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    Archive for the 'Contested spaces' Category

    What do you get when you gather 2000 geographers?

    By Vicente A Sandoval Henriquez, on 27 September 2013

    The fourth EUGEO Congress took place in Rome, Italy, 5-7 September 2013, at the University of Rome La Sapienza and at the Società Geografica Italiana, where thousands of geographers and researchers from all different fields of study attended and participated in more than 500 presentations.

    Photo 05-09-2013 09 42 42

    When thinking of organising a mega-conference like this in a city like Rome one must deal with motivation. The event is competing against the Coliseo, the Vatican and more than 3000 years of vibrant history. How do you maintain the attention of 2000 geographers and attendees for 2 “cloistered” days ? Well, some keynote speeches kicked off the conference. The programme included keynote speakers such as James W. Scott, Ron Boschma, Anne Buttimer, Gyula Horvát, Vladimir Kolossov, Peter Mehlbye, Armando Montanari, Petros Petsimeris and Ad de Roo, among others. But also, other activities such as paper sessions, poster sessions, thematic panels, scientific and social events created very interesting spaces for discussions and knowledge dissemination.

    So, when bring 2000 geographers together, along with other researchers from related-fields, it is great to have a juicy programme that ignite intellectual discussion on matters highly relevant for all. Thus, macro topics such as capitalism and geography, borders and neoliberalism, and disaster and capitalism, were a very good beginning.

    Neoliberal borders for a neoliberal world

    James W. Scott, from the University of Eastern Finland presented in the session “Beyond ‘Fortress Europe’? Bordering and crossbordering processes along the European Union external frontiers”, critically discussing, for example, how EU borders have been affected and influenced by neoliberal forces creating something like a “neoliberal segregation”. The discussion turned to what defines a border as a “good” or “bad”, with further examples given; for instance, the case of US and Mexican border agencies working collaboratively. This sparked debates on borders as opportunities for cooperation, while also being protection from threats. One discussant described this phenomenon as the “permeability of frontiers”. Interestingly, a creative author proposed borders as interstitial spaces such as “Venn diagrams” where opposed forces share common interests and concerns.

    Another interesting discussion emerged in the session on free mobility, borders and neoliberalism. The contradictory idea that free market and free mobility of people – ideas from neoliberalism – are all about freedom and liberty but only possible inside a controlled space caught my attention. ‘Free mobility’ for insiders maybe, but ‘exclusionary borders’ for outsiders.

    When Capitalism Met Disaster


    I participated more actively in the session where Camillo Boano and I presented; “Multiple geographical perspectives on hazards and disasters”. In this session, we discussed single-scale studies on disaster risk and vulnerability –i.e. urban risk, physical vulnerability– by formulating the progression of vulnerability proposed in the Pressure and Release Model (PAR Model) as a multi-scalar phenomenon.

    We examined the case of Chaitén in order to explain how socio-economic and political processes nested at major geographical scales participate in the production of disaster risk and vulnerability at minor scales. This proposal and another presentation on L’Aquila earthquake in 2007 set the discussion on ‘disaster capitalism’. Most of the presenters acknowledged that disasters open windows of opportunity for structural transformations. Nobody disagreed with the potential transformative opportunity of disasters. Nevertheless, some of the case studies explored suggest that these windows of opportunity have been devised to systematically introduce more neoliberal reforms, such as in the cases of Sri Lanka in 2004 and Katrina 2005.

    While disasters have became more frequent and their impacts more severe, neoliberal reforms are aggressively expanding in an unprecedented manner. So, the combination – or the encounter, just like in the film “When Harry Met Sally” (1989)– of these processes is highly challenging for government and institutions, particularly for people in the global south. Naturally, we all agreed that more research and more intellectual endeavours are required to better understand the implications and potentials –negative or positive– of this new phase in disasters.

    What is going on in Brazil?

    By Alexandre Apsan Frediani, on 23 June 2013

    Together with my Brazilian friends and family living in London, we cannot stop following the posts, videos, tweets and news about what is going on in Brazil since the demonstrations in the streets of São Paulo on June the 6th and spreading to the main urban centres of the country. We cannot also help starting most conversations we have at the moment by commenting on the latest news. Even after spending hours talking and reading about it, it is still hard to answer the question: what is going on in Brazil? While hopeful and excited about the level of social mobilisation around equitable access to urban infrastructure and services, we are also extremely worried about the more recent turn of the events towards a conservative agenda.

    Picture 1: Demonstrations in London

    Source: Alex Frediani

    Source: Alex Frediani


    The Excitement

    Since the demonstrations that impeached the president Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992 we probably have not seen the public sphere so much dominated by political debates, rather than football or soap opera. Everybody is talking about it, everybody is having to position themselves in one way or another. This is also the result of a long-term mobilisation story around universal access to transport through free fares. After a series of decentralised actions (including the demonstrations in Salvador in 2003 in Florianopolis in 2004[1]), in the 2005 World Social Forum the Movimento Passe Livre, MPL (Free Fare – but also translated as Free Pass – Movement) was formed. A charter with basic principles was developed, which included independence, non-partisanship, horizontality and decision-by-consensus. National meetings were conducted to generate strategic plans. Local groups consolidated and political pressure was successfully exerted through studies and street demonstrations. During August and September of last year the MPL organised demonstrations in Natal (Rio Grande do Norte), March this year the movement took thousands to the street of Porto Alegre (Rio Grande do Sul). Then in the beginning of this month, the movement responded to the plans of increasing the price of bus fare in São Paulo by organising the demonstrations on the 6th of June, which brought 5,000 people to the streets.

    For me, these activities provide examples of how social movements are contesting the commodification of city services. One of the major references of the movement is the engineer Lúcio Gregori (municipal secretary of transport of São Paulo between 1990-1992). Lúcio designed during his mandate the Project Free Fare, never implemented but which aimed at subsidising the cost of public transport through a reform of the progressive property tax. His argument is based on the idea that the high costs of the tariffs is prioritising the support towards automobile industry and bus companies over the movement towards sustainable and equitable cities.  By subsidising public transport and reducing tariffs, citizens would opt for collective transport services rather than individual cars, minimizing traffic and maintenance costs of roads. Importantly, Lúcio argues that financially the project free fare is viable, however it needs the political willingness that is not in place, hence the need for social mobilisation and pressure by civil society organisations.

    Picture 2: Illustration used by MPL

    Translation: A city only exists for those that can move through it. Source:

    Translation: A city only exists for those that can move through it. Source:


    However, since the initial stages, protests increased in amount of supporters but also concerns. Apart from transport tariffs, the various signs seen in the demonstrations have condemned a series of issues, including the costs caused by the forthcoming world cup[2], as well as the controversial constitutional amendment number 37, which would prohibit public agencies from carrying out criminal investigations. Such claims are important demands to keep Brazilian government under scrutiny and deepening public debates and democratic practices.

    Picture 3: Protests in London with demands beyond bus tariffs

    Translation: Brazil, let’s wake up! A teacher is worth more than Neymar (Brazilian footballer). Source: Alex Frediani

    Translation: Brazil, let’s wake up! A teacher is worth more than Neymar (Brazilian footballer). Source: Alex Frediani


    The Brazilian government responded to the voices of those in the street. In a televised announcement on the 21st of June, the president Dilma Rousseff called for meeting with activists, mayors and state governors to discuss about the demands of protesters. In particularly, urban mobility would be a major theme of deliberation. Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo mayors also responded by scraping their plans to increase prices of bus tariffs in the short term

    The Worry

    Apart from those exciting citizenship claims through debates of transport and urban mobility, we have also seen a series of worrying elements that we perceive to be counter productive to such claims. Firstly ‘violence’ has been unfortunately dominating a lot of the discussions. Just after the first protests since the 6th of June, the major media corporations did not hesitate to focus their news around the violence generated by a few protesters, therefore criminalising the activities in the streets. In the meantime, on-line various videos were shared by protesters and journalists showing the outrageous reactions of the police force using rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the peaceful crowds shouting: sem violencia – without violence. Videos also show police shooting people recording the events in the streets and in buildings.

