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?

 

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Being a part of the Show: Bristol, UK

Last Saturday was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I spent it watching my first ever Shakespearean play, All’s Well, That Ends Well. Most of the Shakespeare that I had come to know during my time at school were tragedies and I haven’t explored it any further since. However, I think last night was a very good example of why he is often described as having been ‘ahead of his time’, filling his scenes with humour, sex and politics. All in all, a great combination.

Having said that, I have to say I am not a theatre lover. I really enjoy dance and musicals on stage but I find theatre hard to follow. Musicals like the Nutcracker and Billy Elliot keep me on the edge of my seat, wanting to get up and dance along. Whereas with theatre I sometimes find myself fighting with my eyelids, no matter how early it is.

But last night, I was sat in an open space so close to the actors, I felt I was a part of the show (and that’s saying something considering I was sat in the back row).  In fact, I am quite sure that Helena (the main character) consulted with me at one point: how she, a maid, could ever be the wife of such a noble man?!…I think I was nodding along, even if I wasn’t, I was definitely thinking: “I feel ya girl”.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, like the one on Chess, Life and the City, you’ll notice I like to make, possibly somewhat exaggerated, connections between the the dynamics of things like chess or in this case theatre, and how they mirror aspects of life in cities. In this case, I’m not talking about the plot.

What I am referring to, are the dynamics within the theatrical space. The more included I felt, the more I enjoyed the show. Like in cities. The more included people feel, the more they ‘enjoy the show’.

Amanda Burden, New York’s chief city planner, also known for the important role she played in advocating to save the NY High Line from demolition says: “…a successful city is like a fabulous party, people stay because they are having a fabulous time.”

In most cities however, that fabulous time is often exclusive to some. Cities are particularly in risk of becoming exclusive or strengthening their exclusivity if and when experiencing major regeneration for example. The regeneration of cities can either reactivate and produce greater inclusivity in to the fabulous party or make it more exclusive for some.

So, although risky, I believe regeneration can be a great opportunity. So is it worth the risk? For the sake of re-activating spaces that have been abandoned or dispossessed and generating greater inclusivity and integration for local communities? South Bristol, where I watched Helena finally win over her noble man in the Tobacco Factory Theatre, provides yet another example (in addition to those in Bogotá) where a private-sector led initiative has intervened in public life for public life.

Once again I’m back to that uncomfortable position that I don’t like to admit and that I’ve tried to hide a little in previous posts on private interventions in public life (I, II).  That position where I’m kind of liking what the ‘private sector’, or rather what two very specific private-sector-interventions have done to two very specific derelict buildings in the city (in this case, Bristol).

Here is why:

1. The Tobacco Factory

Today, the Tobacco Factory, which also hosts a restaurant, a cafe-bar called Thali Cafe, offices, loft-style apartments and a performing arts school is described as “one of the most exciting theatre venues in the country”; and although that’s a direct quote from its own website, I have actually heard other very good things about it through word of mouth.

Like the NY High Line mentioned earlier, the factory section on Raleigh Road, Ashton, was a derelict space in the city that was just a big burden and a major target for speculation. It was going to be demolished but was bought out by George Ferguson, the now first mayor of Bristol. Its theatre first opened its doors in 1998 and since it has morphed in to a multi-functional space that serves the local community and aims to provide a ‘model’ of exemplary urban regeneration.

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Source: Ray’s Bristol Pages

As I said earlier, when I went to the Tobacco Factory and sat in the theatre, I felt pretty good about it. Although thinking about it properly, I realise that I wasn’t really there for very long. I stood at the bar for about 10 mins before I was immersed in to Helen’s world, somewhere in Italy, in a different era surrounded by ladies wearing corsets and men wearing pouffy jackets. Having said that, during those 10 minutes did I spend in the bar, I was surrounded by a big crowd of happy, excited and very pleasant looking people keen to fill their minds with Shakespeare for the next two hours. So I can’t say much about it as a ‘model regeneration project’ (although the video at the end will) but I can certainly recommend the place for a visit to Bristol and have to say, I liked the use and purpose of the once-derelict and now-activated cultural space.

More contested space…

Another area, which has seen a lot of contestation over regeneration projects is Stokes Croft, heading towards North Bristol. An area that “always had an independent spirit. It’s an area that’s become a beacon of alternative thinking” – says Chris Chalkley from People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (prsc.org) to the BBC.

According to a case study (4) by Portland Works the area of stokes croft is now branded as Bristol’s Cultural Quarter after having been taken up by the PRSC who are described as “…a group dedicated to maintaining the area’s diversity and lack of commercial dominance” (Case study 4, p.2).

Standing at the crossroads and looking around, there is evidence in all directions of a collective struggle by people to have a say in how the area is regenerated.

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93% of people…

 

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Source: BBC

Embedded within this contested ground lies Hamilton House (HH) and the very much loved Canteen.

2. Hamilton House and the Canteen

 

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Hamilton House

Owned by Coexist (a community interest company whose architect for HH was George Ferguson), Hamilton House is an old – once derelict – office block that was bought in 2009 and transformed in to a multi-functional space. It aims to support local causes through providing a space that is ‘relevant and accessible to all parts of the local community’.

You get a feeling of the kind of place it is once you visit their  home page, where it announces that “Coexist would like to offer free use of spaces to any group that is working with or on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers”.

