NORTH AMERICAN DOWNTOWNS ARE BACK, after decades of depopulation and decay. But this shift has raised some existential questions, according to Mouna Andraos.
“People are looking again at their downtowns, at the hearts of their cities, and saying OK, we have these areas, what’s their future?’” she says. “‘How do we revitalize them? How do we make them part of our everyday lives again?’”
That intersection — of the philosophical and the practical — forms the core of Andraos’s work. A self-described “experience designer,” Andraos is co-founder of Daily tous les jours. The Montréal-based design studio creates temporary installations for public spaces. Its goal? To spur conversations and interactions between people.
One time, she created a museum hotline for people to ask experts questions about art. Another time, she built a field of microphones for huge group sing-a-longs at a state fair. A recent installation at a new bank invites passersby to finish the sentence, “We want to have a conversation about…” by texting from their phones. The suggestions appeared in letters on the glass wall of the bank.
The swings in 21 Swings make musical tones; when multiple people swing at the same time they create a musical composition.
“I’ve always been interested in new technologies as a means to communicate and get people engaged, ” Andraos says. But while many projects take advantage of technology, it’s not the focal point. The fancy projections and tools, Andraos says, simply pull people together. “We focus on trying to put people in relationship with each other,” she says. It’s a creative lure to the commons.
One project that has been especially successful is 21 Swings, built in Montréal in 2011. The outdoor installation is made up of swing sets that generate musical tones. When multiple swings are used at the same time, they create a musical composition. But the melodies only reveal themselves when enough people swing together, encouraging cooperation and collective creation. (It will be reinstalled in Colorado this summer.)
Montréal has been a good laboratory for these projects. The city has supported the firm’s ideas, and hasn’t been afraid to try new things, Andraos says.
But she’s seeing the same positive response from other cities, such as London, Paris, Seattle, Portland, and St. Paul, Minnesota. More and more, Andraos says, mayors, planners and economic developers are drawn to these types of projects. “I think there’s a trend for city officials … to think about these strategies to activate spaces, have people care about these places, create opportunities for a mix of populations to come into contact with each other and continue to think about what it means to live in the city,” Andraos says.
Lots of microphones + lots of people = lots of karaoke
But regulations, legal issues, and engineering problems have been stumbling blocks. And the sheer unconventional-ness of some of her work is its own challenge. “We try to say, ‘OK, this doesn’t fit into any category. Let’s try to invent a way to do this together’,” Andraos says.
The temporary nature of the firm’s projects give them cachet, forcing people to see the project before it disappears. It also makes them easier to pull off because there’s no permanent change that might trigger opposition. “The temporary allows us to fit in the cracks,” she says.
Still, she has aspirations to create work with a longer-lasting impact. “In the long run hopefully some of these things can become permanent,” Andraos says. “Doing temporary work right now is a way to iterate, test and be out there.”
This story is part of a series of Citiscope profiles on urban innovators from Montréal to New Delhi who are improving lives, designs and fortunes in their cities. All are speaking at the New Cities Foundation’s 2014 New Cities Summit in Dallas from June 17-19, attended by urban leaders from around the world. Read the profiles here. And see Mouna’s presentation in the video below.