Learning by Doing of Public Space

Article by Domitilla Dardi on DIID number 45:   Father: It’s just the fact that animals are capable of seeing ahead and learning that makes them the only really unpredictable things in the world. To think that we try to make laws as though people were quite regular and predictable. Daughter: Or do they make the laws just because people are not predictable, and the people who make the laws wish the other people were predictable? Father: Yes, I suppose so. (G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1972, Italian translation: Verso un’Ecologia della mente, Adelphi, Milan, 1976, p. 66-67)   It is unlikely that any of us would dream of leaving the house today flaunting ringlets and crinoline, unless perhaps we were going to a fancy dress party. Yet the urban areas around us are constantly furnished in line with what seem more like customary styles than structures that meet the contemporary living requirements of public places. Thoughts like these were in the minds of two manufacturers û one of whom specialized in production and the other in the commercial side of things û and a designer almost ten years ago. Following a fortuitous encounter, they decided to try to carve out an alternative path to the glories of Baron Haussmann and the golden age of public objects, which û after a triumphant initial experience in the 19th century û seem to have stuck to a derivative repertoire of style. In 2001, Bruno Bocchi and Gabriele Bisson, with 30 years of experience behind them in sales and production respectively, decided to go into business in the street furniture industry. They invited Tobia Repossi of ZonaUno to contribute his innovative vision of shared spaces. It immediately became clear that on the street furniture market there are some genuine industrial giants. When faced with them, the new company realized that it would either have to diversify and go off on a tangent or concede defeat. The path chosen by the company  now known as Modo was not to find new ways of selling the same old goods (as JCDecaux does with its streetfurniture products that support the sale of advertising space) but to start from scratch and design objects that were completely different from those offered by the industry at the time. Repossi immediately presented Modo with a line of elements that clearly revealed his background in the world of art, experiential museums and short-lived, interactive installations. The significant change in the products did not involve their purposes so much as the different approach asked of the users, or rather discreetly suggested to them. They were no longer seen as passive beneficiaries of functional machines but as active participants who interpreted and experienced the objects and the places they served. Not only that: through use it is possible to go beyond performing the purely practical or aesthetic function and enter the sphere of wonder, discovery and acquiring information: the famous Learning by Doing approach. There soon came an opportunity to put this concept into practice, with the “Science Park” project, in which Repossi placed seats and infrastructural elements alongside audio equipment. These instruments truly produced new music in the urban fabric. There are already some prominent examples of experiential parks in the world: Oppenheimer’s Exploratorium in San Francisco was the forefather of many different versions of science museums in London, Valencia and Madrid, not to mention Italy, such as the Marconi Museum in Bologna to name but one. However, in Modo’s project, the system smoothly combines the idea of the park with that of street furniture. The playful, symbolic and didactic functions are not subordinate to the practical purposes of resting, dividing or furnishing urban areas. The hierarchy between them only exists in the stereotypes and the imposed mental categories to which we are accustomed when experiencing public items. In actual fact, amusement can open the way to new utilization possibilities. The “Play Park” project broadened this very aspect in the company’s range. Similarly, a year ago the company was involved in the special “Children’s Rights Park” project for the International Furniture Fair in Milan. Seven designers were asked to come up with their own solutions for this aspect of urban design. The initiative was jointly organized with Design Italia, the Fondazione Catella and L’Abilitα’, and featured contributions from Citterio, Crasset, Irvine, Giovannoni, Pezzini, Raggi and Repossi. Nonetheless, it is necessary to bear in mind that æstreet furniture has remained in its infancy. There is little design input, partly because of the ruling system in place that favours the lowest bidder. The authorities buy bicycles and flower boxes, but they do not have planned systems, explains Tobia Repossi, before immediately adding that including bicycle stands in the catalogue can be a political action to boost another, more sustainable way of living in cities. However, this must be part of a general project with cycle paths that utilizes the object as part of a system. At the end of the day, shrewd designers and producers are the ones that are good at chess: you do not win the game with just one brilliant move, but with the capacity. In this and many other examples in the catalogue, the approach to design for a public function predominantly goes hand-in-hand with that for the object. The products do not simply serve one or more functions; they create a relationship with the users. They influence the perception of the entire public place and in actual fact only envisage some of the possible functions. Liberal interpretation is the key factor that gives the public licence to create their own ways of using the objects. This freedom of interaction, interpretation and experiencing the physical item and the space around it is the only real guarantee that it will meet with approval. It is also the best weapon to combat the vandalism that is often associated with shared social environments. The Uncanny Freud’s Unheimlic has for some time been investigated as a sense of unease that derives from a lack of individuality, belonging, personalization or interaction. The solution does not necessarily lie in items created by individuals, which actually often have an iconic nature that can be seen as another form of imposition; another attempt to programme our lives (for some examples of icons in design by individuals, see A. Aymonino, V. P. Mosco, Spazi pubblici contemporanei. Architettura a volume zero, Skira, Milan, 2006, p. 140-157). It is more interesting to look at examples of ‘spontaneous’ street furniture: creative appropriation of existing public places. This is an ancient phenomenon, take the Piazza del Campo in Siena for example, where for centuries the sloping paved floor has spontaneously been used by visitors as a makeshift seat. There are now design groups that make participative design, a branch of the spontaneous appropriation of public areas that has always taken place. Some collectives take things as far as the more combative concepts of real urban guerrilla warfare, as presented by the Esterni group in Milan’s recent Fuori Salone initiative. Modo was also there with a number of proposals, including Into the Flowers a net hanging over a garden of potted plants that shined a ray of hope into the grey concrete of the city. The idea was so popular that they even received requests to reproduce it in private settings. On top of the spectacular side, this sort of experimental research gives the company an energizing boost, which is capable of bringing about projects that investigate new forms of socialization, new postures and different ways of resting and taking a break, and that above all contemplate the unpredictable, spontaneous actions of the end users. For example, Tobia Repossi has recently collected a number of reinterpretations of Phad, a very simple bollard that has been freely reworked by the public û altering its use and adding various kinds and forms of communication, irony and symbolic messages. While other people might consider this to be improper appropriation of the design output, those involved in the initiative by the company quite rightly see it as a sign of success – probably the greatest success to which a designer can aspire, because an object that inspires a creative, spontaneous interpretation is the precise opposite of an act of vandalism.