“Public space is disorderly”
Anna Fridolin, Anna Pang and Teres Selberg – the architect trio behind the association Dansbana! discuss the importance of disorderly public space, their work designing spontaneous dance places for everyone, and the importance of positive stories about public space.
You’ve chosen Dansbana! ArkDes as the location for this discussion about public space and the themes explored in the exhibition Public Luxury. Why?
Anna Pang: The short answer is that we chose Dansbana! ArkDes because it’s our own work in the exhibition. But we could also have met at a place that has been an important reference for us, a traditional Swedish outdoor dance floor, which were long popular meeting places in Sweden. Or we could have met in Vårby gård, where we designed our first Dansbana!, or in Södertälje, where a third is being built. Another important reference is Rålambshovsparken, which is a park filled with “spontaneous sports places”, which are planned public spaces for outdoor activities, such as for example, an outdoor gym, skating parks, parkour parks and basketball courts. According to a study conducted by the City of Stockholm in 2012, spaces like these are primarily used by men and boys. Girls were underrepresented as users of all types of spontaneous sports places. We found that disturbing, both from a health perspective and a democracy perspective, and we wanted to do something to change those statistics. Because we know that many girls, and others, like to dance we imagined doing a contemporary update of the traditional Swedish outdoor dance floor, but for many different types of dance and dancers. To label the update of the historical building type, we added a big D and an exclamation mark and in 2014 we started the organisation with the same name, Dansbana!
Teres Selberg: Our goal is to create places for dance with girls as the main target group. To find out how and where they want to dance, we’ve developed a method that engages girls throughout the entire process, from site selection to design and activation. Target group descriptions are tricky though, who’s included and who’s excluded? The places we design are public and for everyone, of course. For example, we know that it’s smart to invite dance organisations to use the places and fill them with different types of dance. Dance inspires dance.
Anna Fridolin: Another important fundamental concept when we design the dance places is that they should be site specific, permanent and well-built – not just temporary pop-ups.
The exhibition is called Public Luxury – what is public luxury for you?
Teres Selberg: The crystal chandeliers in the Moscow metro, or Kulturhuset in Stockholm. They create experiences that are beyond what one would expect. Another example is Lina Bo Bardi’s Sao Paulo Museum of Art, which is raised above the ground, creating a large public square below it. We want architecture to offer something more, both aesthetically and spatially.
Anna Pang: As a concept, spontaneous sports spaces primarily signal function. The phrase doesn’t signal luxury when you say it for the first time. We think it’s fun to take a dry concept and fill it with architecture. The “spontaneous sports places for dance” that we design must provide something beyond pure function. The places should also look good and have their own character.
Teres Selberg: The concept of “luxury” is relative. I have family in Guinea Bissau and every time I come back here, I can feel happy over something as basic as a lamp turning on.
Anna Fridolin: Yes! After living in Honduras as a teenager, I began to appreciate pedestrian crossings. It was an impressive feeling, to walk across the street and presume cars would stop.
Tell us more about Dansbana! ArkDes.
Anna Pang: It’s a place for spontaneous dancing, located at Exercisplan outside the entrance to Arkdes and it welcomes visitors and the public to connect to speakers via Bluetooth, play music and dance. The dance floor is a weatherproofed wooden floor 7.5 x 7.5m with three metal figures that house the sound technology. The figures have human-like features – a hand, an eye and an arm. We were inspired by the sculpture groups on Skeppsholmen, like Picasso’s “Breakfast in the Green” and Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Paradise.”
Anna Fridolin: We were actually a bit concerned about the location, that it might not attract people when the museum is closed. Even though Skeppsholmen is situated in the middle of Stockholm, it’s still an island with mainly museums and institutions on it, and people don’t naturally move around there in the evening. But that hasn’t happened at all – during the summer, people have danced here almost every night. Both spontaneous dance and dance in more structured forms, where dance organisations or groups have booked time.
Teres Selberg: Our idea from the very beginning has been that Dansbana! ArkDes must have a permanent location when Public Luxury closes. We think it’s super important. It takes time to “establish” a dance place, so people know it exists and keep coming back. We’re planning to have a discussion with the museum and the people who’ve used the place about how and where would be a suitable permanent location for it.
What does your project do for public space in general?
Anna Pang: We’ve understood that Dansbana! Vårby gård, which opened in 2016, has become a reference. There were no places like it before and it became very successful. We’ve been invited to various institutions to talk about our work and the site has been nominated for different prizes. Vårby gård was the reason Arkdes invited us to participate in Public Luxury. Now more municipalities want a place for spontaneous dance. That’s fun! At the same time, we’re feeling a frustration at the moment. Often, they approach the architects they have a framework agreement with, or go out on public tender, which is hard to win if you’re like us, a small player. There’s a good basic idea behind public procurement, to prevent corruption, but it often favours big players, and doesn’t always result in good architecture.
Teres Selberg: In Södertälje and Vårby gård we’ve worked directly with the municipality and it has given us the opportunity to influence site selection, get the support of dancers and plan for activation. We believe the projects have been so successful because we’ve worked outside the traditional framework and influenced the project formulations.
Anna Fridolin:I also think there’s another level to your question, what our work can do for public space. By working with local dancers and girls in the design process, we also want to give them an opportunity to influence how the city and public spaces look and function.
What is public space for you?
Anna Pang: Public space is disorderly. It must be allowed to be that, because it consists of many different groups and individuals. We like diversity and variation and dance reflects that in a good way. We want to create a place where all different expressions are made visible and we’ve deliberately sought out very different dance groups in our participatory processes. We want to include both historical baroque dance and breaking. The public conversation today is also characterised a lot by threats: climate threats, terrorist threats, honour murders, right-wing populism. All of that exists of course, but there’s also so much else. We’ve meet a lot of positive voices and forces in our work.
Anna Fridolin: I also think one has ask oneself, who is benefiting from all threats? Those who sell surveillance systems? I think we’re still relatively safe and free and that freedom is worth more than possessions.
Returning to the question of public space and how we relate to it – what are the biggest changes we’re experiencing in this area in Sweden today?
Anna Fridolin: Privatisation and commercialisation have become the new norm. As a result, public spaces are shrinking. Spontaneous sports places are a way of creating space for people who aren’t members of clubs and associations or can’t afford to participate in commercial activities.
Teres Selberg:Then we have “overprogramming,” the fact that all spaces in the city are built upon or have a function. If we want to be self-critical, we’re part of that – while, at the same time, dance itself is so free.
How do you deal with, or approach, groups that aren’t homogeneous or may have difficulty making their voices heard?
Anna Fridolin: As we said earlier, we like disorder, so we’re curious. That’s why we actively look for people and groups that we believe may be interested in using the dance places we design. Sometimes we’ve been a bit brazen, gone up to people we saw dancing outdoors in the city and asked if they wanted to participate and test dance different places with us. We also contact schools, youth recreational centres and different associations in areas where we work and engage professional dancers in our participatory processes in order to attract and inspire local dance enthusiasts.
Anna Pang: Even though we started Dansbana! as a reaction to something we thought was wrong, we don’t see ourselves as working with “problem-solving architecture”. We want to create architecture with its own character: nice places that can inspire people to meet through dance.