Cultural Participation and its Agency

Lecture for cuhk SoA elective 5731A – Architecture and Cultural Practice

Cultural architecture is a container of public and cultural activities. The previous discussion on the idea of place in urban planning demonstrated a return of cultural institutions to focus on public engagement in recent decades. As civil awareness arise and state cultural budget decline, the objective of many cultural institutions now become to work closely with the community and to attract visitors by way of engagement programs for cultural participation.

The concept of Cultural Participation

The concept of cultural participation can be traced back to the post-war years, as the Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations included an article regarding cultural participation and positioned culture as a fundamental human right.

“everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, and to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”

Article 27. UN Human Rights Declaration. 1948

While the UK Arts Council was setup as a post-war welfare policy to support artistic creation, the French Cultural Ministry established in 1951 further elaborates the idea that culture should not be a privilege for few but accessible to everyone. The early direction of cultural policy can be understood as the paradigm of democratisation of culture — to bring cultural resources from the centralised capital (Paris) to distant provinces. Through a plan of decentralisation, it aims to improve access by reducing (1) physical barrier – emphasis on openness in architectural design; (2) economic barrier – with low or free entrance fee; (3) geographic barrier – to bring work from the central to periphery township. As a result, a dozen of Cultural Centres (Maison de la Cultura) were built throughout the country, adopting also a notion of national pride to let disseminate the “excellence” French arts and culture (Malraux).

Both the operation of the Arts Council UK and the French Cultural Ministry were facing strong critique in the late 1960s along with other social issues, as it represents the elitist class and upholds the position to decide what art to be supported (therefore the judgement of what is good/superior). In France, cultural centres in particular became the site of occupation during the 1968 social movement, as an opposition to the establishment that included the state-run cultural institutions. The understanding of “everyone” as an ambiguous collective in the democratisation paradigm is then evolved into the social diversity as described by cultural democracy. It expands the content and consideration of artistic/cultural expression in a non-hierarchical approach [1], embracing the lesser-known art forms as well as popular culture.

While cultural institutions in the post-war years worked on reducing barrier so that everyone could enjoy art, the viewer/audience number from the general public (especially the working class) was still low. A study on cultural participation by the UK Arts Council in the 1980s shows that a major reason of not participating in cultural activities is “lack of interest” [2]. As accessibility to culture is improved, the problem of cultural participation has become how to attract interest of the general public, which is also in competition with popular culture such as TV and cinema. With the question of what is “true democratic participation” (Sternfield), the strategy of cultural participation also turn towards active engagement instead of simply to invite passive “participation”. The relationship of cultural institution and audience would become more interactive rather than in one direction of produce-to-receiver, leading to empowerment and ownership through participation in cultural activities.

Spatial Design for Participation

How can the public audience have a sense of ownership and recognised it is their culture being addressed? How do the public to have a say in what “culture” is being produced? In reference to development theory borrowed from community social participation projects, the two type of participation that can be also read in the context of cultural planning and further extend into the consideration of two type of “place”: (1) invited participation of cultural activities, planned by the institution or the artist where the participants simply join as a viewer or to do simple task to “complete” the work; and (2) self-created participation that participants would make decision of what and how cultural experience is created [2]. The case of Southbank centre demonstrated the transition from the original intention to make culture available through building facilities, to the late 1990s renewal masterplan that consider how it is inviting participation through public space design, and the recent revitalisation plan that attempts to engage with the public through visual identity as well as spatial programming.

Let’s take the Southbank QEH undercroft as an example to examine the “invited” vs “self-created” public space of participation. In the 1970s, it was considered a residual space with minimal public use, where skateboarder later found its architectural features suitable for their scene and it gradually became a popular skateboarding venue. It is a self-initiated cultural act without specific support of an institution, which could be considered as a “self-created” participation and place. (Although there is also sanitation issue and negative impression that has become a problem for the institution and management). In the recent public space renewal scheme, skateboarding has become a “recognised” cultural activity with a dedicated zone especially designed for them, but it come along with the question – are the skateboarders now became “invited” participants instead of the “owner” of this space? While the newly renovated space has improved amenities to accommodate skateboard activities, yet it came together with the question of surveillance and control. This dilemma of “invited” vs “self-created” participation/place is common in many public space design initiatives, and it remains debatable the balance between subculture appropriation or intentional design of institutional decision and funding.

