Make a Difference in Two Days

Last November, Urban Omnibus partnered with Bryan Bell, founder of Design Corps, to host a weekend-long design/build event that invited young designers to design a project in the public interest and build it from found materials. Bryan and other design activists like him explain some of the philosophies and case studies behind this kind of design intervention in his new book, Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism. But he shared his approach in person to kick off the weekend’s activities at the Architectural League‘s headquarters at the Urban Center. He encouraged the teams to rely on assets at hand, to use this project as a way to create a new public perception of designers, to look to communities they are familiar with (rather than swooping in from the outside), and, above all else, to do no harm. The teams began brainstorming right away before heading to their respective corners for the subsequent 48 hours. Everyone reconvened on Monday night for presentations and conversation.

Just in time for the warm weather, we wanted to share the process with citizen-designers across the city, in the hope of inspiring some small-scale, local interventions in your neck of the woods. If you stumble across, or initiate, a compelling design action in the public interest somewhere in the five boroughs of New York, we want to hear about it.

Below are descriptions of when the seven teams got up to over the weekend. First, check out a video that shows them in action:

Team NC State

Hans Hesselein, David Moses, Andrew Nicolas, Thomas Ryan

Bryan’s popularity as an educator precedes him. An interdisciplinary group of alumni from North Carolina State – two architects, a landscape architect and a graphic designer – some of whom worked with Bryan as undergrads before moving to New York joined in the fun. After raiding a New Jersey nursery for plants, piping and lumber, the team set about the task of creating sensory linkages across the divide of the Gowanus Canal. The eventual solution – a beautiful set of birdhouses – turned the site’s specific ecology into a point of connection rather than separation. And we weren’t the only ones to notice, check out blog coverage here that also got picked up here. [Update Sept. 15, 2010: For a look at the progression of this project from temporary design experiment to community-driven, multi-disciplinary operation, check out our feature Canal Nest Colony.]

Business Casual

Patrick Candella, Scott Corey, Philip Kuehne, Viren Patel, Mary Polites

This group of passionate young designers met while studying at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and most of them live in Jersey City. As such, they brought a fresh perspective to the sometimes parochial language in which New Yorkers articulate design challenges. Their site was a large parking lot that services several big box stores. The lot is ringed with an invisible and unmarked electric fence that, when crossed, renders shopping carts inoperable. The team observed dozens of paralyzed carts discarded around the periphery of the lot and very few deposited at the official corral at the center. If there were a corral before the fence, then maybe the employee whose job it is to return the carts wouldn’t have to manually unlock each cart one by one. If there were unlocked carts at the most popular points of pedestrian entry to the lot – near the path to the adjacent mall or near the light rail stop – customers arriving on foot could pick them up along their way. To address this problem, Business Casual scrounged around the NJIT woodshop for discarded plywood and built two shopping cart corrals that responded to actual observed use patterns. Imagine that.

Due North

Samuel John Reilly, Koren Sin, Stephanie Vito

These three young architecture students are new to New York. As undergraduates in Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning semester in the city program, the team responded to a simple problem they themselves faced as newcomers: directions. But instead of constructing orientation devices as an end in themselves, they assembled large amounts of discarded cardboard near their Flatiron District Cornell outpost into street furniture that points the passerby on her way while providing a resting spot for the road-weary.

Austin+Mergold and Company

Jason Austin, James Bowman, Alex Mergold, Denise Ramzy, and Sally Reynolds

Wayfinding was a recurring challenge that teams sought to address with simple design interventions. Austin+Mergold and Company closely observed tourists exiting the subway unable to locate themselves (see video below). Their solution borrowed less from street furniture and more from weather vanes, encouraging pedestrians to look upwards to find their way. And their careful consideration of New York’s skyline led them to evoke the horizon’s most conspicuous absence and place of remembrance for New Yorkers and out of town visitors alike, the twin towers and Ground Zero.

Columbia Students

Christina Akiskalou, Daniya Atta, Anastasia Choli, Elia Karachaliou, Pablo Perez Palacios, Eleni Petaloti, Pietro Todeschini

A group of international students in GSAPP’s Advanced Architectural Design professional program took inspiration from the rain on the first day of this two-day adventure. The rain stopped, the air was still warm, but who wants to hang out on a rain-drenched campus bench? So with rolls of altered bubble-wrap and containers made from takeaway soup canisters, a makeshift, reusable ground cloth was born.

Hester Street Collaborative & Leroy Street Studio

Anne Frederick, Morgan Hare, Dylan House, Marc Turkel, Jess Osserman, Shawn Watts

When it comes to making a difference through design, planning and organizing in the public interest, these collectives are professionals. The Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) is a design-build non-profit that works with schools and community groups in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the Lower East Side. The Collaborative emerged from the architectural practice of Leroy Street Studio, and the two groups took this opportunity to come together and to reconnect with their shared backgrounds in design and construction. One of the Chinatown elementary schools where HSC works lacks the street access to their playground that would make it a genuine public amenity, so the team went about creating a new gate, cutting out the chainlink, and creating a much needed connection point between school and neighborhood.

After 48 hours in the field, the teams reconvened at Cabinet Magazine‘s Gowanus space to share their processes, sites and projects with Bryan and the public. In the presentations, Bryan urged the teams to identify stakeholders affected, issues addressed and materials used. He encouraged all participants to check back on their projects and to continue to observe their sites. Observing real use patterns, talking to people about their needs, working in a community you know well: all these are hallmarks of Bryan’s philosophy of design as activism. The weekend proved that even the smallest-scale interventions can go a long way towards expanding the understanding of what design can do. Now it’s your turn, go out there and make something. The first step, as these designers experienced first-hand, is to watch closely and listen carefully.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Raj Kottamasu April 8, 2009

What a great excuse to put willing talent and capacity to use! I bet there are a lot of folks around the city who would be willing to commit two days of work to make a concrete contribution like this, especially if given the chance to reflect on it as a group and have it documented. Part of an UO series, maybe?

tucker viemeister April 25, 2009

these projects inspire me to use the same thinking of using “waste materials” but to solve nagging problems around my own house!