Streetscape Territories: on site workshop about participation in Coney Island, New York

Streetscape Territories is the name given to an international research and design project that deals with the way buildings and properties are related to streets and how their inhabitants can give meaning to them. This project deals with models of proximity within a street, neighbourhood or region: how do people and buildings relate to each other and how does it contribute to the local identity of the built and social environment. As part of this project, a series on site workshops are organised regularly with groups of international students and young professionals to test the theoretical framework about territorial boundaries and local identity on site (see www.streetscapeterritories.wordpress.com).

This article describes the past experience of a ten day hands-on transdisciplinary workshop, working with a local community of Kaiser Park, a public park situated at the interior side of Coney Island New York, joining forces with local students and teachers of Pratt Institute and Partnerships for Parks, a joint program of Parks & Recreation New York. The workshop was planned as an experimental project, avoiding classic studio environments, during which the participants spent the entire time on the street, engaging with the communities and stakeholders, leading to an architectural design commission to build a community centre with sports and information facilities, that the students are unfolding in the next academic year (the workshop is part of the curriculum as an 5 ECTS credit course and a 25 ECTS credit master dissertation project).

On site working sessions

Figure 1 On site working sessions

Coney Island revisited

Since Rem Koolhaas described Coney Island’s historic role and context (Koolhaas, 1978) in the urban growth and architectural innovation in New York City, many new challenges appeared. Starting from the increasing number of storms attacking the area’s waterfront, the ongoing rise of the sea level, the aftermath of the financial crisis and its effect on investments and real estate projects in the area, until the changing immigration waves or new patterns of the way urban space is consumed, Coney Island has definitely changed a lot during the last decades. This set of multiple challenges was the starting point of a research and design project, focusing on the meaning and role of streetscapes (Scheerlinck, 2013), that  was used as a conceptual framework for this international workshop. Many actors were involved in this workshop, from the inhabitants to local real estate promoters, policy makers, design and planning professionals and academics. The selected group of participants used this theme and chosen area to explore, define and develop an urban or architectural intervention in the area, working with the mentioned multiple dimensions this area’s future is defined by. Coherence, sustainability and feasibility were important criteria for discussion and reflection.

There was one main study area, situated at the western part of the island and characterised by a fragile connection with the mainland and with the waterfront: the area in between Coney Island Creek at the North of the Island to the amusement park at the South. This area embodies an enormous potential as to its transforming industrial activity, some new commercial and leisure activities, the immediate access to nature and its metropolitan connectivity. The area includes as well a wide range of territorial scenarios to align research and proposal approaches: from gated communities, privatisation of beaches and public space, pockets of collective spaces.

Common Streetscapes: a real live project

During summer 2014, following up on previous research projects and workshops on Williamsburg (Scheerlinck, 2012) and Gowanus (Scheerlinck, 2013) in New York, an international 10-day workshop was organised about Coney Island. Around twenty participants from different European countries discussed and proposed ideas of how to deal with its future streetscapes and waterscapes in this part of the metropolis of New York. The workshop was part of a wider international collaboration between Flanders and the Netherlands (KU Leuven – TU Delft), called Common Streetscapes (Scheerlinck, 2014). Parallel to this workshop and contributing to the transdisciplinary character of this workshop, artists Giannina Urmeneta Ottiker and Koen Meersman developed an artistic project, related to this main theme of streetscapes.

To achieve results that were community-engaged, real live and dealing with the complexity and multiplicity of the area’s potentials and challenges, an open methodology was used: defining a framework that only points out possible directions but never leads the way. The first idea was to avoid any programmatic requirements to start the workshop (for example, the participants were not asked to build something or propose a certain program for the neighbourhood) but focus on the actual spatial qualities of the neighbourhoods and discuss these with stakeholders. Neither were the participants asked to focus on a specific problem or theme but rather try to read the context, starting from what you can see on the street and from that, unfold scenarios for social cohesion in the area. In other words, the only imperative was to concentrate on how streets can make people come together and allow them to be part of this process of decision making.

On a more organisational level, a traditional design environment or studio base camp (like a university studio or a class room) was avoided: the work spaces were the actual streetscapes themselves. This set-up forced all participants (and by this, the involved stakeholders) on a daily basis to improvise or even negotiate to find spaces to meet and talk, to work or to present. This particular strategy proved to be successful in reinforcing the real live dimension: it added an extra dimension to the discussion about the spatial qualities of the area (for example, an outdoor debate session on the beach had to be paused and later moved to another place as homeless people inhabiting the boardwalk pergolas protested against the project, which changed the discussion topics of that session). To further stimulate community engagement on a basic level, each participant was given a sketchbook to draw and take notes on site (inhabitants wanted to know what the participants were drawing and this lead towards interesting and engaging conversations at the one hand and intangible knowledge about the area at the other).

For this workshop, no specific methodologies were defined but working dynamics were defined by random daily encounters or on site individual or collective ‘wandering‘ (Careri, 2003), as a way to identify and discuss multiples identities of places (Cooper et all, 2014).

The project resulted in a proposal of a multiple strategies for the area, based on the ten days of on site real live experience. It consisted out of forty-three drawings that each represented different scenarios for future development for the neighbourhood.

