(IAP ’17) Nayeli Rodriguez, G

Nayeli Rodriguez (G, Urban Studies and Planning)

Nayeli will be creating images, video, and diagrams of a temporary mixed-use housing project in Paris, France. She will be conducting video interviews with users and residents of the site and surrounding neighborhoods, mapping relationships and movement throughout the site, and photographing the buildings and open space from both a documentary and urban design perspective. The goal of the project is to preserve the culture and memory of the project, which is scheduled to be demolished in summer 2017, and help Plateau Urbain, the site’s organizer, scale their temporary-use model to create more ephemeral projects in the future.

Check back for her updates!


2. Measuring the impact of time, as time is running out

My community partner Plateau Urbain, is responsible for negotiating and managing contracts for temporary occupancy in vacant buildings, and was one of the three piloting community organizations behind the creation of my research site, Les Grands Voisins.

Early on during my stay, the French president François Hollande visited the site which was very exciting, somewhat controversial, and got a lot of people talking about how to express the qualities of the site and the work that’s being done here–not only in a qualitative way but also more quantitatively (ie with numbers!) so that future developers and public authorities may be more convinced of the benefit of ephemeral projects in the future. The Grands Voisins site is scheduled to shut down in late 2017 and all of the people and organisations currently housed there will have to move–but where? The hope is that by demonstrating the positive impact this project has had, it will be easier to replicate similar projects or even negotiate the continued existence of the more successful aspects of this one. But demonstrating positive impact to a real estate developer means not only showing that the site is beautiful, fun, entertaining, and nurturing (although it is all of those things) it also means showing that it is economically viable, beneficial even, to its participants and surrounding neighborhood.

The Plateau Urbain team asked me to come up with a questionnaire, to be distributed among the non-resident users of the site, ie the employees, interns, NGOs, small businesses, and artists whose offices are based at Les Grands Voisins. The goal of this questionnaire was to quantify what, if any value, temporary occupancy at Les Grands Voisins had provided to these organizations, in addition to evaluating overall satisfaction with the experience. In creating this questionnaire, I had to balance quite a few variables. First of all, we needed responses–as many as possible. No data would be useful to us if we couldn’t present it as relatively representative of the entire group. Second, we needed responses to the right questions. Third, I needed to consider these responses with respect to time: was the temporary nature of users’ occupancy at Les Grands Voisins a factor in its success (or failure?)

I thought a lot about how to get the most responses possible, and settled on an online format that was extremely user-friendly and easy, almost fun even, to fill out. And I limited the number of questions that would be asked so people wouldn’t abandon it halfway through. Finally, I made all long answer questions optional–so people wouldn’t feel obligated to get personal.

Once the format was determined it was time to think about the content. In order to really evaluate the impact of users’ temporary occupancies, I asked a series of questions in exactly the same format, for the past, present, and future projections. I also asked specific questions about how users would categorize the impact of their time at the site, versus the impact of the site’s various resources, or their growth over the past year (which may or may not correspond to their time at Les Grands Voisins.)

To ensure the maximum number of responses, the Plateau Urbain team sent multiple follow-up reminders and one day another member and I went door to door to every office reminding people to fill out the questionnaire. That day, participation nearly doubled! Here’s one team who used the occasion of filling out the questionnaire as an opportunity to evaluate their work together more generally as a group:


Plateau Urbain will still be gathering and evaluating the results for a while, after all there were over 250 organizations contacted, and the project still has over a year to go. But, based on the first wave or responses, we were already able to see a few trends developing, and some of them were surprising. For starters, we asked people what the nature of their workspace was, prior to arriving at Les Grands Voisins.

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40% of people said that they worked at home, and 13% said that they didn’t have any previous place of work. Without drawing any full-blown conclusions, this early data begins to suggest that Les Grands Voisins is bringing people into closer proximity to one another, potentially allowing for professional collaborations that wouldn’t otherwise take place.

One of my favorite and most delightfully surprising response trends had to do with where people saw themselves working once they were forced to leave Les Grands Voisins, ie–what type of workspace did they see for themselves in the future.

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54%–the majority and way more than expected–responded that they wished to next work in a temporary occupation space (ie similar to the context of Les Grands Voisins.) Again, it’s impossible to draw any firm conclusions yet but this was surprising to everyone. This was because a lot of the team, including myself, assumed that most organizations were taking advantage of Les Grands Voisins as a temporary solution for their businesses/projects as a way to establish some financial and organizational stability while they were just getting started. We still assumed that many if not most were trying to work their way towards a more traditional office setting eventually, and saw themselves as in a state of transition between a temporary and a more permanent location. However, based on these responses it’s starting to look like some of the organizations actually enjoy the temporary occupancy context, and would like to continue working in that setting, even if it means moving again once the next temporary occupancy is over.

Finally, there’s this response, asking participants to rank the impact of Les Grands Voisins on their organizations from 1 to 5 with 5 meaning “Essential: the success of my organization has been assured due to its presence at Les Grands Voisins” and 1 meaning “Destructive: my organization has suffered because of its residency at Les Grands Voisins.”