    When the activities in the streets of the country started getting momentum, the position from the major media corporations, especially Globo, changed radically. From criminalising uprising, they started to provide ‘reasoned’ arguments, mostly associated to corruption of current government, to legitimize activities. Many comments on-line have accused such shift to demonstrate an opportunistic attitude of the right-wing/conservative elite in Brazil, tapping into and co-opting events, shifting the agenda from urban mobility towards a debate on corruption with the intention to destabilise the PT (workers party) government[3].

    Also worrying is how the mood of the crowd in the streets started to shift. As numbers increased and causes for mobilisation started to multiply, the national anthem has become a key shouting bringing protestors to a united voice. The article by journalists Camila Petroni and Debora Lessa of the journal Brasil de Fato[4] outline the dangers of the emergence of this problematic nationalistic mood, which often is associated to militarization and reminds us of worrying times of our history during the 60s and 70s military government. Therefore, many have argued that the demonstrations have become compromised, losing coherence, depth and clarity due to this attempt of the right to sabotage and co-opt activities. Others have argued that this is the nature of current uprisings: multiple, decentralised, unpredictable, difficult to explain as a whole, and evidence of a new form of networked society.

    However profoundly worrying has been the reaction in the streets of São Paulo in the celebration following the announcement of the mayor saying that the bus tariff would not go up. Those who went to celebrate using their party or organization’s banners and shirts (i.e. PSOL – Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, Socialism and Freedom Party – that thas been involved with the MPL since its first steps) were kicked out from the marches. Protesters argued that they would not like such groups and organisations to profit from what has been the ‘people’s demonstration’[5]. This rejection to the role of such groups in the organisation, mobilisation and future dialogue with government officials is naïve and limits the potential of protests to move beyond an outburst of grievances and influence concrete policy and practices of governance. Furthermore, and even more worrying, those claiming to be of no-association and no-party have also been accused of belonging to organised right-wing and military groups[6].

    As a result of such recent events, the MPL has said that it would not be involved in the organisation of future demonstrations. Journalists and bloggers are calling protestors to localise their discussions. As it happened also in Spain, the call is to consolidate the debate and critical thinking in neighbourhoods and hubs of dialogue. The editorial piece of the magazine Forum (which was created during the World Social Forum of 2001 in Porto Alegre) asked activists to replace in the short-term demonstrations with meetings to deepen the debate, work out differences and share perspectives before going again to the streets[7].

    Next steps

    The above description is one of the many readings of the situation. It is quite surprising that the media in the UK is not engaging with such reading and has not been trying to capture complexities and the contradictions of the schizophrenic nature of the uprisings in Brazil. It is impossible to attempt to make any analysis of what could happen, but I see exciting and worrying scenarios: if the progressive activists move out from the demonstrations by prioritising localised discussions, the conflict in the streets might end up dominated by right-wing groups, with dangerous prospects of militarization and confrontation with the current government. But on the other hand the confrontations with fuzzy purposes might phase out with time, and what is going to be left are the seeds for a much more constructive and profound mode of civil engagement. What is going on in Brazil? I am not sure, but definitely it is uncertain, exciting and worrying all at the same time…

    Alexandre Apsan Frediani is a lecturer at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit and co-director of Masters in Social Development Practice.

    [1] See documentary Impasse on-line about the movement in Florianopolis:

    [2] See videos that went viral on-line outlining the major arguments against the World Cup: ‘No, I am not going to the world cup’: and Brazilian ex-footballer and now politician Romario arguing that FIFA has established a estate within the Brazilian estate:


    [5] See post by a demonstrator that got kicked out from the celebrations:

    [6] See list disseminated through facebook:


    Occupying and the New Monuments: DPU summerLab at Porto Fluviale, Rome

    By Giorgio Talocci, on 24 September 2012

    “The future is but the obsolete in reverse” (Vladimir Nabokov, Lance, 1952)

    This post – whose title recalls Robert Smithson’s seminal essay Entropy and the New Monuments – tells the experience of the DPU summerLab in Rome, and of its landing into the reality of what we called the Occupation City. 

    The New Monuments, Smithson says, are no longer for remembering and learning about the past but rather for helping forgetting a future which is dissolving because of Entropy and Obsolescence. Rome is a city of Old and New (or renewed) Monuments whose role has always been to drive a trend, either visible or hidden, formal or informal, in the urban development of their time. As last year’s strolling exploration, we navigated through these Monuments and the images of the city they wanted to portray when built, and through what they represent today. We started from Corviale, the swan song of the Modernist utopia and its monumental re-signification through the informal occupation of its one kilometre long fifth floor, originally supposed to host never-implemented services and shops. We passed on the Tiber River, through its monumental banks and bridges and its population of gypsies in provisional shanty towns. And by the Roman Walls and the non-catholic cemetery which has colonised their back. And we entered the Campo Boario, neoclassic Monument to the industrial production (of meat), abandoned by the Municipality and become a living collection of people – now Kurdish and Italians but once also Palestinians, Gypsies, Ukrainians – and the stories of how they landed there.

    Part of Corviale's fifth floor and its informal housing.


    A conversation with the leader of the Kurdish Community in Campo Boario.

    Campo Boario and its open and multicultural square constituted a paradigmatic space for our investigation in Porto Fluviale, the squat-occupation we have been working with, today undergoing a process of opening up toward the surroundings exactly through the transformation of its central courtyard in a public square.

    The galaxy of squat-occupations is a network of New Monuments, buildings whose re-significations through the (anti-entropic and anti-obsolescing) act of occupying have become the spatial manifestations of the current housing crisis in Rome. Porto Fluviale is one of those. Abandoned many years ago after serving as deposit for weapons and then for uniforms for armed forces, the building, still property of the Ministry of Defence, has been occupied in 2003 by the Coordinamento Cittadino Lotta per la Casa (one of the Social Movements leading the Struggle for Housing in Rome), in its endeavour to concentrate the Struggle on the restitution of otherwise idle and abandoned publicly-owned fragments of the city to the use of the citizens. Both the words use and citizen though are at stake in the political vision of the Movement, and the project of the new piazza challenges both concepts.

    The entrance toward the courtyard (photo by Gamar Markarian)

    The courtyard of Porto Fluviale (picture by Maria Rocco)

    So far, the courtyard has been the centre of the community life and the spatial element that more than anything else has helped fostering throughout the years a sense of collectiveness and everyday life sharing. The day 80 families (about 250 people) from different nationalities – mainly Italians, Ecuadorians, Moroccans, Peruvians, but many more – broke into the building from one of the main gates, Porto Fluviale started undergoing a deep transformation. Its three floors got transformed into houses facing both internal and external side of the C-shaped building, with the dark distribution corridors marked by the rails once used to move the materials around the floors and to the service-lifts. The housing units search for the light vertically, thanks to the widespread use of self-made mezzanines built to reach the level of the big windows whose basis is at 2.50 meters, so to have the possibility of a view toward the outside or the courtyard.

    The inner distribution corridor.

    The space of a housing unit from the mezzanine.

    In spite of the constant risk of eviction (the building is part of a plan through which the Municipality is trying to sell out a number of former barracks to private developers) the community have recently voted to keep the main gate open during the day so to let the people from the surroundings feel free to enter. The process started a couple of years ago opening a tearoom on the ground floor, and went on with the transformation of many spaces, that were once residential and now have become an assembly room, a bicycle workshop, guest rooms (where a group of participant was kindly hosted) and new rooms for skill-sharing activities.

