Temporary Spaces and Creative Infill

The next time you’re waiting at an intersection, look around and imagine how much of the built (and furnished) environment stands empty and unused at any given time. Cafés in the financial district are closed at dinnertime; restaurants that specialize in dinner fare are silent until mid-afternoon; parking lots that fill during the workweek are largely vacant after 6pm and often on weekends.

 By Julia Levitt

Visiting Jackson, Wyoming earlier this month, I stumbled upon a local gem: the Everest Momo Shack, a family-owned BYOB where a friend and I feasted on the Nepalese dumplings that give the place its name. We enjoyed it so much that the next afternoon we returned with SOs in tow, but were met with a surprise: a crew of bearded, suntanned and decidedly American cooks were serving up stuffed-to-the-gills breakfast burritos. I chatted with the kitchen staff to confirm the restaurant’s split personality: By day, it’s a burrito joint; four nights each week, it’s the Momo Shack.

Two businesses, each with unique menu and ambience, share one restaurant. My question: why don’t relationships like this form more often?

The next time you’re waiting at an intersection, look around and imagine how much of the built (and furnished) environment stands empty and unused at any given time. Cafés in the financial district are closed at dinnertime; restaurants that specialize in dinner fare are silent until mid-afternoon; parking lots that fill during the workweek are largely vacant after 6pm and often on weekends.

Now imagine putting those darkened rooms, kitchens, galleries, cafés, outdoor spaces and more to use. What would you fill them with?

We’ve talked a lot about concepts that conserve embedded energy in the built environment by preserving historic buildings as re-imagined spaces instead of bringing in the wrecking ball and developing new. This idea, however, harnesses another kind of embedded energy — by creating meaning, activity and experience where there would have been emptiness, waste or worse. It’s about using up every bit of urban space to its fullest.

Taking advantage of these spaces, however, requires letting go of (or at least becoming flexible about) another ideal: permanence. Creating harmony when both owner and sharer use the same space fluidly requires a relaxation of control by both parties, and that can take some getting used to.How can we relinquish the idea that ownership equals success; that permanence means we’ve “made it”? Ownership has its benefits, but renters retain an enviable flexibility, and an even less tangible bonus: the caché of being temporary.

Being temporary has worked out extraordinarily well for Eskender Aseged, San Francisco’s lauded “Nomadic Chef.” In 2004, Ethiopian-born Aseged, who had worked in many professional kitchens, hatched a plan that he hoped would combat two problems he saw in the restaurant industry. First, he said, he was disappointed with what he felt was an increasingly businesslike atmosphere, where diners had little connection to the people who cooked their food. Second, he wanted to show that operating a restaurant could be a very accessible undertaking. With a shoestring budget, he launched a supper-club style restaurant out of his own home. He called the outfit Radio Africa & Kitchen, after a phenomenon he remembered fondly from his hometown: when friends used to gather at one another’s homes around the radio, making a temporary and casual event into an exiting and meaningful social gathering.

When it grew popular, Aseged moved Radio Africa into more conventional spaces, but sidestepped the need to invest in bricks and mortar. He instead operates a roving restaurant, inhabiting a variety of places, from local cafés to city parks. In addition to cooking classes and custom events, he has maintained ongoing engagements with local establishments during their dark hours. He currently serves dinner on Thursdays and Fridays at Coffee Bar, and will be there through the end of this year. The owners of the space keep the profits from beer and wine sold to Radio Africa’s 70 to 80 guests, meaning they generate a handsome return during a time when their doors would have been closed without needing to charge Aseged rent.

“People think you need to have a million dollars to open a restaurant, and that’s not true. I started it in my garage for less than $80,” he says. The arrangement removes two space-related barriers to entry: both the acquisition and the certification process. As long as Aseged maintains health and food safety certification for himself, he can work in any licensed space.

“Now, after doing it for five years, setting up and dismantling the restaurant every week is not a problem,” he says. Radio Africa’s staff has an “all-night cooking party” each week in preparation; on their designated dates they arrive at Coffee Bar at 4 p.m. and are serving dinner by 6:30.

“I own the idea of a restaurant that exists only if we start serving food,” he says. “We don’t have overhead; we don’t have rent.” To Aseged, the mobility is an asset for other reasons as well: Beginning in August, he will begin taking his successful project to international locations, hosting nomadic meals in New York City, Cape Town and possibly Mali.

And Radio Africa has also solved his other problem, by nurturing a unique social environment in which the chef mingles with customers, bringing new conversation to the table. The scene is clearly as much of an attraction as the food itself.

Artists have grasped this for a long time. The concept of impermanence spans art history, from the Japanese tea ceremony to Andy Goldsworthy’s site-specific natural sculptures. And citizens and artists alike are continually stepping up with new ways to bend the concept. Take the art/activism event Park(ing) Day, for example, an annual happening where people “rent” street parking spaces for a day (simply by paying the meter) and use them for purposes other than storing a car. Three great projects we’ve covered on Worldchanging Seattle – The Free Sheep Foundation the STart on Broadway project and the Burien/Interim Art Space – have turned ill-fated and unused buildings and outdoor spaces into temporary art exhibitions open to the public. With Untitled (Nomadic Café), a performance art piece that toured Rhode Island and New York a few years ago, there’s no need to inhabit an equipped space – the spontaneity is built into the object itself. And heck, what is Burning Man if not one of the most globally famous exercises in the power of impermanence?

However we design it, there’s something magical about transience. The feeling that you’re partaking of an experience, an ambience, an event that simply cannot happen the same way again creates an immediate sort of scenius. The quality of impermanence adds a kind of specialness to an everyday activity – visiting a restaurant, crossing a public square, or even taking a walk. Vonnegut mocked the superficial connections between granfalloons – groups of people who attended the same college, or follow a certain sports team. But when the thing you all showed up for is rare and will only happen once, the connection clicks.

What I like is that temporary spaces can be both transcendent and practical at the same time. These exchanges enable innovators to grab hold of useful spaces whose owners haven’t previously seen a way to make profitable, and use them to mutual benefit. Even better, they often make our neighborhoods more lively in the process.

What would help make temporary space-sharing a more regular occurrence? A logical first step seems to be making those spaces easier to spot, and connecting the people who own them with people who have ideas for how to use them. Worldchanging ally Keith Harris has provided one sort of online hub (again, here in Seattle) where residents of a neighborhood are discussing future uses for vacant spaces. He’s got a map on his site pointing to retail spaces that currently stand empty on the neighborhood’s main arterials, which he created in the hopes of providing a useful resource to artistic groups and others in need of affordable space. In order to spur action even more quickly, it might be useful to have a more craigslist-like setup, a Database of Unused Space where space owners can volunteer their locations if they’re interested and potential tenants could submit their proposals – removing the bulk of guesswork for both parties. (I mentioned this to Harris, who suggested that, if funding allowed, an internet-based GIS would be the most useful way to organize the information.)

Where have you encountered meaningful instances of sharing space? What worked, what didn’t, what temporary installation would you like to see, and what are you inspired to start yourself? Please share your thoughts in the comments:

Reposted from World Changing.

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