Designing the possibility for interaction
An interview with Ghigo DiTommaso from Gehl Studo based in San Francisco.
authors - Ghigo DiTommaso, Marta Tomasiak
imprint - INSPIRO, Strefa 52
year - 2014
Marta Tomasiak: How the story of ReBar and then US based Gehl Studio started?
Ghigo DiTommaso: Rebar started with a couple of projects and at the begining there was no specific idea for creating an organisation. There was a will to make couple of projects happen. The very first project of Rebar was almost a land art project, was not related to the urban public space and it was in New Mexico Dessert. It is called the National Cabinet. And it was an installation of a micro-library in quite random spot in New Mexico Dessert. This library was made of small cabinets, had three drawers. In the first one - you could have actual publications, in the others - food and drinks, snacks for people who visited the library.
MT: Where there any people in Mexico Dessert visiting the library?
GT: Yes, it was really in the middle of nowhere. That was a part of the plan. The project was related to very interesting magazine called Cabinet, a magazine that deals with art and temporary projects. And the magazine offered to the public to buy, as a subscription to the magazine, a plot of a actual size of the magazine, in the New Mexico Dessert. With the real lease that regulates the transaction. So it was actually really accurate - half or a quarter of square meter. So Rebar crew at that time - John Bela and Matthew Passmore - they thought if there is this kingdom or republic of the micro property owners, they will start with the library. They went all the way from San Francisco to New Mexico to install this cabinet and create a dirt structure around it, to protect it. So that was the very first project. And then the second was the Parking Day. And the Parking Day as the first one I think, had already many of the ingredients that make the classic recipe for Rebar projects. It was focusing on the problems related to auto-mobile dominated city, with lack of public space as a space for expression. So that was the objective. But also Parking Day already defined the DNA of Rebar in terms of the process. I guess Parking Day is the project that focuses on allowing for open source design. So it is not a project in a traditional sense that there is a spatial configuration proposed for the space. But there is a platform that allowed people to self-organise the space how they want it to be. So it is very much an example of open-source design in the public space. Probably one of the most successful and the most pure expression of open-source design.
MT: Was the Parking Day thought as the model to be passed on, an open source design project as you said, from the very beginning? What about the very first installation that happened in San Francisco?
GT: There is intermediate step between the beginning of the project - the installation you’ve mentioned and the project we called today the Parking Day. The project began as Parking - that was the name of the first installation. This wasn’t specifically thought as an introduction to the Parking Day. Was just an experiment in itself. It was about reclaiming one urban spot for one short period of time. And it was very much an art project, in a sense that the message was stronger than the actual impact. It is very often something that differentiate art from the design I think - design is interested in making the wide impact, while art is more interested in the message itself. So Parking was an art installation, but an art installation that then propelled a design project. The photography of Parking - an art installation - was put on the web and became viral, so then Rebar decided to make the manual to allow people to do the same. That trigger the Parking Day.
Rebar was born with this project. And project by project, bit by bit they realised that they are actually not only doing installations but starting an organisation, or a movement, or a practice if you like. There was a lot of ambiguity about what they were. And that was something they were embracing.
MT: What is background of John Bela, Blaine Merker and Matthew Passmore - the founders of Rebar?
GT: John and Blain are landscape architects and Matthew is trained as a layer. And this is not by coincidence because many of the initial ReBar projects were art projects interested in exploring the boundaries of the regulatory system within the city. And they were using the tools of the design to explore these problems. Then progressively they decided to become an art and design practice. They gave themselves the name and it became something more concrete. John and Blain were trained as designers and worked for landscape architectural offices previously. They wanted to somehow continue the path of the practitioners. As well as Matthew - who besides being a layer - studied art, and wanted to push a carrier of an artist. So somehow I think Rebar didn’t have a specific identity - rather fluctuating between the fields and disciplines and then the will of its creators narrowed it down to become a practice. And so this is roughly a story - after few years they became an art and design practice. That is the time when I started to work with them.
MT: I think most of the Rebar projects are very interactive - this is how it was from the beginning - to be very interactive, to bring people, users in?
GT: Among the projects recipe there was this idea for open-sourcing the process. Rebar in the early years was not only a practice but I would say a movement. As a movement it was interested to have people back in control of the public space. And certainly there was an interest in interaction. It was almost a form of activism. An activism that does not work through protest in a traditional way but through a series of projects and installations it generates activation that is made directly by the people. So there was this mission of bringing the people back in power, making them able to change the space they live in with a clear intention of doing that in pose within the regulatory system. So we are not working from ‘within’, but working from ‘without’ the system and its rules. Without breaking the rules though. Rebar was not in opposition. It was not interested in contrasting with the authorities, was rather looking for those niches, those empty spaces and then working ‘within’ them. It was very specific political attitude it had at the time and that defined the practice.
