Guerilla Designers | icon 020 | February 2005

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photo: Violetta and Nic

words Elaine Knutt

To anyone who wants to be a guerilla designer the message is get yourself an orange reflective jacket. They’re the perfect camouflage for the battle zone of the urban environment. Enemy territory is occupied by local authority planners, property developers, utility companies and people with clipboards. Operating legitimately is a battle for permits and permissions. To blend in, you need to look official.

Architecture student “Michael” and his collaborator wore their hi-viz jackets on a midnight incursion onto Piccadilly Circus. They erected Archair, two chairs connected by an arch of bamboo that framed Eros with surpising delicacy. “We had reflective jackets on and people didn’t suspect anything. The police were there, but they didn’t seem to mind or care. They were more preoccupied with the Pet Shop Boys [playing their soundtrack to Battleship Potemkin] in Trafalgar Square,” he says.

Trenton Oldfield and the London cell of the Office for Subversive Architecture used the same out-in-the-open camouflage on a politically motivated make-over of a disused signal box in Shoreditch, east London. OSA originally sought permission from the landowner, but were frustrated by a conservative culture that understands reasons to stop things rather than motivations to change them. So they jumped a wall with some white paint and a roll of astroturf and turned the concrete box into an ironic icon of half-timbered suburbia.

For their next project, OSA and Oldfield plan to roof over the gap between two buildings in east London and install a pool table, a simple architectural intervention to turn a blight into a destination. By putting cues and balls in the custody of a nearby shopkeeper, anyone can take up OSA’s invitation to play a few frames, and at the same time consider the conundrum of how “public art” has been privatised by funding bodies such as the Arts Council.

“There seems to be a dearth of installations and public art in London,” says Oldfield. “There’s a contrast between London promoted as a creative city, and people actually being able to do stuff. In other cities, it’s not seen as problematic, it’s seen as a part of art. Here, you have to struggle to communicate. You have to be a guerilla.”

This kind of “guerilla” activity has been taken up by retailers such as fashion label Comme des Garcons (icon 12), hat and footwear brand Kangol (icon 17), and a growing list of lifestyle labels including Umbro, Camper and Levi’s. The concepts vary, but the common factors are that the stores are temporary, improvised, and far less exclusive about what might be beautiful architecture.

If Archair and the signal box were protests about the built environment being too inflexible and impenetrable, the problem for these retailers is that it just moves too slowly. A retail flagship or even a store-in-store concession needs leases, lawyers, briefs and designers, then all the hassle of actually building it. Why wait when you can find an empty or under-occupied building and conduct a high-impact, low-cost guerilla campaign in a fraction of the time?

“A few years ago, we were concerned about every millimetre in the shop, now it’s a new way of thinking,” says Annika McVeigh, spokesperson for Comme des Garcons. The brand that once commissioned Future Systems and Kitchen Rogers Design and made architecture part of their product now says that architecture no longer sells clothes. “We did all that before everyone else. Now we’re on to the next thing.”

In 20 cities, Comme des Garcons will open year-long stores in locations resonant with their own sense of history and place. In Helsinki, the store is a 1950s pharmacy complete with original fittings, and in Warsaw, the label’s latest collections and vintage pieces are sold in the pillar of a bridge.

In eschewing conspicuously designed spaces for the rough edges of found spaces, retailers are following in the art world’s footsteps. One of the best-known precedents is the Tacheles squat on Berlin’s Oranienburger Strasse, where a ruined building was commandeered as gallery, studio and party space by a group of artists in 1990. In Paris, the Palais de Tokyo arts centre opened last year in a half-built cinema museum from the 1930s.

In London the surviving premises of an 18th-century gun shop in Soho are now trading in contemporary art as Riflemaker Gallery. Director Virginia Damtsa, who wanted an alternative to the neutral white cube, became a poster girl for English Heritage in her insistence on keeping the store exactly as she found it. “Architect?” Damtsa asks, surrounded by the original wood panelling, authentic colour scheme and drawers for bullets and cartridges. “Here is the architect.”

Piers Roberts and Rory Dodd of alternative design show designersblock also found that displaying designer products in unadulterated spaces removed any architectural “interference” and at the same time offered buyers an element of discovery. Last year, it temporarily occupied the Tea Building in Shoreditch , and this year it borrowed the Farmiloes Building in Clerkenwell. “It’s using space as you find it, working with what’s around you rather than imposing yourself on the building,” says Roberts. “It’s trying to use minimum impact for maximum impact.”