The case of Time Square public space illustrate a structural change of public space and activity overtime, which involves multiple stages of study and survey to gain public opinion, temporary intervention and prototyping, eventually lead to the design of a permanent pedestrian zone in some part of Broadway. The effort is advocated by the Transportation Department of NYC since 2008, who look beyond the nominal function of regulating traffic and took the opportunity for their jurisdiction over roads and street space to consider the creation of public space. Out of the many design details, one element has particular connection to cultural activities – the TKTS ticket booth at the Daley Plaza. The program brief calls for a last-minute ticket booth designed to replace the original colonial statue, situated at the iconic cross road of Times Square. The designer transformed the solid object for ticket-sales function into an animated public space, taking the theatre language of slopped seating facing the bustling scene of Time Square as stage. In conjunction with the later pedestrian zone design, it shows how spatial design has the the capacity to induce public activities and became the container of cultural acts.

Participation/Design with the Community

Besides the design of static physical space as container, cultural participation is also manifested through programming of public space, with active involvement of the community to create collective experience. This approach in participation is applicable not only in urban context but found effective in smaller rural community settings. The follow two cases in Japan illustrates how the integration of cultural and artistic practices became a powerful means with the objective of community engagement and village revitalisation.

The Echigo Tsumari Art Field is an art festival that covers an area of 760km2 (that is more than half of Hong Kong) in the Niigata hillside north of Tokyo. The original intent of the festival was to bring visitors to the mountain landscape by the occasion of artistic event. The participatory effort can be read in two levels: from the artist who went to create site-specific work to the involvement of local villagers to produce programme that celebrates their agricultural heritage.

Many of the commissioned artwork relates to the landscape of Echigo Tsumari, not only as an inspiration or context but it involves the immersion of the artist in the field for an extended period of time, negotiating with the landscape as well as local residents that is reflected at the piece as a result. This type of work can be identified as the democratisation of culture that has brought art to remote locations, where it is a rare experience for many local residents (and majority elderly farmers). Furthermore, it also serve the purpose to showcase the rural landscape to the festival visitors, with active participation of the locals who became the creator of cultural experience. One example is the “Nohbutai” – a farm stage – designed by MVRDV, a base for performance and artwork on display in the fields, with the addition function as the restaurant serving regional produce. The function to provide meals for visitor is designed as culinary event, a collaboration of young chef from Tokyo and local farm ladies who participated in the design of the menu and actual production and operation of the restaurant, along with events that they would share their stories of local experience.

Another rural community project in Japan expand the idea of community involvement in cultural practice beyond the creation of festive event but as a long term engagement where the residents gradually rebuild local cultural identity. The team lead by Ryuji Yamazaki (Studio-L) has spent a year-long residency in Ieshima Island, a small post-industrial town near the Seitouchi Inner Sea, to work with the residents for a vision of further development of the town after the decline of industrial production. The objective is not to produce another large event such as the Echigo festival but to slowly rebuild the livelihood of local community. After the first round of investigative study, it is recognised that this small island has limited capacity to host large amount of tourist, and the team came up with the vision of “10,000 visitors x 100 visits” instead of ”1,000,000 visitors x 1 visit”. Without extensive infrastructure investment or a top-down planning decision, the designers played a supporting role to the residents where they make decisions on different strategies and intervention, eventually began to organise themselves to associations for economic revival.

Through this case and other work by studio-L, they proposed a transforming idea of “Community Design” in evolving stages. The early days community design would be where the designer go and provide something for the community such as a piece of public art (1.0); to the public space project that is designed with the community as the designer listen to the needs of user through participatory workshops (2.0). This would be the type of participatory design most commonly known, yet the team expand this idea into Community Design 3.0 that the design with community is not just the decision on a “space” but to collectively build a “lifestyle” of the community. The role of the designer became a facilitator instead of the creator, and the objective of such exercise is then to build up the capacity of the community instead of focusing on the resulting artwork or public space design. Relating to the earlier notes, the purpose of cultural participation is than empowerment and sense of ownership instead of a physical artifact.

The different cases introduced about have shown various approach and understanding of cultural participation, from the spectrum of state-initiated democratisation of culture paradigm to the grassroots community organisation and design that embrace diversity in a non-hierarchical approach. The role of the designer in participatory design would focus in building up the groundwork instead of directly providing the result, most importantly to formulate a common vision (or lifestyle) among local stakeholders. Such engagement would create strong and lasting impact for the community, which is building up capacity that can be adopted to changing circumstances. However, it does require much greater time and effort in order to archive a common vision, and therefore projects for cultural participation should be viewed as a long-term task instead of its immediate (and tangible) results.


[1] Evrard, Y. (1997). Democratizing Culture or Cultural Democracy? The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, 27(3), 167-175.

[2] Eriksson, B., Stage, C., Bjarki Valtýsson, & ProQuest. (2019). Cultures of Participation : Arts, Digital Media and Cultural Institutions.

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