Barbara Holub: Direct Urbanism

The Role of Art and Artistic Strategies for Socially Engaged Urban Planning

1. Direct urbanism

Direct urbanism (DU) introduces art and artistic strategies as a durational process in urban development – on an equal level to conventional planning strategies.

> for socially engaged and process-orientated urban development;
> for addressing current urban issues as complex societal issues
> emphasizing public space as space for appropriation by the inhabitants/ users

Direct urbanism is a new method of planning beyond “bottom up“ and “top down“.

DU is both attitude and action. DU operates unspectacularly, apart from the industry of spectacles, and often at unspectacular locations. DU takes place – whether self-initiated or commissioned – wherever there is a need. DU propagates a process rather than a preconceived image or set plan. DU considers social aspects and societal processes an essential factor of a critical spatial practice aimed at offsetting neoliberal interests. DU advocates direct urban intervention, and involves users, residents, decision-makers and other agents of the city in performative settings. DU develops site- and context-related tools as well as new methods that integrate artistic and unconventional practices into the durational process of urban planning. DU tries to counteract the dichotomy of top-down and bottom-up planning, and explores exactly when experts and local specialists should become involved. DU acts transdisciplinarily, pursuing research through practice – in an open process. DU is skeptical towards an approach to urban planning that provides simplistic solutions using predefined methods and remedies. DU creates situations that can be appropriated and continued by others. DU is incompatible with profit-driven interests and engages instead in collaborations with those who have no say or place. DU requires patience, as often the desired changes are not immediately visible, and when they finally are, they are sometimes different than was anticipated.

Strategies of direct urbanism:

Contextual action
Contextual action is an urban procedure that links programmatic planning with tactical, urban intervention. It is applied in particular wherever classic planning fails, but also wherever the resistance against being “planned” does not have an adequate dimension to develop a fiction for a location. Contextual action is a type of “urban action” in the hands of urbanists, meaning “assessing all the influences on a situation responding by devising and mediating a project on this basis at multiple levels and to various scales and time sequences. Contextual action can be regarded as a synthesis between the tactics and the strategy of professional action and, thus, as the basis of direct urbanism.”(1)


The Latin “fictio” means “design”, “personification”, “fiction”, “to give shape” to something, “to form”, or “to think up”. “Fiction” is the term used to designate an own world created through literature, film, painting or other forms of representation, and furthermore for dealings with an imaginary world of this kind. Fiction is a significant cultural technique, it is used in a very broad section of the arts.“(2)


The dialectical sequence taken by images, regardless of whether these are produced in art, fashion, film etc., frequently tempts us to classify them in categories such as “old” and “new”. But naturally the categories “old” and “new” are merely relative categories, since they are continuously being enriched by older images and new narratives. We would tend to imply that Modernity is very often searching for a new archetype image, which, freed to the greatest extent possible from context can be constantly generated afresh. This conviction of the avant-garde is liable, however, to mix very rapidly with narratives of a possible future, into which images from the past may also creep. A fiction of the future results that is pervaded through and through with elements of the conscious or unconscious past, with the consequence that it is already infiltrated by postmodern principles. Whether we are dealing with the “avant-garde” or what we may choose to term “retrofiction” is naturally also a question of weighting and designation and of the assumed departure point in time. We thus wish to assume that the reception accorded to an image is newly generated from the standpoint of distance in time and that through this retrofiction it becomes an element of style in postmodern action.(3)


Direct urbanism promotes a macro-utopia: It operates by employing an anticipatory fiction that allows for latent, hidden visions we usually ignore due to self-censorship. The conflicting interests of the various agents involved in urban planning are used as a productive force.

Production of desires

The term “desiring-production” was introduced by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and established in art discourse engaged in critical spatial practices by the “Park Fiction” project of Cathy Skene and Christoph Schäfer. “The trick of the ruling class consists of the practice of identifying the emptying process as the economy of the market: they organize shortages in the midst of over-production, control what is wished for through fear of privation, place the object of desire in a relationship of dependence on real production and insinuate that this desire is exogenous (the claims of rationalism), while simultaneously the production of desires is intended to overflow into the imagination (nothing but the imagination).”(4) By contrast, however, the desire should be developed on a collective level.

For us, the production of desires represents an artistic strategy. It is one which perceives the lost opportunities beyond apparent economic feasibility, and which motivates city dwellers and consumers to take their interests in hand themselves. Of great importance to us is giving full account to the potentials and the expertise of the various participants in order to allow us to incorporate the production of desires generated for the various projects into longer-term planning as a factor of equal importance or as an opposite pole to dominant economic interests.

