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Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

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    Hamlet on the Red Line

    Lian Chikako Chang Feb 27 '11 5

    So here's the setup. I was on the red line of the T (Boston’s subway) and a guy (pictured here on his knees) starts talking to himself in a loud and agitated way. He looks borderline between hipster and crazy. But as he's talking, I realize that it's Shakespeare, and then that it's a soliloquy from Hamlet. He finishes the soliloquy on his knees: "Bow, stubborn knees / and, heart with strings of steel / Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!"

    image

    And from across the train, another guy (shown here in the leather jacket) starts in; he's playing Hamlet and they continue the scene! He's a few minutes into his part--and now everyone on the train is really watching, no longer pretending to not watch as we assess whether the lone raving man is disturbed or fulfilling a dare or an artist--when the train stops, somewhere between Central and Kendall.

    The conductor comes into the car, yelling at the two men that they can't do this: he's already stopped the train four times, but now he's called the dispatcher and they're going to have to get off at the next stop, etc. They're in trouble.

    The two guys are trying to reason with him, but they're kind of also staying in character, talking loudly and playing to the audience, sprinkling their language with Shakespearian phrasings. The conductor, exasperated and impatient, is trying to do his job: “You can't do this. This is a train. What's going on here?" And the guys respond: "We are bringing Shakespeare to these people. This is Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 3." "To what people?" "To these people on the train. Are these not people?" "Last time I checked." "We are giving them Shakespeare." "I’ve already called the dispatcher about a disturbance. You have to stop. What am I going to tell him, that it's Shakespeare?"

    This goes on for a few minutes, until at one point the conductor says, "Well, do these people want you to bring Shakespeare to them?" And the train bursts into cheers and applause--and the conductor looks around and shrugs--"okay," he says, and returns to his cab and re-starts the train.

    The actors finish the scene and afterwards, they introduce themselves as actors and improv comedians from Brooklyn, and they pass their hat to collect donations. The mood is somewhere between bemused and ebullient, and people are talking.

    The two actors are thrilled at the exchange that unfolded with the conductor (both for its comedic value and the fact that they did not, in the end, get arrested), and are talking about how in New York, people are used to performances on the subway and nobody ever pays them any mind.

    SO...several things:

    1. Despite the presence of an official, who was presumably going by some set of rules or common protocol, it was the consent of the people on the train that allowed the performance to continue.

    2. The humor, and power, of the event came from the fact that the performance hit a sweet spot between being challenging to its context, and being unchallenging or recognizable as a class of activity. In New York, subway performances are common; they're not surprising, police or transit authorities don't try to stop them. So there is no need or opportunity for people on the train to say that Yes, we as a group of people at this place and time, support this activity. The applause was the moment when everything shifted.

    3. There's something about the T that is perfect for this kind of thing. The two rows of people--mostly strangers and from different walks of life--seated and facing each other across an aisle. The boredom of a captive audience. The fact that it's a relatively safe place and there's a small, implicit (and usually, unactivated) camaraderie of being all in the subway car together.

    (NOTE: my group's studio project is about connecting two neighborhoods in Queen's, NYC, through dense urban activity that allows for a "trading zone" between the different groups of people who occupy the site at different times and in different ways: borough residents from Corona and Flushing, Mets fans, US Open fans, visitors to the big parks that surround the site.)

    4. How do we code for (our semester's fancy phrase for "design") city spaces/temporalities that allow for these kinds of exchanges? That is, not for performance art as a genre--because once it's recognized as "art," an activity no longer poses this kind of challenge--but for unscripted encounters, however brief, with the strangers with whom we brush elbows every day?

    5. We can't just code to have people in proximity to each other. This is the classic failure of urban planning as social engineering. It is entirely possibility for groups of people to remain isolated from each other as they occupy different spheres within the same time and space as other groups. So a city is not formed through density or proximity but through these interactions and agreements.

    6. Tension and risk are necessary in the "border zones" where these interactions occur. Disneyland is not a city. This is why our border zone can't rely on commercial program as its significant public space. We need a place where having money to spend is not the prerequisite to full participation.

