John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
The proposed learning center looks like a blimp got stuck in a rubbish bin.
Garbage bins are eloquent purveyors of info: Food scraps say what people have eaten, crumpled receipts where they've been, contraband the secrets they're hiding. So it's fitting that educators at a proposed learning center in New York would hand out lessons not within a traditional classroom, but inside a big ol' dumpster more suited to storing construction debris and industrial waste.
The Inflato Dumpster is a "mobile learning laboratory" designed by street-tinkerer John Locke, who runs the made-up Department of Urban Betterment with collaborator Joaquin Reyes when not working at architectural firm The Living. Locke loves transforming humdrum city objects into unlikely mechanisms for the public good. In 2011 and 2012, for instance, he went around Manhattan installing guerrilla libraries in unused payphones. The garbage laboratory sticks to his penchant for rethinking public spaces: He wants to rent a double-long dumpster, blow an inflatable roof over it, and give classes inside on how to interact with the urban environment.
Naturally, this 22-by-8-foot space wouldn't be the standard trash-pit reeking of coffee grounds and dripping with mysterious substances. In Locke's vision, the billowing roof is spun from shiny silver-and-gold mylar and looks like an airship whose captain has docked to grab a bagel. Circular apertures allow beams of sunlight to illuminate a central table, where visitors can collaborate on building solar-powered air-quality monitors, LEDs that are activated by sound, and other doodads popular with today's DIY generation.
Locke says that the strange project, now open for funding on Kickstarter, was inspired by "Gordon Matta Clark and his work with dumpsters that dealt with questions of housing and domesticity in the early 1970s." He hopes to roll it out by the winter at various intersections near his Upper Manhattan home, including perhaps Harlem, Manhattan Valley, and Morningside Heights. Here's a bit more description about the Inflato that he sent over on Wednesday:
I have always been interested in ways to transform existing structures, and was drawn to the idea of turning something typically associated with waste and discarded materials into a space for something exciting and new. This, in turn, led to exploring the invisible lightness of the inflatable in relation to the steel of the dumpster and the heavy demolition work of machines and tools.
Also, seeing a construction dumpster on the street in New York invariably indicates change, whether a new condo going up or a renovation going in. Either way, the endpoint is often exclusionary in nature. In this project, the dumpster still indicates a temporal event, however, we hope that it triggers a ripple of aftereffects that will germinate practical ideas and actions that are more inclusionary and empowering for the neighborhood.
As to the question of possible damage from seagull beaks or neighborhood kids – who doesn't enjoy popping a big balloon – Locked indicates that he has on standby a "rapid-repair team (i.e. a person with a big roll of tape)."
"One of the benefits of inflatable space is that, in order to maintain buoyancy, the interior pressure only needs to be slightly higher than that of the outside," he says. "So any tear in the fabric would produce a very slow, gradual deflation that can be easily repaired. We also anticipate deflating the space at night, or at other times when scheduled events or workshops are not occurring."
The Inflato is just one of the latest public interventions in New York revolving around some kind of rubbish bin. At the rate they're sprouting up, you could maybe spend the morning studying urban hacking in the Inflato dumpster, cool off with an afternoon swim in the Gowanus swimming dumpster, and eat a home-cooked dinner with the oddball living inside a customized Red Hook dumpster.
Here are some renderings of the Inflato bulging on the block:
Images courtesy of John Locke / DUB