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124 Ways to Change a City: Spontaneous Interventions at the Venice Biennale

Spontaneous Interventions banners

Banners showing bands of color on their reverse to code projects’ themes.

You could say that public space successfully took over gallery space at the Venice Biennale this year. The U.S. Pavilion at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition received a special mention from the Biennale Jury for Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good—an exhibition made up not of high-end architectural projects, but of 124 urban interventions, the selected results of an open call for submissions. Collectively, the selection represents a budding, nation-wide movement of citizens taking it upon themselves to propose solutions for problematic urban situations, creating new opportunities and amenities for the public.

The exhibition, which will run through November 25, is the first ever in a U.S. pavilion to receive the honor. Helmed by commissioner and curator Cathy Lang Ho, Spontaneous Interventions was organized by the Institute of Urban Design, along with co-curators Ned Cramer and David van der Leer, who is also one of the curators of the Lab.

My own acquaintance with Spontaneous Interventions began last spring over tea with Lang Ho at a café on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Over the course of our two-and-a-half-hour conversation, her notes, lists, diagrams, and renderings won out against our coffee cups for real estate at our tiny table. (I went on to contribute to the exhibition myself, writing texts that would be used to explain each intervention to the viewer.)

I caught up with Lang Ho again more recently to discuss the exhibition in the wake of its recent recognition. She recalled the application process for the pavilion with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State. “The RFP asked, ‘Why does this theme represent the country and the profession at this moment?’” As she explained, the theme they chose at the time seemed completely representative of the United States in that cultural and economic moment. “It was spring one year ago,” she said. “It was the depths of the recession. Only institutions and schools were generating work. Firms were in a holding pattern. What we did have were these minor acts by citizens.”

For Lang Ho, the open call, which yielded 450 submissions total, was in keeping with the “do-it-yourself” spirit of the exhibition because it allowed citizens from a variety of disciplines—not just architects and designers—to have their work on view. “It’s a way to say, ‘Here’s your chance to be in the Biennale,’ a traditionally a rarefied stage. Some of the people doing the projects never dreamed they’d be in the Biennale,” said Lang Ho.

The projects, which fill the 4,000-square-foot permanent American pavilion, and are displayed on banners that hang from the ceiling, include outdoor living rooms, pop-up markets, temporary architecture, navigation apps, and crowd-sourced city planning initiatives. There are ephemeral art interventions that bypass public space regulations (Ed Woodham’s Art in Odd Places); a community forum to rethink residual urban spaces (Manuel Ávila’s Crown Heights Participatory Urbanism); guerilla gardening (COMMONstudio’s Greenaid Seedbomb Vending Machine); and even a project that repurposes phone booths as a communal libraries (Department of Urban Betterment’s Phone Booth Book Share).

“We purposefully looked for a range of projects,” said Lang Ho, and added that they “all call for a way of enhancing participation, fairness, and our right to the city. Citizenship used to be tied to place, but it also encapsulated a desire to eliminate waste and garbage. Good citizenship, you could say, is about not being wasteful. You could also say that it’s about not wasting opportunities.”

I asked Lang Ho if she felt any commonalities, or “common ground” (the overall theme of this year’s Biennale) has emerged from the chosen projects. Her response: “Citizenship, equity, protest, and participation.” She pointed out that they “all call for a way of enhancing participation, fairness, and our right to the city.”

Spontaneous Interventions entrance

The entrance to the U.S. Pavilion, with Interboro’s “outdoor living room” in the foreground.

With an “outdoor living room” component designed by Interboro in front of the pavilion, and a simple banner display system created by Freecell with pulleys and ropes, Spontaneous Interventions follows the example of many of the interventions in its commitment to community space, crowdsourcing, and easily replicable design. In order to sort the projects, the curators decided to create a color-coding system to illustrate which issues each project addresses: information (dark blue); accessibility (orange); community (pink); economy (light green); sustainability (dark green); and pleasure (light blue). Each intervention then has its own bar code with bands of color for the issues it deals with, the bands being proportional to the amount of emphasis the project places on that particular theme.

David van der Leer notes that the banners offer “a way to re-identify the United States through this project.” “The banners can help guide you through the show,” he says. “They provide a new visual representation for the United States.” By a wide margin, community (pink) was the category most cited by interventionists as their main concern. “To me it shows there are some really, really engaged people, enthusiastic to make their environments better,” says van der Leer.

Spontaneous Interventions text banners

Banners showing a few of the urban interventions.

The exhibition’s website, which allows users to view all 124 projects and sort them by topic (information, community, pleasure, etc.) with a color-coded bar, reflects the organization and design of the exhibition. Lang Ho and the curators intend the site to have a life beyond Venice. According to Lang Ho, “We would like this to be an archive that grows over time, because these interventions don’t stop.” Adds van der Leer, “I hope that this website will be used by people to make their itinerary for their next trip. So you go to a city, say, San Diego, and see if there are any interventions happening there.”

It’s also possible, as Lang Ho told me, that the exhibition itself may continue on after the Biennale is over, traveling to one or more additional venues in various locales. “We’re looking into opportunities in New York and San Francisco,” said Lang Ho. “London has also asked. It’s very exciting!” It looks like Spontaneous Interventions, which brought so much of the world within gallery walls, is going back out into the world itself.

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Images: courtesy M-A-D (banners) and Interboro (pavilion entrance)