    All the talks and the interaction between the community and the participants to the workshop have been driven by the idea of this new space, focus of both worries (in terms of security) and dreams (a finally redeemed image) for its inhabitants. What mostly struck us, in the assembly, was a sentence that sounded more or less like this: “we don’t want to open all the gates and make the new square become a place of passage and circulation like all the other squares around the city: this would simply replicate the current experience of the city, whose public spaces are meant for the capitalistic consumption”. The new square sets aside any capitalistic logic and wants to be the place where to experiment new activities and ways of exchanging and paying back the services that the community will offer. The square is meant to be the place where new alternative lessons can be taught and more lessons have yet to be learnt, where pro-active citizens can meet and exchange their experiences, where the use-value of space takes again over the exchange one.

    A moment of the assembly.

    The participants’ works helped unpacking, de-codifying and portraying the neo-marxist vision come out from the initial assembly with the inhabitants and their leadership. They highlighted hidden potentialities of the new square, possible ways of portraying its many identities and stories, latent contradictions intrinsic to a project of a piazza that is open to everyone but chiefly to whom is willing to enter: what if the space opens all its three main gates and its sides become totally permeable as already happening for the tearoom? How to open a gate to show something that is other without the risk of losing this otherness itself? How does openness combine with the need for security? And which declension can the term security acquire in the transition toward a post-capitalistic urban space?

    The final presentation of the works.

    In spite of these open questions, in Porto Fluviale the DPU summerLab has met a community with a complex past and witnessed its will to write a different future. Through the act of occupying the otherwise obsolete Monument Porto Fluviale, its community has inverted the entropic process it was undergoing. Porto Fluviale represents a re-use of a Monument, re-use that though goes beyond a simple notion of renovation or change of use, of retrofitting to accommodate new functions. The piazza calls for a use that is totally new, crafted outside the logic of the capitalistic development and then yet to be discovered. A use made possible through means of occupation, that though, today, leads to question the appropriateness of the verb occupying itself, as remarked by one of the participants to the workshop. Spaces such as Porto Fluviale had their inception through the act of occupying but their raison d’etre nowadays lies in the even more political action of producing space: should we stop saying ‘Porto Fluviale Occupation’ and naming it simpy for its current essence ‘Piazza del Porto Fluviale’?

    Many thanks to our local collaborators, Francesco Careri and Laboratorio Arti Civiche – whose preliminary work and constant insights made our workshop possible and cheerful – and warm greetings to all the inhabitants of Porto Fluviale, thanks for such a delightful week together.

    Thresholds of Liminality, Visibility, and Temporality in the Grafting of New Peripheries in Zurich: Reconnaissance from DPU summerLab

    By William N Hunter, on 14 August 2012

    What does it mean to transplant two inherently different demographic entities with different and debatable models of organisation against one another in what would otherwise be considered a current urban periphery? What would it imply, in regards to the expected evolution of a site, if the mechanism for transplanting these two entities was seen as definitively temporary and par the existenzminimum? And furthermore, if this be the situational urban problematic, what provocations can be found in critically interpretive readings and what measures should be taken in the form of alternative tactics that could increase their unspoken potential as urban generators?

    workshop group walking in Oerlikon district residential park

    These are the primary questions that formed the core investigation of the DPU summerLab Zurich held in the Swiss capital from August 6-11. The workshop, entitled Liminal Contours, under the collaboration and facilitation of the ETH Zurich, combined a series of lecture talks, exploratory city walks/site visits, and design charrette exercises. That suggestive title refers to a theme surrounding various suspect activities and alternative forms of development that, although not completely foreign or novel, still stand apart from the generally kosher character of the city and its more conservative development tendencies. It was in fact certain small divergent planning schemes that peaked particular entry points for this line of intriguing urban questioning.

    No question about it, like many cities experiencing more rapid population growth, Zurich is expanding. Specifically, the western peripheral village of Altstetten has been a focus of real estate speculation since the early 90s. However, not living up to the hype, the area still retains its neighbouring village character complete with sub-urban style park-and-shop centres. Any serenity seems set to finally change as activities set in the former urban peripheries begin to transplant there along with an expanded rail and tram station.

    containers for creative industry start-ups being moved onto the site in Altstetten

    The most apparent of these new developments is the latest incarnation of the “Basislager” (Eng. translation – basecamp), a temporary clustering of stacked custom-designed shipping container-like modules meant to house creative industry start-ups. These compact commercial containers were original erected in the Binz district and will intend to house many of the previous tenants. The last few container clusters were being shifted as we visited the site. Already on the new site in Altstetten is another similar cluster of colourful shipping containers housing asylum seekers under a municipal scheme that allows immigrants to live there until their new papers are sorted, eventually giving way to another group of refugees. Undoubtedly the most intriguing entity that will be located near the commercial units is a “Strichplatz” (legal prostitution zone). Zurich has a healthy history of prostitution, both legal and illegal, and many such manifestations still exist throughout the city. The new-found attention, outright planning and forced juxtaposition of such a suspect and debated entity next to a temporary creative zone raises some profound questions in regard to the urban problematic.

    shipping containers housing asylum seekers in Altstetten

     At the moment the site in Altstetten is in its infancy. The creative commercial containers are just now being stacked. The prostitution boxes or corrals (for a more honest label) are not yet erected. No landscaping features appear on the horizon and all indications would lead one to believe that not many will. Given the current skeleton of action on the site, the workshop participants and tutors had to look elsewhere for clues as to how these divergent activities manifest in their everyday manners. Through determined transect walks exploring various points throughout the city that contain elements of these activities, we focused primarily on two areas to provide the most generous identifiable revelations. The Langstrasse Quarter, an eclectic and diverse enclave of multicultural factions, sometimes hedonist energy, sex shops and a still apparent red light district character, was approached at different hours of the day in order to witness, in a sort of retrospective mode, how certain suspect activities have evolved and adapted over time. The Langstrasse has experienced various levels of gentrification. It’s once seedy image is wavering, yet a clear outsider reputation precedes any discussion on the area and one can easily find a healthy faction of sex workers and parallel levels of “clientele”, especially in the late hours of the night.

    entrance of the Roland Kino (erotic cinema) on the Langstrasse

    The most revealing observations were the dominating overlaps of programs in the area. An array of sex shops and erotic cinemas nestle somewhat seamlessly next to professional offices, galleries, clothing stores, kebab shops, and bars (some of which cater to the suspect trades). Here the concept of visibility vs. invisibility emerged as method of mapping and understanding the phenomenological character of the place. The idea of thresholds, the notion of public and private began to blur in different ways as one’s eyes moved from street level to a scanning of the facades of the buildings. A particularly intriguing observation was how the actual size of signage decreased as one moved away from the main high street. Signs and symbols of the sex industry would change as the residential quarters emerged in side streets, implying that a different level of acceptability occurred there.

    spatial program analysis  in the Langstrasse Quarter

    Similar former suspect areas were covered in our walks to gain further parallel understanding- including Platspitz (the former legal drug zone Needle Park) and drug/prostitution zones along the Limmat River. Although these scenes have been disbanded over 15 years ago, the historical knowledge and the layers of new activity provide interesting insight into the city’s liberal interludes. A short visit to the Binz district, the site of the former “Basislager” was a bookend to our field excursions. Here the group was able to detect a changing of the guard as the office containers were removed. What was clear is how the inhabitants of the containers had “moved in” to the site, dotting their immediate proximity with casual public amenities. This gave some hint as to how the future site in Altstetten might develop over a period of a couple of years.