What conditions are needed for direct urbanism?

– Open-minded partners committed to engaging in an open-ended process: no predetermined results

– Reliable and engaged partners from the commissioning side

– Participation is not a general “solution“: we need to differentiate between different experts and expertise, and at which point they should be involved along with the process

– Considering conflict as a productive force

Urban practitioner

The “urban practitioner” explores a new transdisciplinary role, which aims to establish the experimental practices developed by artists and urbanists dealing with current urban issues, on a basis of equality in theory and practice with the standard planning tools. Discussing this new role is of even greater significance when against the background of the current neoliberal economic conditions, art and architecture wish to assert the claim of being critically committed, and effective, addressing the complex socio-political issues in an open process without pre-determined results. In this sense the “urban practitioner” is also an artistic dispositive: he refuses to accept any firmly fixed assignment of roles whatsoever, in order to be able to deploy her or his subversive potential in a changeable manner and at any time.(5)

Which conditions does the urban practitioner need?

We need to differentiate between the various agents and cultural producers and their role within cultural policies and urban development – rather than addressing cultural producers as a “general crowd“ (or as “creative capital“):

– How can artists and artistic practices maintain their critical voice and (yet) be considered experts on an equal level to other experts like urban planners or sociologists?

– How can artistic urban practices contribute to establishing new societal values enhancing common acting and counteracting urban development primarily based on neoliberal decisionmaking?

Funding needs to be independent from “measurable results“:

– How could one measure the impact of introducing poetic moments?

– How could one measure the impact of the experience of the participants on their personal awareness? On feeling “empowered“?

  1. Paradise Enterprise
    (transparadiso, Judenburg / A, 2012-2014)
    A sample project for direct urbanism

Topic: urban development in a shrinking region in Austria

Tool: Amamur (raft)
Strategy: direct urbanism, production of desires

The goal of this project (funded by departure_Vienna Business Agency) was the realization of an exemplary project for direct urbanism with the development of specialized tools and long-term strategies for a mid-sized  Austrian town, serving as an example for other situations with similar problems. The town of Judenburg was selected as a cooperating partner due to their active involvement and openness to engage in this open-ended process, which will open up long term perspectives. The town formulated the interest to focus on developing perspectives for the future of the youth. Judenburg is part of the EU-network “Douzelages“ and therefore “paradise enterprise“ also aims at creating a perspective to realize further projects in this framework.

Since shrinkage is a problem many towns and regions are confronted with, both inside and outside Austria, transparadiso formulated a concept that actively involved young people, as a first step, through urban interventions. In urban walks, they showed us their hidden places along the River Mur, which served to help us rediscover forgotten potentials of this area and its beautiful landscape and to develop new ones. Together with them, we built the raft AMAMUR as a tool for exploring the beauty of the River Mur, while engaging with many different communities (high school, youth center, residents etc.). The first concrete results developed immediately: The landing for the raft was used as an informal beach. Together with a biologist, a herbarium was created as an educational tool.

On a parallel level we worked on a long-term urbanistic concept addressing larger societal issues affecting the town. As a second step, we decided to reactivate the vanished paradise garden of the former nunnery, an underused space serving as a storage area for the town next to the notorious social housing on Paradise Street. Invigorating this centrally located urban situation in Judenburg will connect the bourgeois historical town center to the steel factory and working class neighborhood on the other side of the river Mur, transgress the existing social and spatial borders and thus enhance the societal development of the whole town.
The explorations on the AMAMUR served as a space apart from the everyday to trigger the production of desires for the former paradise garden. The new programs wished for by the participants were: a BMX-Pumptrack, a girls’ club and the reactivation of the large circus grounds next to the paradise garden – which had also suffered from shrinkage. Through additional funding from Public Art Styria, we managed to realize these projects. Artist Stefan Demming realized the “One Man Show 2“: a circus produced by the the inhabitants, who were encouraged to show their talents. The experience of being able to take matters into their own hands was crucial and resulted not only in a new self-awareness, but also in an emancipation of many participants living on Paradise Street, who could thus acquire a new standing in Judenburg. Artist Folke Köbberling constructed a sunken Girls’ Club with a tomato garden (“tomato” in the Austrian language has the same meaning as “paradise“) serving as an offer for a community garden. Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler developed a concept for the BMX-Pumptrack together with the young boys in several workshops and realized it together with them. Due to their engagement, they managed to hand over the responsibility to the young guys without involving a social worker.

