For one day in the summer of 2013, hundreds of people came together to re-invent a Vancouver street using giant blocks of recycled polystyrene. We built castles. We built walls. We built giant games and hallucinatory landscapes. Most of all, we worked and played together to transform the street into an ephemeral social machine. The day was the culmination of months of thinking, arguing, designing and dreaming by a team led largely by volunteers. We at MOV called the project Upcycled Urbanism.
For many urbanites, the landscapes we move through can feel finished, static and beyond our control. Upcycled Urbanism was initiated to empower students, artists, designers, makers, and anyone else who cared to become part of Vancouver’s evolving design culture by reimagining—and rebuilding—part of Vancouver’s public realm.
Working together, teams of participants designed and built prototypes using modular blocks of expanded polystyrene containing material salvaged from construction sites around the Lower Mainland by Mansonville Plastics.
First, students from the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA) created prototypes of building blocks. Then, at a series of workshops in the spring, teams brainstormed, sketched, and modelled how to use these blocks for wild new public design ideas. They got plenty of help from design experts from partner organizations, which included SALA, the Vancouver Public Space Network and Spacing Magazine.
Then, on July 13, we hit Granville Street. There were dozens of volunteer builders, and nearly six hundred giant blocks to play with. Our team leaders thought it would be hard to convince the public to join the build effort. Not so! Often led by their children, passers-by leapt into the design+build fray. Because the work was temporary, people took all kinds of chances with their design, using the I-beam and 3X3 blocks to make tables, pyramids, thrones, forts and surreal sculptures.
During the day, more than 1,500 people stopped to play, build, critique or take pictures. My favourite moment came during the heat of mid-afternoon. A fire alarm sounded in a nearby building, and dozens impromptu builders jumped into action, clearing the street of building blocks within seconds. It was a moment of destruction, but also of wonderful, organic teamwork by people, many of whom had begun the day as strangers. And it prepared us to start building all over again.
It all felt like play. In fact what we were doing was learning how to design and build together. We were testing the bubble-bursting potential of new forms. We were teaching ourselves not just styro-engineering, but new techniques for working together with strangers. And with every new structure, we claimed a little bit more ownership of the street.
After all the building was done, volunteers packed the polystyrene into our rented cube truck and hauled it back to Mansonville Plastics, where it was ground down and used to make new building products. The cycle was complete.
Thank you to our amazing partners and team leaders. Thank you to the members of the public who helped build a new street for a day. Thank you to the Vancouver Foundation, whose generous support helped get the project going. Thank you to MOV staff and volunteers. And thank you to Mansonville Plastics, whose recycling efforts inspired us, and whose blocks helped turn our dreams into design.
Upcycled Urbanism was a Museum of Vancouver initiative in partnership with the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA) at the University of British Columbia, the Vancouver Public Space Network, Maker Faire Vancouver, and Spacing Magazine, with generous additional support from SALA, Mansonville Plastics and the Vancouver Foundation.