As part of UBC SCARP’s recent student-organized symposium, I got the chance to attend a Co-Design Workshop Demonstration by Stanley King and his group based on a hypothetical UBC Campus Life scenario. (Thanks to all the volunteer SCARP students for shepherding the logistics on the day – great job!)
Not being previously familiar with the work of either Stanley or his firm, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Their website tagline read, “Architects, artists and design professionals committed to community-based architecture and planning.” Stanley and his team were gracious and warm in their approach. I’m extremely pleased to have gone and enjoyed the experience greatly, both for the exercise itself and for the team sharing their expertise in scaling their design workshop for different situations.
Here’s how the day broke down (though this was an abbreviated version of what their typical workshop would actually be like, seeing as our day was 5 hours long and typical workshops can be 2-day long or several-day endeavours):
A Day. We started by going through a “day in the life of” activity as a large group of roughly 40 people, where we named the sorts of activities we would be doing in a space throughout the course of a day. Being a university campus, some of the answers were what you might expect (as a UBC newbie, I got to learn about “storming the wall…”), but they captured the full breadth of what people do at UBC: they work, relax, support their families, see friends, learn, participate in community life, shoot the shit, and drink lots of coffee.At the conclusion of this exercise, Stanley made some great points: that there are few things on this list that we wouldn’t be able to claim our grandparents did, and that the ebb and flow of the activities resemble what we would probably want for our grandchildren. So there is a certain timelessness to this as well (though, reflecting upon this now, there are some important differentiators as well: women aren’t likely to be picking up children from daycare in my grandparents’ time).
- Site walk. The activities we’d described in the first exercise were broken up into a number of categories like movement and circulation, campus life, social activities, etc. Individuals then chose which group they wanted to concentrate on. As groups of 8, we took a brief walk around campus with our place-sensing hats on full tilt: noticing sounds, smells, moods created by materials, light and spaces.It being a typical rainy, grey Vancouver day around the Student Union Building, dark, wet cement dominated the view. We visited that temporary transportation loop (which reminds me of hamster tubes for no good reason – probably because I’m always scurrying to avoid or catch a bus) and the grassy knoll.
Illustration. This is to me the most impressive centrepiece of the co-design exercise. In our groups of eight, we picked an activity from our category of focus to illustrate – from movements and circulation, we somehow decided to illustrate going to a late-night market for food. Each group was accompanied by an artist from the co-design group. This person (Stanley, in my case) led us in a conversation about what we collaboratively envisioned the activity to look like, and the milieu in which this was taking place.I can’t emphasize enough that it was done collaboratively: each of us were interacting both with the drawing and with each other, and often with each other through the drawing. As Stanley pointed out early on in the workshop, artists can’t draw from negative direction. My interpretation of this is that because of this, the entire process is profoundly constructive, in the sense that they take direction on what to represent; and in the case of differing opinions, they do their best to represent both or all opinions on how a space might be used. Once the drawings were completed with colour, we chose about 8 features or underlying principles that were represented in our drawings.
Voting. The illustrations from all the groups in the room were put up by the window for everyone to view, along with the list of features. The features were presented in a grid that allowed a certain amount of voting, on whether the feature was well-designed and conceived as it manifest in the drawing by the artist. Everyone went around the room and put up their check marks.
At the end of the illustrating step, Stanley looked around at us and said, “Is this my drawing? Is this one person’s drawing?” To which the answer was no, because we’d defined it as a group. At that moment I was reminded of Nancy, Barbara and Laura’s session at Northern Voice this year, where we also did a collaborative drawing with the person beside us. I like the idea that this kind of collaboration can be fed into a process through which we envision and make real, the streets and places where we live our lives.
Afterwards, Stanley kindly shared with us some artifacts from projects in Vancouver and Calgary where this technique had been used (this includes the Woodwards development and South East False Creek), along with some stories from the field. I was most interested in his comments on involving youth. He said that twenty or thirty years ago, it used to be a lot easier to get some classroom time to get kids involved in envisioning places; now, teachers are on a time crunch and tend to be very protective about who gets to come in. I’ve heard stories from teachers about how BC passes on learning objectives while freeing up no budget for textbooks, so I can see how balancing all of this can be a challenge. Perhaps there are ways to kill two birds with one stone, and make part of the co-design process educational with regards to exposure on social justice or municipal politics.
There was another poignant question asked, about where precisely co-design fits into the larger creation process. The question, paraphrased, was whether this kind of visioning falls under “idea generation” and how this differentiates from the actual act of designing in architecture. One of the attendees from Stanley’s group, a practicing architect, pointed out this is certaining part of a visioning step. Design, by contrast, is often turning the requirements into a concrete plan, and the refinement involved in this step is where the expert hand is needed.
Planning + Open = ?
Just riffing on open source for a moment, I’ve sometimes read that the change required to bring Stallman’s “Free Software” to the popularity of open source projects that we see now often had to do with widely distributed Internet access, a large base of hobbyist software developers willing to contribute time to programming and coordination, as well as tools for merging codebases with version control – in other words, aggregating and organizing the efforts into a cohesive whole, both on the level of code and human effort. How could we apply this concept to cities?
Incidentally, that will be my next blog post…for now, more pictures from the workshop are in the Flickr set for the co-design workshop. Thanks to Stanley and his team for sharing their time and expertise!