    7. Can we talk about the train as a kind of “holding place” (this is a term that Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky use in their book, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading) that makes these risks and tensions safe to explore? Note that the holding place does NOT neutralize risks, but allows them to play out in a way that buffers the threat of wider, damaging explosions or damage.

    8. Parks also fulfill this kind of function in American cities. But we want this condition more pervasively throughout the urban fabric, not just in green spaces.

    9. That is all for now.

    Thanks for reading!
    Lian

     

     
    • 5 Comments

    • Matthew MessnerMatthew Messner
      Feb 27, 11 7:18 pm

      Very cool.
      I always think of William Whyte's "social Life of Small Urban Places" when topics like this are discuss.... Actually I think about that film all the time. Something might be wrong with me.

      Anyway, attempting to control/propagate/predict/understand the careful balance of "tension and risk" is one of the most intriguing endeavors in any urban planning. Public transportation as a physical location for such exploration seems an obvious and appropriate choice.

      I wonder if the aspects of public transportation that facilitate these very specific interactions can be "synthesized" and reproduced in other situations. It would appear you are on track to figuring just that out.

      I look forward to seeing the results of your studio project as it addresses this concept. And am very interested to see how you plan to quantify/represent it.

      excellent post.

      toasteroven
      Feb 27, 11 9:12 pm

      absolutely wonderful stuff. I really enjoyed reading this.

      I think you need to think about collective "ownership" of space and how this is achieved. these performers were actively claiming the space in the middle of the aisle, and thus in turn were engaging the passengers with the space of the car in a positive (or socially acceptable) way - the moment the conductor came in, everyone collectively "owned" the space and there was nothing he could have done - the were no longer a group of individuals riding the train.

      you need events - first you need people to occupy the space, then you need some kind of event - and these events cannot be identical otherwise people ignore them like on the train in NYC.

      Whyte is good, but I'd also recommend reading up on the athenian agora.

      Lian Chikako Chang
      Mar 5, 11 4:35 pm

      Thanks for your comments, Messner and, um, Mr/s toasteroven.

      @Messner: I checked out parts of the Whyte film--good stuff, thanks!
      @toasteroven: The idea of ownership is useful. I'm also interested in the idea of partial ownership and the fluidity of those negotiations. No idea yet on how to start coding for these things in the spatial, material, design of a city. But we'll see.

      And yes, I think often about classical Greek politics! Since this is something I studied before coming to the GSD, it's very close to my heart. But so much about their society and worldview is different than ours that it's hard to know what from their ways of doing things might be useful for us today. But I am starting to think about a stoa-like commercial space.

      L

      toasteroven
      Mar 6, 11 12:37 pm

      involvement of food, for one - the agora was essentially their central market.

      once the weather gets a little warmer, go visit haymarket on a saturday morning - then visit the same space on a sunday. sure there are other farmers markets around the city, but if you haven't been, it's quite an experience. The city has been trying to "control" this crazy temporary shanty town for years - so you really should see it now before they turn it into another quincy market (which, even though it's now pretty much a tourist trap, is still a good example of successful public space - you also have performances and captive audiences). haymarket is not really a local farmer's market, per se - it's mostly wholesale produce that is left-over after all the grocery stores have made their purchases... kind of a veggie flea-market. but it's not totally about buying things either - there is so much going on that you could walk through there and simply take in all the visual stimuli. It's great because it seems messy and out of control, but it really isn't. a different kind of temporary ownership, but maybe there's something worth observing there.

      anyway - it's a difficult question because you're attempting to design something that mostly requires critical mass of a certain kind of people who will activate the space. these questions are often more about demographics and social policies than they are about spatial and formal qualities...

      good luck!

      Lian Chikako Chang
      Mar 11, 11 4:24 pm

      thanks, toasteroven! I'll have to check out haymarket. A veggie fleamarket sounds like it would be at the convergence of several of my life's great passions. :)

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Lectures and exhibitions, news and events, now primarily from the Bay Area! Please note that all live blogs are abridged and approximate. If you want to see exactly what happened, in many cases a video of the event is posted online by the event's hosts. If you have concerns about how you are quoted, please contact me via Archinect's email.

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