MT: So from the activists working within the niches of the regulatory system Rebar went long way down to the other side - if I think of the Gehl Studio as being rather facilitators of the process that is developed between the city users and the councils or developers. I think it is quite a shift…
GT: Absolutely. But I wouldn’t say those two things are really on the opposite sides. Rebar was a little bit a facilitator from the very beginning. Was a facilitator and an activist. And now we are more facilitators. What have changed is our relationship to governance. Rebar was not interested in following the traditional process of governance to change public space. It was trying to change public space by taking advantages of niches, loopholes in the system. Gehl Studio is actually interested in the role of the governance as a principal motor for the transformation of the urban realm. It facilitates the relationship between the government and citizens. It that sense it is a radical change, but I don’t think we have moved on the other side. We rather changed our relationship to institutions. Initially we were helping people to find some space in the cracks of the institutions and now we are helping institutions to do their job well and to listen to people.
MT: And doing so, can you see a real change - are the governments becoming more and more responsive to what people are asking for in terms of the public spaces? I’m asking generally - you work all over the world and maybe Denmark isn’t the best example as they have a long tradition of governance that involves citizens in. What about other countries? What is the trend worldwide? Gehl is becoming more and more popular, you just open two new offices in the US… It means there is a need for people like you…
GT: Well I guess there is a slow shift worldwide - different speeds and starting from different points of departure in different places. From the lack of participation to the participatory process. Some places are doing it more, the other less, it happens faster in some places, and slower in the others. Some places are starting from institutions that are very bad and in some places like Copenhagen it is rather ok. And there is also something to be unpacked about the Scandinavian model - cause Scandinavian model is certainly successful and provides assets to the public but I would not really define it as a participatory… It is rather about the good governance than participation…
MT: It is… But I guess because the society here is very involved and interested, there is no need for ‘participatory process’ cause this ‘participation’ already happens at all the levels without really being called ‘participation’.
GT: That’s true - people here are already on board. Institutions here are so functional that without this ‘participation’ things are going very much in the direction people want it to.
MT: So Copenhagen City Council or institutions in Denmark - they don’t really need your service. Who are the clients then? Councils, developers?
GT: So summing up a bit the previous question. Yes, different places across the globe are moving rather towards the participatory process, even Scandinavia… But I don’t think this become a radical process within the last few years. It is a very small tide going into this direction and it will eventually make things better.
I come from European tradition that believes in the possibility to use the public institutions to achieve public good. I am a little bit of a dreamer, but I think we can make our institutions work for us and I don’t want to think that things are so bad that institutions are working against us. If that was the case it would be the biggest failure for us itself. Cause in the democratic system who else than us creates the institutions? So if we created our enemy then we must have failed so bad. I like to think that things are different and look at Copenhagen, it is proving that things can be different. So I am very open to positive side of the institutional work. On the other hand I get much more radical when it gets to the role of private business and developers. Lets just say that I think that public institutions play fundamental role in mitigating the resource of city-making that is propelled by the private capital. So if you ask me where do I place myself in the map of the actors that act within the city, I would say I place myself helping public governance to make smart decisions in how to regulate public investments that are driving urban change. It is a little bit elaborate and convoluted but let me rephrase myself. We are architects and we work with diagrams… So the diagram would be that - lets face it - in democratic society the strongest agent for urban change is private capital. I believe that the institutions have to be dignified, even I would say glorified in their fundamental role of defending public, from the risk of uncontrolled urban change. And therefore their role, once they have been dignified and glorified is to regulate the use of the private capital. Therefore to guide it into direction of making the cities for people, citizens are included and citizens are listened. This is where I stand as Ghigo di Tommaso, not as ReBar or Gehl. We are all different, so we all have different shades of agreement of what is the role of private capital in their role of making the city. But I think many would be fairly close to my point. And this is why I think it is very dangerous to play the game of the confrontation with the institutions. Because if the institutions are attacked by the citizens then eventually the private capital which is the strongest player in this game will take complete control. I think the only way out from the tragedy of the urban problems, that can be found not only in cities like Detroit, but also like San Francisco that is now living a gigantic problem of inequality is to realigned public institutions (that were created by the public) and the people, the public to work functionally together find the way to do what is supposed to be done.
MT: I guess sometimes it is just hard to find institutions that celebrate citizens involvement, that are proud of projects done by the communities…
GT: Yes, it can be hard, but I think we are on the right way and things are changing. And within my folks from the NGOs, from the grassroots movement I would rather be that tough friend that reminds that the risk of not creating this alliances with institutions is to loose the game anyway.
MT: It is really just a question of what do we want to achieve at the end? If as a grassroots do we really want to bring a real change or we are just doing it for the sake of being critical about the public institutions…
GT: Yes. And don’t get me wrong - I’m not saying that the grassroots movement cannot achieve incredible things. I’m saying it is the time to try to fix the institutions we created to make the cities we wanted. And to become a bit more Scandinavian, right? Where institutions seem to work for people not against them.
