A space to dance: “the community of stars”, Bangkok, Thailand

When curiosity strikes…

Last week, in Bangkok, I visited a magical little place…

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Turn into this corner….

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…and at the end of the alleyway you will come to the Dance House, Nang Loeng, Bangkok

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At the foot of the entrance door, you’ll recognise the Dance House Mosaic

Once inside…

“…that is the corner I got married in!” – recounts a friend, remembering what a lady said as she walked in to the Dance house for the first time after twenty years.

Nang Loeng, the neighbourhood where the Dance House can be found is very well known for having once been a centre for cultural activities in the city. The locals call themselves the ‘community of stars’ because of the generations of famous artists, musicians, dancers and actors that have been and gone.

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Door forms a platform over a waterway in Nang Loeng, Bangkok

It used to be a dance school but since it closed it gradually became a derelict space due to lack of maintenance. After being empty for many years, the owner decided she wanted to use it for the good of the community. A community that lives in both formally and informally constructed homes built along and over the waterways of this old neighbourhood.

But as the space has gradually transformed through the ideas and efforts of the community in collaboration with Open Space and with the support of Red Bull, the opportunities and possibilities for the Dance House continue to multiply.

So far, there has been an incremental process of design and reconstruction within the old school. It seems to have allowed for a people-centred and people-led transformation. For example the first time people were able to enter the space, once the first changes had been made to strengthen the structure of the house, they were able to experience the space and touch it. This says Open Space, triggered more ideas for its further changes, which they were then able to contribute in future collective design workshops. So the process is based on the value of giving time and flexibility for changes to take place not only in the space itself but also as an element of people’s daily dynamics; making it part of their routines and building the sustainability of its use.

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Looking through the old wooden stairs, on to the dance floor…

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And from the other side, spectators can sit and watch the dancing…

Open Space described the process of transformation as an opportunity to learn about the history of the building as well as the history of the community. As the materials are re-used, stories of their original place and function in the school are discovered, allowing the design to revisit and articulate these original elements in to the design of the new space and preserve the recorded history of the community within its structure.

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The structure tells you a story

“This middle column used to be the “partner column”, for students who didn’t have a partner to dance with…”

What I find most inspiring about this process is that it is not only the transformation of a space in its physical design and re-construction but it is also paralleled with community activities, dancing events, exhibitions and the work of a local art group.

It is also an important space for local children, particularly those who cannot attend school because of financial difficulties.

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“…we put out a call for cassettes and people started turning up with bags of them, some of people were artists we know and really like!”

So this really encapsulated how the transformation of physical spaces in the city can also play a role in the transformation of communities. Through this process, the community has taken action, organised and appropriated themselves of a process that strengthens collective capacity, social fabric and knowledge. This is the most important element of this project, which is that the community itself, particularly the community leader who has volunteered for her community for the past 30 years, is pulling the rains and giving it direction.

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Nang Loeng, Bangkok

Thinking beyond the space…

Today, Nang Loeng is under threat of the city’s plans for local gentrification (read: “Gentrification: Friend or Foe?” for more info on this term). A large part of this residential area will be transformed into a station for the Metropolitan Rapid Transit (MRT) system.

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Interactive walls with important characters from the community, Dance House, Nang Loeng, Bangkok

As areas like these are gentrified, so is their social fabric and composition, that is often what eventually pushes people away from their homes and communities.

Whilst this space, re-imagined by its community, is part of a story that shows the beauty and strength of small change and will luckily remain between the stations that are planned to be built; there is a pressing question. Will the community that has been part of this process, invested their time, energy and passion in to it, be able to continue benefiting from its on-going metamorphosis; particularly as the rest of the city continues to grow and follow its own agenda of transformation?

 

Chess, Life & the City: from Bogotá to Geneva

Do you know how to play chess?

Some people would classify it as an ‘intellectual’ game. Apparently chess is very much like life, it teaches you to think, plan, organise your thoughts, and take action.

“The modern game—essentially unchanged now for about 500 years—is perfectly designed to stretch the human mind to its outermost limits, but not beyond.”Spanier, 2013

So chess is not just any game, it has been worked and re-worked throughout history. Within those small black and white statues, there is a dense process of thought, based on logic and power structures that reflect on many aspects of society, even today; allowing it to be an interesting strategy to educate people, not just on how to play the game of chess but also how to play the game of life.

Quora asks, how is chess similar or dissimilar to life?

Here are a couple of motivational interpretations from Sudhir Srinivisan…

  • Pawn promotions: The smallest people can become the greatest, with perseverance
  • Forethought: To succeed in the long-term, it’s crucial to plan well in advance
  • Rook in the End Game: The quietest and the most unexpected people can often be the most loyal and the most useful during trying times
  • Placement: A knight in a corner is a knight wasted. If you don’t give your assets what they need, they’ll be useless and perhaps leave you eventually

…and some critiques…

  • Queen: Women, despite being far more powerful than men, are encouraged to be selfless and keep the man’s well-being at the back of their mind at all times
  • Pawn unity: If there’s bickering and no solidarity in the economically weakest sections, it’s a recipe for impending ruin
  • Pawn play: The poorest and the smallest are often the first to be sacrificed, and suffer the greatest loss

And then there is also a more reflective position which Joe Blitzstein holds…

“Pattern recognition: Both in life and in chess, reasoning well about complicated problems requires recognizing patterns, structures, and analogies, so that the situation can be chunked into simpler pieces and to make it easier to effectively use past experience.” – 

Or again, as Joe Blitzstein shows us…

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Chess is one of the things I inherited from my grandfather, who died shortly after he taught me. I was about 6 when I learnt, but now thinking back it feels like he was trying to teach me something much more important than a game. It was about teaching to have patience and to think. Something that people in our world sometimes forget to do, particularly within the context of busy, hectic or chaotic cities where you barely have time to think!