    model image of proposed “Strichplatz” and “Basislager” with walled partition in between

    What emerged in the final days of production was a challenge of understand the Langstrasse Quarter and the Altstetten site across a package of thematic underpinnings. The notions of visibility, thresholds, juxtaposition, inheritance, temporary, and public formed the framework for mapping the phenomenological characteristics of these areas, hoping to reveal prioritized entry points that would elicit a sampled representation of the challenges facing the users of the future site. Recognizing a cross-cutting relationship of themes, especially in what was seen to be an odd tendency for the burgeoning creative industries and prostitution zones to always be located in peripheral settings, the framework allowed for clearer, if not still challenging transposition of observations from one site to the other. Without being able to see a finished transplanting of the activities in Altstetten, the speculation of interventions and strategies were limiting. However the process of understanding the phenomenal character and the spatialising of themes led to a more informed questioning of what it would mean to have these activities occupying neighbouring swaths of land and what tactics could lead to a critique of this situation.

    group work at ETH’s  Werk 11

    speculative critique of future activity on the Altstetten site

    Ultimately the Zurich summerLab offered the opportunity to undertake a different reading of the city from alternative perspectives, and led to a critical thinking on proposals that challenge the decisions taken by current development planning schemes. The group was able to adopt alternative methods of design research and action with the charge to rethink the processes of urban practice in a dominant political economy where such processes, activities and contours might in some way regain control of the design of the urban realm.

    Slummin’ it: The re-emergence of an ethical tourism debate

    By William N Hunter, on 27 July 2012

    Just the other day as I stood on semi-cramped tube carriage in morning rush-hour on the London Underground, passively flipping through the Metro, that bourgeois staple of just-above-the surface news periodical, I was pleasantly surprised to arrive at an article of astute guile and questioning verve. Ross McGuinness’* article on whether the concept of ‘slum tourism’ was merely a glorified exploitive cash cow or a legitimate method for enabling those individuals and communities stuck in poverty stricken conditions struck a particular chord, especially given the coincidental fact that just the evening before Film4 was screening Danny Boyle’s multi-award winning Slumdog Millionaire.

    McGuinness keenly points to that film and others such as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God and The Constant Gardener as catalysts in how cinema has had a profound universal influence on generating a newfound interest in the intriguing and somehow exotic qualities of a mostly unknown social and cultural phenomenon, at least to the rest of Western society. Despite a lack of prevalent data on the correlation between exposure through film, there is little doubt in the re-emergence or growth of travellers seeking a different kind of experience as they eschew the erstwhile daily grind of the office or the default third trip to an easy and enjoyable European capital. But what exactly are they hoping to see and find in these alternative landscapes and moreover what does it imply in regards to the how the other half- the residents of these areas- perceive this attention?

    It seems that a fortuitous parallel occurred in the sense that many of the ‘slums’ across the world that have experienced such influx of intrigue are located in glamour destinations already on the tourist map, for example cities in Brazil and South Africa, which became more accessible and certainly popular after the Apartheid. As Dr. Fabian Frenzel points out in the article, in Rio “favela tourism has almost become part of the package.” Frenzel is a lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Leicester and has just published a lengthy EU funded volume on the subject titled Slum Tourism: Poverty, Power, and Ethics* which attempts to advance the debate on the concept of slum tourism and put to rest the easy generalisations and presumptions that follow this trend.

    The big question that stems from any presumption or debate is one of whether slum tourism should be considered an exploitive mechanism for selfish capital gain or a legitimate driver and benefit for poorer populations in cities and territories in development. But this too, as Frenzel points out, is also a generalisation of the argument. For the notion of slum tourism or at least some version of it is nothing novel at all. As a revelatory note, Frenzel and McGuinness highlight the UK’s own booming experience with the concept in the 1870-80s when well-off Londoners from the West End would visit the seedy East London foxholes of Hackney and Shoreditch and draw attention to Engels’ description of Manchester’s Irish Quarter around the same time. It is also well known that New York saw a similar phenomenon all the way through the Great Depression in such storied hollows as Central Park, briefly documented in Ron Howard’s film Cinderella Man.

                                                         drawing of old London slums


    So what then is the difference now in the situation and debate surrounding the economy of slum tourism? Given the fact that in some cities the idea has existed in various forms before, there are some examples where individuals involved in this growing enterprise have implemented an arguably less exploitive methodology. As the article reveals and according to his website, for 20+years, Marcelo Armstrong has run Favela Tour in Rio. Says Armstrong, “We talk about many subjects that it’s not proper to talk about if you go to Sugarloaf Mountain or Christ the Redeemer. You just see Rio. Every new step we do something new. The tour is basically to contextualize favelas into Brazilian society. It is not a tour that only talks about favelas but about Brazilian society from another point of view.” On the surface this doesn’t sound like exploitation, but rather a more critically insightful alternative tour experience, even more than one might expect to receive at the tourist flooded landmarks of the city. To that, McGuinness pointedly asks if visitors in fact go on the tours for the right reasons. Armstrong’s response is that “Human beings are very complex. There are many motivations why they want to go there. Some may have a specific interest because they are teachers, historians, social workers or architects. Others because they want to confront what they have read about. Others have seen films.” An argument for the genuine article in this particular tour which has 1500 visitors per month is that it funds a school- highlighting the belief that education is the main way out of poverty.

                                                         favela tour, Rio


    Aside from the primary of question of ethics and benefits, it is important to ask what is wrong with ordinary individuals wanting to gain some perspective towards a subject or a reality that they themselves do not encounter on an everyday scale- that has itself been coloured up (or down) or exploited by media and film. Not every person could be thought of as a gawker and as Armstrong points out, many of the visitors have a certain level of sophisticated and clear motivation. And tours, at least like his cater to a more critical mass of individual and subject rather than object. The work of the DPU comes quickly to mind.

    Each May our various MSc courses take intriguing and somewhat exotic journeys to destinations in the Global South- i.e. Ghana, India, Ethiopia, Thailand. While the agenda is one of determined, critical and open-minded social consideration, many of our students have never spent time in such extreme conditions and there always exists a high level of debriefing and attention given to the perception we have and a clarity of what we are intending to do there. In nearly every case we are working in collaboration with community groups from within these possible slum areas, so our appearance is generally measured. Though the fact that we are there conducting research still places us square in the middle of the debate. And we are constantly questioning the benefit of our work for the communities that have taken their time to share with us the challenges they may face.

                                                         pavement dwellers in Dharavi, Mumbai


    Another significant note worth mentioning, and one that is also being revealed more and more in parallel regards to why these areas have piqued such an interest for researchers and tourists alike is the fact that despite a usually clear lack of sufficient provided infrastructure, resources, and opportunity slum communities produce some of the most fascinating informal economic systems and represent, across many societies, the truly historic and grounded ideal of the working classes, the vital aspects of society. The cultural practices and the levels of resilience in these areas is something to behold and learn from, and in the case of this type of tourism, and witness in the flesh. I can signal my own experience in Mumbai when on a day off from the field research, I had the opportunity to visit the dohbi ghats- the fantastic community clothes washing centre where millions of residents and travellers’ garments go to cycle. The children outside the gate could not have been more than excited to guide me around the inner-workings for a very nominal fee. And I was able to talk with workers about what I was doing in Mumbai and about the phenomenon and tradesmen history of the dohbi ghats. This is just one of hundreds of examples that could ripen this post and address the debate further. Unfortunately this admittance will be for another day.

