The International Group have been wonderful to work with. Originating from places as diverse as Syria, Zimbabwe, Poland, China, India, Palestine, Georgia and more, the group have been working with me and another artist Gillian Brent for eight weeks.
We started by being inspired by the exhibitions at Nottingham Contemporary, at the time one of them was the Decolonizing Architecture exhibition that I've written about in two previous posts (Exploring Common Ground and Dividing Lines) Gill had an idea about using little wooden houses to create village layouts. I tried this with the group in one of our sessions.
With my interest in urban planning and social spaces I found this activity brilliant for generating debate and discussion about how we use spaces, how we build spaces and how those spaces then affect us.
We split into three groups and each group was given a set of wooden houses and a word. I asked them to create a village inspired by that word. Each group had similar sets of houses, but different words. The words were Secure, Shared and Nature.
Having created their villages, we then looked at each group's in turn. This simple activity turned into an hour and a half of debate and discussion about how we live: how space is shared, can we force people to share, can we police ourselves or do we always need an authority to make decisions? By building a secure space do we create elitism and exclude others? The shared space had similarities to the secure space - the shared space was only shared within the village and still excluded those outside the village, and the secure space was surrounded by a wall but still needed a shared space in the middle. Contact with the outside was made by the creation of a railway.
In contrast, the space created by the nature group was chaotic and anarchic, requiring constant negotiation between neighbours about who could use a space. At first this seemed attractive to many of us, but on closer inspection would this result in survival of the fittest? (or the most brutal?)
The theme for our project had been "Building a better future", and this activity really got deep into the issues about peoples living and sharing together as well as how we build.
Only a week later I came across a brilliant report of a lecture by Richard Sennett at Harvard, "The Architecture of Cooperation", discussing how people co-operate in spaces and how the spaces we plan affect this. He spoke about edges and boundaries, something our group has also talked a lot about. Sennett suggested the need for a "membrane approach":
"In many planning classes, they say that when there is a rigid separation between two communities, classes, or functions, the best thing you can do is erase these divisions. This is an error. We need to mark space, and space has to have some quality of protection as well as opening to the outside: a membrane condition."This inspired me to pick up a book on my bookshelf again, "The Social Logic of Space" by Hillier and Hanson, discussing "global-to-local logic", and the ideas of Durkheim who distinguished two types of social cohesion, or solidarity: organic and mechanical. Organic solidarity is based on the interdependence of peoples through difference, for example through the division of labour. Mechanical solidarity is based on integration through similarities such as belief and group structure.
These two types of social function require different types of space. Organic requires dense space, whereas mechanical organisations require segregated spaces.
Thinking all this through, I come back to the idea that we can plan our spaces to correspond to the way a society is working, however what happens when planners try to orchestrate the behaviour or social function of people by the way they plan the environment? I am reminded of my work some years ago for my Thinkspace project, when I met with architects of new school buildings who were trying to "design out" bad behaviour, and town planners who were redesigning housing areas that had disintegrated socially. At the time I made a speech as part of Architecture Week and I am reminded by the opening of the speech where I quoted Churchill:
"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."Yes, and the spaces between them too.
The Smell of Bread exhibition will be on show at Nottingham Central Library throughout June and a special celebration event will take place at Nottingham Contemporary on 16th June.