Stock up on Dreams

EXTENTS and stock-a-studio create virtual spaces for Collective Reality

Thanks to AR, Collective Reality was more than the sum of its parts. (Cyrus Peñarroyo)

In one of the oldest neighborhoods in Cleveland, a group of architects, designers, and software developers are imagining the future of citizen-led urban development. Collective Reality: Image without Ownership took over an empty ground-floor retail space in Slavic Village earlier this month, featuring a low-fi installation of bright red foam, matte-black steel frames and an invisible, virtual overlay of crowdsourced urban objects. The installation, as explained by the creators, was meant to “allow citizens to engage in conversations about urban development by creating images of possible neighborhood futures.”

The team behind this piece, Laida Aguirre (stock-a-studio), McLain Clutter and Cyrus Peñarroyo (EXTENTS), and Mark Lindquist, hailing from the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning and the School of Environment and Sustainability, collaborated directly with the Slavic Village Development nonprofit group and LANDstudio to create a space which is referred to as a “laboratory for the development of the Collective Reality software.” The software, programmed by two other University of Michigan researchers, Frank Deaton and Oliver Popadich, is an augmented reality application that filled the exhibition space with a growing collection of virtual objects, spaces and, to the expectations of its creators, prospects of a new imagined city.

Interior of a derelict storefront with red foam blocks

The Collective Reality installation was composed of simple, high-contrast materials. (Cyrus Peñarroyo)

Slavic Village, located near the industrial valley of Cleveland, has experienced a difficult decade of stagnant development after a majority of properties foreclosed during the 2007 financial crisis. While the housing bubble’s burst may seem like the primary culprit for its decrepit state, the neighborhood fits a list of textbook definitions for urban decline: The rapid disappearance of manufacturing, declining populations, loss of urban amenities, high amount of low-quality housing, poverty, and crime. Perhaps the most relevant ingredient in this cocktail of urban depression is the lack of outside investment, where only a few courageous individuals have decided to stake a claim in the future of this important area.

It is this last ingredient which Collective Reality attempts to confront. Conventional urban development depends on capital to both create and envisage change; growth depends on how well an idea can be imaged, presented, and sold, typically consuming vast amounts of resources during its approval processes. Slick renderings require advanced computing and educated skill sets. Maps and other forms of urban planning communication are criticized for their exclusivity to the disciplines which produced it. Community board meetings, one potential space for citizen engagement, often take place in difficult to reach places or during times of which individuals can not afford to attend. These structures of urban development privilege wealth over local embedded knowledge, especially in places like Slavic Village where the socioeconomic divide is drastic.

People sitting on top of red foam blocks

Although the materials were simple, Collective Reality was arranged for ease of use. (Cyrus Peñarroyo)

The team of Michigan-based researchers questions this status quo, asking if technology—specifically augmented reality—can offer opportunities to separate imagination from monetary means. The installation’s interactive process empowers citizens to bridge this planning gap through devices more familiar to the everyday urban user. Upon entering the space, visitors are presented with a prompt—a request to capture several photographs of favorite spaces, places, and objects around the neighborhood with no more than a camera phone. Photographs are sent to the researchers, photogrammetrically transformed into three-dimensional objects, and then placed within the virtual environment of the gallery space. Visitors were encouraged to use one of the provided tablets to interact, manipulate and explore the collective imagination embedded within the augmented reality application. The physical installation, while seemingly in competition with its virtual counterpart, offered material targets for the application to recognize and attach to.

Red foam blocks cut into by steel rectangles

Intersecting black steel and red foam. (Cyrus Peñarroyo)

In reality, the exhibition was no more than a funhouse of soft foam blocks to play with and climb on, at least in the minds of the children that visited. While the creators and their beta-stage augmented reality software ask important questions on citizen engagement, bottom-up planning, and collective empowerment in the age of ever-increasingly accessible technology, the physical nature of the gallery permits its users to actually act out their collective imagination. The bare, unadorned geometries of the red foam and steel frames were reminiscent of the simplistic playgrounds designed by Aldo van Eyck in post-war Amsterdam. It was the playground, he argued, which literally gives space to the imagination. This unintentional consequence of Collective Reality points out an important aspect of community development: the spaces and architectures which promote social interactivity are vitally important to the creative imagining of possible futures.

Collective Reality: Image without Ownership ended on October 19, 2019. The gallery is located at 5322 Fleet Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44015.

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