Crucial elements for realizing the project – which we had agreed upon as preconditions right in the beginning with the mayor – were to provide a partner on site (Heinz Gradwohl), who was crucial for realizing the project, and a project office, so that the project would be made visible, with accessible information available, to residents throughout the whole process. Since Judenburg did not have resources for production, we accumulated all energies and other resources possible, including two design projects, with students from the Vienna University of Technology. One of their proposals, an urban knitting project, which was new in the region, was taken over by the enthusiasm of the residents: their goal was to achieve a Guinness World Record for the largest urban knitting by covering one of the pillars in the paradise garden. With their incredible 142 m2, they missed the record by just a few square meters. And at the grand opening, the circus had also come back…

During the whole process, we have been working on the longer-term urbanistic concept for which we proposed to construct new housing for singles at the paradise garden in collaboration with the communal housing company which would contribute to a social mix, and expanding the public urban space by opening up the river banks and installing a public platform next to the River Mur.
At the same time, Judenburg has developed a very innovative concept for a “new town“ for counteracting the competition of neighboring towns(6) by proposing the establishment of the town of Aichfeld. The goal is to unite around eight small towns in the geographical area highlighting specific qualities in each town, rather than competing, and reducing administration costs. The town of Aichfeld would then have around 45,000 inhabitants (rather than, for example, having Judenburg fighting to achieve 10,000 inhabitants) and thus command a strong position. As a first step for empowering this concept, we proposed to install the “center of periphery“, rediscovering existing resources and connecting them by an ambulant vehicle.

  1. The First World Congress of the Missing Things
    (Barbara Holub, Baltimore, USA, 2014)

Topic: urban development in a shrinking city in the US

Tool: an emancipatory congress for the production of knowledge
Strategy: production of desires counteracting gentrification

“Missing Things” is neither a scientific category nor a typical congress topic. Missing things are abundant and diverse. They are subject to personal valuation. They are sometimes visible, sometimes invisible – especially in contested areas like Lexington Market in Baltimore.

“The First World Congress of the Missing Things” was conceived in response to a call by EUNIC and Bromo Arts and Entertainment District in Baltimore.(7) It was realized at the Lexington Market subway station entrance, next to the “World Famous Lexington Market” – a historical landmark that has become an unfortunate indicator of the absence of social welfare in the nation. Lexington Market is located in the once bustling city center, neglected since the 1950s due to “white flight”. Baltimore is a shrinking city. Undertaking a massive urban development project, it began regenerating the inner harbor area as a major tourist attraction in the early 1980s(8). Today, the adjacent and formerly lively city center with its luxurious department stores remains boarded up. In October of 2013, the Bromo Arts and Entertainment District(9) became the last of three such districts in Baltimore established in an endeavor to regenerate Howard Street and the surrounding area.

The starting point for developing an art project within this highly disputed context was the question of whether or not art has a function (and if so, what kind of function?), and if it should become involved in current societal and urban issues. The project was partly funded by ArtPlace, a program initiated by the National Endowment for the Arts under President Obama. The goal of ArtPlace is to counteract community deficiencies arising from the lack of a social system and the enormous inequalities generated by the neoliberal economy. The expectations of the program—to use art to facilitate the bridging of these gaps—would reduce art to another commodity, a good perpetuating the interests of the neoliberal economy. It would go from providing a social service to being part of a “creative economy” intended to create new business. A project fulfilling these expectations would not only hollow out the role of art in questioning overall context, but also runs the danger of intensifying gentrification processes if not embedded in a long-term strategy. So the question was how to develop a critically engaged project that uses the opportunity to contribute to the revitalization of a neighborhood while maintaining the premise of prioritizing social revitalization as a key goal.

I therefore decided to create a congress, handing responsibility and giving voice to the people of Baltimore, to the people already using this urban space (mainly homeless persons, drug addicts, and ex-convicts), as well as to the people of the municipality and to anyone else interested in participating in a publicly accessible congress in urban public space. “The First World Congress of the Missing Things” shifted the usual setting of a congress, often exclusive and dominated by the division of “panel” and “audience”, by creating a spatial rhizomatic structure enabling non-hierarchical communication. In this inclusive situation, one-to-one communication was enhanced and topics were presented simultaneously without differentiating between “experts” and “audience”. In a process that took place before the congress, the people of Baltimore were invited to contribute their ideas and opinions about missing things to be published on the website www.missingthings.org. Information was distributed at events(10), at a table set up at Lexington Market for the purpose of engaging in one-to-one conversations, and by attending events and generally spreading the word through people engaged in Baltimore as multipliers. The director of Bromo Arts and Entertainment District, Priya Bhayana, had set up events for me to get introduced to the local community, to artists and cultural producers during my previous research visit.

