New housing development stands in place of the demolished Lenton Flats. Photo: Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad, 2017

Making Place: Research & Design
Rebecca Beinart in conversation with Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad

RB: We’re starting the research process for Making Place and I wanted to talk about some of the ideas behind the project – about public space, and community-led processes of design, intervention or imagination. I wanted to ask about some of the approaches you might bring into the research process. To start, why are you critical of conventional forms of public consultation and what you mean by ‘alternative consultation’?

BH-N: I think consultation has to be designed in relation to an actual geography, community and history – so every consultation process has to be very specific. The standardised consultation processes I’ve been involved in tend to get very short-term responses, not long-term thinking. Dog shit it a classic example – it’s about the now, it’s about what’s happening outside the door – which is good, but it’s often the explicit and visible, not the invisible stuff.

RB: When you talk about the invisible stuff, what do you mean?

BH-N: Relational things – the relationship between one community to another, or a community to a space – and how we create better relationships. The problem I find with the type of consultation processes we see today is that we are so entangled in the complexities of everydayness that it’s very difficult to see and articulate things like relations. You become blinded to it because you’re so much a part of it. So I think consultation has to have a critical aspect to it – so that we become more aware of what we’re doing, who we are, and how we want things to be.

RB: Do you have any examples of how that happens?

BH-N: I am currently researching the role of defamiliarisation as a critical tool within participatory modes of design. In that, by defamiliarising or making unfamiliar/strange an environment or situation, then you’re able to criticality assess it, or think about it differently. That’s really important. I think that that is never really the case with consultation as we know it. This idea of defamiliarisation is about being able to see something for the first time. So if publics are able to see their neighbourhood as if for the first time then they are more likely to challenge preconceived conventions whether political, relational, spatial so on. New surprises may lead to new questions.

RB: You talk about defamiliarising – can you give some examples?

BH-N: I was asked to design a consultation event with Westminster Council, and I worked with three theatre actors. We devised four sets – each one informed by salient concerns from previous consultation reports, and recreated locations and situations in the neighbourhood. Waiting for a bus, being served at a café, etc. The actors would invite people into these sets, and throw questions at them in a very dialogic way. The whole idea was to break consultation down into small talk, turning an everyday scenario into a set in order to unpack it.

Westbourne Forum Neighbourhood Plan Fair, Paddington, London. Photo: Philip Wolmuth, 2016

RB: The starting points for Making Place have come out of work we’ve been doing over the past two years in this neighbourhood, and some of the questions that come up repeatedly through different projects and people we’ve worked with. One of those is about histories and inheritance – what’s visible in a neighbourhood now, compared to all of the different lives that have moved through this place – and what has disappeared or been erased. When we were working with Sonya Dyer she was asking ‘Who imagines the Future?’ That’s a question that’s stayed with me – who has the right to imagine, and whose imaginings get turned into something. Through this project I want to ask who imagines the city?

BHN: We all have the ability and the right to imagine. But of course this inherent ability and right is stifled if not nurtured and exercised. If we think of imagination in relation to invitation, then we can maybe begin to map the spaces, situations and processes that invite or afford imagination. The permissive nature of ‘play’ is something that I am interested in purely for this reason. It provides the conditions and tools to imagine. With imagining comes invitation and with invitation, promise. But unlike free-play is an end and purpose in itself, the promise is something to consider in inviting others to imagine, especially when we are talking about design which proposes a ‘better’ alternative. How many times can you imagine before you’re fatigued? Like consultation.

RB: It needs to manifest in something.

BH-N: Yes, whether it’s imagination towards making a preferable something or as a way to come together.

RB: I think if you’re involved in a process when you’re making art or a creative outcome together, then it’s relatively within our power (and resource) as a small arts organisation to manifest things. If you’re talking about imagination as a way to transform an area of the city or change housing policy its more difficult to manifest.

BH-N: Sure, but on a community level – for people to imagine collectively brings a better understanding of peoples’ desires. So I think that imagination can be very functional on that level, on a relational level. That’s when it becomes interesting. It’s like collective decision making. My interest in participatory design, where it’s inherently dialogic – it requires iteration and feedback loops and gets more and more complex and rich as it evolves as a process.

RB: I know you’ve done research about citizen-led projects and grassroots solutions in Nottingham. It’s something I’m really excited about digging into, the rich history of alternative practices. BH: I found out a lot about the Hyson Green Workshops through a research project with New Art Exchange. It started with curiosity and chance when I saw a glimpse of the story in an old documentary – about these independent workshops set up by residents of the Hyson Green Flats, to make use of derelict garages. I eventually tracked down Robin Robinson, who was in the video, and found out as much as I could first hand. It was a very rich history but also a very strong attitude from particular residents and groups at the time.

RB: What can we learn from these histories now?

BH-N: They were very creative in the way they were rethinking existing and developing new communication channels and consulting their neighbours – through newspapers and networks of ‘block sitters’. We can definitely learn from these things. That’s why the research captured my imagination – I could see history and imagine the future, and that’s really exciting. What was the interesting thing for me about that project was the relationship between the University and the immediate neighbourhood – and that’s how the project came to be. One of the professors from the planning and urban studies department by the name of Bryan Moore went into Hyson Green to check the damp levels as a case study with his students. Robin and the Hyson Green Development Tenants’ Association (HGDTA) hijacked this damp investigation and got him involved in designing the workshop units with them. The relationship soon went from a conversation to going to the EU parliament at Brussels and making this thing happen. So I’m also interested in collaborations between neighbours, and by neighbours I also mean individuals and organisations formal and informal.

RB: The interesting thing about that is that the HGDTA were already a really strong grassroots group that were working collectively, that had a lot of knowledge about where they were living and the changes they wanted to make, and they saw the opportunity and made use of it.

BH-N: They were prepared. They were ready to go – they were on standby and then they found their man basically and it all kicked off.

RB: So they’d done loads of their own collective imagining, looking for solutions.

BH-N: It was always about knowing, about intelligence. Knowing your rights, getting data first hand, cutting out the middlemen in negotiations and making information public. During one of our many conversations, Robin said “we never threw stones, we just proved them wrong”. This really stuck with me.

Armchair Traveller walk with Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad and Robin Robinson, 2016. Detail of 'Koncrete Elephant' magazine (1980s). Photo: Julian Hughes

Making Place is a new long-term programme that will focus on learning from the city and use of public space. The project aims to explore the issues that shape the neighbourhood, working with artists, designers and local communities to map, re-imagine and influence the places where we live and work. The process will be fluid and responsive – with the direction of the project being led by collaborating partners and participants.

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