The Interventionist’s Toolkit: 1

Provisional, opportunistic, ubiquitous, and odd tactics in guerrilla practice and DIY urbanism.

This is the first installment in a four-part series.

Park(ing) Day, San Francisco. [photo courtesy of SPUR]

It’s been two and a half years since the financial crisis crippled the global economy. During the long slump that’s followed, the architecture, design, and construction sectors have threatened to hit bottom over and over, but a real recovery, which would signal a final flattening out, never seems to materialize. While some firms show signs of stabilization — but only after massive job shedding in 2008 and 2009, and largely thanks to projects in China and the Middle East — most practitioners are just eking by. 1

In the spring of 2009, I interviewed AIA chief economist Kermit Baker for a piece in Architect magazine, on the likely prospects for young architects graduating into a recession. Based on figures from previous recessions, Baker painted a grim picture, and I wrote:

“Baker cites figures from the U.S. Department of Labor website: from the peak of employment in July 1990 to the lowest point in January 1993, 14.6 percent of positions at architecture firms were eliminated. The 30-month trough outlasted the overall national recession, which ended in late 1992. Baker notes that the downturn early in this decade is recorded as lasting from March through December 2001, but there was no upturn in design activity until 2004 and construction picked up only in late 2004 and 2005 — a chilling four years down to generate four subsequent years of growth.” 2

The sluggish return we’re now experiencing seems discouragingly consistent with Baker’s models. If we follow his timeline, there’s still another couple of years left before we can expect any recovery within the design professions; and once we do, the profession will look like nothing we’ve ever seen before. So, what to do in the interim? Wringing hands over the misdirected funding and lost opportunities of the stimulus package is simply depressing.

In which case, here’s the question: what’s the operational mode of the bust? Previous economic crises have offered up examples: paper architecture, the growth of theoretical and artistic practice, in the 1970s and ’80s; the lost generation, young designers leaving the architecture for virtual realms, in the ’90s; and paperless architecture, the rise of formal digital experimentation, in the early ’00s.

Top: Dumpster diving/pools, New York City, made by Macro Sea Mobile Pools. [photo by Antonia Wagner] Bottom: Poster, The Putting Lot, Bushwick, Brooklyn

Our current recession is inspiring its own strategies and tactics: It’s increasingly a catch-all for a host of urban interventions. This is a trend that I like to describe with a mouthful of a title: Provisional, Opportunistic, Ubiquitous, and Odd Tactics in Guerilla and DIY Practice and Urbanism. With this verbaciousness, I hope to capture the tactical multiplicity and inventive thinking that have cropped up in the vacuum of more conventional commissions. These days vacant lots offer sites for urban farming, mini-golf, and dumpster pools. Trash recycles into a speculative housing prototype (see the Tiny Pallet House). Whether it’s The Living’s Amphibious Architecture or Mark Shepard’s Serendipitor, the built environment speaks through mobile devices. Retail spaces hit by the recession are fodder for reinvention, as the art organization No Longer Empty transforms unleased storefronts into temporary galleries. Even the street itself is reclaimed. REBAR’s annual initiative, Park(ing) Day, urges global participants to use a pranksters wit to turn parking spaces into pocket parks, one quarter at a time.

Driven by local and community issues and intended as polemics that question conventional practice, these projects reflect an ad hoc way of working; they are motivated more by grassroots activism than by the kind of home-ec craft projects (think pickling, Ikea-hacking and knitting) sponsored by mainstream shelter media, usually under the Do-It-Yourself rubric. (Although they do slot nicely into the imperative-heavy pages of Good and Make magazines.) They are often produced by emerging architects, artists and urbanists working outside professional boundaries but nonetheless engaging questions of the built environment and architecture culture. And the works reference edge-condition practitioners of earlier generations who also faced shifts within the profession and recessionary outlooks: Gordon Matta Clark, Archigram, Ant Farm, the early Diller + Scofidio, among others.

