Active Urbanism: Mobile Markets

Project: Active Urbanism – Spatial Agency in Relation to Mobile Markets
Date: Fall 2014
Professor: Antje Steinmuller
Class: UR Elective Seminar

In cooperation with OFF THE GRID.

“(Social) space is a (social) product.”
(Henri Lefebvre)

This seminar is concerned with the production of public space as social space through temporary interventions in the city. Henri Lefebvre describes social space as dynamic: a shared enterprise whose conditions change through contributions and configurations of professionals as much as users. The implication is that a multitude of actors are involved in its production, and that this production unfolds in time. Social space is inherently political, the site of shifting territorial control, producing different conditions of integration, interaction and isolation. Rather than understanding social interaction against a rigid backdrop of the physical urban conditions formed by architecture (and architects), the seminar is interested in the interdependent dynamism that unfolds between the agency (of people) and the spatial structure they operate in. “Spatial agency implies that action to engage transformatively with structure is possible, but will only be effective if one is alert to the constraints and opportunities that the structure presents.” Taking on San Francisco’s food truck-based markets, as a manifestation of temporary social space, this seminar explores the layers and scales of their physical definition (hardware), as well as the dynamic interactions of those programming and using the space (its software and orgware) with the goal to develop mobile social infrastructures that catalyze new urban conditions and events for these markets.

Mobile markets have been a great success across the Bay Area. Over time, the markets have grown in frequency, location and size. The main assignment for this seminar takes a close look at the nature of these markets – as pop-up pods serving a quick lunch, or as destination events in spectacular environments, augmented by music and projection, where people meet friends and spend several hours – in order to investigate concepts and propotypes for a flexible, mobile ‘infrastructure’. The term ‘infrastructure’, by definition, describes the physical and organizational structure needed for the operation of an event or place. It can be seen as a set of interconnected elements that provide a framework within which something can develop – a structure that catalyzes both immediate interaction as well as transformation over time. The first module serves to build a shared knowledge base on contemporary (and traditional) ways in which food is a generator of social interaction in the public space of our cities. In many cultures, weekly or daily open air markets have brought people together for centuries. Similarly, individual food stands along streets, parks and corners have attracted changing clusters of people long before the term “pop-up” was coined. Taco- and ice-cream trucks have been distributing food for decades, and small crowds gather spontaneously when they make they announce their presence. The recent surge in food truck-based markets and events capitalizes on, and combines aspects of these familiar urban rituals. In the process, new patterns of use, interaction, expectations, needs, urban phenomena and subtle differences are emerging. Comparative observations from a broad range of examples will generate ideas and question about what a new type of social infrastructure for a contemporary food-truck market could be.

The seminar is partnering with San Francisco’s OFF THE GRID food truck markets in the framework of an ENGAGE seminar: ENGAGE at CCA is a program of the Center for Art and Public Life – its courses partner students with organizations to identify and address a specific need, allowing students to apply critical, creative problem-solving toward real-world resolutions. OFF THE GRID’s weekly food truck markets have been activating urban spaces around the Bay Area since 2010, aiming to connect people and build communities. This collaboration between CCA and OFF THE GRID investigates methods and potentials of intensifying the shared sense of place created by the food truck markets in their transformation from spontaneous pop-up events to regular events and destinations in the city.

Students will be expected to engage in three types of work during the semester: An analytical component of the seminar will require research skills, critical thinking and the ability to define appropriate visualization methods to investigate and document street food related events. This phase culminates in a collectively produced base document for subsequent design work. During the design phase, students will develop propositions for flexible mobile food market infrastructure such as seating, lighting, way-finding etc. through the lens of specific construction methods that lend themselves to temporary deployment and quick set-up. The seminar is supported by a series of guest lectures, reading assignments and discussion sessions. The design process will include client feedback from members of OFF THE GRID and the Center for Art and Public Life, and culminate in a final presentation of the at Fort Mason Center where OFF THE GRID’s headquarters are located. The research and proposals produced in this seminar will be further developed in a Design-Build seminar run by Mauricio Soto in Spring 2015. As a consequence, the work produced in this class has the potential to be selected for realization, and to impact longer-term plans for the deployment of food truck markets. At the end of the semester, all work will be collected into a final design / research catalog for OFF THE GRID.

Title image: student work by Weichung Joong and Betty Nip