into an academic post where you are insulated from the vagaries of the market (and prior to that, it was best to be a "Gentleman Architect").  It seems Supersudaca  supports their forays into tactical landscape/architecutre with a grant from the Prince Claus Funds organization and a day job in a regular architecture office.  Part of the answer seems to be searching for another way of quantifying the value of this work- maybe it is not worth money but it is worth something that the community or certain benefactors can bestow.

At any rate, the idea of direct architecture as a tactical approach to urban interventions is promising, at least as opposed to the standard strategy of Panem et Circenses.

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