                                                         dohbi ghats in Mumbai, India


    But, this brings up a point in that if slum tourism continues to grow, it should arguably be harnessed from within these communities. It may be a fine line, but there is a difference between exploitation, even self-exploitation and the sharing of culture. As the debate rages on and discourse and research is built around the subject, slum tourism can be seen as urban tactic formed around local trades and culture and most certainly can act as a catalyst for prompting wider strategy, whether that sits in education initiatives or physical environment upgrading. Practitioners and those individuals with knowledge in the tourism industry and likewise steeped in local knowledge have a responsibility to jump on the potential, if and/or before it is appropriated. In an ideal scenario, the local slum communities and socially-minded professionals would come to define the paradigm. If this is slow in formation, according to Ko Koens of the Slum Tourism Network and part of the research team with Fabian Frenzel, at least “if done in a respectful way that actively tries to benefit the local communities, it can help inhabitants gain income and pride. On the other hand, issues of access and power abuse may mean only a limited number of people benefit.” So continues the conundrum…


    Ross McGuiness’ article Slum tourism: A cynical cash cow or a helping hand to those in poverty? appeared in the Metro 11 July 2012
     Dr. Fabian Frenzel’s Slum Tourism: Poverty, Power, and Ethics is out now through Routledge
    Marcelo Armstrong’s Favel Tour Rio can be found at /

    On Not Doing: Negligence and Play, Myths and Rites. The work of Laboratorio Arti Civiche in Salvador de Bahia.

    By Giorgio Talocci, on 14 July 2012

    Acts of power, Agamben (2010) says, work in separating human beings from both their potentialities (their capacity to do) and their impotentialities (their faculty not to do). Exercising one’s faculty not to do means being able to refuse to follow particular norms the Society and its structures impose. This post discusses briefly the possibility to reclaim this faculty of not doing – to be negligent against those norms themselves – referring to the work of Laboratorio Arti Civiche in Salvador de Bahia (recently presented at the DPU) in the framework of the event Corpocidade 3.


    Vila Paraíso and Vila São Cosme are two informal settlements in Engenho Velho de Brotas, a rather central and very populated bairro of Salvador. They lie respectively at the top and at the bottom of a triangular valley bordered by an urban highway, by a more local but not less important car axis, target of development pressures since it leads to the very close new stadium for the 2014 World Cup, and by a social housing estate built in the 60s, on the South side, somehow protected by a concrete wall topped by a barbed-wire.

    The car traffic on the two roads flows not noticing the settlement – one of the many pockets of informality mushroomed inside rather formal tissues in Salvador – while the pedestrians walking on the local one seem to know what is down the valley and to avoid it on purpose. The settlements are actually in a strategic position for the pedestrian connection of the two roads, otherwise separated by a 10 meters difference in altitude: asking around though, nobody suggests to pass inside there – “You’ll have to follow this road until getting out down there, beyond those houses”, basically a 4 kilometres walk instead of a couple of hundred meters shortcut through Vila São Cosme. The tenants of the Social Housing Estate, similarly, say they do know the settlement, and that – why not – they would take part to the activities of our workshop, eventually not showing up. One of them is happy to come with us inside the settlement, curious, and confesses it is the first time in 40 years: “It is a forbidden place, and honestly the more this settlement grows and its houses climb upon the hill, the more serious is the danger for our buildings to fall down on it”. Finally, Lazaro, the leader of the inhabitants’ association of Vila Paraíso, tells us how many of his pupils (he teaches drums and percussions in a community centre nearby) are not allowed by their parents to enter his neighbourhood: he has never had the chance to bring his daily work inside there.

    Many visible and invisible borders then, to be profaned (Agamben, 2007) through symbolic actions. The act of profanation according to Agamben is a particular form of negligence that is achieved through playing: the powerfulness of the act of play lies in the fact that it does not undermine the sacredness of the object of play itself, since it works alternatively on only one of the two spheres of the sacred – either on the myth or on the rite. Playing with an informal context such as the one of Vila Paraíso and Vila São Cosme – with its suspended reality, detached and different from the one of the surroundings – and with its borders, is about creating new shared visions that would allow to open up their environment without losing its (sacred) otherness. The creative act of play is carried on along with the community and translate into a twofold operation , which at the same time re-constructs the myth and enacts it through the rite.

    In a collective wordplay (iocus), a mythology of the place is rescued from oblivion, searching, archaeologically (Agamben, 2008), for traces which would testify the evolution of the community and the built environment it created: talking with the inhabitants the monuments of the settlement are found and understood, the story of their construction and evolution is told, and in so doing collective efforts, shared endeavours, historical alliances and rivalries become clear. “Vila São Cosme was born around a source of water and then named after one of the twins Saints Cosmas and Damian… These figures are important in both Christian and Candomblé cults… Their iconography can be found in several spots around the settlement… Around the source of water at some point the family of the most beautiful girl of Salvador had built its house with the swimming pool in which she dived… Several years later the ruins of the pool’s wall became the separation wall between Vila São Cosme and the newborn Vila Paraíso… A hole in the wall was made to reach the water and the two communities started mingling… A fountain was built burying two statues of the Saints in there”. Such fountain was the first monument we met and we asked about, starting from the two oldest ladies from both communities.

    Our first rite (physical play, ludus), a baptism into Vila São Cosme and Vila Paraíso, took place there, marking our participation to the daily rite of showering besides the fountain – probably the most important collective space in the settlement, scenario for a key moment of the communities’ everyday life.

    The second rite was about sharing food: when we proposed to the communities to do something collectively – searching for an activity that stimulated an interaction between Vila Paraíso and Vila São Cosme, the inhabitants of the surroundings, and us – their first suggestion was a feijoada (a typical Brazilian dish with beans and meat, often the main course of collective meals, sometimes organised for celebrating the last day of construction of a house, when everybody is helping). The rite of cooking and organising the meal altogether sparked off a great moment of collectiveness: some people told us it had not happened in a while, and that the participation of the whole community, especially of the newcomers, had been hard to achieve lately.

    The final rite was about Walking – the most ancient means of symbolic transformation of the territory (Careri, 2002), very usual in the actions of the Laboratorio. A movement from the inside toward the outside, following a child carrying a red thread to lead us out of the labyrinth, tracing an ideal connection between the settlement and the community centre on the top of the hill. And a movement backward, a procession in the form of a drums parade led by the children themselves, until the fountain where everything was born.

    These actions certainly could not manage, especially in their very short timeframe, to profane the whole thickness of the borders of Vila Paraíso and Vila São Cosme: the process of opening up an environment is certainly a long one, and can only start profaning those borders that are inside that context itself. Cooking, talking and walking are rites that should aim to involve everyone: enacting rites is indeed about rediscovering a collective dimension that we know to be latent in many informal contexts, often because of the lack of a shared political commitment, disabled by years of cooptation by political and economic powers.

    To play collectively though, there is the need to enter the context and to meet its communities, to get to know them for real: in other words, there is the need to take time for cooking, for walking and for talking a lot in the meantime. To be ready to enjoy wasting some time.

    Further than a good chef and a wayfarer though, this post questions the need for the practitioner to become an archaeologist too, to build a mythology of what is usually defined as informal and at the same time, often as a consequence, deemed to be peripheral and marginal. Considering such Peripheries as archives, mapping their monuments and digging into their layers to write their stories, can help in understanding how the space was actually produced, by which actors, and in which relations of power they actually were. This is not simply an effort in understanding the past to forecast possible futures, but at the same time a statement of Centrality (Lefebvre, 1972, 1995; Kipfer et al., forthcoming)  for these areas and their daily realities, a statement of their right to be other while at the same time partaking the destiny of the urban whole. Therefore, in approaching environments as Vila Paraíso and Vila São Cosme the first form of negligence must be undertaken against the rhetoric of  the forgotten, of the abandoned, of the neglected: we believe that looking at the informal settlements as Monumental, at their genesis as Mythological, at their position as Central, is a necessary and potentially very powerful shift for the current urban studies scholarship and practice.