These scenarios were presented to all involved inhabitants and stakeholders by a series of postcards that were hand written by the participants during a vernissage performance at the end of the workshop and sent by mail to the entire community which also provided the community to access the whole process using social media (see https://www.facebook.com/coneyislandrevisited).

The previous workshop and the feedback of the community on the outcomes, lead to a series of working sessions with the neighbours to conceive a new community centre that would deal with the mentioned challenges and potentials and that will be used as the next real live project for master students to develop in collaboration with this community.

The pedagogical perspective of this real live project is to provide the students with a different kind of competences in the programme (Greene et all, 2012): knowledge is not only (re)produced but in this case, knowledge is constantly questioned and tested in the field itself through close iterative observations and engaged interactions with stakeholders. Besides that, a stronger focus is given to personal skills and a critical attitude, as the students have to rely on human interaction and deal with the many uncertainties this entails, reflecting a real live approach of future professional projects.

On site working sessions

Figure 2 On site working sessions

Outcomes of the workshop (images by Michiel Geldof)

Figure 3 Outcomes of the workshop (images by Michiel Geldof)

References

Careri, F. (2003). Walkscapes: Walking as an Aestheic Practice. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili.

Cooper, F., Greene, M., Pinhiero Machado, D., Scheerlinck, K. and Schoonjans, Y., Eds. (2014). Creative Adjacencies – New Challenges for Architecture, Design and Urbanism. Santiago de Chile & Brussels/Ghent: Facultad de Arquitectura, Disegno y Estudios Urbanos, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile (Chile) & Faculty of Architecture, KU Leuven (Belgium).

Greene, M., Scheerlinck K., Schoonjans, Y. (2012). The New Architect- Towards a shared Authorship. In: Boutsen D. (Eds.), Good Practice – Best Practise: Highlighting the compound idea of education, creativity, research and practice. Brussels: Luca – St Lucas Architectuur, 17-24.

Koolhaas, R. (1978). Delirious New York. New York: the Monacelli Press.

Scheerlinck, K. (2014). Coney Island New York Streetscape Territories Notebook. Streetscape Territories Notebooks, 5. Brussels: LUCA School of Arts.

Scheerlinck, K., Massip, F. (2013). Gowanus New York Streetscape Territories Notebook. Streetscape Territories Notebooks, 3. Brussels: LUCA School of Arts.

Scheerlinck, K. (2013). Collective Spaces Streetscape Territories Notebook. Streetscape Territories Notebooks, 2. Brussels: LUCA School of Arts.

Scheerlinck, K. (2012). Williamsburg New York Streetscape Territories Notebook. Streetscape Territories Notebooks, 1. Brussels: LUCA School of Arts.

Kris Scheerlinck

Kris Scheerlinck studied Architecture, Spatial Planning, Urban Culture and Urban Design and obtained his Ph.D. in Architecture and Urban Projects with Prof. de Solà-Morales and Prof. Ferrer as thesis directors (UPC/URL, Barcelona, Spain). For more than 15 years, he ran his own research and design practices in Ghent, Barcelona and New York, working on urban and architecture projects, interior, retail and exhibition design and ephemeral installations. He coordinated and ran design studios, workshops and taught theoretical courses in Architecture and Urban Design Programs at various institutions and universities in New York, Barcelona, Bratislava, Melbourne, Valparaiso, Cordoba, Guayaquil, Cuenca, Havana, Addis Abeba, Ghent and Brussels. For the last 5 years he directed the International Master of Science in Architecture. He is currently Vice-Dean for Internationalisation. He is Head of the Research Group “Urban Projects, Collective Spaces and Local Identities” at the Department of Architecture. He directs an international research project on depth configurations in urban projects, called “Streetscape Territories” and promotes related PhD projects. His expertise is on the analysis of public-private gradients in urban projects and their related models of accessibility, permeability and proximity and pronounces a critical discourse on territorial boundary delimitation in real live projects.

Yves Schoonjans

Yves Schoonjans (full time professor at the Faculty of Architecture and the Research Department Architecture (Heverlee, KU Leuven)) does research in the domain of contemporary architectural history & theory, with a focus on informal architectural discourses. This is structured in 2 lines (1) Practices and discourses in a recent and contemporary context – relation between theory and practices; (2) Everyday local identity, appropriation and urban development. Together with prof. Kris Scheerlinck he initiated the research group ‘Urban Projects, Collective Spaces and Local Identities’ (http://www.collectivespaces-kuleuven.be/). The different research-projects investigate how people and buildings relate to each other, how space is appropriated and local identities are formed, how it contributes to the built and social environment of urban life. The research group seeks to study mechanisms of space production in different contexts and test the outcomes through real life and hands-on projects, considering the local neighbours, stakeholders, the protagonists and main beneficiaries. The group has grown with 2 post-doc researchers and 12 PhD-researchers. He was involved as partner and lead-coordinator in different international programs (Erasmus, Mundus and ALFA) and participated in different project, especially in Latin America. Within the academic management he was Head of the Education-section ‘History and Theory’ (2002 – 2008), program director of the International Master of Architecture ‘Urban Cultures-Urban Project’ and the International Master of Architecture ‘Sustainable Architecture’ (2008-2010), member of the board and director of master-programs (2009-2013), Vice-Dean for Internationalisation (2013-2015) and is now Vice-Chair of the Research Department.

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