Concrete solutions for hostile problems: in conversation with Phat Le and Benjamin de Boer

Friday, May 15, 2020

 

 

 

Phat Le and Benjamin de Boer took different paths to arrive at their current collaborative practice — Le is a student of architecture and de Boer is a poet. Their projects are united by their use of concrete. They embrace the material’s malleability and ubiquity, positioning it as an entry point for civic engagement. In 2016, the pair facilitated a workshop in which participants learned how to cast concrete by pouring rockite into condoms to create moulds in the shape of butt plugs. This tongue-in-cheek approach to materiality and collective action continues in Meditation in Concrete II, Le and de Boer’s latest exhibition, which opened at Alexus Projects’ Grab-a-Slice Gallery this past January. 

 

The subject of investigation this time around is hostile architecture, a concept that describes design elements that intentionally impede the use of public amenities. The middle armrests installed on many public benches are an example of this insidious strategy. Their placement prevents people from lying down or sleeping on them. Presented during Toronto’s annual design festival DesignTO, Meditations in Concrete II aimed to expose features of the city’s public space that may meet official guidelines for physical accessibility, but neglect other accessibility needs, most notably those of marginal populations like the unhoused. By highlighting these instances of hostile architecture, the exhibition  introduces tactics that challenge the opaque process of urban planning. 

 

A two-minute video that loops on a screen mounted in the upper lefthand corner of the gallery acts as the exhibition’s anchor. The piece begins with a shot of a vacant city bench, in daylight. The camera cuts to a close-up of the bench. Its middle armrest is now spray painted highlighter orange. The camera moves to a scene at night. Liquid concrete is mixed in a bucket and poured onto an uneven curb, levelling its surface. Jagged or uneven surfaces in public parks are another example of hostile architecture. As we watch the artists stir the concrete, an off-screen Le reassures us of the validity of the vandalism we’re about to become complicit in. “If anyone asks, it’s art,” he jokes. 

 

Multiple burgundy-coloured three-ring binders are scattered on tables throughout the space. Open one, and you’re confronted with case studies of hostile architecture that can be found throughout the city, including news reports and design plans from various firms. The artists have interspersed these bureaucratic documents with excerpts of spatial theory, preparatory notes, and personal musings. Each binder is  stylistically reminiscent of the auto-ethnographic scholarship of Walter Benjamin in Arcades Projects or Samuel Delany in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. The contents of the binders can also be viewed online through the gallery’s website

 

Large white banners hang in rows along one wall, each printed with phrases such as “EVERYONE DESERVES THE RIGHT TO BENEFIT FROM PUBLIC SPACE” and “SPACE IS POTENT!”. Each slogan is a call to action — a reminder that the information presented in the exhibition can and should be applied outside of the gallery. Grab-a-Slice itself is an example of the porousness between private and public space. It operates inside of and in tandem with Albany Pizza, a local pizzeria tucked next to a No Frills in a plaza on the western edge of Toronto’s Little Portugal neighborhood. When I attended a discussion between the artists and founder of urban design advocacy group #defensiveTO Cara Chellew at the gallery, the initially sparse crowd started to fill up with patrons who took their seats after peaking their heads into the conversation while grabbing a slice, tickled to find themselves unintentionally in a dual-purpose space. 


Compelled by the straightforward civic mindedness of Meditations in Concrete II, I spoke with Le and de Boer just after the exhibition closed in February, a few weeks before COVID-19 began to reconfigure our public interactions. Our discussion takes on a new dimension in light of the current pandemic, as the city grapples with a public health crisis that demands a reconsideration of how we move through the spaces that we share.

 

 

 

“When we’re talking about hostile architecture and public infrastructure, our narratives are always attached to them; there is no way that you can separate the two.” 

 

 

 

How would each of you define hostile architecture?

 

Phat Le: Hostile architecture is some work of public architecture or a work of design that purposefully impedes certain kinds of use. So for example, a piece of furniture that might block a user from performing certain actions, like benches that have curves with metal edges or pavement that has spikes that don’t allow people to sleep or walk on them.

