Travis Hanks and Shirley Shen of Vancouver-based Haeccity Studio Architecture on being proactive and their vision for a new type of public consultation.
1. How much was the Office for Unsolicited Architecture an encouragement for your work?
Shirley Shen: Being part of the first Unsolicited Studio with Ole Bouman had a significant bearing on how I envisioned our practice. The idea that architects can, and should, challenge the traditional confines of site, program, client, and budget was impetus for our first public space proposals, in which we identified underutilized sites with no short-term development potential, established the program with local partners, and invited the general public to be our client.
Travis Hanks: I think I absorbed much of Shirley’s enthusiasm for her work with OUA, and our conversations naturally progressed in that vein, focusing on abandoned, un-programmed, or forgotten places in the urban landscape. These places were compelling to us not just as spatial invitations, but also as the natural by-products of city making. We wanted to propose a project that could probe the machinations of zoning, markets, and other city-building forces, both formal and in-formal, in order to better understand their limitations and potentials. Ultimately we wanted to learn how those same processes might be navigated for atypical results.
2. You describe your Community Bench prototype as “hackable”. What other elements of public space do you see as becoming “hackable” in the future?
“Hack-ability” is a concept that intrigues us, and we have even at times described our name in terms of Hacking the City. We think of hacking as an act of bricolage, in which one rewires stale connections and invents non-standard assemblages from local source material. The built form of the city is an evolving negotiation between people, and an open-source, adaptable environment resonates with this democratic view of city-building.
Public space can be thought of as a container for shared experience, but successful public space also requires a catalyst to ignite and sustain social engagement. The bench prototype was about creating such a vehicle for neighbourhood transformation. Instead of designing one bench, we wanted to design a bench kit, a framework that could be easily adapted to unique localized needs and conditions.
Citizens, architects included, often feel as if the mechanisms of the city are too large and too complex to be influenced. But our most immediate and tactile interactions with the built environment are also the ones most open to localized modifications. We think of architecture as a medium for social exchange, and that naturally starts at the scale of the body; a bench, a walkway, a garden.
Of course we would also like to see larger urban arenas become open to adaptable, or crowd-sourced architecture. We believe this can be achieved, not necessarily by demanding greater agency at the municipal level, but perhaps by building critical mass, one local intervention at a time.
As unsolicited projects, neither of these projects have gone through any kind of formal public consultation. While we have spoken to representatives of various community organizations and city departments, right now these kinds of projects don’t have a clear avenue for permitting, and therefore construction.
As in any municipality, there are certain well travelled passages for standard project types. Non-standard projects require infinitely more patience, and a great deal of social capital. By far, designing the intervention is the easy part. Designing a navigable passage through myriad bureaucratic and procedural thresholds is a much greater challenge.
The City of Vancouver has made some attempts to provide useful platforms for public participation in public space making, such as Viva Vancouver. However, their prerequisite formats are still rather restrictive, and do not allow for ideas or sites that fall outside of that regulatory process. Public space projects that are not part of a development of private property, or projects not under the purview of temporary events still have no clear path for legitimate realization.
In some ways these non-standard projects represent an inversion of the standard public consultation process. Instead of a development proposal being negotiated with the city and then presented to the public for feedback, these ideas emerge from grassroots dialogue and are subsequently taken to the city for feedback. We actually see a great deal of promise in this format, despite the clear and present challenges.
Our hope is that a close examination of the internal overlaps between municipal land use regulation and interdepartmental protocol can result in the creation of a ‘regulatory space’ to align with the needs and opportunities of these physical spaces. Until then, these projects endure as fuel for debate and crumbs scattered along a still uncharted path.