Berlin Lab

Buzzwords: the BMW Guggenheim Lab in Five Phrases

Curators Maria Nicanor and David Van Der Leer give their closing presentation at the BMW Guggenheim Lab

As you may have surmised from attending the past three months of programming, reading the blog, or even just glancing at the calendar, summing up all that the curators, Lab Team members, and other groups at the Lab have learned in New York is not an easy task.

It will take months of revisiting and digesting the information and ideas that flew around inside the Lab to fully grasp it all, and I look forward to seeing how the curators and team deal with this immense challenge.

Last weekend’s marathon of wrap-up events provided a good glimpse at what is to come. Over the coming weeks, I will post bites and links to more information as analysis begins to surface—such as Local Projects’ brilliant interactive checkerboard summary of data from every Urbanology game played over the course of the Lab’s run, and spurse’s Atlas of Procedures for an Emergent Commons, both to come, as well as interviews with Lab Team members, staff, and members of the community.

For the time being, I’d like to leave readers with part of just one of the final presentations given on the weekend—the five overarching themes that curators David van der Leer and Maria Nicanor noticed continuously coming up over the Lab’s course.

They stated them simply as follows:

  • A need to encourage cooperative environments
  • A rise of open-source participatory urbanism
  • A need to promote emotional cityness
  • A need to acknowledge chameleonic citizenship
  • A need to retrofit urban life

These phrases both concern and excite me.

“Emotional cityness” and “chameleonic citizenship” strike me as intentionally vague buzzwords that, quite frankly, sound fantastic but don’t really carry specific meaning, let alone concrete solutions to the problems our cities are facing today. The last thing we need is more buzzwords that allow us to talk about the problems—urban or otherwise—without really ever talking about the problems.

But buzzwords can be useful when treated as lenses, which, of course, was Maria and David’s intention with these catchall phrases. If we use those lenses enough, they begin to garner meaning.

Similarly, that which we are investigating through the lenses changes as well. Even as I look back at my own blog posts from the past three months, the ideas the Lab was exploring during that time take on a different meaning when slotted under one of David and Maria’s catchphrases.

Take the need to retrofit urban living, for example: June Williamson and Galina Tachieva talked about the need to physically retrofit our hollowed out suburban landscapes, while Charles Montgomery taught ways to retrofit our own behavior to make the city a better and happier place.

Participatory urbanism could mean ensuring equity and due consultation in urban decision making—the goal of the Hester Street Collaborative and the Center for Urban Pedagogy—or it could mean taking the system into your own hands like Tanya Fields of the food justice organization the BLK ProjeK or Dr. Dave Ores, the physician who created his own health care cooperative in the Lower East Side.

Much like the umbrella buzzword “resilience,” for example, enabled us to articulate a commonality between, say, planting trees, and maintaining diverse economies, these types of phrases can offer us the opportunity to connect ideas that have previously been disassociated. They can help us imagine possibilities that lie in connections we otherwise may not have made.

Over the next few months, before the Lab opens in Berlin, the Lab|log will further explore these lenses, and how they can be used in analyzing the city, its problems, and their solutions in our current context.

For the time being, however, I’d like to hear from you.

What do these words mean to you in the context of our cities? What do they bring to mind? Are they relevant to the issues our cities are facing, and if so, how?

. . .

Photo: Duncan Ball

  • Gil Lopez

    open source participatory urbanism brings to mind reclaiming the commons, which was discussed often by spurse during their biweekly live feeds. I think this is one of the most important things that could possibly come out of the BGLab. Actually going out into the urban environment and creating the commons, real community. This cannot be done online or in a one off or three month long program, it must be constant and sustained in the real physical world. This looks like team sport leagues, it shows up in regular potluck dinner meet-ups, it manifests itself in well attended community board, PTA and local street fair attendance. These are some of the things that we need to create comfort in the city.