    [the linked videos are by Maria Rocco – Laboratorio Arti Civiche]

    Agamben, G. (2007) Profanations. New York, Zone Books.

    Agamben, G. (2008) Signatura Rerum. Sul Metodo. Torino, Bollati Boringhieri.

    Agamben, G. (2010) On What We Can Not Do. In: Agamben, G., Nudities. California, Stanford University Press.

    Careri, F. (2002) Walkscapes: Walking as an aesthetic practice. Barcelona, Gustavo Gili.

    Kipfer, S., Saberi, P., Wieditz, T. (forthcoming) Henri Lefebvre: Debates and controversies. Progress in Human Geography, first published onlne May 29, 2012

    Lefebvre (1972) La Pensée Marxiste et la Ville. Paris: Casterman.

    Lefebvre (1995)  The Right to the City. In: Kofman, E., Lebas, E. (eds) Writings on Cities. Oxford: Blackwell.


    Reading Harvey in Bangkok

    By Camillo Boano, on 12 May 2012

    Just a few days before my departure to Bangkok with the MSc Building and Urban Design in Development group for the annual fieldtrip, David Harvey’s book Rebel City: From Right to the City to the Urban Revolution arrived to my doorstep.

    The eleven hour flight from London allowed me to read it and the Bangkok reality, working on a project called “Co-production of Housing at Scale: Collaborative People-Centered Partnerships for Slum Upgrading in Bangkok, Thailand” in collaboration with CODI, Asian Coalition of Housing Rights and the Community Architect Network, offered rich materialities to unfold its rich and provocative narrative.

    Harvey in the introduction of the book, elaborating on the relevance of Lefebvre seminal work The Right to the City, assert that such right is both a cry and a demand. A cry as a response to the existential pain of withering crisis of the everyday life in the city, as well as a demand to confront such crisis and create an alternative urban life (p.x). While sustaining the relevance of the critical Lefebvrian thinking, Harvey call for a meaningful adoption of  “dialectical methods of critical inquiries” (p.xiii). Thus, the struggle to the Right to the City make evident that cities are no more perceived as collective body politics but instead constructed for a boutique-lifestyle reflecting the driving forces of a capitalist production of territories.

    So, moving from an empty meaningful signifier (p. xv) the Right to the city become the right that should “be accorded to all those who have had a part in producing the common“ (p.78)

    What follows is a series of quotes subtracted from Harvey’s latest superimposed as captions onto a photographic essay capturing a reality completely different than the one tackled in Rebel Cities. Traveling with this text into the field, it became apparent that our fieldwork explorations of reality found could easily feed off the author’s quest of an alternative reality.
    All the pictures are credited to Atiyeh Ardakanian, Ariel Shepherd, Bethany Ritter, Budoor Bukhari, Camila Cociña Varas, Christopher Montgomery, Diogo Cardoso Martins, Elizabeth Price, Elisabetta Bricchetto, Elsbet Alen, Francesco Pasta, Laura Pinzon Cardona, Lisa Marie Hanking, Lina Gonzalez Arango, Maria Luz Navarro Eslava, Ojama Akagwu, Paola Maria Fuentes, Rachel Felicia, Sarah Ahmad, Stefano Mascia, Zhu Han. Harvey’s Rebel City quotes, were selected in several discussions with Benjamin LeClair Paquet.

    “The World Bank [World Development Report 2009] plainly favors speculative capital over people. The idea that a city can do well (in term of capital accumulation) while its people (apart from the privilege class) and the environment do badly, is never examined” (p. 29).

    “The property market absorb the great deal of the surplus capital directly through new construction” (p.11).

    “The central conclusion is that the collective laboring that is now productive of value must ground collective not individual property rights. […] The common is not, therefore, something that existed once upon a time that has since been lost, but something that is, like the urban commons, continually being produced” (p. 77).

    “The is a categorical error to view globalization as a causal force in elation to local development” (p. 101).

    “Why not focus, therefore, on the city rather then the factory as the prime site of surplus value production?” (p. 129-130).

    “The actual site characteristics are important, and the physical and social re-engineering and territorial organization of these sites is a weapon in political struggles” (p. 118).

    “Those who create an interesting an stimulating neighborhood life lose it to the predatory practices of the real estate entrepreneurs, the financiers and the upper class consumers bereft of any urban and social imaginations. The better the common quality a social groups creates, the more likely it is to be raided and appropriated by private profit – maximizing interests” (p.78).

    “ We don’t have to wait for the grand revolutions to create heterotopic places” (p .XVII)

    “Any spontaneous alternative visionary moment if fleeting; if it is not seized at the flood, it will surely pass” (p. xvii)



    The Golden Epoch of London, or the Arrival of the ‘Apocalympics’?

    By Matthew A Wood-Hill, on 29 March 2012

    Twenty-twelve. As the Mayan calendar, or a certain over-exuberant Hollywood film would have you believe, this could be the end of the world as we know it. It also marks a moment in time where the world’s greatest sporting event is being held in one of Earth’s truly global cities.

    For cities and – historically – civilisations, the Olympic Games have come to represent the height of individual success and achievement. Efforts are increasingly made to mirror ‘on the field’ sporting success with the ‘off the field’ glory of having curated and hosted a successful Games. The prestige is enjoyed as much (if not more so) by the host city as it is by the victorious athletes.

    Defining exactly how and who benefits from the event and its Legacy are tantalising questions. Under the auspices of well-meaning objectives such as fostering greater inclusivity, promoting sport through the development of infrastructure, regenerating downtrodden urban zones and attracting investment to the city, Bid Documents frequently paint a utopian picture of the event and its legacy where everyone wins. Often where negative connotations can be found (a common one being that the long term benefits or detriments cannot be predicted in advance) they are dismissed because the feel-good factor generated through the event will vastly outweigh any criticism. The difficulty, as is often observed, is in comprehending these intangible benefits and drawing a comparison between the invisible legacy of the event vis-à-vis the more obvious tangible legacies (be the improved housing/infrastructure, notable gentrification of areas, or increased national debt).

    Departing from this, ‘Whose Olympics? Transformations in urban open space and the Legacy of London in 2012’launched this week and undertaken by DPU staff in collaboration with UCL Anthropology and Open City London, with funding from UCL Grand Challenges – seeks to explore the dynamic impact that the Olympics will have on the use of London’s open spaces by the plethora of people who will bear witness to the occasion. The project adopts video and social media platforms as tools for urban research, drawing on the potential of new media technologies as used by residents and visitors to London to represent their changing relationships with the city’s open spaces. The research takes place across three phases: before the Games; during the Olympic and Paralympic Games; and immediately after the Games to the end of 2012 – charting these transformations and the grass shoots of Legacy thereafter. Central to the research are questions such as how public and open spaces are being transformed, and how these spaces enhance or limit people’s experiences of the event as a result. Members of the public are invited to upload their own short films, or one-off videos clips, with a description and spatial reference to an online platform hosted at Visitors to the website can then access an archive of geo-spatially referenced footage showing first-hand experiences of the Games through the eyes of those present in open spaces around London.

    Modern mega-events transcend different scales, with television and media shortening the gap between the local and the global, bringing the event to households the world over – an estimated global audience of up to 4 billion is predicted.[1] For the vast majority unable to obtain tickets for the Games, London’s parks and open spaces will become focal points for collective Olympic experiences, and social media platforms the means through which they are shared. ‘London Live’ (, for example, will run a series of fan-parks and events across the summer, while the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival promise to change the way public spaces are used throughout 2012.

