Two years ago the Urban Omnibus- the publication and outreach arm of the Architecture League of New York- was parked in the old Canning Factory Warehouse down near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. In November 2008 the UO partnered with Bryan Bell, founder of Design Corps, to hold a design/build event encouraging designers to "make a difference in two days", an exercise in design activism.
Do not let the beautiful soliloquies and exhortations of academics fool you; while high-minded in its conception, these events often function as an outlet for frustrated young designers who are tired of doing their bosses' cad work and want a chance to get a little dirty and have a laugh (a trend that has as much to do with 'recasting labor in architecture' as it does with design activism). This notion of design activism- figuring out what needs to be done and then figuring out ways to get it done, irrespective of the "invisible (omniscient) hand of the market"- is one that is dear to us and we here at FASLANYC have long been inspired by academics such as Tom Fisher, Bryan Bell, Senor Sam Mockbee, Marthur and da Cunha, and Walter Hood, as well as the high-minded ambition of practitioners such as the folks at Agency Architecture, Mia Lehrer, Supersudaca and Architecture for Humanity.
[The late Samuel Mockbee, smart and bearded]
Unfortunately, most of these initiatives suckle from the teat of corporate philanthropy and government largesse from (within the insulated cocoon of academia)- both of which have positives and both of which are extremely limiting to these otherwise wonderful initiatives. The people above have shown that there is a need for this work, and a desire to do it. The missing link is the mechanism for engaging larger constituencies and funding more visionary projects than those allowed by the corporate/governmental benefactors. The Colombians and their private/public supported "social urbanism" is one model to follow, given the appropriate political will (which can perhaps be cultivated through Maurice Cox' methods of political engagement). And perhaps there are ways to fund micro-endeavors Obama Campaign-style, exploiting the strengths of networked publics and internet technologies. But until this is developed, one can understand the curmudgeonly practitioners who dismiss these endeavors as a frivolous, if important, undertaking.
Anyways, four intrepid folks, all young designers from North Carolina living in Brooklyn (basically, a walking cliche of a young NYC design group) got together and entered the event. In the great design tradition of clever naming conventions, they called themselves Team NC State. The Omnibus had a succinct little write-up about the effort that weekend.
Most interesting, they liked what they were doing, and decided to keep it going. Throughout the fall of 2008 and the next spring, they kept cutting up pieces of scrap wood, painting them and making them into little yellow birdhouses. A couple of things here- the sophistication of this design is just lovely. The birdhouses are made of scraps from local cabinet makers and fastened atop an old reject piece of scaffolding which is cast in a 5-gallon bucket, partially filled with concrete. The cost per birdhouse is a couple of dollars, and each house is a mobile little unit which can be inserted into almost any crevice along the Gowanus, and can easily be moved later. What's more, bird species can be an indicator of ecosystem biodiversity in urban areas, and indicators of environmental health in a neighborhood. And people like birds. It's fun to see them hunt and fly and build, many have different colors and behaviors, and many of them migrate, marking the changing of seasons and passage of time. These factors suggest that birds are something of a socio-economic "keystone species" in urban environments. And a few folks from the Gowanus Canal Conservancy started to notice.
[two birdhouses at a street end. the yellows stand out in their rusty environs]
The Gowanus Canal Conservancy is a community non-profit group that has been working hard in recent years to address some of the legacy issues of the Gowanus Canal. This included working with DLand Studio to devise and promote the idea of a "Sponge Park" along the Canal, as well as proposing funded studies for stormwater control through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Environmental Protection. During this time, the main effort of the Conservancy on the ground has been the volunteer "clean and green" days. A concerted effort is made to reach out to local businesses, schools, and neighborhood organizations to invite people to get involved in the work on the canal. Most of this work is weeding and picking up trash.
During 2009 the GCC started noticing the work of the Canal Nest Colony, and began helping obtain materials and a work space. In return, team NC State offered their birdhouse initiative as an organizing mechanism for the community volunteer days. Suddenly, volunteers had a wider variety of activities to engage in- bolting, painting, digging, hammering, and pouring concrete- and volunteer days ended not only with an cleaned patch of ground along the Canal, but also with the construction of something interesting.
Over the course of 2009, 25 new birdhouses were designed built and installed, and prying eyes started to notice (including ours). These delicate little yellow boxes were beautiful beside the oily blues and rusting browns of the Canal. What's more, the bucket-footing allowed for the houses to migrate season to season, slowly finding their way to the micro-habitats along the Canal that best suited bird species. And the numbers of volunteers at the community clean and green days began to grow.
The Canal Nest Colony, birthed at the behest of the Urban Omnibus with the encouragement of Bryan Bell, is part of a groundswell of creative, hedonistic, and clumsy efforts along the Gowanus in the late 2000's. The Gowanus Canal, as an example of Sola-Morales' terrain vague- is attractive precisely because it is a "ruined place characterized by a lack of productivity..." that acts as a space of freedom and an "alternative to the lucrative reality that characterizes the late capitalist city." As such it is can operate simultaneously as an open sewer, ecological laboratory, and hipster playpen.
The growth of the Canal Nest Colony, involving community members and groups, the original team, and a local ngo opened new possibilities for the 2010. Next week we will examine some of the efforts, changes, alliances, and setbacks that the project encountered this year, including the superfundi-ing of the Canal by the Environmental Protection Agency, the expansion of the CNC team, and the help of city agencies.
A quick aside about SpongePark. DLand Studio and the GCC promptly got into a slap fight over the park when Susannah Drake of DLand trademarked the name in 2009. This is a shame, because the idea has some merit. However, will all of the inane organizations that continue to heap awards on the "Spongepark" please stop? It is a nice idea but is not novel and is not even at a conceptual stage yet (review the drawings for yourself). It is in no way better, more thoughtful, or more sophisticated than a final project from sophomore year and should be treated as such- "good start; make a real project, or even a real study, and we'll talk about funding and honors." Jesus God.