Reprogramming the city

Reprogramming was defined in the exhibition as “… expanding the functionality of a structure or system beyond its prescribed role; enabling urban assets to become agile responses to changing urban needs.”

So, essentially, it is adapting the infrastructure of the city for new roles and new demands.

In the past infrastructure has been constructed to respond to a demand and solve a specific problem, so for instance building a transport system to cope with large numbers of people moving between where they live and where they work, but the suggestion here was that imagination and innovation might change not only what we do and how we live but we could do many things in a very different way … and this has become more urgent because the pressure for change is increasing as cities and towns are expanding so rapidly. Basically, it is important to not just wait for the problem to arise and only then try to come up with a solution. 

And instead of being pessimistic about change and expansion, the message was to be optimistic because urban space can adapt and there are huge opportunities if we are flexible and imaginative.

One major conclusion was that “The existing stock of the city is a vastly underutilized resource. By realizing the potential stored within the city’s structures, systems and surfaces, we have the ability to solve some of the most pressing urban problems by using what we already have in new ways.”

The exhibition covered of a number of case studies and trials that have been implemented in various cities and with some interesting results. For instance in Umeå in Sweden the bus company installed anti-SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) bulbs in the shelters at bus stops and subsequently bus use in the Winter doubled.

In Austria it was clear that the need for public telephone boxes has declined as a large proportion of the population now has mobile phones so Telekom Austria is experimenting with a scheme to convert its network of telephone boxes into charging stations for electric cars.

As transport infrastructure in some cities has become redundant through the construction of alternatives it does not have to be demolished but can be given a new use that can revitalise an area - the most obvious example of this is the High Line Park in New York - but other schemes were shown where spaces under bridges in Stockholm and redundant bridges from the old trolley-car system in Milwaukee could be adapted for new uses. In Copenhagen the DFDS terminal for the ferries to and from Oslo has been moved to the north harbour and the area of the old terminal, immediately north of the Royal Danish Theatre, is to become a new public square by the water.

One very interesting point made about the relationship with the infrastructure of a city was that however large the buildings and however complex the road and rail systems, the structures that surround them have to remain at a human scale … simply a post box in scale with the building it stands next to would be unusable ... so the infrastructure is physically the link between the people and the space and the buildings. We may feel swamped by the numbers of people crowded into an urban space but bus stops, traffic signs, seats, steps, and so on all have to remain at a “recognizable” and useable human scale.

One clear message of the exhibition was to urge cities to not be constrained by simply accepting a conventional view of buildings and spaces and how they can be used. One section looked at the roof of Nelleman House in Æbeløgade that is now a large garden used for growing food and there was a proposal in 2002 from the architectural practice BIG to convert the roof of the department store Magasin into a large new park but, unfortunately, not realised.

The main message was to unlock the potential in urban structures and spaces because the alternative - demolishing a structure and building something else - might not be the best way forward.

There were a number of events connected with the exhibition including an installation on the square in front of DAC.

The exhibition was curated by Scott Burnham and was first shown in Boston in 2013 but was expanded for Copenhagen. It was at the Danish Architecture Centre from 1st October 2014 until the 4th January 2015.