How to design a space to engage people ?

Case study at Les Grands Voisins

Interactive machine (photo : Soizic Penicaud)

“Arrêtez de tirer sur la corde. Ne soyez pas pressés. Venez buller.”

These enigmatic instructions are combined with an enigmatic machine. I begin to touch. Is it meant to produce something ? After some trials, the machine starts to blow bubbles. Our little group is amazed and gathers around the machine. Everyone’s trying to blow the bubbles. Laughter.

This is just one example of the many surprises you can find at Les Grands Voisins (LGV).

In this former hospital, several associations got together in an ephemeral village. They want to create “multiple uses for the common good of everyone” (according to the website). Here, values are at the center of the project: hospitality, generosity, social innovation. This place aims at diversity. There are housing centers for people in need, offices for social businesses and associations, and a cool place to chill out.

When I came in, I was struck by the look of the place: wooden hand-made furniture, signs talking to you, pieces of art, people working in the sun. A quiet and friendly village-like atmosphere. I was in a bubble, different from the city outside of the great walls. Here, people are creating a utopia.

In this article, I want to explore the following question: what message does the physical space give to people, and how does it create interactions?

Explore. Play. Be active.

The place is meant to be interactive. It is full of items inviting people to play, to explore, to take part.

Photos 3 to 9 (see credits below)

Besides the playful machines and the artwork, there are many explicative signs, directed at the visitors, the resident, and the workers. Some boards explain the place’s purpose and how it works. There are also many pedagogical signs related to urban agriculture and sustainable development: compost, chicken coop, permaculture, bins, etc. At some strategic places with lots of traffic (Lingerie, the entrance of Robin square), there are interactive boards where everyone can write. Topics are diverse: new ideas for Les Grands Voisins, announcements, events, swap proposals.

Through all these items, it seems that the place is talking to people:

  • Artworks and games tell everyone: “You are in a creative place. Be creative !”
  • General signs about the place tell visitors: “Welcome. Here’s who we are and what we can do together.” It also tells to residents and workers : “Here’s our vision, the reason why we’re here together.”
  • Pedagogical signs tell everyone: “We care for the environment. That’s how we do it. You’re welcome to take part.”
  • Interactive signs tell workers and residents: “We are listening to you. Your opinion counts. Share your views about how life here can be better.”

In my opinion, all these elements strongly contribute to the spirit of the place. It is the container in which the vision can unfold. It is also a big part of the place’s identity for the outsiders. These signs and artwork are what one sees in the first place when coming from the first time. It makes you understand that you’re entering a unique space.

Swap board / Please put up / Do you have ideas for the neighborhood ? (photos 10 to 12, see credits below)

Experiment. Try. Be bold.

Les Grands Voisins is an ephemeral institution. It is meant to last two years. Then, the renovation work of the hospital will begin, to transform it into an eco-neighborhood. Pascale, one of the project’s coordinators, says that the transient aspect of the project gives a special mindset when it comes to renovating the buildings. “We have to go very fast and readjust little by little. (…) When we arrived, it was really very sad. We had to put some life back.”

We can still observe a mixture between LGV signage and the former hospitals. Some signs are just graffiti on old signs (see photo), old and new road markings superimposed…

We saw artists knitting around trees, items glues on a wall, probably by children. Here, the wasteland becomes an opportunity for creativity and experimentation.

The whole place is not yet rehabilitated, some work is still in progress. In the back, loads of trash from the hospital is still here, coming from the doctor’s house that is currently being renovated. It might become a raw material, who knows ?

Alongside the buildings, there is a lot of life. Almost every part of muddy floor is cultivated with vegetables or flowers.

These contrasts between trash and gardens, damaged buildings and bright colors, concrete walls and wood constructions are also meaningful. It tells about this place’s ephemerality, about boldness and not waiting for things to be perfect to enjoy them.

To me, this relates to what people are doing there. Among the workers, there are a lot of craftsmen, artists, social entrepreneurs in cultural or creative fields. The physical space is really congruent with this work.

Photos 13 to 17

Take part. Let’s do it together.

One of the main intentions of the LGV’s cofounders is to create diversity and interactions. According to Pascale, this was an important criteria when they were looking for organizations to rent the offices. The co-founders created a mix between associations, businesses and schools from different fields. They were also looking for “a specific mindset”: “being ready to meet others, being open”.

We can see in the organization of space that diversity is wanted, but only to a certain extent. 600 people (migrants and formerly homeless people) live at LGV, in 5 buildings out of 15, in the back of the site. In 4 of these 5 buildings, associations have their offices in the first floor, and people are living in the other floors. Even then, when walking around the site you can feel the difference of atmosphere between the resident’s area and the Lingerie’s area (which is kind of the village main square). This feeling was verified by observation. Very few people crossed this invisible frontier, apart from random tourists.

The Lingerie is the neuralgic center of the area, where lots of people gather at lunch time. The partnership’s coordinator of the coding school Webforce 3 told us that her students are used to eat at the Lingerie. “It enables them to meet people who have different points of view.” Not everybody feels the same, like this student of the nursing school: “We aren’t actually really in the thing”.

Photos 18 to 22 (see credits below)

In the Robin square, the atmosphere is different. We were there on a sunny day: at lunch time, people formed little groups in the square, enjoying their meal on the shadowed square. It was calm. It felt like a village’s square.

Robin square is closed by walls, with an open corridor that clearly marks the limit. It’s like a bubble in the bubble. Opposed to that, the Lingerie is an open zone more suitable to interactions between the different communities. On a wall, we can see a “Trucshop”, a giant swap board where people are invited to propose or ask for things. To encourage interactions, there are also various sport facilities: a bowls field, a football and basketball field, a badminton net. According to Pascale, “sport is a way to do things together. It is very used. People play every evening.”

Indeed, means to create interactions between communities are concrete. It is at the heart of the way the project came to life. The coordinators organized participative work to renovate the buildings, and to build furniture. All sorts of activities are a pretext to make workers and residents mixing, like painting a fresco or installing an artwork. The global coordination team communicates to people also through real life interactions: talk to each other, posters, or the Cafète mobile. The Cafète mobile is a trolley that goes around the place offering coffee and announcing the schedule every week. It is animated by a resident, that used to be very shut up. This activity enables him to open up.

Hands-on politics

Les Grand Voisins is a political place. People create the city they want to live in, through their daily work in their respective organizations, but also by creating this community.

It is a place for doers. The space invites you to go on an exploration with your five senses and to actively use them. Places, signs, and activities are some of the many opportunities to engage: touch things, open a discussion, take part inan activity, etc. Here, doing concrete things is the way to contribute to the community’s life. It is not meant for consumers but for people who are ready to take part, even as little as playing with the artwork and strange machines.

By designing the place, the cofounder organizations created opportunities. The site is congruent. They say little, but they do. And they engage people to do with them.

With a 4-hour field trip, we just scratched the surface. It would be interesting to explore further how people are seizing these opportunities to interact and engage, with the place as well as with others.

Photo credits:

Soizic Penicaud: pictures 1 / 2 / 22

Thomas Recanzone: pictures 3 / 18 / 19

Tudor Tarlev: picture 4

Shiori Kishi: picture 10

Anoop Bal: picture 20

Anthony Jahn: picture 21

All others are mine.

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