 

Benjamin de Boer : Another name for it is defensive design. It’s a way of controlling the use of space in a particular way that coerces or limits a particular activity. It’s hostile because it stands against human occupancy and engagement, in a pretty violent way, especially when it specifically targets vulnerable people that use those places. If it’s keeping people from lying down for a long period of time or from resting comfortably on a surface, it visually signals that certain people don’t belong in a particular place. 

 

There’s duplicity in the way that cities and public planners present hostile architecture. These barriers are presented as armrests, even though they aren’t really functional as armrests. So with that duplicity, what are some strategies that the public can use to demand transparency in the design of public space?

 

B: A lot of the time redevelopment in public space is carried out in consultation with new private developments that are in close proximity. So in the course of, let’s say, a condo going up in a particular neighbourhood, public space will be developed to reflect the people they expect to bring into those neighbourhoods. All you can demand as a public, as the people who use those spaces, is clearer communication from developers. That’s hard to do. That’s hard to bring about. 

 

To address the interventions that you’ve done for the exhibition, the video piece that was created had a really DIY, guerrilla feel. I was wondering how your projects connect with different forms of intervention in public space, like graffiti, or what some people might call vandalism?

 

B: The DIY feel of the video came from the fact that we just used our phones to record it. We used the equipment that was necessary and we didn’t really consider how it looked. We just wanted to document it as quickly as possible because we were technically vandalizing a public space. We wanted to draw attention to the armrest in the middle that looks the same as the armrest on the side. We wanted to signal that its placement is the problem. By spray painting it with construction paint, it looks like something that’s being implemented by the city in the first place. The type of paint we used gets lighter in the day and it lasts a very long time. It’s meant for spray painting in construction sites. When pouring the concrete we used rockite, which is a really fast-drying type of concrete used for patching large spaces. It’s very smooth and portable. You mix it like cake batter. If you have a mould or any surface that you are pouring it onto, you mix it in the bucket it comes in, and pour it. It sets in about 15 minutes. It’s still there…they are all still there, which is really cool. 

 

P: Yeah, surprisingly – I recently went to the site where the bench is and it’s completely intact. Fun fact: rockite is stronger than concrete. It’s usually an agent to help fill cracks, so it has to be a little bit stronger. Something that we discussed afterwards was how easy it was to do. We wish we had created a list or instruction manual that could allow people to do these interventions on their own, because it’s so easy. Rather than waiting for the city to do something, it’s about taking it into our own hands. Because I don’t want to wait and I’m tired. If the city won’t do it, maybe we can.

 

Is there a way to use this strategy effectively for mobilizing a collective to intervene in instances of hostile architecture?

 

B: Maybe certain groups of people could look for and document instances of hostile architecture. People have actually started doing this. There’s an open source map on defensiveto.com that you can contribute to — if you email the contact on the website, you can send in a photo and a geo-tag of the location to help build an archive of these spaces. Certain people, if they volunteer, could use this archive to go out and make changes — maybe at night? It’s easier at night. Broad daylight might also help, or wearing safety vests, so you somehow look like you are employed by the city and sanctioned to make modifications to public spaces. It’s also important to take into consideration the people that are participating. Certain people will inevitably be targeted by surveillance and law enforcement more than others — singled out for their activity in space and called into question more readily than others. So finding ways for people to participate in a way that doesn’t necessarily put them in harm’s way is all part of it. 

 

P: On the other side of the spectrum we should be more active in the city of Toronto in terms of establishing urban design standards. Defensive TO talks about having more clear language around what accessibility is for public architecture and infrastructure. More guidelines need to be developed so there’s an understanding of what is actually accessible in the city [beyond physical accessibility]. We need architects and designers to advocate for that. 

 

 

 

 

“Rather than waiting for the city to do something, it’s about taking it into our own hands. Because I don’t want to wait, and I’m tired. If the city won’t do it, maybe we can.”

 

 

 

 

Your interventions were exhibited at Grab-a-Slice, a gallery that’s located inside of a pizza shop. How did you approach having your work presented in this dual-purpose space?

