Events, Interviews

Escaping the City from Within: Van Alen Institute’s Periphery Program

Van Alen Institute launches an exciting new public program titled Periphery. Through a series of evocative debates, performances and urban interventions, they examine the forces that shape the city’s periphery, considering gentrification, immigration and demographic shifts, among various processes. In collaboration with Splacer, the Institute will host a variety show at a vacant Clinton Hill church On Thursday, November 5. See more info here.

In preview of the event, we checked in with David van der Leer, the Institute’s Executive Director, for a conversation about escapes, living experiences and the city streets:

Splacer: Could you share what led you to develop the concept for this initiative Elsewhere: Escape and The Urban Landscape?

David van der Leer: Looking at the concept of “escape” provides a poetic yet broad framework for exploring serious elements of the urban experience at various scales. As we’ve used Elsewhere as a lens for our programs, competitions, and research over the past two years, it has allowed us to look at such issues as mindfulness, transportation, addiction, and more with a fresh perspective.

S: It seems this initiative might shed new light on past explorations conducted by Van Alen. What could you tell us about the inner history of the Institute and its relation to this project and these areas of research?

DVDL: Van Alen has been looking at architecture and cities for over 120 years, and we have been reflecting on that history over the past two years through public programs, an online exhibition, and upcoming book. Through this process, we’ve rediscovered past design competitions that offered students and architects an “escape” from traditional pedagogy and practice to consider sites ranging from a proposed monument in the New Mexico desert to a research station in Antarctica.

Photographs by Cameron Blaylock

S: How would you characterize the experience of current living in a big city? Are there other forms of living that become emblematic with this day and age?

DVDL: Living in the contemporary city is a highly sensorial experience, which can be exhilarating but sometimes overwhelming. One of the most rewarding parts of Elsewhere has been the opportunity to look at how we can escape within the city rather than from it, be it in the form of meditation in Central Park, canoeing down Newtown Creek, playing an interactive game while riding the subway, or simply hanging out.


S: Does the particular urban character of NYC influence the desire to explore mental and physical escape?

DVDL: As one of the larger, denser cities in the world, New York City certainly makes the impetus to escape all the more relevant, but we’re also increasingly interested in taking our work to other cities in the U.S. and abroad. For example, we’re currently wrapping up a competition in New Orleans looking at the reuse of vacant land, and are in the research phase of a project in London in partnership with Imperial College that asks how the shape of the built environment might impact addictive behaviors. All of these projects have a nuanced interpretation of “escape.”


S: Could you elaborate on the curatorial process characterizing Elsewhere and your work with the participants?

DVDL: We emphasize bringing participants from many disciplines into our programming. So, while we always have architects and designers involved, we also gain new insights by inviting performance artists, sociologists, neuroscientists, and more to lend their expertise on how we escape. Their role can range from leading an interactive walk tour to telling a story of arriving in New York, or collaborating with our team to plan an engaging panel discussion.


S: In past curatorial projects, you experimented with opening institutional spaces to the street, and exposing the inner workings of the museum to the public arena. I wonder how do such experiences impact this recent project, as well as how you perceive space and its potential for critical engagement.

DVDL: Our twice-annual program festivals certainly activate our programming hub in the Flatiron District in distinct ways with new audiences, and you’re correct that we also depart from the Institute to engage the city as a whole. By bringing attendees to spaces in the city where they might not typically venture, or to consider elements of a familiar space in a new way can help facilitate different forms of escape.


S: Where do you see the meeting points between Van Alen’s activity and core values with Splacer?
DVDL: At Van Alen, we’ve been interested in looking at existing urban spaces in entirely new ways, from a competition we held in 1996 to envision how Governors Island could be transformed into the remarkable public space it is today, to how Times Square could be more than an intersection, but have a built structure that today is the iconic TKTS booth where visitors can sit on the stepped roof and take in the sights. I view Splacer as completing this process at a temporary, intimate scale that similarly allows citizens to engage in their city in previously impossible ways.