Sunday, 10 October 2010


A guest post by David Bruce from, contributing to the second Ecological Urbanism discussion hosted by Annick Labeca, Taneha Bacchin, DPR-Barcelona and urbanTick.

Space is the periplastic medium of the city; forming as necessary to meet the needs of an ever-changing society. Ideas developed by Lefebvre, Gottdiener, Deluze and Bachelard are among those that shape the foundation of contemporary architectural and urban practice. At the height of the urban experiment lie far reaching goals articulated through computational geometries applied to the architectural form. Yet in the wake of these new and engaging visions for the future we remain deeply rooted in existing physical infrastructures and traditional means of engagement. So what does it mean to reconfigure the space of the city in relation to ecological urbanism? And how do everyday citizens, including artists, designers and other professionals, work together to explore new ideas and affect change as we develop the ecological ethos necessary to generate the “new ethic and aesthetic of the urban”?

These are broad questions that require a multidisciplinary approach in order to address complex social, cultural, political and environmental aspects of space in the city. As an artist with an ear to the ground of this discourse I am drawn to spaces where people interact to creatively address these issues. Contemporary artists often work to alter existing infrastructures and create new sites where everyday people engage new ways to view the city. These spaces contribute to the diversification of the everyday experience and in doing so increase the richness of urban environment.

John Roloff’s conceptual studies of piers 15-17 in San Francisco, CA offer a brief insight on this subject. Roloff was trained as a geologist in the 60’s. Over the past 50 years he has employed his knowledge of environmental systems to create art. His work examines relations between man and nature through an array of projects situated somewhere between art, research science and architecture. He specifically engages the concept “synthetic ecology” while integrating a systemic awareness of ecological processes with the built environment. For Roloff, “Synthetic ecology morphs into trans-scientific forms of empathetic aesthetics, meta-ecology, and themes of alignment, indivisibility and equilibrium between living and non-living systems.” As a point of entry into the spatial inquires of ecological urbanism this idea captures something beyond the typical discourse on sustainability to bridge the gap between aesthetics and pragmatism.

I became specifically interested in Roloff’s studies for this site due to a strategic inversion of the pier assembly. The proposed inversion is a didactic sculptural maneuver. It exposes the hidden dimension of the pier’s structural elements by reassembling them upside down on top of the pier along with representations of the marine and terrestrial strata through which the pylons pass. This upturning of the spatial and structural character of the pier creates a site of exposure. The mundane aspect of passage over, onto and off of a pedestrian element of the bay’s infrastructure is suspended by an intrusion of the unusual; an infrastructural presence that punctuates a moment of aesthetic reflection.

Image by John Roloff / Future Exploratorium Site: Pier 15/17, San Francisco, CA

Roloff’s inversion offers a window to the larger questions approached through this series. As concepts of ecology, systems theory and cybernetics transform our perception of the city how do everyday citizens access the infrastructural counterparts of these concepts? If methods of production are subject to mystification, veiling and erasure then how can we expect everyday “users” to develop an awareness of these mechanisms, participate in a dialogue about them and in turn cultivate the ethos necessary for real transformation? In the case of these questions Roloff’s maneuver provides a starting point and a valuable strategy for an exposition of urban complexity. Were there strategically excavated sections of a streetscape exposing below ground systems and the layering of asphalt, concrete, and rubble used to establish a foundation, or meticulously carved away cross sections through the city, these ruptures in the urban matrix could give rise to a new aesthetic appreciation for the complexity of our daily environment; in turn creating new public sites where ideas surrounding urbanism become prevalent topics of discussion. Gordon Matta-Clark was a pioneer of this aesthetic procedure. His “building cut” installations of the 1970’s garnered attention throughout the art, design and architectural community worldwide. What I imagine could be conceptualized as an extension of his procedures into a far more dense amalgamation of civic infrastructure to produce an overwhelming sense of exposure capable of engaging the everyday citizen in new ways of looking at the city.

Image by Gordon Matta-Clark, “Building Cuts” 1970’s

Strategies like Roloff’s inversion or Clark’s building cuts can be designed to function as public sites in which the evolution of building systems, materials and technologies can be highlighted and directly experienced. They are sculptural marks that create windows into the hidden dimension of urban ecosystems as well as primary reconfigurations of the urban matrix that open the system to new possibilities; Roloff’s seeks to inform while Clark’s seeks to disrupt. Both strategies can be of use to the artist, architect and planner aligned with sustainable practices because ecological urbanism must simultaneously seek to maintain some degree of coherence within the established social, political and economic systems, while at the same time challenge these structures in an effort to cultivate a new praxis.

While planning communities remain focused on practical transformations of the cities infrastructure with respect to ecological urbanism, today’s cities must have affordances for spatial experimentation like those presented above. Sites of adaptation, experimentation and exhibition are the materiel analogues of open source programming. Within the existing fabric of the city these sites are often relegated to interstitial spaces between commonly authorized uses. They go unnoticed until an unforeseen artist or subculture engages the site; marking or deploying an unplanned, unusual or unwanted incursion. Spaces like those mentioned above become socially, culturally and politically charged through the action of artists and designers who take an alternative approach to accepted modes of practice. But the marginal status of these spaces and practices is changing. Social entrepreneurs are cultivating, absorbing and transforming them into viable models for generating creative capital.

Scott Burnham is one of those entrepreneurs. Burnham charts innovation at the edge of urban culture. In 2008 he collaborated with Droog Design to curate Urban Play; a public exhibition of “3D Graffiti” placed in the streets and public spaces of Amsterdam. Burnham assembled a team of artists, architects and designers to collaborate in the creation of 12 innovative projects aimed at “Reversing the traditional approach to urban design, in which objects and areas are created explicitly to discourage public interaction and intervention, this collection of objects were created to encourage interaction and physical engagement by the public.”

Image by Urban Play / 2008

Burnham’s approach is one of many aimed at advancing issues of urbanism and public engagement. In the past many of these works would have fallen into the category of gorilla art (and still would be were it not for their assimilation under the umbrella of a design festival). But as these incursions become more prevalent they gain momentum and take on a more mature role in mainstream culture. As the professional community continues to support a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving civic spaces will adapt and artists will continue to transform existing infrastructures into sites where diverse publics can experiment with new technologies, experience the new ways of imaging the city and generate new social relations that alter the urban lexicon.


David Bruce from is an artist living and working in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania while perusing a Masters Degree of Fine Art at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. His current work revolves around changes in environmental perception and behavior in relation to urbanism, network culture and technology. He received his bachelor’s degree in Urban Planning with a minor in ecology from East Carolina University in 2003. Focusing curatorial interests on the intersection of art, architecture, and urbanism he plays an active role as gallery manager for Temple University’s Exhibition and Public Programs department.

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