I'm just returning from an inspirational three days in Pilsen (Plzen) in the Czech Republic after taking part in a British Council project called the Urban Ideas Bakery
First, some photos:
The idea behind these 'bakeries' is that it is an opportunity for a group of interesting people with a wide background and range of experiences to come to a city, and come up with ideas for ways to tackle particular issues that city might be facing and work with local people to see the ideas realised.
Pilsen is a city of 165,000 people and sits as the first major town on the Berounka river. It's a beautiful place in many areas - there are well renovated 15th century buildings and the area by the river reminded me of the Norfolk Broads, even though it's in a semi urban environment.
But one of the main issues that the city faces according to the local people we met is that while the city has these fantastic assets, the people who live there take them for granted and don't make use of the public spaces as much as they could do. And with the city having the title of European City of Culture 2015
within its grasp ( it's down to the last three ) we were asked to look at some short, medium and long term solutions to freeing up these amazing spaces and inspiring or encouraging them to be used.
So on day one we experienced the city at its best, arriving as we did during the Czech equivalent of Birmingham's Arts Fest
- a community organised free event of performance, art, theatre, music and so on. Many roads were closed and the city was full of surreal and surprising culture clashes round every corner.
One minute it's Gypsy beatboxing, the next a choral rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody... in the capital of Bohemia... by Bohemians. One minute breakdancing to nineties Ice T played not on vinyl but on latest laptop DJ software, the next Norwegian-inspired black metallist lookalikes playing what sounded like Reggae.
But it all seemed to be perfectly normal, so we accepted it at face value and the newly arrived "international bakers" got to know each other over an equally surreal dinner at a restaurant that was channelling the famous Meaning of Life Mr. Creosote restaurant scene
mixed with faded-glory photographs from the thirties.
We had a diverse group - artists, designers, architects, academics, political policy experts, teachers, planners, trouble makers, students... and the following day we were set the challenge of how we might go about addressing this issue of the public space of the city.
In Czech language.
In retrospect it marks a lot of sense - despite English bring spoken by most of the people there, it would be quite rude to arrive in a city and expect the event to be run in a foreign language. So we had translators, earpieces and we had to navigate difficult and complex conversations with a certain level of mutual misunderstanding. I was impressed we didn't get frustrated with it, and worked with the limitations.
We came up with some great ideas, many of which I'm sure won't see the light of day, but here are a few of my favourites from my group. I was the only international baker round the table, so I put myself in the role of "hey, how about..." and trying to get everyone having 'yes and...' conversations. I fact - We had a few rules, but a 'yes and...' rule would probably trump the lot.
Here are a few of my favourites:
Pilsen is dominated by a large Skoda manufacturing plant
. They don't make cars, but parts for trams. It employed 20,000 people, many of whom are migrant workers from the countries. Pilsen also has a long love affair with American culture after the liberation by Patten
, even naming one of it's main steets after the USA.
So, we suggest organising a Drive In Movie night with a twist. All of the cars are examples of all of the different models of Skoda that have been made by the company and they are parked in rows in one of the main squares in front of a screen. People can walk up, buy a ticket, popcorn and a drink and watch one of the recent Oscar-winning Czech films from the comfort of the car. Simple, fun, and a talking point for years to come.
Rabbit Hutch Lights
I was sad to hear that the nickname for some of the housing areas on the outskirts of the city is "the rabbit hutches" - people living there work all day, just go home to sleep and many don't have a feeling of pride about their local area.
Inspired by larger scale artworks some of us had seen in Berlin (?), we wanted to do something interesting using these stark brutalist tower blocks and create an animation in light of one of the disused ones. Space invaders, Tetris, the numbers 2015 being made up out of the pixellated grid of the windows... we were quite sure it would make for something interesting.
Other ones that emerged:
- A ferris wheel with a twist
- Barbigloo - barbecues in an igloo in winter
The bakery is always structured to offer short, medium an long- term solutions. And one idea that popped up in all four of the groups was "how about an interactive map?" - We were thinking of it as a psychogeographic online artwork collecting ideas, thoughts, emotions about the place. Others wanted a map that could visualize the potential of the river side, others still wanted to make a map that would store everyone's opinions on how to regenerate the city or report problems a-la fixmystreet, and there was a more ambitious aim to somehow geolocate pretty much anything that anyone might want - kids activities, things to borrow, art closers.
Whilst I'm not sure that a map is going to solve all ills or to really help people find things they are looking for specifically (a blog does a good job here - hint!) I volunteered to create a quick web mashup of Google Maps with a simple database to store "stuff".
That idea became mapilzn
and we had it online in about 8hrs worth of work.
The source code
, as usual is on github.
pointed out, what we've put together is a lightweight "locative notes" app that any city could now use for similar things. There were requests for videos/photos and so on which would be easy to add. But the issue here is - will people use it? For that it's up to our local "bakers" and if they can keep up the momentum....
It sounds like cash won't be the issue - the local council just committed to a nine percent annual spend on 'culture'
, but I'm not sure what that includes.
In the medium term a team of more planning-oriented people decided to put a plan together to demonstrate the possibility of what the city's riverside areas could be. There're lots of similarities to Newcastle - iron bridges, brownfield sites to reclaim and the potential here is huge go create amazing public areas by the river.
We presented all of our ideas in public in the evening of the second day and again al lunch on the third. The deputy mayor particularly liked our ideas about the riverside but it looks like there some long running issues behind it that will take time to resolve. The map idea went well and it looks like our prototype might lead to something in future too.
There are more ideas that I haven't added - I just want to get this up online, and I'm very tired after all the mental exercise!
For me this was a really inspiring few days that was hard work and good fun in equal measure but best of all I now have a handful of new friends from all over Europe.
I hope that in time we will see one or two of our ideas turn into real things and good luck to Pilsen in the Capital of Culture bid.