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There are still more numbers to crunch and more responses to gather. Also, I seem to recall from my limited statistics knowledge that quantitative data compliments the expression of, but doesn’t necessarily reveal broader truths about human behavior, especially on an individual basis. However, its encouraging to see that, whether or not we understand yet exactly WHAT the impact of Les Grands Voisins has been, we can start to to see that people definitely think that their organizations have been impacted in some way.



1. Getting to Know Les Grands Voisins

Grands Voisins is a former hospital and current temporary occupancy project in the 14th arrondissement of Paris where over 350 housing units for new immigrants and other individuals; budget office space for service NGOs and startups; artist studios, gardens, camping facilities and resident-led programming all co-exist in (mostly!) harmony. The site is an ideal example of ephemeral urbanism: it’s all taking place because community groups were able to negotiate occupancy of the space for a few years until it’s redeveloped by the city and private owners.

I came here to document the approximately 37,000 square feet of the site because I’m interested in the relationship between urban design and time: how does time affect how we use and shape public space? Is there a way to design temporary spaces that take advantage of time to address specific urban needs?

It’s a huge task and I’ve got lots of plans to make maps and diagrams and of course, take tons and tons of photographs. My community partner for this project, Plateau Urbain, is also interested in investigating further into the economic and experiential impact of this project, specifically on the NGOs, small businesses, and artists who work here, in the hopes of developing more ephemeral projects at other sites in the future (more on that in a later post.)

Though I’d been here before, when I first arrived at Les Grands Voisins knowing that I’d be documenting the site suddenly everything seemed so much more vast and extensive and detailed than I’d remembered. To give you an idea, here’s an aerial view:

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To give you an even BETTER idea, here’s the map posted near the entrance to the site for public visitors who are discovering the site for the first time:


It’s huge! There are 15 separate buildings and over a 1500 people coming and going to the site every day. To get to know the space better, I spent a significant amount of my initial time there attending events and meetings, talking to people and following around one of the members of Plateau Urbain, Gautier Le Bail, who is in charge of (among many things) maintenance requests. Gautier is known by nearly everyone on the site because he is the one they call when things go wrong, and at a site like this one (whose oldest buildings date back to 1830!) a lot of things can go wrong. On one of my first days following Gautier we spent time on the roof of one of the tallest buildings, Pierre Petit, fixing the electricity. Here’s Gautier on the roof that day (it was pretty cold):


Fortunately for me and everyone who visits the site, it’s really easy to find your way around. This is because all of the signage (including the above map) was created very intentionally and creatively by a great team of mostly volunteer graphic artists lead by Pauline Escot. Understanding the signage was one of the first visual details that intrigued me and I believe it’s one of the site’s most important  (yet easily overlooked) aspects. The signs and visual communication not only orient users around the site, they also gives it a unique, recognizable, and inviting character; provide cues as to what is public and what is private (important considering there are private dwellings adjacent to public event spaces,) and offer suggestions on how to use the various outdoor areas, all the while giving a nod to Les Grands Voisins’ heritage as a former hospital. That’s a lot to ask of a few signs!

In terms of signage’s context in Urban Design, signage can totally dictate the mood and atmosphere of a public space, so it’s important that its visual quality sends the desired message. Good signage is the type of thing that is barely noticed when it’s functional, and is glaring and even dangerous when its not (think of stop signs–they’re sometimes life saving, and recognizable all over the world, but when was the last time you really took the time to study how one looked?)

It turns out, the signage at Les Grands Voisins was very carefully thought out and executed, starting with a a color palette that reflected the one present in the former hospital. This meant that all of the new signs would be a playful reminder of what used to exist, and also match with the site’s existing dominant colors. Since some areas are public and some are private at Les Grands Voisins, blue indicates areas that are generally closed to the public (light blue for residential, dark for workspaces) and yellow is for areas that are open to visitors:

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Each building was also given it’s own logo to help users be able to identify it on a map, even if they weren’t a) familiar with its name or b) able to read. Each building’s logo was inspired by an architectural detail from the building, which has the added benefit of providing a fun treasure hunt for people who know this fact and can try to find all of the inspiring details:

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Pauline and her team even invented a typeface, called “La Grand Voisine” which was inspired by some of the hospital’s old signage. This typeface is only used on signs seen in-situ, with another typeface (“La Petite Voisine”) being used for communication that is printed or distributed. Sometimes, signs around the site are playful or inviting so that users are encouraged to explore further or even participate and add their own messages, facilitating more interaction, participation, and collaboration:

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Learning about the thought process behind Les Grands Voisins’ signage was actually a huge a-ha moment for me in getting to know the site in that it revealed to me how, despite its size and occasional feelings of chaos, Les Grands Voisins is actually an incredibly ordered and well-executed project with many, many, layers. While it can feel overwhelming and random at times because there are so many different users interacting with the various spaces in so many different ways– there’s an underlying system to everything that goes on here. There’s method to the madness! And as an urban designer, its fascinating to think about how physical interventions as simple as the signs have had a subtle but significant role in shaping and supporting the lives of the people who live and work here.

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