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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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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