When curiosity strikes…
Last week, in Bangkok, I visited a magical little place…
“…that is the corner I got married in!” – recounts a friend, remembering what a lady said as she walked in to the Dance house for the first time after twenty years.
Nang Loeng, the neighbourhood where the Dance House can be found is very well known for having once been a centre for cultural activities in the city. The locals call themselves the ‘community of stars’ because of the generations of famous artists, musicians, dancers and actors that have been and gone.
It used to be a dance school but since it closed it gradually became a derelict space due to lack of maintenance. After being empty for many years, the owner decided she wanted to use it for the good of the community. A community that lives in both formally and informally constructed homes built along and over the waterways of this old neighbourhood.
But as the space has gradually transformed through the ideas and efforts of the community in collaboration with Open Space and with the support of Red Bull, the opportunities and possibilities for the Dance House continue to multiply.
So far, there has been an incremental process of design and reconstruction within the old school. It seems to have allowed for a people-centred and people-led transformation. For example the first time people were able to enter the space, once the first changes had been made to strengthen the structure of the house, they were able to experience the space and touch it. This says Open Space, triggered more ideas for its further changes, which they were then able to contribute in future collective design workshops. So the process is based on the value of giving time and flexibility for changes to take place not only in the space itself but also as an element of people’s daily dynamics; making it part of their routines and building the sustainability of its use.
Open Space described the process of transformation as an opportunity to learn about the history of the building as well as the history of the community. As the materials are re-used, stories of their original place and function in the school are discovered, allowing the design to revisit and articulate these original elements in to the design of the new space and preserve the recorded history of the community within its structure.
“This middle column used to be the “partner column”, for students who didn’t have a partner to dance with…”
What I find most inspiring about this process is that it is not only the transformation of a space in its physical design and re-construction but it is also paralleled with community activities, dancing events, exhibitions and the work of a local art group.
It is also an important space for local children, particularly those who cannot attend school because of financial difficulties.
“…we put out a call for cassettes and people started turning up with bags of them, some of people were artists we know and really like!”
So this really encapsulated how the transformation of physical spaces in the city can also play a role in the transformation of communities. Through this process, the community has taken action, organised and appropriated themselves of a process that strengthens collective capacity, social fabric and knowledge. This is the most important element of this project, which is that the community itself, particularly the community leader who has volunteered for her community for the past 30 years, is pulling the rains and giving it direction.
Thinking beyond the space…
Today, Nang Loeng is under threat of the city’s plans for local gentrification (read: “Gentrification: Friend or Foe?” for more info on this term). A large part of this residential area will be transformed into a station for the Metropolitan Rapid Transit (MRT) system.
As areas like these are gentrified, so is their social fabric and composition, that is often what eventually pushes people away from their homes and communities.
Whilst this space, re-imagined by its community, is part of a story that shows the beauty and strength of small change and will luckily remain between the stations that are planned to be built; there is a pressing question. Will the community that has been part of this process, invested their time, energy and passion in to it, be able to continue benefiting from its on-going metamorphosis; particularly as the rest of the city continues to grow and follow its own agenda of transformation?