My flat-out funnest moment in 2013 involved one street, hundreds of giant building blocks and two fire trucks, in an experience that shouted loudly about the alchemy the that happens when people–lots of people–are empowered to play with urban design.
I’ll get to the fire trucks later, but here’s the back story:
For one day in July, hundreds of people came together to re-invent a Vancouver street using giant blocks of recycled polystyrene. The day was the culmination of months of thinking, arguing, designing and dreaming by a team led largely by volunteers, along with my colleagues at the Museum of Vancouver. We called it Upcycled Urbanism.
For many urbanites, the landscapes we move through can feel finished, static and beyond our control. Upcycled Urbanism was initiated to empower students, artists, designers, makers, and anyone else who cared to become part of Vancouver’s evolving design culture by reimagining—and rebuilding—part of Vancouver’s public realm.
Working together, teams of participants designed and built prototypes using modular blocks of expanded polystyrene containing material salvaged from construction sites around the Lower Mainland by Mansonville Plastics.
First, students from the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA) created prototypes of building blocks. Then, at a series of workshops in the spring, teams brainstormed, sketched, and modelled how to use these blocks for wild new public design ideas. They got plenty of help from design experts from partner organizations: SALA, the Vancouver Public Space Network and Spacing Magazine.
Then, on July 13, we hit Granville Street. There were dozens of volunteer builders, and nearly six hundred giant blocks to play with. Our team leaders thought it would be hard to convince the public to join the build effort. Not so! Often led by their children, passers-by leapt into the design+build fray.
Because the work was temporary, people took all kinds of chances with their design, using the I-beam and 3X3 blocks to make tables, pyramids, thrones, forts and surreal sculptures.
During the day, more than 1,500 people stopped to play, build, critique or take pictures.
My favourite scene came during the heat of mid-afternoon. A fire alarm sounded in a nearby building, and dozens impromptu builders jumped into action, clearing the street of building blocks within seconds, just in time for the fire trucks to come rolling through.
It was a moment of destruction, but also of wonderful, organic teamwork by people, many of whom had begun the day as strangers. And it prepared us to start building all over again.
It all felt like play. In fact what we were doing was learning how to design and build together. We were testing the bubble-bursting potential of new forms. We were teaching ourselves not just styro-engineering, but new techniques for working together with strangers. And with every new structure, we claimed a little bit more ownership of the street.
Upcycled Urbanism was a Museum of Vancouver initiative in partnership with the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA) at the University of British Columbia, the Vancouver Public Space Network, Maker Faire Vancouver, and Spacing Magazine, with generous additional support from SALA, Mansonville Plastics and the Vancouver Foundation.