 

B: We didn’t want it to be super obstructive or to impede the regular use of [the pizza shop] too much. We wanted to use the infrastructure that was already there, like the tables. There was a wall with hooks at the top for hanging stuff. There was a TV, [where] people sit and watch news, hockey, or soccer. So instead of bringing a monitor in and mounting it on the wall, we decided to play the pretty short video that we had on that TV. 

 

P: I personally had a lot of anxieties about presenting the work in a more typical gallery. I’ve had a lot of issues feeling that these spaces are inaccessible.

 

B: They can be very alienating.

 

P: Definitely, very alienating. For us, we really enjoyed how, by virtue of the gallery being in this public/private space, we were able to reach beyond the typical gallery audience.

 

B: A lot of people in the arts community are already aware of these design choices being made in the city. It was nice to be able to present work about the general neighbourhood to the general neighbourhood. When we were mounting the show, a lot of people came in to get a beer and some pizza and we ended up having a three-hour conversation with them. They would get riled up and say, “I love that you have this show, but I also fucking hate that you have this show, because it’s getting me so pissed off about this. I used to sleep on park benches. It makes me so mad.” That’s the kind of discussion we wanted! That’s who we wanted to see the show. 

 

 

 

In lieu of an artist statement or exhibition text, there were binders that included your own statements about the project and your own research. Why did you choose that approach? Is there a connection between personal narrative and these more macro questions of hostile architecture?

 

P: The text in the binders was divided into two parts. One was predominantly written by Ben, the other by me. When we’re talking about hostile architecture and public infrastructure, our narratives are always attached to them — there is no way that you can separate the two. We wanted to show the side of our own personal narratives and how we see this project and these spaces. In addition, by flipping the pages, people could see the more research-based stuff and look at articles, sites, different city regulations, by-laws, etc. 

 

This isn’t your first time using concrete. I know that you’ve used it before to cast moulds of butt plugs. You’ve talked about concrete in this project, but I want to know more about it. Why are you drawn to it as a material and is there any connection between the butt plugs that you made in the past and this exhibition?

 

B: Phat and I have been collaborating for a while. I didn’t really know about rockite until I started hanging out with him in the architecture studio. Concrete is such a ubiquitous and bland material. It is around us everywhere you look in the city. We did a [concrete casting] workshop in 2016. We wanted to facilitate a more personal project that involved a meditative task people could do with their hands. It was funny to get a large group of people to pour concrete into condoms and make silicone moulds of something that is very personal. It’s this perverted thing of taking something that’s super impersonal and around you all the time and think about it filling a cavity in a really nasty way. (Laughter).

 

P: On one hand, it’s “let’s just make some butt plugs and have some fun!”. I think that’s part of it, but it’s also a way to collectively do a task and do it with a group of people that might not understand the process. That was the best part of the project — being around people and saying, “Yeah! Let’s teach you how to do some concrete!”. It’s often used in architecture schools. I have used it in a lot of my own projects. I love concrete. It’s different from wood, iron, or a steel beam that has a defined structure. There are many ways that you can use moulds and different techniques to shape concrete.

 

B: We hooked you in with a gimmick, a cheeky move of, “Oh, a concrete butt plug? What? I get to make one?”. Now we are training you to use these materials that you can actually implement. It’s a bit of a positive change.

 

 

 

 

Where do you think this project will go? It’s something that could continue. It’s a discussion that will continue to evolve. Do you see this project carrying forward, and if so, how? 

 

B: We sent our research book to a government worker who works with a housing-first homing initiative. We wanted to contribute to their vernacular in terms of how they talk about these types of changes that are being made in public space. On the workshop side of it, I’d love to host more workshops in the future, have people reach out and ask us to work with concrete in the city, in any capacity really. I think the more people that we talk to about it, we’ll find more ways to use it in a curious and exploratory way. 

 

 

 

The above is a conversation conducted by Toronto-based writer Cason Sharpe. Editorial Support by Shauna Jean Doherty. Transcription by Madeline Rae. Images by Phat Le and  Benjamin de Boer

 

 

 

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