28 November 2009

Case study: the bricks of urban life

1. The basic unit

This 9-second high speed footage corresponds to a shop across the street from aaa's project in Eastern Paris. As we can see, shops are multifunctional places in many cultures: they serve as business and income source for one or two families, while at the same time being the place where friends and strangers alike meet.

Here, the youths can meet their peers; the lady of the family can meet other housewives and discuss community issues, or the old men can sit in front of the shop and play a game of backgammon or chess.

A good share of urban life takes places in the vecinity of the shop. Shops are often businesses, but also they are reasons for people to see other people, and to be seen by others. There was a café just in the corner in front of where this video was taken, and several of us visited this café, which in turn served as a scenario for the locals to ask us where we came from, what we were doing there, etc., and for us to inquire about the local life.

Hence, different shops conform commercial (and unquestionably cultural) the threads that constitute the fabric of social life in communities across the world.

2. More than the sum of its parts

In many cultures around the world, shops of different character size and character come together. This situation takes different names around the world: "tianguis" in Mexico, "bazaar" in countries of muslim tradition, etc. While each variety has its distinctive characteristic, I would like to point out that they all tend to stage a very rich urban life. Tianguis tend to be highly self-organized, and the people that live and work in them often tend to develop stronger social and emotional bonds. In bazaars, for example, one can find anything from food to tin works, and they often occupy several blocks or streets, but they can also travel to other towns and function in open spaces.

The internal organization of these market-like structures tends to be non-linear, and it is actually quite rhyzomatic: a used book shop can stand next to a cartoon artist selling their work. Food products are found easily, but not confined to a specific space.

Besides places for making a living, these market places also stage a great deal of cultural life: the Mercado Central de Guatemala is a good place for finding typical foods such as fiambre or cocido, while in the Bazaar of Tabriz in Iran one can actually find mosques.

3. Useful concepts

Mosaïc-like spatial and activity structure: the more you zoom in, the more details you find. Bazaars and other similar structures are organized like patchwork, where any part can be replaced by any other and movement is fluid in all directions.

Self-organization: trusting people is basic in any kind of group effort. Only when people feel trusted to do their best, will they perform at their prime. These kind of social structures are self-organizing, and while at first it may seem like they live in anarchy, it's what people don't see, that makes the whole organization work finely tuned.

Versatility: new functions can be adapted to the spaces, according to what's necessary. During harvest season it's possible to find more vegetables, while during the wintertime other situations take place. Additionally, every person is entitled to their share of the space, rendering the concept a very inclusive one (this point is strongly related to the mosaïc structure, mentioned before). Hence, the space can adapt to each and every person, and every person can adapt to the space.

Multifunctionalism: it is a place for commerce. It is a place for culture. It is a place for social life. It is a place for...

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