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Community fostered by design – the MenaLabs Series

Posted on 30 October 2011 by Alice

Tasmena’s MENAlab project offers members of society an interactive forum to identify and discuss the relationship between a city, its people and its culture

By Alice Johnson, Special to Weekend Review

  • Image Credit: Arshad Ali/Gulf News
  • Participants during the launch of the new phase of the MENAlab 2011 by The JamJar in Al Quoz

Have you ever looked around your community and wished that a communal area was nearer your home? Mapping Dubai’s community design is what the Tasmena MENAseries is all about. Now in its second year, the series aims to connect members of the community, helping them discuss, collaborate, learn and “contribute to society through design”, facilitated by holding a number of MENAlabs (walks, discussions and workshops).

Part of the MENAseries, the MENAlab aims to reconnect community members with their city and help them gain an understanding of the relationship between city, people and culture. The organisation is described as “flat and organic”, consisting of “peers working for the betterment of humankind. No egos, no politics. Just doing good work. This structure will grow organically on its own and expand accordingly as the need arises, with a design system of project-driven research, development and community engagement,” the Tasmena social networking page says.

Tasmena was founded by Adina Hempel (German), Yunsun Chung-Shin (Korean) and Nasreen Al Tamimi (Emirati). Hempel is assistant professor of interior design at Zayed University and a qualified architect. Yunsun also works at Zayed University as assistant professor in the art and design department. And Al Tamimi, also a qualified architect, is projects development manager at Al Ahli Holding Group.

The non-profit design association aims to develop “place-specific design solutions for sustainable urban living”. The word “Tasmena” is a combination of “tasmeem” (Arabic for “design”) and “mina” (“port”), making Tasmena a design port for the exchange of ideas.

This year, the association has teamed up with the arts venue and creative space The JamJar, based in Al Quoz. “The idea was to plan out a forum with people from different cultural, national, social backgrounds,” Hempel told Weekend Review.

“We were interested in talking to people, but also in creating an international dialogue and changing the perception of what Dubai has,” she said at a Tasmena information evening held at the JamJar recently.

This year’s MENAlab project, “Discovering Al Quoz”, started with a series of walks aimed at understanding the Al Quoz neighbourhood. A dichotomous mix of factories, warehouses, industrial outlets and blooming art galleries, Al Quoz has been described as a “visually rich” landscape. Creative companies have flocked to the industrially dominated area, including design stores, car showrooms and creative agencies.

Understanding the social fabric

With a series of activities until December, Tasmena and The JamJar invited the public to engage with the district to glean an understanding of the area and its complex social fabric.

“Al Quoz has been home to The JamJar for many years now and we have always been committed to changing perceptions of this dynamic area. Through projects that foster community engagement, our activities and initiatives [such as ArtintheCity] have encouraged a culturally aware audience to venture into Al Quoz, in particular the ArtBus, of which the most popular route has become Al Quoz. Our collaboration with Tasmena is the perfect opportunity to work further towards understanding the neighbourhood and how its communities can integrate,” said Rachael Brown, head of special projects at the arts venue.

Participants walked, cycled or rollerbladed along a planned route for two hours — accompanied by a guide from The JamJar — to “map” the area.

“Al Quoz is another ‘extreme locality’ in Dubai in its appearance, sounds, textures and flavours. The discovery walks create the opportunity to engage with this area and its community and peel back its different layers, sparking ideas to initiate design. This is part of the wider aim of the MENAlab 2011 project to reconnect people with their city,” said Yunsun, director of Tasmena.

Community members joining the walks recorded what they saw by taking notes or photographs. Items and areas of interest recorded during the walk included any aspect where design could be improved. For example, if a road they walked down didn’t have a street sign, the need for one would be recorded. If sandy areas between accommodation blocks were empty, the potential for a communal garden or a playground was suggested.

“One of the main aims is exchange — really understanding that design is not just about a pretty sculpture but that it really has a use and is really determined towards needs,” Hempel said.

“There may be an area that’s empty [wasteland], but all the inhabitants around it may have the need for some kind of communal space. Design has to respond to something, even a chair,” she added.

Participating community members attended an information evening at The JamJar on October 1 to find out what the project is about and gain an introduction to the vibrant district.

The discovery walks

The two discovery walks were held on October 8 and October 15, allowing participants to discover the area themselves. After mapping, photographing and taking notes on the area, the walkers converged back at The JamJar project base and discussed their findings. Maps were made available at the arts location, for those who wanted to conduct their own walk between October 8 and October 29, before the Al Quoz Route workshop on the latter date.