One review says the Canteen is a place where you can “put the world at rest”. As for me, ever since I arrived in Bristol, second week in and the Canteen was already my favourite place. And I hadn’t even been inside! It was just that feeling I got every time I passed by it, that positive energy, the buzz …the optimism. You can just see the diversity of people, wandering in and out of the bar, playing at the ping pong table, standing outside the door having a smoke and a chat with a stranger or chasing after the toddler whose wandering around visiting the different tables and eating anything it finds.

The live music from the stage livens up its balcony as well as the crossroads outside its doorstep. I’m still only standing outside, but I’m definitely thinking how fabulous this party is looking. The Breakdancing Jesus is definitely having a fabulous time.  breakdancing jesus.jpg

Finally I got a chance to walk in and have a drink on a sunday evening. At 11pm there is still a relaxing buzz, a couple of tables are taken but there is enough space to sit about 6 of us. With the mellow music playing in the background, surrounded by a warm red light from the fairy lights and a gin tonic in hand I’m thinking, on a Sunday night, I want to stay at this party.

Contesting for our space in collective city transformation…

So thinking back to some of my previous experiences with private interventions in public life, I’m coming to believe a little more in the role of the private sector in building our cities. Of course, I am not saying it is all good, these cases are certainly the exception rather than the majority.

But it seems to offer an opportunity for us as city dwellers to take a more direct approach at collective city building.

 

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Since 2011 each separate brick in this wall has been designed and painted by its own individual artist. Each piece of work was improvised from scratch. This is the first wall in this ongoing project. There are other Brick Project walls throughout Bristol. If you would like to see the names of each artist and the titles of their bricks please go to danpetley.co.uk” – Inscription in white brick on the left

Going back to Amanda’s talk, she says that:

“Public spaces need vigilant champions not only to claim them for public use, but to design them for the people that use them, then to maintain them, to make sure they are for everyone…”

I think Stokes Croft and Hamilton House have shown me a little more evidence about the possibility of taking what Amanda says and relating it to the city as a whole. Yes cities need vigilant champions, but we can be those champions. Pushing for inclusive spaces by expressing our desires for them to be so. It seems to me that HH and the Canteen are and exemplary pieces of evidence of how a group of people, a community, is taking ownership over the changes that happen in their area.

Going back further, to the Theatre space at the Tobacco Factory. At the end of the day the more inclusive the space is, the more you can enjoy the show. But the only way we can ensure that such inclusive spaces are designed is if we as ‘spectators’ express our desires and push to be a part of the show.

 

 

More on the Tobacco Factory:

 

 

The memory is on the walls: Bogotá, Colombia

Memoria, Calle 26, Bogotá, Colombia

4,150,000 Victimas de desplazamiento forzado, Memoria, Calle 26, Bogotá, Colombia

“Bogotá is a city that speaks through its walls. A city were silenced voices speak…” says an article in El Tiempo.

IDARTES, the District Institute of the Arts, supports mural painting and graffiti collectives through an innovative approach to remember the country’s turbulent history, recognising the terrible realities that many were and continue to be forced in to, in order to motivate the collective will to overcome them.

In collaboration with the Centre for Victims, Peace and Reconciliation, as well as artists, reporters, photographers and other groups, an open and somewhat permanent exhibition has been elaborately developed throughout the city. The project is called Memorias del Futuro (Memories of the Future).

These murals are also a timely reflection on the process of peace that Colombia’s government and the FARC initiated in 2012 and are to be signed and concluded in March 2016. Apparently.

As well as remembering, these murals, and IDARTES’ work, have contributed to building Bogotá’s renowned reputation for street art and expression.

Memoria, Bogotá, Colombia

Memoria, Bogotá, Colombia

Colectivo Animal (Animal Collective) are the authors of these three murals on the calle 26, which commemorate the 4,150,000 victims of forced displacement and of the Unión Patriótica (U.P).

Historic note: The U.P. was a political party that promoted democratic peace without the use of arms. The FARC were part of this party until they shifted away from it and rejoined the use of arms in the conflict. Many of the U.P.’s members were assassinated, amongst them, political figures who represented peace and democracy including three presidential candidates.

El desplazamiento forzado, Memoria, Bogotá, Colombia

El desplazamiento forzado, Memoria, Bogotá, Colombia

Through these murals, artists hope to propose new dialogues amongst those who walk the city, making ‘the call for peace’ a daily exercise.

Bajo la tierra, Memoria, Bogotá, Colombia

Bajo la tierra, Memoria, Bogotá, Colombia

Underneath the surface lie many bodies, bodies that are today, fertile soil on which Colombia’s richness can grow (and by richness, I am not talking about money. I’m talking about culture, history, people and opportunities for the Colombian people).

In this way, the city is speaking with its people, and its people are in turn, speaking with the city.

This move by IDARTES proves it’s innovation and progressive outlook. Not only does it invite artists and communities to take part in beautifying the city, it also invites us to take part in raising consciousness about issues that continue to shadow people’s lives. Issues that cannot be ignored.

As a lover of art, I cannot help but mention, how these examples are a demonstration of the power of art. Street art can not only present wonderful opportunities for the creative minds of a city but it can also be used to move, inspire and invite citizens to engage with it.

How did they do it? It’s important to point out that those who participated in the making of these murals were not only the Animal Collective but also victims of displacement, relatives of victims, musicians and members of the U.P. who were invited to the event.

Check out the different murals along the calle 26 dedicated to the Memory of Colombia’s turbulent past: