Something to talk about: Why playful public spaces inspire serious connection
The Montreal-based design studio Daily tous les jours has delighted cities across the world with their whimsical, public installations — from swings that make music to amplifiers that let you whisper sweet nothings to trees. But while these projects may be playful, they have serious ambitions.
“We try to not use the word ‘play’ in our work,” says Daily co-founder Mouna Andraos. “Often play is considered as an end, whereas for us it’s one means amongst many others that we use to create active vibrant spaces.”
For Andraos and her colleagues Pierre Thirion and Rebecca Taylor, fun is just the first step. Each project is a “device” meant to get people talking and, hopefully, connecting — to each other and their environment.
The three designers sat down with Sidewalk Talk to discuss the importance of public space, how technology can (and can’t) facilitate collaboration, and the ideas that informed their design of our Toronto workspace, 307.
Your firm has focused on projects situated in public spaces — why?
Mouna Andraos: We started the studio with an interest in connecting people with each other and with their environment. And so, pretty early on in the studio’s life, we took our work out into the streets, to be where the public was. And through that process, we became passionate about public spaces as places that are neutral, where people of different backgrounds, different ages, different points of view can connect with each other.
Often we say that our projects are complicated devices to try to get people to talk. They’re really conversation starters and enablers. We are passionate about offering good contexts for quality conversations to occur between people who wouldn’t necessarily have come across each other in the normal plan of their life.
Mouna, you described your work as “complicated devices” to get people to talk. Do you feel like we need these devices to connect with each other now?
Mouna Andraos: Of course there are some contexts in which people naturally would connect with each other, but increasingly we’re each in our own world and communities, and we don’t necessarily have many opportunities in our daily lives to interact with people from different spheres of life in the world. And public space offers that opportunity. We’re trying to build on top of that tradition — and to somehow preserve it.
Pierre Thirion: Technology is facilitating the way we communicate with each other and connect with each other, but online, in invisible spaces. Part of the work that we do is to bring these conversations out, visibly, where they become more tangible and really part of everyday life in the city.
Could you tell me about 21 balançoires, the Musical Swings in Montreal? What was the idea behind this project?
Mouna Andraos: It was a commission by the Partenariat du Quartier des Spectacles, who are responsible for this area of downtown Montreal, to animate a place and open it up to the public after a few years of construction.
We try to work with whatever assets are available in a place, to reveal the fabric of the population that surrounds it. So we reached out to a musician [Radwan Ghazi Moumneh], sort of representing the Place des Arts next to to the site, as well as a science professor from the UQÀM faculty next to the installation [Luc-Alain Girladeau], and brainstormed together. We were inspired by the professor’s study of animal behaviors and cooperation and created a large-scale human cooperative instrument, a musical cooperative instrument, with the swings.
It was meant to be presented only once, but thanks to the public really adopting it as part of their everyday life, it’s become an icon for the city and come back for the last eight years now, and has definitely inspired us to pursue more of these types of projects.
Would you consider it one of your most successful projects?
Mouna Andraos: It is our most visible project, the one that we’ve been running for the longest. It’s the project that has helped us communicate what it is that we do and why we do it.
Rebecca Taylor: One of the projects that we’ve heard a lot of great feedback on is a project called Hello Trees in Houston, Texas in a park called Discovery Green Park.
In the heart of Discovery Green is this long promenade of 100 year old oak trees that became the starting point for our work. We created a sequence of arches under the trees, with a series of lights activated by sound, and people get to drop in messages at each end of the arches that slowly transform into music for the trees. The messages travel along the arches and interact both with people and with the environment. This was a really exciting project for us where, yes, you are connecting to other people but it’s also a commentary on the relationship between people and nature in the city.
When you are thinking about what counts as success with these projects, what’s your metric?
Pierre Thirion: The diversity of the crowd that interacts with the project is one of the metrics. Most of our projects have playful interfaces, which we use as an entry point to make them accessible to not only kids but a variety of people from all ages and backgrounds.
Mouna Andraos: We gather some data. A lot of our work has embedded technology, so we know what was used most and at what moment. And then more qualitative information comes from on-site observation, feedback.
In the case of the Musical Swings, when we toured them in the US, we had support from the Knight Foundation. Thanks to that we were able to hire a third party to do a study and really go in depth into social and economic impact. The installation, a large-scale temporary artwork, paid for itself three and a half times. But more importantly, they asked about 900 people for three keywords that came to mind after being around or on one of the Musical Swings, and nine out of ten used the word “happy.” So little things like that tell us, okay, we have to keep going if we can contribute to a little bit of happiness.
