The vibrant parts of a city
Sitting in front of our working space on the neighbor's doorstep, we see a man passing by slowly, walking down the street. A check of our watch confirmed it was about ten to three in the afternoon. Over the course of one month, we saw this same person walking by every day at the same time, passing thespace where we worked on our project for this year’s Ni-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB) in Shenzhen.
Invited to take part in the UABB, we had moved for a whole month into Shenzhen’s Urban Village of Nantou – foreigners with the goal of producing an exhibition that would explore the question, ‘What informal strategies can be found in an urban village?’ We wondered how they are developed and used in the inhabitants' daily lives to adapt to the ever-changing environment of the Village.
We established that what we were looking for lies beyond the physically shaping parameters of an architectural functionality or a material culture. It was the in-between, the way of using, both in conscious or subconscious decisions, the habits and practices of daily life that became the focus of our work.
Our assumption was that in daily routines, occupants of an urban space adapt it over time and slowly change their environment by reproducing and using strategies. Once identified and analyzed, these strategies could become tools to develop a contextual approach to understanding of the city in a different way.
Following the idea that the users' actions reflect the current state of their immediate urban environment, we set out to identify those actions by creating two spaces which would enable us to grasp the fluid vividness of this environment. The UABB gave us two room-sized houses within the narrow streets of Nantou. They were located opposite each other, with the usual traffic of villagers in between. The first space would become an archive of daily routines, improvisation and adaptions of the architectural surroundings. The second would be an open production space that allowed for interaction with the immediate neighborhood. And the space in between was used to interact with neighbors and passers-by through a performative strategy of displaying the production that we undertook for our research.
The project was presented as an informal and vibrant open space, growing out of the reflective work of an archive of informal gestures and the performative process of production.
The performative approach allowed us to adapt the output and to improvise along the way in order to react directly to the specific context. Site-specific aspects thus became an integral part of the process. This meant that not only was the process influenced by this context, but the result also became part of the context.
An archive of informal gestures
In between architectural functionality and material culture, we were seeking to identify daily habits and practices, and we used indications of their relationship to do that. We created an archive of gestures, habits, reactions, and improvisational strategies. Not only those perceived in action but also their representatives after people had left the scene, leaving behind placed things and used spaces.
Seen as a tool, the archive of informal gestures allowed us to perceive and visualize what you can see while being in the streets, displaying not the outstanding but the usual. By taking pictures over time of the same objects, the same spatial situations, events and gestures, we built up the archive as a representation of how the public space is used on a daily basis.
On the one hand, we were able to identify many different strategies that were clear adaptations or improvisations of spaces and objects, such as using electric cables as clothes lines, or a pavement stone to support a chair. On the other hand, we gathered repetitive gestures, habits or subconscious decisions that were made every day but left no visible trace as temporarily actions.
All those elements were photographed, organized, and categorized to become part of the archive that would later serve as the starting point for the production of the two spaces.
But instead of using the photographic archive as a database, we decided to go one step further and extract singular information from every category. Therefore, the content of the archive was further reduced to single elements, by another group of space&design strategistsin Linz,in an attempt to formalize the informal.
The group in Linz was only involved in the project through the images they received from Shenzhen. In contrast to the person who took the images, they did not know why the image was made. The only information they received was what they could see on the image. Thus removed from immediate experience, they could systematically analyze, order and extract key information from the collection of recordings that the makers of the pictures could not have done. They grew up partly in China, which facilitated discussions about any reduction that required cultural understanding.
As an image always conveys more information than one can grasp, their task was to subjectively identify the main element in each photograph and draw it by hand. This not only led to a formalization of the informal, an obvious contradiction, but also, through the subjective decisions of the drawers, created single narratives that, once placed next to each other, became a multiple storyline narrative that represented metaphorically daily life in the urban village of Nantou as seen through the (curious) gaze of foreigners.
This hand-drawn copy became the part of the work, which made the daily habits visible in order to reflect the in-between, the conscious or subconscious decisions, the habits and practices of daily life which are made in this specific context.
Self-generating space production
With an exhibition as a result of spending one month in the Village, we decided that the production of the space itself would be our strategy. It was the tool that defined our process, aimed at not only observing and documenting daily life, but also using our presence performatively to shape new spaces for a given time.
The task that we had to fulfil in order to produce was an integral part of the resulting space. By performing the whole process of production, one could create spaces which could then be easily taken over by the locals,as everyone would be able to be an active or passive part of their creation.
From the first day on, the doors to the rooms we occupied were left wide open. The needs that arose from choosing to use the space to produce the work around those topics were basic supports such as electricity, water, furniture, a small cooking station for morning and afternoon breaks, and so on.
But by having to organize those basic requirements, we learned that interaction with our surroundings became not only a necessity for our research purpose, but a basic need. Which allowed for a completely different understanding of our presence and interaction with the people willing to help us. Once we had organized electricity from the house next door, had built a sink under the water tap from the construction site, and got the invitation to use the kitchen of the illegal casino across the street, our presence became a daily routine for the neighbors. And thus, the production and creation process started to become part of the site.
By the time an unused door was placed on purpose in front of our space for us to transform into furniture, we knew that the people around us had understood the process we were following. The neighbors came around, and more chairs and coffee tables were produced to host them. When a car loaded with electric cables had to slow down at our space because we were obstructing the street with our work, it stopped to help out with a solution for illuminating the place. Meanwhile, massive drawings were produced for the second room, showing scenes of daily life and giving the trespassing villagers questions to answer.
Because of the vibrant blur of the narrow street in between our rooms, our process of work was always adapted to the surroundings, and production was again and again redirected towards our objective. By working in public space, we arrived at a strong reciprocity between the performative and directive action of ourselves and the context of the neighbors in their built surroundings and used objects, and daily life was provoked.
The built space and physical objects were the materialized needs. They were the elements we created for the public space, which offered a possibility for not only neighbors but also UABB visitors to meet.
Over the month, the space of our working, living and cooking became a hotspot to stop at and hang out, which extended onto the street. The two rooms and the production that took place between them provoked a process which allowed us to integrate into it many unforeseeable aspects of life found throughout the urban village.
Whenever we cooked, be it for five or twenty people, the network of possibilities at our disposal was used to produce the food we wanted to eat. For baking pizza, the oven of the baker two streets further was used. Cutlery and tableware were borrowed from a neighboring restaurant, and the fish that a neighbor brought us one day were cooked in the pan from next door, as it was a bigger one than our own. While this vividness shaped the space around the kitchen and the social space outside, the other room across the street housed the archive as a reflective perception of the village's daily life. The small room was taken over by a collage of differently sized drawings leaning against the walls.
To express the association of both rooms, we built a table to eat and work on in the first, while in the other space an element of the same shape and material placed just above the floor marked a path from which the narrated collage could be viewed. This passive yet reflective point of view on a formalized and thus frozen form of daily life became the opposite of the vibrant social space we formed across and within the street.
The informal relations with neighbors in their daily routine and through the performative production connected both our process of work and the outcome, not only content-wise but also strategically, to what we were looking for. As part of the project, we created spaces to fulfill our needs, by using the contextual limits and opportunities and used them for our purposes within the timeframe that we defined. We had to manage not just to observe and define but also to create and shape a vibrant part of the city whose presence was as natural as daily life itself.
It was clear that we were responsible for the space until we left it. And once we were not present anymore, we handed on this responsibility to everyone wanting to use it in their own way. So we did. A few days after the opening, we left Shenzhen. The doors stood wide open, with the keys in the locks. And since then we get regular updates from the immediate neighbors through WeChat. They send us pictures showing us what has or has not happened.