A critical mass of projects was identified in late 2008 when the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s director, Mirko Zardini, and curator for contemporary architecture, Giovanna Borasi, selected 99 works for Actions: What You Can Do With the City. The design concepts, research and operational tactics spotlighted in the exhibition and related catalogue drew heavily on guerrilla art. Projects such as the N55 PROTEST Rocket, a militarized take on gardening that rocket-launches “seed bombs,” which explode in empty lots releasing “Superweed” seeds; the illicit Operation: Ivy League, created by the self-proclaimed anarchitects The Space Hijackers, who installed ivy on sites around central London as a protest against corporate architecture; or Sit In, a series of public benches deployed around Toxteth, Liverpool: all these function within a reactive, if not revolutionary, framework. As Zardini says in the press release: “They reveal the existence of a world rich in inventiveness and imagination, alien to our contemporary modes of consumption. These actions propose alternative lifestyles, reinvent our daily lives, and reoccupy urban space with new uses.” 3

Sit In, Toxteth, Liverpool, by What If. [photo via Canadian Centre for Architecture]

It’s a sentiment that brings to mind some countercultural activities of previous eras, such as The Real Estate Show, a 1980 exhibition staged inside an abandoned building in the Lower East Side, which addressed local housing and land use issues and led to the founding of the punk rock space ABC No Rio. (Video footage of artists occupying the space was featured this fall in Alternative Histories, an exhibition at Exit Art, conceived by Papo Colo and Jeanette Ingberman, that chronicled the experimental, reactionary, independent and/or activist art spaces in New York City since the 1960s.) In The Real Estate Show’s manifesto, the artist-populated committee laid out the mission:

This is a short-term occupation of vacant city-managed property. The action is extralegal — it illuminates no legal issues, calls for no “rights.” It is pre-emptive and insurrectionary. …

The intention of this action is to show that artists are willing and able to place themselves and their work squarely in a context which shows solidarity with oppressed people, a recognition that mercantile and institutional structures oppress and distort artists’ lives and works, and a recognition that artists, living and working in depressed communities, are compradors in the revaluation of property and the “whitening” of neighborhoods.

It is important to focus attention on the way artists get used as pawns by greedy white developers. …

The alphabet city occupation took place at time when downtown Manhattan was a clearly a different, rougher and edgier place; yet the artists’ actions do set a precedent for the more conventional, commercial pop-ups that we’re seeing a lot of these days, where fashion brands and trendy retailers temporarily lease a commercial storefront. The 1980 video captures artists who are taking risks to exhibit art (the building was shut down by the police as a result of the show) and taking a stand for social justice (the older exhibition argued that given a housing crisis derelict buildings should be reused).

Top: Park(ing) Day, San Francisco. [photo by Mike Chino courtesy of Inhabitat] Bottom: West Oakland Greening Project, Outdoor Living Rooms. [photo courtesy of SPUR]

More recently, these kind of interventionist practices were collected in smaller shows on the West Coast: Unplanned, shown at Superfront LA, and DIY Urbanism: Testing the Grounds for Social Change, presented at the San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association, or SPUR. Superfront founder Mitch McEwen considers the exhibition catalogue for Unplanned a kind of textbook for new interventionist practice. In describing the show, she evokes the language of counterculture (utopian and dystopian) sourcebooks such as The Whole Earth Catalog and The Anarchist’s Cookbook. This how-to immediacy is echoed in the introductory text that curator Ruth Keffer wrote for DIY Urbanism:

who: you
what: change
where: the city
when: now
how: do it yourself

Part invitation, part journalistic checklist, Keffer’s text sounds a revolutionary note with that now — as in response to the ’60s chant, When do we want it? Her call to action is an inescapable and essential tactic of the recessionary condition. “The current economic crisis has proven to be more than a challenge to our wallets: it has tested our faith in personal agency and our optimism in the future,” Keffer writes. Challenging the global downturn with fierce localism and references to the history of social activism, she continues, “But this malaise has met its match in the Bay Area, where a spirit of fierce independence has always thrived. Here the bad economy has a silver lining: it has reinvigorated and mobilized the community of do-it-yourself urbanists.” 4