    By asking ‘Whose Olympics?’ we want to see how people are taking ownership of their Games and benefiting (or not) from newly built facilities and to understand who has what rights to the Olympic city. Where are the particular spaces of celebration and contestation before, during and after the event? This challenges and explores the assumptions around the legacy of such mega-events – that they truly can contribute to social and physical regeneration of the city, or conversely that they are little more than PR exercises to attract overseas investors, by documenting the togetherness that the Olympics purport to share and create –

    whose is the right to the Olympic city?

    The organisation and distribution of side-events around the city will influence how open spaces are appropriated and by whom, and how far the London 2012 Olympic Games is able to effectively engage the British and visiting public. These questions arise at a pertinent time, with the activities of the Occupy LSX movement putting a spotlight on the public vs. private space debate. The intensive hyperactivity created by the summer Olympics of 2012 stands to invigorate the city and its populace, and potentially exacerbate the underlying anxieties of those managing or ‘minding’ these areas, which could in turn influence the free use of public space.

    Ultimately the research, which will culminate in a short film or a series of mini-films, will ask: Do we live in a city and society that encourages individual freedoms and the enjoyment of all? Are we all able to share equally in this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, and how can social media enhance this collective expression? What will be the real Legacy for London in 2012, and how is public space changing as a result?

    Through this we can reflect on how far we are living through London’s golden epoch as an urban centre, and whether society and space is fundamentally changing as a consequence of this Olympic (or indeed – apocalympic) event.

    Visit to upload films of your stories and map your own Olympic Legacy.

    The ‘Whose Olympics?’ team are currently [29/03/2012] recruiting volunteer filmmakers and researchers, see here for more information.

    You can stay up to date with the project by following us on Twitter, Facebook or Foursquare.

    [1] Evans, M., 2009, Screen Tourism Towards 2012: Maximising Olympic Opportunities For UK Destinations.

    “Social Design” creeps into the mainstream: Is it here to stay and in what way?

    By William N Hunter, on 19 March 2012

    If the two recent exhibitions held in New York are part of any confirming indication that a legitimate shift in socially responsive architecture and design has indeed arrived, then it is by time the professional and academic community at large begin engaging in a critical discourse in relation to the practices and products of this movement. The Museum of Modern Art’s Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement and the Cooper Hewitt-produced Design with the Other 90%: CITIES at the United Nations highlighted an array of projects, practices, designers, and organizations that are seemingly appearing and operating outside the usual mainstream avenues of delivery. Likewise the recently published Spatial Agency project led by Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till attempts to uncover another way of doing architecture, one that eschews the image of architect as individual hero, replacing it with an idea of architect as agent, acting and collaborating with, and on behalf of, others. These happenings represent a larger buzz gripping architectural reporting and discourse.

    MoMA’s Small Scale, Big Change exhibit (image by provisions)

    Cooper Hewitt / United Nations Design for the Other 90% (image by James Emery)

    For all the merit and overdue satisfaction of this exposure and coverage, significant questions should be raised in regards to the resulting implications on mainstream and outsider practices as well as the perception of them. Without a doubt, MoMA by its very nature and established status is targeting architects, enthusiasts and an interested, arguably cultured public. The content is tightly edited, brief, intimate, and yet richly displayed through large format pictures, drawings, and models which is no departure from how the majority of architectural projects are processed, delivered and curated, accompanied by no less than a visually abundant streamlined website. If this is indeed a representation of a different kind of architecture, a different kind of practice, it may require a rethinking of the message. This is not meant to be a critique of the show in of itself, but rather a general determining point.  The exhibition catalogue would lead one to believe that these projects entailed a challenging re-assessment of approach and process, based on geographical situation, cultural protocol, and/or the characters of end users. These are not or at least are not meant to be perceived as typical projects. In fact the website claims that:

    “These projects have been selected from an increasingly large number of similar initiatives around the world because they exemplify the degree to which architects can orchestrate change, prioritizing work that has social impact but also balances very real concerns of cost, program, and aesthetics. They succeed in providing communities not only with physical spaces but with opportunities for self-determination and an enhanced sense of identity. As a result, these architects are both designers of buildings and moderators of change. Their integrative methodologies could serve as models for the profession at large”

    There is again no argument that the projects represented are operating in some different parallel to mainstream practices, some more than others. Though perhaps more unsettling is the fact that there are only eleven projects and half of them are coming from the tried and tested likes of Rural Studio (Auburn University), Elemental, and Urban Think Tank, entities which also all show up in the Cooper Hewitt’s UN-based exhibit. The exhibition at the UN is part of a larger and broader initiative and arguably more thorough in terms of data and information, but also in many cases still offers an objectified aestheticizing of the subject(s). While the details of the chosen few are not necessary here, the point to be made is that darlings of social design are emerging and beginning to monopolize the conversation in the same manner that so-called starchitects garnered all our attention over the last decade or so. It is not a case of judgement on the part of these established names and practices, but more a general caution on the criticality of who comes to represent this new movement towards socially responsive architecture and design. Furthermore, is it even necessary to put a name behind a work in the same heroic manner as before? What are the consequences if this happens? A possible co-opting of the outsider activists and true agency of architecture by the object-driven mentality of the mainstream protocols is a threat to pure potential.

    METI-Handmade School, Bangladesh by Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag (image by Anna Heringer)

    Medellin Metro Cable (image by Omar Uran)

    The Spatial Agency project, publication, and database also sheds light on practices and people, whether of historical significance or emerging interest and whether by holistic studio vision or one off project, that are concerned as they enter into socially embedded networks, in which the consequences of architecture are of much more significance than the objects of architecture. On the list exists some of the same figures and names already mentioned in the other exhibitions as well as some suspect crossover practices, usually championed for their avant garde responses to architectural problems. Now, debating lists may very well be a waste of precious time, though the effect of such lists is without much doubt. The choices made by editors and curators and then the act of publicising them as brass is problematic on the one hand because it limits the field and on the other because it assumes both internally within the profession and externally in public that those practices and individuals are doing something genuinely different. It implies that they are thinking and acting differently. And in a subconscious way one could or would assume that they are taught differently.

    Elemental’s profile on the Spatial Agency online database (image by William Hunter)

    Architectural production is a process, and though this process may have become saturated as an ideology, working in less-formalized arenas or situations has its own unique challenges. These situations require new skillsets, qualitative social understanding, and more importantly, new perceptions of what it means to be a practitioner. The role of professional must be internally rethought and if not, it is far reaching that someone should claim that they have the capacity to operate in these contested urbanisms. Architecture and design most certainly has a responsibility to re-establish its worth in future development, in formalized Western settings and especially in more informal settings of the Global South. But this repositioning needs to be led by individuals who are critically and ethically up to the task.

    If the buzz surrounding social design and the staging of major exhibitions and research projects are actually confirming that a true paradigm shift is happening within architecture, design, and their related disciplines, we must be aware of what it means to practice differently. The fact is that when practitioners enter into different and unfamiliar arenas, the political landscape of design changes. This change as well as the individuals they work for and with has a huge impact on the methodology of practice. If the differences are not acknowledged and the same approach unfolds, the results will be misdirected and unintentionally non-productive for those individuals they serve. In addition, if the representations and viral publicising of this movement is lazily glorified sans the critical rigor they deserve, then the larger cause of shifting an agency for practice will be lost.