The way I understand this game is that it’s about forcing, and eventually when they see the benefits, encouraging, people to think before they act. A lesson which is also very valuable in life.

So what does this have to do with cities?  Well, in my experience cities are like primary school playgrounds during playtime. They are chaotic, they are versatile, they have so many activities going on all at the same time. They are spaces with tensions and for exercising power amongst each other in both positive and negative ways.

But playgrounds are also a space of exploring and learning. They are a space where we learn about relating to other people, about sharing and taking turns on the swings; about nature and getting dirty; about balance, taking care not to trip over, or slip off the monkey bars; they are also about identity, developing your identity, what do you like doing? What other kids do you like to hang out with? etc.

So like playgrounds, cities are also spaces of learning. I’m not saying its all positive learning, cities can also expose people to violence and crime which some learn from and reproduce. But this is even more of a reason to take the opportunity that cities represent, to teach society, young and old about respect, discipline, thought, creativity and solidarity.

Through a game of chess for example.

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Chess in Bogotá

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7ma Chess players, Bogotá, Colombia

This photograph is taken on the 7ma street in Bogotá, at about 6p.m. Hundreds of individuals pass by this place every day, many of them stop to watch men, women, girls and boys playing the game of thought. I have also stopped here many times, I get a warm feeling of excited pride for the city… and it also makes me think of my grandfather.

Adolfo Paéz came to this point on the 7ma about seven years ago, carrying three tables and three chessboards. Every day he and others who have taken part in this activity for many years, teach others how to play, encourage anyone to participate and organise and run tournaments. People from all walks of life come together in this space. It is maintained from people’s contributions which are voluntary, usually no more than 500 Colombian pesos ($USD 0.15), which is used to maintain the clocks, buy replacements for lost pieces and store the boards and tables.

Adolfo has been nicknamed the ‘Profe’ (Teacher). You can meet him in the following video (in Spanish)

“Chess is like a universal language” – 

 

However, despite this vibrant space that is open to teach people about thinking before acting, it is unclear what will happen to it as Bogotá’s historical centre and 7ma become pedestrianised and gentrified. Although the change is welcome and actually quite positive, one can already notice the diminishing activities along it.

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Pedestrianised section of the 7ma, November 2015, Bogotá, Colombia

So the question remains, what will happen to Adolfo and his tables? To his intervention, which has for so many years encouraged people in the city to stop and venture in to a different form of thought?

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Chess in Geneva

So let’s jump across the Atlantic for a second and visit the city of Geneva in Switzerland. I was walking along the lake the other day and I came across this…

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Chess by the lake, Geneva, Switzerland

Yes, a chessboard has been engraved in to the rock. I swear, I touched it just to make sure. When I saw this, I couldn’t help thinking about Bogotá.

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Maybe some people might be thinking I’m heading toward a classic example of neo-colonial mentality, suggesting that a Swiss model of public space should be implemented in Bogotá’s public space. But no, I am conscious of that reality and even so, I think good ideas should be shared.

The truth is that having walked past the chess players in the 7ma on so many occasions, I would be very sad to see them go. I know there are many benefits resulting from pedestrianising the 7ma in Bogotá, but as a mere observer I had gradually noticed how on the side that had been pedestrianised there were fewer people on the streets, eating, laughing, dancing, drawing, playing. On the other hand, the side that had yet to be pedestrianised was vibrant and packed with people doing all sorts of beautiful and creative things. It seemed to me that the essence of Bogotá´s city centre was being pushed aside a little.

Probably because with pedestrianised spaces comes gentrification, with gentrification comes changes in the market and value of services, with changes in the value of services comes changes in the people who use that space.

So I have been thinking about how, what chess playing brings to the city of Bogotá, could still be salvaged by taking one good idea from a city and trying it out in the context of another, something along the lines of…

Chess, Life and the City

Valuing and acknowledging the contrast between two spaces and their activities…

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A sketch of people playing chess on the 7ma, Bogotá, Colombia

V.S.

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The 7ma after pedestrianisation, November 2015, Bogotá, Colombia

And engaging with these two spaces to cherish and encourage the positive aspects of both these spaces….

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Chess in the city, Parc des Bastions, Geneva, Switzerland. Source: TripAdvisor

Can you imagine it?

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Chess board on the pavemement

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Re-imagining this space, chess board on the pedestrianised 7ma.

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So if we want our cities to teach us about life, to teach our children to have patience in life and think about their actions, chess should be cherished, and so should actions like Adolfo’s.

Not only because it provides a space for learning in the city but also because its popularity and positive effects on people is a way of showing city planners about what kind of city Bogotá is, and what kind of city Bogotá (not only the built city but also its people) wants to be. Listening to the people who use and appropriate themselves of its public space should be at the centre of the gentrification process.