Clearly, a down market requires a hustler’s skill and a grassroots dedication to practice. To cite an example from DIY Urbanism: the unsanctioned, temporary street furniture, placed on West Oakland and Los Angeles sidewalks to form the project “Outdoor Living Rooms,” was, according to Keffer, routinely hauled off by city officials who cited the need for permits and insurance. Designed by The West Oakland Greening Project and Steve Rasmussen-Cancian, of Shared Spaces Landscape Architecture, these pocket parks were located in urban neighborhoods generally seen as hotbeds of crime and drug use; as such they offer frontline resistance to charges of loitering, drawing instead on the tradition of neighbors gathering on stoops and at street corners. In a 2007 story in Designer Builder magazine, Rasmussen-Cancian posited street furniture as a defense against West Oakland’s gentrification. “Gentrifiers and the diverse longtime residents they displace have very different ideas about what makes an inviting, attractive neighborhood,” he says. “Experience and studies show that working-class urban residents view the street as the center of the neighborhood, the place to hang out, to socialize, and to watch the passing scene. In contrast, most middle- and upper-class gentrifiers are looking for a quiet street as a gateway to their homes.” 5 Although city codes prohibited placing the semi-permanent furniture on the sidewalk, the persistence of neighborhood activists and designers eventually won over the municipal watchdogs.

No Longer Empty: opening reception for “Never Can Say Goodbye,” at the former Tower Records on Broadway, New York, January 14, 2010. [photo by Ace Brown for No Longer Empty]

Last April, in a New York Times article entitled “D.I.Y. Culture,” art critic Michael Kimmelman mused on the development of do-it-yourself-ness in the art world. His discussion countered the global market with homegrown practice. And surely parallels can be drawn between the recent art-market bubble and the booming architectures that went bust in 2008. Reflecting on the hope that priorities are shifting toward the localized maker, Kimmelman wrote, “Culture (often unconsciously) identifies crucial ruptures, rifts, gaps and shifts in society. It is indispensable for our understanding of the mechanics of the world in this respect, pointing us toward those things around us that are unstable, changing, that shape how we live and how we treat one another. If we’re alert to it, it helps reveal who we are to ourselves, often in ways we didn’t realize in places we didn’t necessarily think to look.” 6

Still, there’s a tendency to dismiss these kinds of projects as simply whimsical — to smile at their authenticity or their expression of clever détournement, but at the same time to suppress any uncomfortable restive rumblings. But these projects hold at their heart a belief that change is possible despite economic or political obstacles, or disciplinary or institutional inertia. And the prospect for real change builds as more and more works accumulate in exhibition catalogues and digital venues. Broadcast via Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and design blogs, these new temporary or provisional projects can be read relationally to each other without explicit contextual concerns. By aggregating and focusing upon these small-scale interventions, my hope is to reveal a larger framework — a network that makes nimble use of social networking and Web 2.0 technologies to transform local episodes into global outreach. Thus The Interventionist’s Toolkit — a series that will light upon Places from time to time this winter and spring — is not necessarily about featuring projects, but about finding new ways to practice and provoke within the fields of architecture, urbanism, and design.

About the Series: The Interventionist’s Toolkit

Mimi Zeiger’s four-part series The Interventionist’s Toolkit tracks the emerging and evolving practices of DIY urbanism and guerrilla practice, from (Park)ing Day to Occupy.

  1. Kermit Baker, “Firm Billings Rebound in November,” AIA Architect, December 2010.
  2. Mimi Zeiger, “Have You Seen Me?,” Architect Magazine, July 2009.
  3. Mirko Zardini, Press Release, Actions: What You Can Do With the City, Canadian Center for Architecture, November 26, 2008 to 19 April, 2009.
  4. Ruth Keffer, wall text, DIY Urbanism: Testing the Grounds of Social Change, SPUR, San Francisco, September 7, 2010 through January 2011.
  5. Sidewalk Living Rooms, Designer Builder Magazine, February 2007.
  6. Michael Kimmelman, “DIY Culture,” The New York Times, April 4, 2010.
Mimi Zeiger, “The Interventionist’s Toolkit: 1,” Places Journal, January 2011. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • florence haridan

    01.31.2011 at 22:11

    Yes, I do believe one person can make a difference. An idea for change is created and the energy to get it to becomes more and more real as actions take place.

    I have always seen the design process as the way to make things happen...very blessed to have people around me who believe the same thing. When we employ it, things just go smoother...more intelligently and more intuitively. Looove design and all that comes with it...

  • Matt

    02.02.2011 at 10:30

    Regarding DIY city development, you left out the Better Block movement:

    Rebuilding blighted blocks, installing pop-up businesses, and implementing traffic calming all in one fell swoop.

  • Chris Vogel

    02.02.2011 at 12:31

    The current state of the market most certainly requires inventive and irreverent approaches.