    The Metropoliz Wall: the architectural dispositif as (re)calibrating agent

    By Camillo Boano, on 28 November 2011

    It has long been argued that urban design is a variegated practice in search of a discipline, caught between – on one side – design practitioners and academics searching for a specific role in investigating the complexities of urbanism and in designing spaces that enable social justice and produce alternatives towards engagement and participation and – on the other – the reflexive, critical and ethical rediscovery of architecture, planning and design. Recent literature speaks a lot on this ethical turn and exhibitions are mushrooming. Such processes are particularly relevant to the complexity and contradiction inherent in contemporary cities and contested geographies of the Global South. These challenges are as much about process as they are about form, but such legitimacy requires serious intellectual engagement to provide the appropriate conceptual tools for dealing with the kinetic circumstance of cities in developing countries.

    I was always attracted and fascinated by the Foucaultian ontology captured by his intricate reading and its now omnipresent usage in different field of studies. Innovative, provocative though impenetrable, his thoughts are profoundly challenging praxis and everyday life. Particularly fundamental to my research and architectural interests has been his notion of Dispositif to depict and investigate the relationship between spatial production, design and the exertion of, and response to, power. The dispositif serves as an aggregate source to (re)calibrate design (architectural and urban) discourse as both a way to define an interpretive perspective over the contemporary challenges of urban design, as well as to enrich the practice of development practitioners dealing with the spatial manifestation of injustices, complex urban challenges and spatial transformations in the global south.

    For Foucault the Dispositif (apparatus, in its english translation) is: “[…] firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements” (Foucault, 1977: 194).

    The capacity to become the device of connection between heterogeneous elements is the Dispositif’s first important behavioural feature. The dispositif has the key capacity to concurrently act as the apparatus of multiple connections and take on multiple behaviours simultaneously to achieve this multiplicity. A dispositif is then something able to bring heterogeneous elements together in an identifiable assemblage: the city as a whole and its peripheries (both spatial and conceptual) might be considered as assemblages on their own, a heap of negotiated knowledges, whose clear picture is difficult to render because of the convergence of multiple narratives and absence of a cohesive one.

    In September 2011, the Development Planning Unit held its inaugural summerLab, structured as a six-day immersion into a scenario of contested urbanism in Rome. This new initiative attracted students and practitioners from Italy, Switzerland, Canada, France, Germany, England, and Malta and was developed in partnership with Roma Tre – Laboratorio Arti Civiche and Francesco Careri.

    The specific case, grounded in the Metropoliz occupation, dealt with two adjacent sites, each containing derelict factory buildings, occupied by squatters in early 2009 in an attempt to both secure a home within the peripheral urban limits but also to actively resist pressures from market and authorities to force them into a marginalised and ‘invisible’ status. The two sites were divided by a two-meter high masonry wall, pierced in only one location by a gated opening which allows some degrees of interaction between the first nucleus of Metropoliz – a very heterogeneous population of migrants from all over the world – on one side and the Roma people on the other one: the Roma joined the occupation later carrying with them both their political potential and social stigmaThis wall has been the central investigative focus and catalyst driving the design proposals of the DPU summerLab, which aimed to deconstruct it along with its historical evolution, revealing its traced impressions, its daily uses, its permeability, and its wounds. It was a dispositive to counter-act – to profane in Giorgio Agamben’s words (Agamben, 2007).

    What the Rome summerLab wanted to devise was a counter-dispositif that, while accepting and somehow endorsing the persistence of the wall, could highly improve the cycles of transaction within Metropoliz as well as between Metropoliz and the greater city. The peripheries of the city can be read as archives, made through uneven cycles of destruction and growth: the groups were asked to shape their counter-dispositifs looking at these archives, and the summerLab itself dove into those, confronting the vast variety of unofficial transformations in Rome, searching for clues and traces in several occupations, understanding their logic and functioning. This was done while also, hopefully, trying to play a role in de-coding and re-coding them, exactly through the counter-dispositifs: in other words, trying to deterritorialise and re-signify the wall(s).

    Metropoliz is characterised in fact by a lack of visibility and fortress-like presence for protection and defence. The guard post and letter-boxes seem to hint at what the gates conceal: communal principles and multi-cultural axioms which need to remain somehow hidden to survive. The participants grasped the intrinsic nature of the (emergent or official) housing landscape of Rome as an agglomeration of states of exception, where a different concept of citizenship is springing out from their segregration itself.

    A possible counter-dispositif was devised by a project that identified a strategic point along the wall as the locus of its disassembly and expansion into a zone of mediation and meeting. By opening up the wall and transecting it with an extended covered space, scaled to facilitate social interaction, the intervention revealed new potentials of integration and mutual understanding. This newly created zone, by provocatively exaggerating the thickness of the wall and inverting its meaning from that of blockade to pathway, served as a counter-dispositif to generate new processes and dynamics not with the prescription of, but rather with the potential for, social progress and political cohesion: a “Solomon’s garden” which would begin, paradoxically, with the initial ‘privatisation’ of one space, carried on by one of the inhabitants who could play the role of mediator between the two sides and between them and the BPM leaders. The incipit of a pathway that in the next stages could expand toward the two sides, implemented by the inhabitants themselves. Putting in relation heterogeneous elements the counter-dispositifs produce a fertile ground for interacting and write new common discourses.

    Common discourses that are at the moment still being written thanks to the idea of two movie-directors along with the research group Laboratorio Arti Civiche (who helped us running the summerLab). After we left a new counter-dispositif has been put in place: using materials that were leftover on the site, the inhabitants have built a rocket that will soon depart toward the Moon. Metropoliz is at the same time departing and landing point of this science fiction journey, which have involved both sides stimulating new behaviours, alternative visions and higher level of interaction and exposure toward the surroundings.

    DPU summerLab was certainly fertile in deconstructing a timely design reflection on some elements of “periphery”, both spatial and conceptual, while the complexity of the urban assemblage in making such spaces a literal archive depended as much upon what is subtracted (closure, cesurae, isolation, partition), or destroyed (cycles of adaptations and creative destructions) as upon what is added (habitations, meanings, etc) and moreover develop translocal fluxes and economies of habitation and identities. Elaborating on the potential of dispositif and counter-dispositif as architectural/design gestures enable a kind of mutual witnessing of how such spaces are imagined and operate the space and the city as a whole, discovering and playing the possibilities through which occupants become and act as urban residents which insists on the divergent aspirations and practices to intersect among each others and from the internal to the external (at different scales) without the availability of a “common language” or from the whole city perspective. Metropoliz per se beyond being a visible space of struggle, occupation and marginalization morphed as fractal space that existed between consolidated urban patterns and mega-transformation projects. Their rediscovery and re-signification as “actually existing urbanisms” but also as distinctive, though interstitial, urban discourses could potentially generate a particular understanding of the city itself.

    In a way, using Latour’s words, getting closer to the facts in a renewed empiricism and praxis to be able to deconstruct the real apparatuses of the complex neoliberal conflictive derive that this presupposes at different scales: the contested nature of transformations, the strategies of morphing and re-morphing urban areas as conceived as resistant, formalized or informal practices and experiences of individual and communities and the role and agency of design as creative but not only physical dimension of transformation and then moving away from facts. Thus, design is simultaneously the production of physical form, the creation of social, cultural and symbolic resources and also, critically, the outcome of a facilitative process in which enablement, activism, alternatives and insurgence become central ideas.

    An earlier version of this article written with Giorgio Talocci and
    Andrew Wade, appeared in ABITARE
    Image credits DPU Summerlab participants
    Agamben, G. (2007) Profanations, Jeff Fort (tr.), Zone Books
    Foucault, M. (1977)“The Confession of the Flesh” interview. In: Power/Knowledge Selected Interviews and Other Writings (ed Colin Gordon), 1980: pp. 194-228.
    Latur, B. (2004) Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, Critical Enquiry, Vol. 30(2), pp: 225-248.
    Shatkin, G., (2011) Coping with actually existing urbanisms: The real politics of planning in the global era. Planning Theory, Vol. 10, pp: 79-87.