Gotti / The Ecology of Coexistence in Groundscapes

The Ecology of Coexistence in Groundscapes

Author: Francesca Gotti, Politecnico di Milano

Supervisor: Gennaro Postiglione, Prof., Politecnico di Milano; Paola Briata, Politecnico di Milano

Research stage: Initial Doctoral Stage

Category: Extended abstract

In the design and redesign of the urban ground, a lot happens around and in-between intentional architectural actions: informal practices of spatial appropriation reconfigure constantly the public landscape, explicating unplanned uses and developing unexpected configurations. In the contemporary condition of overlapping urban crises (migratory, environmental, economic, social), planning and design cannot always offer a complete response to all kind of needs and all communities, while informality and alternative configurations represent effective solutions to everyday life situations.

The relationship between planned spaces and informal interventions represents a great potential for the development of more accessible cities, it suggests latent possibilities for marginal users to produce space autonomously within the official system.1 It is about improvised sleeping units built between infrastructures, temporary collective structures for activities carried out in squares and parks, movable facilities for selling and health arranged along the streets. The question is what the implications between use and form are, what can the role of design be in this relationship, and wether and how designers can contribute to the expression of this latent potential.2

According to Colin Ward, direct experience and observation of urban phenomena is what can best put us in contact with these formal-informal dynamics, what can make us conscious about spontaneous urban transformations as vivid material of the everyday and as seed of the future.3 If the ground of cities is the scenario where these transformations can be experienced at their finest manifestation, the delicate matter is to find the best way to decipher them and to develop design tactics to support their expression.

The scale of investigation is therefore that of the body, of actions on the micro-scale of architecture, of the physical performance on materials and space. In this sense, a relevant approach is offered by the realm of Architectural Ethnography: with this term, Atelier Bow-Wow refers to the application of the approach of ethnography to architecture research, to the intersection between immersive investigation and design tools.4 Quoting Atelier Bow-Wow, Architectural Ethnography guides into an insightful understanding of the “relation between construction and occupation”, of the interdependence between users and resources in a certain context, and seek to unveil understated implications from the point of view of spatial actors. To work with Architectural Ethnography requires to develop a toolkit of investigation, starting by identifying the limits represented by time and tools available: ethnographic researches are developed over several years, if not decades, defining time as a necessary working parameter; tools of investigation can be in addition of various nature (writing, sensing, recording, performing…) determining very diverse processes and outcomes.5 A PhD research needs to confront immediately with these challenges, and consequently detect existing researches and active professionals that can represent the starting material and interlocutors of the first step of the investigation.

The toolkit should develop on three levels: a theoretical research level (on the topic itself of how architecture meets ethnography, what are implications and limits); a background research level (on the historical, economic and social context of the main topic and of the case studies); and an on-site research level (the physical dimension of the investigation, to collect, confront and test the site-specific micro situations on which the investigation is based). The three levels are not intended as consequential, but they rather intersect and alternate, in a process of continuous and cyclic annotation, dialogue and verification, from literature, through interviews, to case studies and back to literature.

The method that Atelier Bow-Wow has been using in Japan in their works with rural communities - and at a University level at the ETH in Zurich - could be diffused and implemented to the study of informal transformations happening in the public grounds in Europe, similarly to what the team of “The Drawing & The Space” has been doing at KU Leuven6. These two referential research works highlight the role of drawing in the construction of a methodology of investigation, a tool that would be interesting to further explore and compare with other more sensorial and performative applications - as the members of the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography have been widely studying.

This approach doesn’t aim at formalising informal practice through design, but rather at offering design as an infrastructure for informal practices to flourish: it questions the possibility of developing design interventions that can support further informal transformations, that can enhance spontaneous actions of appropriation (as a response to urgencies), before they can eventually go through an actual resolutive (and formal) process.

The topic of informal appropriation is investigated more widely for what concerns squatting and anarchist adaptation of buildings for housing7, while fewer systemic research projects - from an ethno-architectural perspective - can be found with respect to public grounds (within the European territory), so to say the translation of Colin Ward works in the contemporary context. An example from the Asian sphere can be found in the work of Borio and Wüthrich at the Hong Kong University, accessible through their publication “Hong Kong in-between”, where they explore the appropriation practices and informal architectures developing on the ground of the city.8

The night shelters built in Milan in Centrale Railway’s underpasses and under the arcades of office buildings, the temporary infrastructures developing around the Placa des Glòries and Mercat Els Encants in Barcelona (studied by Association Lemur and by a team at the KU Leuven), the first-aid services assembled in Navarinou Park in Athens: these (and more) cases could be possibly studied and compared looking at the relationship established between practice and space, body and space, at the modalities used by people to appropriate architecture; on the whole, they could be read as part of the same informal system, suggesting implicit (and necessary) development and pushing for effective interventions that maybe only design can support.

  1. Borella, Giacomo (ed.) (2016) Colin Ward - Architettura del dissenso, Eleuthera: Milano
  2. Vanin, Fabio (2016) Use as form - An open question, in Social Poetics - The Architecture of Use and Appropriation, OASE #96, pp.79-82
  3. Dennis, Hardy, and Ward, Colin (1984) Arcadia for all - The legacy of a makeshift landscape, Mansell: London
  4. Kajima, Momoyo, Tsukamoto, Yoshiharu (2017) The incident - Architectural ethnography, Harvard University Press
  5. Elliott, Denielle, and Culhane, Dara (eds) (2016). A different kind of Ethnography: Imaginative practices and creative methodologies, University of Toronto Press
  7. Truijen, Boer, and Verzier, Otero (2019) Architecture Of Appropriation. On Squatting As Spatial Practice, Het Nieuwe Instituut: Rotterdam
  8. Borio, Geraldine, and Wüthrich, Caroline (2017) Hong Kong in-between, Park Books: Zürich