Learning from Barrio

For a few weeks in March 2012, Adelaide’s centre was transformed by a ramshackle spectacle called Barrio. But was Barrio a design outcome? Was it event? Theatre set? Part of the city? And are there lessons in the temporary in thinking about Adelaide’s built environment?

Sure, it’s not high style design. It’s not about permanent footings or edifice. But all the decisions that birthed Barrio were about manipulating space and thinking about how people use a space. That’s design. And as the client – Festival CEO Kate Gould – puts it, Barrio was absolutely about “changing people’s thinking about the space of the city”. Barrio started with ‘community’ and, as Gold puts it – ‘why can’t different groups be part of the city in more positive way’? Without getting heavy about it, is it possible that Barrio represents a model for engaging people in city change, in reasonable risk taking and in leading edge procurement? It seems so.

Barrio had an effect beyond its budget and its short life. Barrio was a ‘pop up’. And like all good pop ups should, it’s proven that activating a forgotten urban place can transform this part of the city. Barrio was contrived. It was a fake world for a few short weeks. A spectacular shanty town. An elaborate, functioning stage set. A bustling village below the (parliament’s) castle. Favella chic. And if it didn’t make itself, how did it come about? In converting from pop up to permanent, what lessons can we draw from Barrio’s gargantuan success? There’s lessons in Barrio for permanent architecture & city making.

By day, Barrio resembled a riggers stockade; ringed with the familiar ATF fencing. Lifeless. By night, Barrio glowed. Barrio ‘trended’ on Social media. It’s impact touched you, even if you were at home. Queues ran around the block. Wait times had people groaning. Then, once inside, the sheer assault on senses had to be shared. Facebooked. Tweeted.

Understanding what makes public space work is important if we’re to deliver on our shared ambition for a city that hums. And while Barrio has already been written up in print, none of these commentators have spoken to those really responsible for it’s success. Geoff Cobham is an Adelaide based event designer (coming from a lighting background) who worked with Festival management to make it happen. Importantly, with outgoing Festival CEO, Kate Gould. Designer and administrator working together. I interviewed both to garner insights that might be transferable, and inform ways of working in the future.

Barrio has its origins in Cobham’s 2010 Churchill fellowship which obviously had a profound effect. A global tour of festivals and events was disappointing. It revealed a series of tired, templated tableaus where audiences were passive – polite and well behaved, sure – but remote from the action. This might be why the mantra for Barrio became “participatory and surprising”. Guiding principles by which every decision was measured.

Cobham’s pedigree includes some of Adelaide’s most memorable ‘event’ experiences; Red Square, Northern Light’s, Persian Gardens. This experience convinced him that the roles of designer and producer had to be one. That the design and construction of the physical was inseparable from what went in it. How it was ‘curated’. The Festival management went with it – reluctantly at first, everyone concedes.

But Cobham was adamant that this event needed a single guiding voice. Yet also insists that success came from a collaboration of around 30 core ‘eccentrics’, and another 30 besides. Cobham may have conducted but a quality orchestra was essential. Central to this core is a group who call themselves the ‘Hex club’; a small band based in McLaren vale. Ordinary people with an extraordinary take on life. One of them (called ‘Fruitcake’) helped assemble the ‘shanty’ by regular trips to the Wingfield Tip. Once, Fruitcake rang with the news he could get 100 plastic crabs. ‘Sure’ said Cobham and back they came. Barrio was part set, part landscape. And like any good shanty, was layered with the discarded hardware from it’s own environment.

Life within was curated by a hand picked group too. Jordan Jevins and James Brown commanded the ‘Neon Lobster’, Theatre Director Ross Ganf played “looney wrangler”, Luke Florence co-ordinated the bar service (at which themed performance or ‘event’ would play out).

