The people of Madrid are taking to the streets again. Public institutions have joined forces with local action groups, as well as with residents, to reawaken public space.
“Picking the tomatoes is not really the point, it’s all the goings-on until we arrive at that tomato.” This comment by a resident of Madrid’s Villaverde district and participant in the PaisajeSur project sums up the essence of processes of collective construction of public space. Artistic interventions within this project, which is supported by the Culture Area of the Madrid City Council and coordinated by Intermediae-Matadero (a laboratory for the production of projects and social innovation) are all about processes, and they are unfinished in nature. As is the case with the landscape, which is unceasingly dynamic, the residents will give meaning to these places through their continual use of them. “What really matters is not the thing itself (the work), but what it might provoke”, says Manu, an architect in the Basurama group. It is a process that begins with a collective diagnosis, continues with a design phase and participatory construction, and then moves forward with the creation of a community of use and management that will enable the project to survive over time.
The project PaisajeSur-Autoconstruyendo Usera y Villaverde is thus an experience of participatory intervention in public space, where the landscape and art are used as tools for collective creation and bottom-up proposals. In its everyday manifestation, PaisajeSur is an open dialogue between residents, artists and groups of critical urban action and public institutions, and it is being carried out in the Madrid districts of Usera and Villaverde. Located in the southern periphery of the city, these areas have inherited certain socio-economic and urban development problems and deficits, causing a sentiment among residents that public investments do not reach them as much as they do other areas of the city that are more central geographically and/or symbolically. The project, which was launched in September 2014, seeks to reduce some of these deficiencies through the reactivation and “re-signification” of public spaces, aiming to foster resident encounters and local culture. Also, as explained by Azucena, who is leading the project on behalf of Intermediae-Matadero, these places are to become “participatory spaces for self-managed practices in neighborhoods”. To achieve this, Azucena explains, “a group of professionals in critical urban intervention was invited, so as to create a mixed team jointly with local residents’ associations”.
“Two types of projects arose, both involving urban gardens: the U of Usera and the V of Villaverde, and others we call experimental spaces of citizen cultural management, which are Cinema Usera and Comunes Villaverde”, explains Pablo, an architect at the co-working center PEC.
The U of Usera, in the garden of the San Juan de Ávila parish church, is a structure with grandstands, terracing for growing crops, a table, a frame for a vine and a Waterdrops device. “It’s not only a garden”, says Juanma from the Zofío neighborhood association. As with other community gardens that are emerging around the city, “with the pretext of planting something, they generate another kind of relations that have been mainly lost in Madrid”, notes Manu, from Basurama.
The V of Villaverde, in the Plata y Castañar park, has an experimental terrace, an elevated growing table, storage space, an observation deck and a greenhouse for seeding. “The proposal is a V, and the participatory process fills this up with a greenhouse, cabinets, terraces, and so forth,” says Manu from the multidisciplinary group Zuloark. This is, we are told by Julian from the neighborhood association La Incolora, “a long-standing neighborhood demand for the creation of a garden in the Plata y Castañar park, above all in the most derelict part”. The two interventions share a morphologic code, one in the form of a U of Usera, and the other in the form of a V of Villaverde.
Cinema Usera, set on an esplanade alongside the district police station, is an open space for film showings and other activities in the performing arts, with two sets grandstands and two benches, a stage, a screen, a container or “cultural capsule” and a BenchBox. Diego, one of the technical experts in charge, explains that “it was an unused, abandoned piece of land which, with a little work, has been revitalized as a small cinema setup”. But it is not only a cinema-based cultural space, but also a neighborhood meeting place, “like the old summertime outdoor cinemas”, says Fernando, from the Kubik Fabrik.
Concerning Comunes Villaverde, which is located in Villaverde’s main square, Laura from PEC explains that it is a “furnishing that becomes a table and a stage, so what we are doing is opening the neighborhood up to the possibility of generating activity in the square”. This intervention also has a space for exhibitions and WIFI for free Internet access. For Javier, a member of La Incolora in Villaverde, the intervention will “enable cultural activities, talks and colloquia, assemblies, participation by parents’ associations, in fact, anything”. All the interventions have reused wood from benches that had been removed from Madrid’s public spaces, thus lending the project an overall uniformity. In addition, the construction of parts has been organized in workshops, allowing for the exchange of know-how and learning between experts and residents.
Although the interventions are small-scale, it does seem possible to glean from these processes lessons and methods that can be used to foster another way of building urban public space based on collective praxis. Juanma of Zofío believes that “it is an opportunity to create places of encounter for building something more than a physical space with residents. The process was quite rich, involving a search and seeing how this could be a fit for what residents need. But the real experience is yet to come, to the extent that this generates more activity and the participation of more people. But this has now become a space that is taken notice of in the neighborhood.” It is a good example of how empowering people and generating new bonds of identity and shared responsibility among residents and their everyday places can change the value and perception of these spaces, not only in aesthetic terms, but also in terms of lived experience.
Casilda Cabrerizo Sanz has a doctorate in geography and is a Senior Technician in urbanism. She is based in Madrid. This article was translated by James Hollander.
The above post is through the MAHB’s Arts Community space –an open space for MAHB members to share, discuss, and connect with artwork processes and products pushing for change. Please visit the MAHB Arts Community to share and reflect on how art can promote critical changes in behavior and systems and contact Erika with any questions or suggestions you have regarding the space.