Roberts is aware that using found spaces is becoming something of an established pattern. “It’s an extension of people’s desire to do things in new ways, and the best of it will become standard practice. But it becomes devalued if people don’t know what motivated the original intention. If what you’re communicating isn’t appropriate to be communicated in this way, then you’re taking the medium rather than the message.”

In other words, beware of retailers dressing up in imitation hi-viz jackets. Without the driving impulse – a protest, a call to arms or genuine frustration with the status quo – guerilla retail is just an aesthetic, the watered-down commercial derivative of an authentic statement, like punk fashion.

The genuine guerilla movement draws on deeper ideological roots. The guerillas’ rejection of the restrictions of the built environment has similarities to agit prop architecture in Russia, or even artist Gordon Matta-Clark “interrupting” buildings and spaces in Manhattan and Paris in the 1970s.

Matta-Clark cut pieces out of condemned buildings to inscribe an alternative view of the built environment, using a chainsaw to draw attention to the people and activities that had been displaced. Not surprisingly, his rejection of the founding principle of architecture led to his work being rejected by the architectural establishment of the time. Moving on to a building that wasn’t condemned, he eventually became a genuine outlaw.

Today’s guerilla designers are unlikely to find themselves on the run, but do share Matta-Clark’s frustration that decisions on the built environment are in the hands of a tiny group of planners and developers. “Michael” was frustrated to find that it could take years to get permission to erect his installation in six London locations.
“It wasn’t so much a political statement, as an anti-establishment one. Why can’t I put something beautiful in a public space? The problem with getting the green light from the establishment is that it’s quite an impenetrable structure – it took Christo ten years to get permission to wrap the Pont Neuf. I looked at Christo and Jeanne Claude’s website, and it said ‘if you’ve got an idea, don’t come to us with it, just do it.’ And I thought, why not?”

OSA’s website (www.i-n-t-a-c-t.org) explains that the signal box project draws attention to the way only paid-up members of the development industry are involved in regenerating the Thames Gateway, which they see as the signal box’s inaccessible Shoreditch site writ large. “For me, it was about holding up a mirror to what’s happening in the Thames Gateway. Who’s stopping things, who’s encouraging things, what ideology are they driven by?” Oldfield asks.

Archair roused little more than curiosity from the Metropolitan Police, whose officers were satisfied by Michael’s assurance that it was a “student project”. But if the scale of the infringement can be measured by the scale of the reaction, OSA can claim genuine guerilla status. On return visits to the signal box house, OSA have found the windows smashed, the furniture removed, and lately the roof half torn off. They believe Network Rail, fearing that squatters would move in, was responsible.

It’s hard to imagine anyone breaking the law for the sake of selling a Kangol hat or a Comme des Garcons perfume: for these brands, guerilla retailing is more about finding an alternative channel for communicating with customers. When Comme Des Garcon’s McVeigh talks about guerilla retailing as “the next thing”, she’s probably absolutely right. Guerilla retailing isn’t so much a retail revolution, as a turn of the fashion wheel.

In New York there is already a guerilla retail estate agent, Location NYC Inc, which will now scout Manhattan’s lesser-known corners on retailers’ behalf for the perfect guerilla site.

But even diluted trends can take us in new directions, and this one is about moving away from architectural over-packaging. Kangol, for instance, conceived its store-exhibition-event hybrid in Brick Lane as a means of “getting away from brands’ slick concepts and stand-alone stores.” According to marketing director Bethan Alexander, “We wanted to be the antithesis of that, a bit raw and irreverent and avant-garde. That’s in the spirit of the brand, and in the spirit of what consumers want – less commercial, more personal and home grown.”

What is taking place is hardly an anti-architectural revolution. This is image-conscious commerce borrowing an aesthetic. What distinguishes the two strains of guerilla activity is that one is essentially a marketing tool, the other is direct action designed to highlight failings in the built environment. For one, you need nothing more than a good idea and a reflective jacket; for the other, a brand.

“Michael” and OSA intervened in the built environment in the name of spontaneity and individualism. Retailers are offering alternatives to the identikit design that produces mirror image stores from Milan to Moscow. So if you feel alienated from the built environment and think that a bit of architectural freedom fighting could be the answer, you can either get out your orange jacket – or your credit card.

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