December 4, 2018 \ Studio
by David Page
Multi-disciplinary artist and photographer Dan Dubowitz used the platform of guest speaker to great effect, shaking up our Monday morning with some provocative thoughts.
Part of our Inside/Out series of Monday morning talks, in which internal and external guest speakers alternate to share insight on a range of subjects and personal passions.
Currently postgraduate programme leader at the GSA, Dan has worked in and around Glasgow since 1995, from early installations to raise awareness of our wastelands (with an unforgettable cast of orange mannequins), to working in partnership with the master-planning team and selected architects at Crown Street. There followed further ‘wasteland’ projects in Sunderland and Ancoats in Manchester, now in parallel with the concept of a ‘cultural masterplan’. Here, Dan developed distinctive spyhole windows into the past, called ‘Peeps’, and a series of roaming gardens on wheels.
A sojourn in Italy stimulated Dan’s exploration of different wastelands – those leftover from political visions and mega-structural developments. The first explored the residual fabric of the state-funded beach resorts of Fascist Italy, and a second delved into the now jungle-engulfed ‘Fordlandia’, capitalist Henry Ford’s dream of building a community from scratch in the middle of the Amazon. Finally, the ‘underline’ project took a literal look underneath Glasgow’s post-war roads building programme.
In each of these instances, Dan recognised the sequential process of initial top-down visioning, investment, then drying up, and fading to ruin. Dan spoke passionately about what might follow – the chance to continue the story through cultural masterplanning and community activity, albeit with the acknowledgement that harsh reality often re-emerges to obstruct. As a remedy to this, he proposed a series of experiments: from the ‘community of interest walk’, a shared exploration of the place in question, to formalisation of the cultural brief ahead of the start of any project, a means to avoid the same cyclical traps.
Reflecting on his experiences, Dan raised the question: “who is the architect for, and what should the architect be doing?”.
As a first response he suggested we adopt four attitudes:
1. The need to be sensitive to issues of ‘identity’, as by the very act of constructing or changing places we alter their identity.
2. Be aware of ‘reciprocity’ in the relationship between people and place.
3. To act you need to be socially and politically aware and engaged.
4. In this process, do not be frightened of being in the ’avant-garde’. Visioning should be the purview of community, rather than authority.
Dan’s twenty-year exploration of wastelands is reaching a necessary catharsis, where documentation and experimentation are formalised into a theoretical stance on the practice of participative processes to shape environments. Not that he be alone in the history of recording consistent activity. Patrick Geddes’ publications on the regeneration of aging cities, Christopher Alexander’s attempt to describe the social fabric of collective living, Camillio Sitte’s studies into the appropriate physical form of civic life, Jan Gehl’s exploration of the urban streetscape, and Cedric Price’s urbanism of the future are all models for following a focussed, yet abundantly fruitful line of thought then advocacy.
You can read more about Dan’s work and process at his website: www.dandubowitz.net
Header photo: Fordlandia Photographic Series. Credit: Dan Dubowitz