They also reported that 30 percent of people spoke to a stranger as part of their experience. These are the things that get us excited.
Those are amazing results, which may have to do with how playful your work is.
Pierre Thirion: We try to create the infrastructure to create pleasant memories. But we’re also purposely designing excuses for people to bump into each other, to collaborate, to achieve something. So the invitations are playful, but they’re a means to an end: getting you to connect with what’s around you.
Mouna Andraos: One of the mottos of the studio is that we can achieve more together than alone. And so every one of our projects and installations is a small metaphor or example for how that can be accomplished.
In the context of the Musical Swings, if you swing alone, you make music. If you swing in synchronicity with your neighbors, you create more harmonies. As in life, if we work with each other, we can accomplish greater things.
I’ve noticed that you sometimes incorporate technology in your projects, but it’s never the focus of your work. When do you go for a “high tech solution” and when do you go for a low tech solution?
Mouna Andraos: I don’t think there’s a rule, really. We definitely love the power that technology has to create magic and enchantment. But screens often require attention, which makes it a little bit harder to have a more 360 awareness, including an awareness of people.
This is why we often resort to music. You can be listening and making music, but much more aware of what’s around you.
Pierre Thirion: Also, lots of technology in public spaces can become overwhelming. And with a more low-fi or analog approach, you open the door to people who are not necessarily technologically savvy.
Mouna Andraos: For [Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto HQ,] 307, we went with the low-fi playing cards for multiple reasons. First of all, we wanted to provide a little bit of a tactile physical experience and interaction, and not be exclusively screen-based. They’re something you can touch, you can play with. You can shuffle them around, see people’s ideas.
Pierre Thirion: It really feels like you’re part of the thinking and designing process, that you’re contributing to something that’s in flux and that is not engraved in stone.
Rebecca Taylor: Paper is used to invite you to respond to what’s happening in the space. It gives people a chance to leave a certain trace in the space. Whether it’s through the cards or through the stackable blocks or through the stairs on wheels, there’s lots of ways to make the space your own.
Hopefully we managed to create this colorful yet pragmatic combination of tools and objects that gets people excited and brings them into the conversation, and that will hopefully lead to useful feedback for Sidewalk.
What about the map game that you created for the city of Montreal? That project seems to balance a high and low tech approach very well.
Pierre Thirion: It was a physical interactive map of Montreal; people had to work together to move a marble around a large-scale map of the city to trigger animations, presenting a variety of local initiatives using data to improve civic life. What was interesting for us was making it collaborative and inviting for different people. It’s not just a screen, but something that people can physically touch and move, and that becomes a conversation starter.
Mouna Andraos: The original commission was from the smart city group at the city of Montreal. A lot of our own work has been looking at: what is the smart city conversation about? And can we contribute our own vision, where technology helps connect people with each other and with their environment?
And so, in that case, for the smart city conference, there was a lot of talk of: can we make this marble game completely virtual? And we were like, “No!”
Pierre Thirion: On a poetic level, you needed people moving the table together to really achieve things.
That definitely resonates with Sidewalk Labs; so much of our work is about not technology for technology’s sake, but using technology to better physical spaces and experiences. So did that experience inspire your development of the generative map at 307?
Mouna Andraos: For the generative map, there was an internal tool [developed by KPF for Sidewalk Labs] that was very powerful — probably five years ago we couldn’t have imagined having these tools to help design and optimize how we envision the future of our city.
I think our fascination with the power of technology has also been accompanied by a desire to make it understandable and accessible, to democratize it. So we were really excited about making something so powerful accessible to the general public, and that way, hopefully amplifying the conversation about the potential and usage of a tool like that.
But even then, we were like, “we need big knobs!” It can’t just be a big touch screen; you need to connect and put a little bit of yourself into these interfaces.
Pierre Thirion: It should be a magnet for collaboration. Turning the control of the generative map into multiple controls makes it available for more than one person at a time — and ultimately, encourage exchanges and conversations about the future of cities and the role of technology in them
Do you think the generative map could become an urban planning tool, which urban planners could use to gauge a community’s priorities for these kinds of projects?
Mouna Andraos: Definitely, we can imagine a future in which these tools continue to evolve, to better a conversation that has been difficult sometimes, between the policy maker, the urbanist, and the general population. With these tools, we can raise the levels of literacy within the general public so they can contribute at a level that becomes productive. And we can make our cities evolve through that dialogue. I think technology can be an enabler for that.
September 6, 2018