Thursday24 July 2014

Centre for Urban Pedagogy

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Damon Rich sees the urban designer as the ’cheerleader of local democracy’. Levent Kerimol heard him speak at the AA and Architecture Foundation last week


Centre for Urban Pedagogy
Architectural Association and
Architecture Foundation
February 1 and 2

Last week, London played host to two lectures by Damon Rich, one of the recent pioneers of critically engaged urban practice. The first took place at the Architectural Association, where Rich crafted an intellectual and searching narrative drawing on the work of the Centre for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), which he founded some 10 years ago, and his current role as urban design officer in the City of Newark, New Jersey.

Rich traced the work of CUP with young people and community groups exploring and understanding the processes of urban change. Effortlessly swerving between historical episodes of racial politics and community campaigns in the States and 1970s art movements of institutional critique, including artists such as Hans Haacke, he focused on recent exhibitions and programmes on the role of finance in the built environment.

The transfer of his impressive experience into the local government of Newark proved most inspirational. As a public sector design professional, much of his daily work was similar to roles in Britain, which he characterised variously as a “neighbourhood mechanic” making the city work better, and a “noodge” annoying or charming developers to reconfigure car parks or improve the quality of facade materials on budget hotels. But Rich infused this desire to “get things done” and secure funding for riverfront open space projects with the conception of urban designer as a “cheerleader of local democracy”. By reformatting the attitudes and preoccupations of CUP, and making engagement and co-design a central part of urban change, rather than a luxury addition, Rich attempts to change the way people relate to their own city, while changing the physical reality of the city too.

Rich makes engagement and co-design a central part of urban change

The following evening at the Architecture Foundation, Rich focused on the evolution of the Centre for Urban Pedagogy from one-off collaborations into a formal not-for-profit organisation, with a director and board structure. It has, however, managed to maintain the biting criticality of its early work with high school students absent in so much engagement with young people today. Interviews with decision-makers and developers draw out frank responses, and are followed by sessions where students imitate the body language of the protagonists.

Programmes such as “making policy public” position the organisation as an intermediary, helping community advocates reveal issues through the use of design. Examples include practical guides to regulations affecting street vendors (“because cops often get it wrong”), guides to the juvenile justice system, and toolkits to help communities understand and discuss affordable housing policy or development in their area.

The talk was a promising start to a series of events at the Architecture Foundation, which will be followed by presentations from similar organisations based in Los Angeles and Chicago, taking place during an exhibition of their work. The venue also proved to be a more fruitful setting for discussion into the growing movement of “do-gooding” in architecture, and the way in which it is increasingly embraced by mainstream activity, particularly in the USA.

For Rich, this valorisation could only be a positive thing, although it was still only “a drop in the bucket”. The risk would be that these marginal efforts come to obscure the crassness of “business as usual”, making it seem more acceptable.





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