By asking the public to shape its content, the congress emphasized the democratic right to participate in public decision-making and the shaping of our society. “The First World Congress of the Missing Things” attempted to counteract the division of society and dominant decision-making processes by handing a voice over to the people. Enabling people to speak who are usually unheard, invisible, or reduced to being considered a “problem” or a disturbing factor in the otherwise seemingly functioning, dominant system. If art is to have the function of challenging urban societal issues, it is by using the position of coming from the outside as Europeans, by being unbiased and propagating different values, shifting expectations from “problem solving” to offering ways to empower local people and activate hidden potentials and spaces. This art project is also about creating poetic moments in an area of decline and poverty in addition to addressing weighty social and urban issues. “The First World Congress of the Missing Things” employed the transparadiso method of direct urbanism, which means involving artistic strategies in long-term urban development, at the very least as a vision, as in this case. For city authorities, this means becoming engaged in an open-ended process, one not finished when the artist leaves the site of intervention. Programs like ArtPlace are based on achieving measurable results. However, precisely such art projects as “The First World Congress of the Missing Things” must not be measured by quantifiable criteria or be expected to deliver immediate results (such as crime rate reduction or rising property values). These are expectations that artists like myself intentionally do not want to comply with in order to avoid being instrumentalized. How can one measure the invaluable qualities of the personal conversations that took place during the congress, ones, for example, starting with the question, “I was born a slave, you were born a master. So how can we communicate?” People felt taken seriously, on an equal level, and opened up to the same extent that we, the European artists, did. We made use of our background—not being part of unresolved racial and social issues—to create a situation of confidence. This was in and of itself a huge achievement and led to concrete initial ideas evolving out of the congress. These ideas need to be heard by the municipality, and subsequent steps must be taken sensitively so as to not betray the people who confided in us during the congress. Many individuals and organizations that were intensely engaged in the project are striving to achieve change in the social and urban policies of Baltimore. In further processes, they need to continue to be involved in order to provide new perspectives for the people inhabiting the site, to make sure that “The First World Congress of the Missing Things” does not result in yet another example of being held responsible for involuntarily having contributed to a process resulting in gentrification. Despite the distance to Europe – the voices of artists from the outside could further a socially invested and sensible process of urban development by being involved on a durational level.

“The First World Congress of the Missing Things” must not be confused with activism, even though it activates people by creating a setting within which people can take over the situation. It emphasizes fluid and changing roles, raising the question of what kind of expertise is needed for each specific occasion. Is there a way to overcome the current dichotomy between critically engaged art and activism, which reduces both rather than acknowledging the crucial differences? Artists active in this field could be considered “new urban practitioners”, transdisciplinary experts proposing controversial, unwanted, immeasurable, and poetic moments, enhancing communal cohabitation and a sense of community based on recognizing individuals from diverse backgrounds as able to contribute to a multi-faceted society. Instead of being implemented to mask social problems or being considered a speculative investment for the art market, the otherwise often under-recognized voice of art could thus regain a new position in society.(11)

  1. Request for the Unrequested Voluntary Interlinguisticality
    (transparadiso, Pottenhofen / A, 2016)

Topic: a new town square in a small village in Lower Austria

Tools: enhancing cross-border communication
– a bilingual Czech-German scrabble game for the collective production of a major element for a seating-sitting sculpture on the square;
– speed reduction achieved with the Region of Lower Austria
– a lamp typical of the neighboring Czech villages was installed on the square
Strategy: design of the square as a collaborative and multilayered process