MT: Ok, but let’s be practical - if you say you see your role as helping the institutions to listen better to people - how do you do that? How does the process look? Do you engage people in the design process, do you observe them, listen to them?
GT: I think there are different ways in which you involve people. And I think neither Rebar nor Gehl are champions in the participatory design in its traditional sense. But they are still using very interesting methods to involve people. And I don’t think there is a better or worst method. I think all those methods have to work in synergy.
MT: What do you mean by the traditional participatory model?
GT: I think of the traditional model as for example the one that is thought at the UC Berkley where I teach - it shows how to run the community meetings, community consultations. And that’s one model, that I would called the traditional one, that is very important. And it is something we do not do. Both Rebar and Gehl have their own methods and are champions and pioneers in two different models of how to involve people in the process. Rebar has been interested in two things. One, is making things that can be transformed, adapted, reconfigured by the people on site - you don’t want to design the bench, cause you don’t know how the people want to sit, and on the top of that people find bench rather boring. You want to make something in the public space that people can move, can bend, can open, can close, can bring to the shade, can bring to the sun.
MT: So you would rather design the possibility for interaction, or experimentation?
GT: Yes. And in the meantime when people will be customising and user-generating the space, then you will probably end up starting a conversation that now seems to be missing in the public space. And second thing Rebar pioneered in is an open-source design. Something like - we are not going to design the square, we will design the platform on-line, where everybody will be able to design its micro-square. So it is about open-sourcing - it is open to the public. This is Rebar.
Gehl has another way to involve people, which is make people vote with their feet. It like making people decide how the space should be just by observing where people naturally, spontaneously would go and where they wouldn’t. Where they walk a lot, and where they don’t, if they walk fast because they want to get out of there, or they walk slow because they like that place. So by observing all those details we know what people really like to do. For decades we used traffic engineers calculating each and everything to make traffic more efficient and then make cities that follow the principles dictated by the function of the auto-mobile. Gehl is trying to do the same, but this time the input doesn’t come from cars, but comes from people, citizens. We observe the way people use the public space and then we transform this knowledge into principles and recommendations for the people who have to make the decisions about this public space. We are not bringing those people, citizens in the room to discuss, but we are rationally trying to understand if those people are sitting for 2, 5, 10 or 30 minutes on the bench and that tells us something about how they feel about the space.
MT: Which I think is just a different way of involvement. Another principle of Rebar and Gehl is being experimental or rather allowing for experimentation. What do you think testing things in public spaces profits with?
GT: The advantages of experimentation are folded. On the one hand the traditional design has suffered from lack of interaction. So the process of city-making is extremely slow in the traditional way - it starts with the design itself and then goes through all the detailing, funding and implementation. And so by the time you finished your project, in the best scenario, the project doesn’t work as well as it would have at the beginning, because the circumstances have changed. The worst scenario - the project was wrong from the beginning, and you taking 20 years to actually realise it, and on the top of that the circumstances of course have changed and so it just can’t be worst. So there is a value in experimenting with a series of low cost, small interventions. That’s one value of experimentation - use the experimentation as a tool to iterate the process, taking small steps as a stepping stones that take you in the right direction, rather that one big jump in the wrong one.
Experimenting very often is also playful and brings life to the city…
MT: That’s when the magic happens… But how to keep the magic? Isn’t it often the case that experimentation as a one of the first phases of delivering public space project ends with the permanent project delivery? I think of the Broadway project Gehl was involved in… It is a question of how do we learn as designers from experimentation and are we actually learning from it?
GT: I would say that we are. I think it is true that we found some magic in the temporary projects… But truth is that not everybody found this magic in the same way. As much as we can be less excited by the permanent design, if we are, there are people that are probably more excited about the permanent than we are. Maybe we should come back to the question of what kind of player, what kind of actors we are. I think that our DNA of design activists make us find magic in the things that people don’t find magic in. We have to accept that. And as a designer I have to accept that I’m not only designing for my people, for my folks, for my crew, but also for many others, very different than me. So I wouldn’t be too critical about the granite stone on Broadway, cause someone can though that this paint we put on the street just looked shitty and that New York deserves dignified granite pavement. The radical difference is that before the temporary project there was no pavement, there was just asphalt for cars. And then there was a paint, and now there is a granite - and it does not really matter if you prefer paint or granite, what matters is that there is a place for people walking now.
MT: And without the paint, there wouldn’t be a granite. I think experimentation allows permanent to happen.
GT:Yes, experimentation and temporarity allow for serious political process to happen, in small steps, in direct and indirect way. And I think there is a lot of politics that go through the temporary project that allows for permanent to change.