The Fifth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2003
Berkeley Prize 2003

Karen Weise

Troublemakers

I think Tibor Kalman had it right. "Good designers (and writers and artists) make trouble," the maverick graphic designer once wrote. A designer should not just make a pack of cigarettes look cool or make Nike shoes into a necessity. Designers must use their power of communication towards lasting, meaningful explorations and challenges. They must provoke and anger, dismay and entice. These imperatives lay at the center of Kalman's work. He challenged the branding of consumer goods, the ethics of his viewers, and the values of his field.

Such grand ideas these all seem. But can (and do) these play out in reality? Or are they forever to remain in the realm of hopes, pushed aside by the seductive pay of corporate headquarters and fancy homes?

Bit by bit, I have come to think that a growing number of designers (and writers and artists) are finding the time and opportunity to use the power of their spatial, visual and literary languages to "make trouble." These little moments of protest and actions started calling my attention, challenging me as a viewer and designer. Browsing a newsstand and noticing a copy of Adbusters magazine, listening in art history lecture to the tales of the Gorilla Girls and Gran Fury, or driving by a small temporary kiosk built to provide shade for migrant day laborers in Southern California.

Many architecture offices find time amidst the projects for wealthy homes and company headquarters to build non-profit projects--schools, museums, and parks. These projects clearly are immanently important as cities and spaces are increasingly shaped by corporate rather than public forces. Local communities deserve the same right to intelligent, coherent, and beautiful space as any wealthy client, if not more so. Architecture firms that take up these projects balance a wide range of community concerns while working off a limited and often fluctuating budget. With the exception of the recent smattering of flashy museums, these non-profit projects often go unnoticed by the press.

While those community-based non-profit projects carry great social importance, the projects that Kalman admires depart from them in one key way: these projects are deliberately incendiary. They are intrusions in our daily landscape that demand viewers to come face to face with potent questions of power and politics. They challenge systems of race and gender, of class and capitalism. Though the projects may be temporary, their permanence resides in the conversations they ignite, in the people they anger, and in the memories they burn on the minds of their audience. To make these statements, these spatial disruptions, designers and architects buck the standard operations of design practice. They put their time, energy and money towards designing projects without individual recognition, without a clear "client," and often without funding.

These incendiary projects gained my admiration immediately, though they still seemed like far off ideals promoted by a brave few. Yet, I finally believed that rebellious design is a viable movement in the design world when I interned at an architecture firm in Los Angeles a few summers back. At the very beginning of my interview, I learned of an installation piece that the firm built four years before to protest the closure of a local park. At the cost of over $25,000, the city gated the park to keep out homeless people who turned the benches into beds at night. The designers at the firm were dismayed by the use of public funds to lock out citizens rather than meeting their basic needs. And the park closure marked a loss of public space in a city that already had the lowest ratio of public space per capita of any city in the United States. So these artists, builders and architects constructed a day-glo orange staircase over the seven-foot fence, reclaiming access to the local open space. It took the city almost a month to solder off this architectural rebellion. Their anonymous group of artists, architects, and builders took action, and I loved it. Little did I know at the time that I would end up spending my summer planning the next installation.

At the core of our project laid an abstract goal: we wanted to ignite debate about transportation and politics in Los Angeles. In our giant metropolis, like in most cities, the politics of transportation fundamentally shaped the daily experience of inhabitants. Angelenos spend hours commuting on freeways, breathe smog-filled air, and rarely interact with anyone not in a neighboring zipcode. Yet it was not always so; for years the redline cablecars in the city composed the most extensive intraurban transit system in the country, until it was systematically dismantled by a ghost consortium of automotive industry corporations. With that vibrant system long gone from the daily patterns of the city, wealthy homeowner groups consistently wield the power to stop a proposed transit line dead in its tracks and in doing so squash the opportunity for the social and economic integration that comes from health transit systems. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the progressive Bus Riders Union often fights fiercely to stop subway proposals because subway expenditures are often funded from bus fare increases, which disproportionately effect low-income residents of the city. With all of these forces swimming around the political spheres of the MTA, transit systems were essentially a dead issue in Los Angeles, a victim of brutal politics of space.

And so we dreamed up our own transit system and created "The Aqua Line." We designed a fictional subway line crossing the Westside of Los Angeles, connecting the beach in Santa Monica to the subway system downtown, providing access for the entire area to many of the city's cultural resources and connecting areas of different races and income levels. Mimicking the bureaucratic design of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, I designed eight-foot signs to be installed at seven locations along our "line." Each sign proudly announced that the subway line was "coming soon" and depicted a "route map" of this ideal transit rightaway. And on the morning one day before the Democratic Convention 2000, disguised as construction workers in trucks and hardhats, we successfully installed seven "Future Station Location" signs for the "Metro Aqua Line."

It took no time for our "information hotline"to receive messages from neighbors (who were quite concerned), local newspapers (who were quite intrigued), and MTA officials (who were quite confused). We sent copies of our "manifesto" to press outlets and people who called our hotline in order to provide an explanation of our motivations for the action, a political history of transit in the city, and a vision of the possibilities for transit in our future. Over the following weeks, talk of the Aqua Line buzzed around LA: in Los Angeles Times articles and letters to the editor, in coffee bar and yoga class conversation, and in over 200 calls to our hotline. Initially conversations questioned what exactly the Aqua Line was, but once our message got out to the wider population through the press and individual letters, people began to directly address the politics of our action. "What are you trying to do," questioned one enraged homeowner on our hotline, "ignite class warfare?" While the signs were taken down by week's end, we had indeed ignited a debate about politics and transportation. One transit advocate was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying, "They raised public awareness in such a way. It has been bubbling under the surface. It has captured the imagination of the people."

Before this experience, small moments of design interventions into the politics of space existed in an outside, idealized world for me. They were impactful when I saw them, but never lay within my reach. From afar, I admired these acts of "trouble," as Kalman would say, though I never gave serious consideration to the process of creating them. Yet with the Aqua Line, I learned of intricate planning and secrecy tactics, of display design and manifesto writing, and of effective presentations and group facilitation. No longer did I have to take a leap of faith to believe Kalman's words. I knew architects and designers could "make trouble" because I had become a trouble maker.


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Karen Weise, Yale University, USA
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