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Smarter Cities

Where Poetry Meets City Planning: The French Art Of Urban Renewal

YA+K's "Trans 305" construction site
YA+K's "Trans 305" construction site
Stéphanie Lemoine

IVRY-SUR-SEINE — The Plateau special planning district in this small town south of Paris could almost be mistaken for a regular construction site. Since 2007 the multidisciplinary artist Stefan Shankland has guided the construction of some 1,000 apartments according to an “action research” program launched by the city government and developed over the course of 10 years.

The idea? “To integrate art with the transforming city,” by putting into place a HACQ ("high artistic and cultural quality") project.

This particular initiative, called Trans 305, is meant to open the construction site to the public for performances, expositions and guided visits. The installation of signs with information around the perimeter of the site — a legal obligation for the developers — has also become an opportunity to work with a graphic designer and art students, which resulted in signs that were publicly inaugurated.

Transdisciplinary approach

Last year a group of architects who call themselves YA+K opened a space on the edges of the special planning district that is meant to serve as an incubator. From April to June the spot hosted various workshops, inviting artists, local residents and student designers to come up with prototypes for the street fixtures.

“Stefan allows the construction workers, the promoters, local residents and social workers to meet and let their practices evolve,” explains Etienne Delprat from YA+K. “That relationship is where things happen.”

Stefan Shankland’s approach is not isolated. In L’Ile-Saint-Denis, north of Paris, the Bellastock collective is leading a similar project in the construction site of a riverside green development. The group of young architects produces, at the site, prototypes of street installations using reclaimed material.

Like them, an increasing number of artists are using the city as their studio. Some are architects, landscapers or designers. Others come from street theater or fine arts. The youngest aren’t yet 30 years old. They form a loosely-defined constellation in which the participants know each other and work together over the course of the projects. They demand a transdisiplinary approach and ask that design be more closely associated with land planning.

Between art and place

In theory, this sort of request is not new at all: Whether it is public art installations, street theater or street art, culture has always been part of the urban space. But for this latest generation of city creatives, it’s the planning itself — i.e. the transformation of a space — that is the subject and material of the work of art. It influences events and performances, often ephemeral, where the goal is to accompany the rehabilitation of an industrial wasteland, planning for a public space or urban renewal as part of a program led by the National Agency for Urban Renewal.

The artists’ contribution is to both design the urban project and occupy the space as the project is being constructed. “It’s about questioning what art does to the place, but also what the place does to art,” says Maud Le Floc’h, an urban scenographer and the director of pOlau (Center for Urban Arts), an artistic residency dedicated to the connections between creativity and urban planning.

“Asking what art does to the place” obviously questions the way in which cities are developed. All these "interventions" in the urban space collectively turn their backs on a half-century of utilitarian architecture and rational approaches, which they counter with inventiveness, sharing, sensitive exploration and subjectivity.

Since 2003, Laurent Petit, an engineer who discovered street theater late in life, has been “psychoanalyzing” cities as part of the “National Agency for Urban Psychoanalysis.” After interviewing residents on the couch, he delivers his “diagnosis” in the form of student performances, if possible in the presence of elected officials, in which the identification of a “Strategic Urban Nerve Point” (SUNP) leads to a “Radical Urban Treatment” (RUT) which might take the form of “Bucolic Occupation Zones” (BOZ).

According to the artist, these consciously pseudo-conferences shed a totally different light on the city. “You don’t manage a place with equations,” he explains. “Our programs are a poetic tool that allows urban projects to be infused with a little enchantment, poetry and irrationality.”

“The joy of doing”

Creating on-site events is a way to increase the dynamics of urban transformation and challenge the expertise of a handful of urban planners and elected officials, which is where the collective and participative nature of the projects come from. The artists, architects and designers involved all reject hierarchies — their preference for organizing in collectives, which assumes a horizontal structure, is an example of that rejection.

“In the 1960s, collectives wanted to take over,” recalls the architect Patrick Bouchain, the inspiration for a number of these projects. “Now, it is considered more like a transfer of power away from politics that highlights the crisis in representative democracy.”

But most participants hesitate to politicize their approach. “We are a generation that no longer believes in politics,” notes Etienne Delprat. “We are more into the joy of doing.”

By prioritizing the “doing,” the artists, architects and landscapers involved in accompanying urban transformations challenge their own professional routines. They give themselves the right to put themselves in the position of the user, to try, to leave room to be wrong and to start over. That’s the origin of their fascination with micro-architecture, reclaimed materials, DIY and impermanence. In that sense, they are the heirs of Patrick Bouchain or Lucien Kroll, and they continue the idea that architecture is invented over the course of interactions with users, without a predetermined plan.

“We are not against the classical methods, we are just inventing new ones,” says Miguel Georgieff from the Coloco architects and landscapers collective.

Resolutely Experimental

The resolutely experimental nature of these projects can explain why they are sometimes called in as political reinforcement, especially in “sensitive” situations. In order to revitalize the fragmented city center of Vitrolles, in southern France, and to erase the bad image the region had suffered from since serving as a laboratory for the far-right movement, the Socialist party mayor Loïc Gachon called on Gabi Farage, a recently deceased member of the Bruit du Frigo (Fridge Noise) creative collective. He designed a vast cultural development project: “Interchange Vitrolles.”

Four architects’ collectives were invited to work on different strategic points around the city. Last June, eXYZT installed an “urban oasis” behind the city hall, while Etc rearranged the bus station, creating, among other things, a wooden merry-go-round. For Loïc Gachon, the experimentation had practical benefits: “This allowed us to test and experiment while introducing more permanent changes to the city,” he said. “And everything on a limited budget.”

A city in repair

The collectives that are involved in these urban transformations do in fact have the advantage of being inexpensive, especially because they tend to prefer recycled material, and because they know how to mobilize volunteers. That is an valuable asset, especially in the context of Europe's current economic crisis. Above all, they create a space for cultural appreciation when the usual approaches aren’t working anymore. “Sometimes people call us when the National Agency for Urban Renewal has failed,” explained Claire Bonnet, from the Saprophytes architects’ collective.

But trusting artists and creatives to “repair” the city has its limits. Whatever their virtues might be, these initiatives are not a substitute for a genuine policy of urban renewal.

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