Interstitial landscapes as resources –

A few thoughts about a tactical approach to urban intervention [1]

Luc Lévesque 

Reducing the landscape to an idealised modality of nature or built heritage is to forget that its history is inherently linked to the progressive taming of the most inhospitable places. Forest, mountains, seas and deserts haven’t always been considered as landscapes. Aren’t the real territories to explore today the ones that we don’t see simply because of our immersion in them – these extensive lands of the urban?  At a time when we don’t exactly know  how to deal with the various phenomena that transformed the urban substance, the concept of landscape, as a cultural construct,  liberates a zone of indecisiveness that allows us to think about the potentials generated by a multi-layered reality [2] .

It is from this perspective that the “interstitial landscape” draws our interest. In urban sociology the expression “interstice” is currently used to describe places of “otherness” and informal practices [3] . The interstice can  also be defined as a space without precise use, located for an indeterminate period of time between functionally determined built configurations. The interstice speaks about porosity. The pore is both cavity and passage, a place propitious to the development of processes that escape control and contaminate normative representation. In a world more and more mediated  and virtualised, the interstitial condition notably offers the possibility to learn from the experience of a new type of wilderness – the raw reality of an impure urban wilderness. In following this thread, the interstitial landscape constitutes a resource for experimentation and, in itself, an experiment [4] . This observation calls for approaches to urban intervention that focus less on imposing order than on inflecting the existing dynamics with a tact similar to the one  of acupuncture.

The tactic [5] of furniture punctuation constitutes an example of intervention which follows this path. What is specifically interesting about furniture is  less the sophistication of its design than its capacity, through strategic positioning, to generate a field of interrelations and situations that may enrich urbanity [6] . Furniture as a minimal and potentially nomadic dwelling unit (as the French term “mobilier”  expresses it more clearly by directly referring to the idea of mobility) seems to us indeed an interesting tool for taming the interstitial without denying its peculiarities or, as Paul Virilio puts it, to incite urbanites “to inhabit the inhabitual” [7] . Viewed from that angle, a simple generic picnic table can be the vector of unsuspected urban experiences. Thus, a moving network of  picnic tables infiltrating the city’s interstices could be an example of an alternative way to deal with the question of urban spaces in a context of incertitude and transformation.

The Hypothèses d’amarrages ( Mooring hypothesis ) project, ongoing since May 2001 in Montreal,  concretely explores this conceptual framework. Starting off with the fact that residual space is produced and abandoned by contemporary urbanisation,  that much of it will not be developed in a near future and, also, that many of these sites have spatial and landscape qualities favourable to temporary occupation, the first phase of the project proposed using picnic tables to squat an array of selected interstitial sites of the Montreal Metropolitan area. These sites vary in nature : industrial fallowlands, vacant lots, road leftovers, aseptic public green space, etc. Their legal status is either public or private. The intention of the intervention  is to exploit the potential of these forgotten, trivialised or underused  spaces to offer to urbanites new possibilities of interaction with the urban landscape. These are, for example, uncommon views toward the city, other kind of temporal and sensitive experiences, opportunities to tame  fragments of the urban wilderness and chances to reinvent, more freely, urban attitudes outside preconceived representations and organised entertainment. The picnic table constitutes a generic form of furniture opened to a large spectrum of possible uses, occupations and experiences. The picnic tables of Hypothèses d’amarrages constitute a moving network that infiltrate the city by its interstices, offering, in a context of uncertainty and transformation, an alternative or a complement to the often static way of dealing with urban spaces in  traditional monumental approaches. They form probes that witness the “spacing” [8] to find and to exploit in the spatio-temporal system of the existing city. Among the twenty tables that were installed without authorisation in the summer 2001, more than the half are still used on their site after nearly two years. The ones that disappeared are probably used elsewhere. Finally, the project Hypothèses d’amarrages exploits an operational field inherent to the concept of landscape but often forgotten :  the fact that an intervention can or could, in many cases, limit itself to almost nothing, that the existing conditions conceal potentials that can be made visible or accessible by discreet, almost immaterial, gestures.

Luc Lévesque, 2001-2003

[1] This text is  has been a part of  our contribution to the UIA Berlin, 2002 – XXI World Congress of Architecture.

[2] See : Luc Lévesque, « Hyperpaysages : à l’affut de territoires réticulaires et mentaux », in CV photo, no 54, Montréal, 2001, pp. 5-6.

[3] See :  Frederick M. Trasher, The Gang. A study of 1313 gangs in Chicago, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press (1927), abridged edition 1963, p. 20 ;  Jean Remy et Liane Voyé, Ville, ordre et violence, Paris, PUF, 1981, p. 71;  Nicolas Bourriaud, Esthétique relationnelle, Paris, Les presses du réel, 1998, pp. 14-16.

[4] See : Mirko Zardini, « The prevalence of landscape », in  Nuevos paisajes/ New landscapes,  Barcelone, Museu d’art Contemporani, ACTAR,  juillet 1997, pp. 203-209;  Ignasi Sola-Morales, « Terrain vague », in Anyplace (Montréal), Anyone Corporation (New York), Cambridge, Londres, MIT Press, 1995, p. 118-123 and Architectures in Cities. Present and Futures, Barcelone, UIA Barcelona, 1996, pp. 21-23, 266-309.

[5] About the notion of tactic, see : Michel de Certeau, L’invention du quotidien (Arts de faire I), Paris, Union Générale d’Éditions, 1980, I, chap. 3, pp. 19-23/ 82-94. Sanford Kwinter, Architectures of Time, MIT Press, 2001, p. 122-123.

[6] See : Luc Lévesque, « Montréal, L’informe urbanité des terrains vagues. Pour une gestion créatrice du mobilier urbain », Les Annales de la recherche urbaine, no 85, Paris, pp. 47-57.

[7] Paul Virilio, L’insécurité du territoire, Paris, Stock, 1976, pp.199-208.

[8] About the notion of “spacing” (from the French “espacement”), see : John Rajchman, «A New Pragmatism?» in Cynthia Davidson (dir.), Anyhow,  New York, Cambridge (Mass.), Anyone Corp., MIT Press, 1998, p.212-217.