    A great example for this is 5750 Dallas. The initiative successfully demonstrates how guerilla tactics can create awareness for the homeless situation in Dallas.

    In addition, 5750 Dallas showcases how timing can be exceptionally powerful. The project was deployed on MLK right as Dallas had increased media attention due to the upcoming Super Bowl.

  • Michael

    02.03.2011 at 12:21

    CreateHere's Detroit Civic Intervention, held last November, is another interesting "model" for revitalizing public space.

  • Ethan Pettit

    02.03.2011 at 21:45

    Great article! Spot on! And right up my alley, literally and figuratively speaking. I'm a veteran Williamsburg hipster (1983), long involved in urban interventionist art.

    Interventionism does indeed speak to the fact "that mercantile and institutional structures oppress and distort artists' lives and works." And the life and work of others as well. The doctrine of Interventionism is that there is more, much more, to the world than the pedestrian consumerism that swamps the world.

    But there is a cautionary note to be sounded here. Gentrification invariably "comes over" to the side of artists and integrates their creativity. Gentrification is, in fact, to a large degree, an extension of the aesthetic ideology of art. This is the paradox that artists need to get a better grip on.

    It is understandable that artists usually recoil in disgust from a bourgeois culture that seems to shadow them everywhere. But try as they may to be activists for the working class, artists are historically inscribed as a bourgeois subculture, and this is a problem. But also a challenge.

    It does not surprise me that ... "Although city codes prohibited placing the semi-permanent furniture on the sidewalk, the persistence of neighborhood activists and designers eventually won over the municipal watchdogs."

    Damn right it "won them over." They love it! The municipality is always on the lookout for artists with great ideas, and the city will do summersaults for artists if "revitalization" is in the air — be it revitalization of a long-blighted neighborhood, or revitalization of an economy gone south in recent years.

    The controversial "Loft Law" that was just passed by the New York State legislature for the third time in 30 years, is a testament to the legal exceptionalism that is extended to artists in all kinds of ways ... because politicians know artists reboot neighborhoods. They also know artists vote. I support the Loft Law and creative urban initiatives like the ones covered so well in this article, from ABC No Rio on out.

    But be warned. If you make it cool, if you make it funky, and dude, if you make it awesome ... they will come. Oh yes, they will come.

  • Yuri Artibise

    02.03.2011 at 23:44

    DIY efforts should not be viewed as whimsical, but as signs of true urban vitality. Although many DIY initiatives may be temporary, the impact is often substantial. In some cases DIY interventions can act as pilot projects to improve the chances of city officials eventually buying in and supporting the changes in an official way.

  • mimiz

    02.04.2011 at 13:51

    great ideas for the next installments, thank you.

    @ethan just a note, the West Oakland Living Room project was done to protect the neighborhood from the forces of gentrification. Because people lingering on the streets reads to real estate agents as too "urban" it is a means to develop a community from within.

  • Cloud Collector

    02.08.2011 at 20:15

    A wonderful article for urbanist-hackers (in the best sense of the word, to use Varnelis' phrase). Thank you, Mimi; looking forward to the next installment

  • April Economides

    02.10.2011 at 00:27

    I absolutely love this. Thank you. As a consultant who helps implement DIY urbanist programs for business districts, I'm finding this is the easiest and most meaningful way to create livable communities in this economic climate - and just in general, really, given how difficult it is to make lasting positive change in most cities due to poor leadership, bureaucracy and old-fogey thinking. Small, incremental change makes a big difference. Not surprising, right? That's how most change happens.
    April Economides
    Green Octopus Consulting
    Long Beach, California

  • linda pollak

    02.15.2011 at 10:29

    thank you mimi for a wonderful piece: for aggregating/focusing on these small-scale interventions to begin to reveal a larger framework through which it is possible that change is possible!

  • ethan

    02.25.2011 at 19:37

    @mimiz. The West Oakland Living Room project sounds interesting. Making a claim to public space, increasing use of public space sounds like a great strategy for competing with real estate interests. I love these ideas.

  • 02.01.2012 at 01:17

    Mimi- I love this kind of work and thinking about the city. It is very meaningful to me. I sometimes worry, though, that this way of working is geared towards academics (myself included) and not very pragmatic for practitioners. We have to find economic models that will work and take hold. I do believe it will happen. I am optimistic about our future.