Back in 2008 we interviewed Klaus Overmeyer, author of Urban Pioneers (2007), one of the very first books on temporary urbanism. Now, five years later, at the peak of the bottom-up hype, he and his colleagues Philipp Oswalt and Philipp Misselwitz are back with Urban Catalyst: The Power of Temporary Use.
Back in the days, Urban Pioneers revealed a new, emerging urbanism trend in Berlin. All kinds of people started to claim small pieces of land for temporary use. This wave was pretty new in those days and, it must be said, Klaus Overmeyer c.s. was one of the first people in the world to thoroughly showcase this trend. Urban Catalyst, in that sense, is an update that looks back on years of intensive engagement with temporary space use. Investigating urban projects in European cities, the authors try to shed a light on temporary urban strategies that work. In addition, they give great insight in the development of temporary planning in Europe that has developed from a small but vibrant scene in East Berlin after the German reunion into a broad European discourse in urban planning nowadays. This last issue is best described by Kees Christiaanse in the book’s preface:
“Formerly, a project like Urban Catalyst would have been seen by the investment establishment simply as a hobby for some left-wing, socially engaged planners of the leftist-scene. But today, business developers, municipalities, and property owners alike have woken up to the fact that the sustainable and successful development of urban life cannot be achieved without a consideration of contextual aspects.”
The book is not just another collection of superficial and stylish temporary bottom-up projects — it really tries to look in-depth at the main characteristics of very different projects. These projects vary from an informal market in Belgrade and club WMF in Berlin that opened in 1990 and closed in 2010, to the Contemporary Art Museum (Stedelijk Museum) in Amsterdam that was urged to travel from temporary location to temporary location while waiting for its new building to be completed.
In the first chapter of the book the authors explore the ‘Patterns Of The Unplanned’. The chapter is mainly descriptive and the interesting point is that ‘temporary’ becomes equal to words as ‘informal’, ‘unplanned’ and ‘spontaneous’. Further in the book the role of informal planning in temporary space use shows to be important. Chapter 2 is more theoretical and delves deeper into the conditions for informal planning. The insights by the various theorists such as Saskia Sassen, Jesko Fezer, Azra Aksamija, Florian Rötzer and Arnold Reijndorp, lead to an interesting question: why do the authors of the book want temporary urbanism so bad? Or, in other words, what exactly is temporary planning good for? Does it only solve the temporary problems of empty lots? Does it make communities stronger? Or is it a necessary shift in thinking about urban planning? Here the authors seem to take the last perspective — temporary space use is a good way to deal with the city at this very moment in time. It’s the way to change focus in urbanism and architecture from a long-term-based practice looking for the ideal plan to a more fluid style of urbanism in which the final plan and the ways to preserve that plan are not dominant any more. This is well illustrated with a graphic on the last page of the book, where the authors make fun of Le Corbusier.
That focus sets the tone for the third chapter, in which Oswalt, Overmeyer and Misselwitz come up with six strategies for temporary planning: Enable, Initiate, Claim, Coach, Formalize and Exploit. All of them are illustrated with some best practices. Some of these six strategies contain tips and tricks for individual people (Initiate, Claim), while others present tips for local governments (Formalize, Coach) or institutional land owners (Enable, Exploit). This means that the book appeals to a broad group of professionals and people concerned with temporary space use initiatives. On the other hand, it needs quite an understanding of legal planing procedures and frameworks to fully get to the point of the book. But perhaps this is its power. Urban Catalyst goes beyond the coolness of the crisis-induced bottom-up hype and tries to really bring temporary planning one step further for readers in all positions. It’s not a how-to guide, but it helps understanding the complicated process of temporary space use. Only for that reason it would be good when a lot of city planners, architects and land owners would read it.