Heavy trash: Design Activism

What’s so great about gated communities?

An anonymous design group, Heavy Trash, exemplifies how suggestive design and innovation can shed light on the problems areas of the current built environment and instigate positive change. Ed Blackely in the book Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States states, “… The quality of community is no different in gated communities, even though residents have moved to gated areas believing that they would find their nostalgic idea of community, they have not. In fact, these communities promote privacy within privacy: residents tend to stay in their own backyard and do not visit on porches or front lawns.” How and in what ways can design begin to address this issue? With the power of design activism, Heavy Trash has found a way to do just that.

Gated communities have become a more common and widely accepted or even desirable built condition in sprawl of cities across America. The walls of these enclosed neighborhoods communicate power and security, but they also represent isolation and fear. Peter Marcuse stated in his article Wall of Fear and Walls of Support, “Boundary walls have come to reflect one of the chief characteristics of our historical experience: that those who oppress are themselves limited by their oppression.” While walls can demarcate racial differences and boundaries of control, gated communities demonstrate leverage and supposed social capital within the boundaries of the idealized neighborhood. In a nation where faith and trust in its government and each other is extremely low, developers market gated communities as safe, stable property values, and additional amenities which can be seductive. However, it is the very gates and walls that surround the communities that reinforces this fear and uncertainty and communicates to all others outside the walls that they are not welcome.

The built environment suggests much more than formal composition or architectural language; it can reinforce or deteriorate social, economical and environmental issues. In this case the walls and gates that surround communities strengthen social and economic differences. At the same time, the designers at Heavy Trash, use design as a method to shed light on gated communities and the architecture of fear. Heavy Trash is an anonymous arts organization of architects, designers, and urban planners that creates large, disposable art objects that begin to shed light on problematic urban issues. Their most notable project was in 1997, a 2,000 pound temporary staircase that climbed over a 7’ high fenced public park. The bright orange staircase received an immediate response from the city and the fence that was originally erected to keep the homeless out, was removed. Since 1997, Heavy Trash was designed and constructed “viewing platforms” that are conveniently placed right outside of popular gated communities in California.

The viewing platforms are suggesting or challenging the perceived safety and isolation of gated communities and how oppressive they are to all others outside the walls.  Heavy Trash’s stairs and viewing platforms are another great example of how design can activate change and communicate messages much larger that architectural language. While gates and walls of communities are also communicative, these design activism projects show how design can instigate positive change and equally influence the built environment.


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