The workshop was devised to engage participants, allow them to share information collected during the walks and suggest key routes within the district. An open submission process will be held from October 29 to November 19, encouraging community members to identify and suggest the key areas that embody Al Quoz.

On November 19, the call for proposals for the MENAlab will be held. Feedback from this will then be collated and presented during the “labs” held on December 9 and December 10. Final presentations will be held on December 13.

A Culture and the City roundtable discussion complemented this MENAlab. Held on October 11, the discussion focused on how culture is defined. The main question asked during the discussion was how the presence of community members in Al Quoz contributed to the culture of the area. Participants were asked how they feel connected to the area, what their main activities in the district are and both what and where they would like to visit, buy, find and do in Al Quoz overall.

Hempel feels that a lot of people don’t see the potential of the city they live in. “I think … a lot of people don’t see the creative potential and the very different growth of the city. We tried to a) create dialogue and b) have everyone understand what potential can do to a city,” Hempel said.

According to the co-founder, the planning process for a city can be “bureaucratic and very political”, with a lack of community research. For example, Hempel suggests going into the community and asking members whether a disused space could be more effectively used as a playground or a school.

“Sometimes governments or other authorities plan something according to their data; but that’s not always what’s in immediate need. I know that from my own experience,” she said.

The first MENAlab “Cutting Through the City”, held earlier this year, invited attendees to “actively find out what is ‘extreme’ about localities through their visual, vocal, sensorial and emotional stories”.

Designed to investigate design approaches in four areas of Dubai, the first MENAlab took participants through Al Quoz, Satwa, Dubai Creek (Ras Al Khor) and Business Bay. These districts were chosen for their varying social fabric and groups, which individually form their own identities.

Al Quoz was selected as an area of focus in the first project because it experiences a high rate of change. For instance, this district changes drastically from day to night.

“During the day it’s a kind of industrial area and at night it becomes an art district; so there’s a change in character, appearance and then the use of it,” Hempel said.

“Satwa is a historic change,” she said, referring to its redevelopment, while “Ras Al Khor is an area which has changed place in the development of Dubai, from being the seed of the development of the city to now showing the modern face of the city.”

Business Bay, as one of the newer parts of the city, provides imagery of the old versus the new, making it the “counterpoint of the new image of Dubai”, the architect said.

The four areas were selected because they experience some kind of change, she continued, “whether it be cityscape-wise, society-wise or it function-wise. They all have areas other than what they are used for — you could say that have a direct counterpoint.”

According to Tasmena, each of these localities is unique in its appearance, aroma, sounds, texture and flavour, engaging all senses. “Each locality is shaped by its people, their languages, the buildings, the open spaces, and the places to meet, eat, sit, work and play. Each locality has its stories, from untold stories, childhood stories, gossip stories to headline stories. All these localities have one commonality; they exist in Dubai, the city of ‘extreme’ localities,” the association believes.

The first of four walks for the first MENAlab took participants on foot, beginning in the Downtown Burj Khalifa area, crossing the city to Jumeirah Beach. Each walk was followed by a workshop. These workshop “labs” were designed for community members to “interpret their experiences and share their findings, produce narratives and initiate active dialogue with the public through presentation”, a Tasmena release states.

An interactive exhibition followed the series of walks and workshops, showcasing the information gleaned and encouraging the public to engage in developing an understanding of the city. The small items that people collected were exhibited, along with photographs taken during the series of walks. The amalgamation of items provided a snapshot of the differences between the unique districts chosen.

During the walk cutting through the city, one suggestion that arose was for a community garden to be established. “It would be beautiful if somewhere there was a small community garden where neighbours could plant vegetables and then eventually hold a market,” Hempel said.

“It’s those things we’re aiming for; we realise and we know that it’s going to take a long time … But it’s worth the trial and tribulation,” she said.

Responding to the series

The first MENAlab was advertised solely on the Tasmena network, using its social media platform. It attracted 250 community members, volunteers, 60 students and 15 tutors and participants from Kuwait and even Spain. One of the tutors went on to become a Delfina scholar, directly after taking part in the project.

“It created a touch-point for young people to grow, and gave them a chance to work in an environment with experienced people. I’m thrilled that the tutor became a Delfina scholar; I think that’s what we’re about … We want to support young people,” Hempel said.

Tasmena’s philosophy is “Think: idea, research, investigate. Make: prototype, experiment, implement. Share: exhibition, interaction, present.”

The organisers hope the project will continue to prove successful, encouraging members of all social groups across Dubai’s diverse multicultural landscape to take part in their own city.

“It’s about trying to ask people what they would change in their environment; speaking to people within the local community,” Hempel said.

Alice Johnson is a freelance writer based in Dubai.

*Originally published in Gulf News

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