“The idea of being requested to voluntarily do something unrequested, as transparadiso’s title “Request for the unrequested voluntary inter-linguisticality” for their design for a public square in Pottenhofen suggests, seems contradictory at first. The artistic work of the artist group, which was founded by Barbara Holub and Peter Rajakovics, often revolves around the idea of sounding out interferences (architectural as well as social) and identifying the ways of taking action that develop as a result.
This was also the case in Pottenhofen, which is a small village located in the northern Weinviertel region of Austria, near the Czech border. A very busy country road runs through the middle of town, acting as a kind of structural divide. When the town decided to transform the former elementary school into a community center, complete with a grocery store and a youth club, the town soon had a second idea to commission artists to design the divided area in the town and give it the quality of a village square. The selection committee then directly handed the commission to transparadiso.
Their solution, ‘Request for the unrequested voluntary inter-linguisticality’, consists of several parts and is intended as a work in process. In addition to setting the speed limit at 30 km/h and laying a road marking that runs across the street and creates a sense of cohesion, a shade-providing tree was also planted, and a typical Czech street lamp was installed. The heart of the project is a circular seating arrangement that stands for transnationality and acts as a monument against recurring populist demands for reinforcing borders. Most importantly, this metal seat and table sculpture symbolizes the potential of working together as a community. The rotating sun roof is also decorated with new German and Czech words that resulted from a cross-cultural game of Scrabble with the inhabitants of the neighboring village of Brezi in the Czech Republic.“
(Maren Richter)

What can art not do in the context of urban development?

Art is not a problem-solver:

– Art cannot resolve larger societal problems stemming from systems that produce social and economic inequality.

– Art cannot be an interim solution for neglected neighborhoods: if art and artistic strategies are involved in urban issues, they need to be integrated in a long-term perspective of urban development introducing new societal values and involving larger societal aspects.

– Art does not fulfill expectations of commissioning parties in a direct way.

– Art must not take over responsibilities of other domains (thus exempting these domains from their responsibility).

– Beyond “best practices”: tools and strategies cannot be transferred on a 1:1 level.

What can art do in the context of urban development?

– Art asks questions that others don’t ask.

– Art can use its position as an extra in society as “la perruque“ (Michel de Certeau).

– Art projects in urban public space offer a different view on existing situations.

– Artistic strategies unveil hidden potentials.

– Art can create poetic moments – beyond the spectacle.

The specific context needs to be taken into account: learning from other contexts with similar problems/issues.

(1) This is an adapted definition from the dissertation by Paul Rajakovics: Contextual action in architecture and urban development, Graz University of Technology, 2000.

(2) Wikipedia, http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiktion

(3) Taken from the transparadiso text for “A little too far ahead of its time”, in Das Alte, das Neue (Vienna: Medienwerkstatt, 2007); see also Bruno Latour, Iconoclash (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 2002).

(4)  See Gilles Deleuze / Félix Guattari: Anti-Oedipus (Chapter 1: Desiring Machines) (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1974, 1977), p. 38.

(5) See: Barbara Holub/ Christine Hohenbüchler (eds.). Planning Unplanned. Can Art Have a Function? Towards a New Function of Art in Society, Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2015

(6) One of the big problems of small towns in the regions of Austria is that they need to have at least 10.000 inhabitants in order to receive additional funds from the federal government. The competition between neighboring towns is huge: E.g. Fohnsdorf established a big shopping mall, which drained the city center of Judenburg and thus tax income. This is a common problem in regions in Austria, due to opportunistic spatial planning.

(7) At the invitation of Anton Falkeis, Head of Social Design at the University of Applied Arts, Vienna, the congress was realized with students Marie-Christin Rissinger, Elisabeth Stephan and Julian Verocai in Baltimore. Contributions to the opening ceremony were made by Lucia Hofer and Marit Wolters. An additional project was carried out by Nika Kupyrova (studentof TransArts at the University of Applied Arts) and Simone Klien performed at the closing ceremony. The project is part of TRANSIT, an initiative of the Washington, D.C. cluster of the European Union National Institutes for Culture and the Baltimore Office of Promotions & the Arts, and supported by a grant from the European Union. The European cultural institutes involved are: the Austrian Cultural Forum, British Council, Goethe-Institut and the Embassy of Spain. The project is also supported by a grant from ArtPlace America, a collaboration of leading national and regional foundations, banks, and federal agencies accelerating the establishment of creative spaces throughout the U.S. Additional support for the congress is provided by the Maryland Transit Administration.

(8) For an analysis of the problematic effects of the regeneration of the inner harbor on the city of Baltimore, see A Survivor’s Guide to Baltimore’s Renaissance: Baltimore Citizens Discuss Their Experiences of Urban Renewal, Grant Kester, 1992

(9) http://www.promotionandarts.org/arts-council/bromo-arts-entertainment-districts

(10) Such as a dinner party at Current Space; http://www.currentspace.com: Michael Benevento from current space was a major collaborator on the congress.

(11) See: Barbara Holub/ Christine Hohenbüchler (eds.). Planning Unplanned. Can Art Have a Function? Towards a New Function of Art in Society, Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2015, p. 156-161; www.missingthings.org