If there’s a common question to be answered by the dozens of projects collected in Spontaneous Interventions, it might be: “What is the role of a local project in a global age?” The individual projects represented—pop-up parks, community agriculture, ad-hoc street furniture, guerrilla bike lanes—are not necessarily overt as they position themselves against the effects of global capital. However, taken as a group, these interventions run counter to the unchecked boom-and-bust development of what David Harvey and others critically describe as the neoliberal city. Small-scale and socially engaged, spontaneous interventions use design to enrich public space and foster civic life at a time when the disparity between daily life and the governmental and corporate mechanisms shaping cities is at an all-time high.
Over the last decade, and especially during the slow recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, interventionist and tactical practice organically emerged as a global phenomenon. Design actions led by artists, architects, urban planners, and community organizers cropped up across Europe, South America, and Africa. These interventions, like those in the United States, are wholly determined by local conditions and defy the top-down strategies of traditional master planning. Consider the series of acupunctural projects proposed by Venezuelan NGO Caracas Think Tank for the city’s informal settlements and a 2010 series of playful and educational interventions installed around a soccer stadium in Mafikeng, South Africa. Although they vary in whom they serve and why, both projects are specific to a place.
If we look closely at these two examples, we find that the conceptual instigators and financing come from outside academic and governmental institutions, a situation not uncommon in developing countries. For another example, the much-lauded, rainbow-colored Favela Painting project in the Santa Maria slum of Rio de Janeiro positively impacts the local condition. Brazilian youths receive training and a paycheck during the month-long project, but the ideas and funding come from nearly 6,000 miles away. The project is the brainchild of Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, who developed the idea while filming a documentary about informal settlements for MTV, and their backing comes from the Amsterdam-based Firmeza Foundation.
At times, the critique that’s leveled at these kinds of projects is that they represent a kind of “parachute-in” approach that offers press and praise for the do-gooders without accounting for long-term impact. To be fair, in Europe—and especially in France, Germany, and the Netherlands—artistic interventionist practice draws on a history of support for arts and culture funding. In 2009, for instance, Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum underwrote The Cook, the Farmer, His Wife and Their Neighbor, which is a community garden and kitchen in an Amsterdam suburb by Slovene artist/architect Marjetica Potrc and design collective Wilde Westen.
In South America, where the sheer scale of need due to poverty, crime, and slums often outweighs the limits of tactical practice, architecture and infrastructure projects are implemented from the top down. When New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman visited Medellín, Colombia, he reported on “a cadre of young architects being aggressively nurtured and promoted, and a commitment by local businesses to improve social welfare that begins with the city’s biggest business: its state-owned utilities company, E.P.M.”
And it’s in this relationship between maker, user, and funder where the U.S. strain of interventionist practice veers from many of the international models. Individuals and small teams created the bulk of the works represented in Spontaneous Interventions to benefit their own communities. Because of the limited scope of these projects, but not due to any lack of ambition, funding comes in small-to-medium allotments from personal resources, nonprofit grants, and microfunding sites such as Kickstarter. Matt Tomasulo’s Walk Raleigh project—an act of guerrilla wayfinding that consists of 27 unsanctioned street signs installed around Raleigh, N.C.—was created for $275 dollars in supplies. Support from the community led the City Council to approve the project as a pilot education program.
In many ways, these projects capture a decidedly American can-do drive to make things better, starting in your own backyard. This is as true for BroLab’s portable commuter benches installed along the Q39 and B57 MTA bus routes in Long Island City, N.Y., as it is of Urban Operations Parkman Triangle, in Los Angeles, which is a small slice of urban landscape that sits a few doors down from its designer’s office.
These efforts fly in the face of NIMBY attitudes that spring up in boom times. Small-scale interventions reaffirm the local, the practical, and the hands-on. They return to an older pioneering spirit, once about setting off to the West and now about rejuvenating the territory outside our front doors.
Mimi Zeiger is a writer, editor, and contributing editor to ARCHITECT. She is also a member of the curatorial team of Spontaneous Interventions.