But also that the overwhelming focus needed to be on people. Not motherhood. A real driver of the whole production. For 10 months, Cobham’s team scoured regional shows, shopping strips and the Gepps Cross markets (seriously, who would have picked Gepps Cross markets as the inspiration for one of the Festival’s flagship events?). This gave Barrio its authentic texture. Not crazy for crazy’s sake but Adelaide’s genuine article; South Australia’s Ferret Club, the CWA, woodchopping. Carnival without the fairy floss. As Cobham says, “these people were more interesting than any International acts”. It was a way of “turning Adelaide inside out”. Around this rich, eclectic mix Cobham built themes like ‘Rare Fruit Night’ (obsessive fruit fiends sharing their obsession), Toast night (a bar offering buttered toast proved a huge hit. Buttered toast. Later, 2nd hand toasters were sold off. People tottered home with them under their arms), and the last night themed ‘End of the World’. It’s rumoured someone was seen clambering out of the wooden coffin centrepiece the next morning. Add to this the ‘Saffario’ adventure where, each night, 50 patrons would be selected and taken on a short safari. Once to the Rotunda to watch… Or to the Casino bar where Paul Grabowsky played piano for them. In return, all were expected to give $5 which was always bet on the black. This ‘curated’ experience is what made Barrio so intensely personal. You ARE the performance (remember: participatory, surprising). Where entry could have been ticketed, it wasn’t. Instead, patrons entering were asked to bring an offering to a Buddha guarding the entry. Cobham wasn’t sure how this would go, but wanted a small token of ‘exchange’; the social contract that all those entering would immerse themselves in the experience. It was so successful that when patrons were asked to bring cans of food on the last night, around 1,800 cans were left with Buddha. Another 500 appeared the next morning at the Garden of Unearthly Delights.

How was all this possible? Wasn’t some of this madcap adventurism an outright risk? Was there some high level dispensation? Well, no. Like all public events, public liability is a core part of delivery. Cobham’s strategy was to avoid the ‘spreadsheet’ approach to risk management. Instead, the teams risk consultant attended Barrio for the first few nights; genuinely ‘managing risk’ and massaging the strategies first assumed on paper. More lighting needed in the far corner.

Interestingly, Cobham doesn’t seem to accept at first that Barrio was a design exercise. That it was more about activating existing space. We talk about this, and increasingly a design process emerges. Barrio was first ‘sketched out’ using Mind map software. This gave a focus on the events and experiences Cobham wanted. Next, this exercise was used to develop a presentation in ‘Prezi’; a free flowing form of PowerPoint. This begins to allocate ambition to space. No so much where something would occur, but more what it’s needs might be (this sounds like a functional design brief). The ‘prezi’ functioned as both the conceptual sketch and the pitch tool. It also allowed designer Wendy Todd to start building a physical model (although Cobham prefers to work at 1:1 scale as the ‘accident [of seeing it on site, real size] is often better’).

In the end, Cobham decides his role was ‘design-ervation’ – activating space by manipulating it. A role that was made possible by combining the functions of ‘designer’ and ‘producer’. And it begs the question; would urban spaces work better if we did the same when it comes to the permanent built environment?

So what are the lessons?
1. Cast the team then let them fly: a single creative guiding voice is needed to orchestrate the team of experts. As Cobham says “the first person to employ is an artist. Find the eccentrics”. A creative. A view shared by Kate Gould who goes further – emphatic that an artist doesn’t cost you money, but saves it while creating value at the same time. Supporting this creative guiding voice with the right team is essential. Then stand back. Made possible given Kate Gould and Geoff Cobham have worked together for over 10 years.
2. Program, program, program: if the built environment is a frame for daily life, then we need to invest in how space is used for daily life post-development. It’s not enough to build it and stand back with fingers crossed. Operation & programming of public space needs to be integrated in to project teams through briefs and budgets. Too often the capital works budget is all that’s on offer. To really leverage public investment, should a (funded) 5-year Activation Plan be mandatory for all public projects to ensure the right ‘introduction’ for all new public buildings & public space? With the involvement of those designing it. Remember: the design and construction of the physical is inseparable from what goes in it.
3. Being a good client takes practice. A great project needs an inventive and capable design mind, but also a confident and expert client. Barrio was not the result of an open tender evaluated by conventional government matrix. Cobham was invited by the Festival – arms length from departmental process. The client had the confidence to select it’s creative guiding voice, along with his team. Procurement across Australia needs to get creative once again. And Gould’s clear about where it should start: If you make a prescriptive brief for architects, planners or designers you are already cutting it off – stopping the opportunities that could exist if they had a go at it”.
4. Risk needs a make over. Perhaps we should throw out the spreadsheet of pre-cooked management strategies that only reinforce pre-cooked responses to pre-determined scenarios. Risk management needs to be on site, dynamic and evolving. The good news is that we can design out hazards, but a world without risk-taking is a life surrendered to beige.
5. Adelaide as a platform for surprise. What if each project in this city saw itself as an event space? What if each project acted as a platform and a stage for events like Barrio? What if privately owned ‘public space’ provided the power and water for ticket venues, lighting and seating? For night time music or performance? Spaces where people can gather and be secure. Pretty simple stuff, but could help build on our reputation as the original Festival place. It’s about the city as a curated experience. Perhaps a fund that could help deserving developers with costs to deliver this kind of cultural infrastructure? And does the city need a more senior ‘curator’ that combines public art, community development and economic development?

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