MELBOURNE — Laneways are an integral part of Melbourne’s heritage and cultural identity. As small transitory spaces, they often act as sites for street art, hidden bars, dumpling houses, artist studios and galleries. Sometimes they even act as a platform for inventive urban investigations.
Since 2010 Martin Heide and a few like-minded friends have been quietly creating temporary installations in some of Melbourne’s abandoned public spaces and city laneways.
Architect by day, urban interventionist by night, Heide makes elaborate creations that involve the collection and upcycling of street milkcrates, which are then used to construct an enterable and climbable structure.
“The green crates provide the undefined random element; people rearrange their seats or even build small stairs themselves,” Martin Heide explains. ”There hasn’t been a single day where we found them in the same place. It was designed to grow and adapt. People were encouraged to leave things behind and to add to the structure,”
As a response to one installation, a visitor left a letter in one of the mailboxes saying, “You are a 3D Banksy.” Although Heide appreciates the compliment, he doesn’t consider himself to be a street artist but rather a citizen who wants to challenge the status quo.
In Heide’s creations, the crates are elevated to superior building materials thanks to the cable ties he employs to make the installation structurally sound. He then simply uses color to designate its various functions; black for platforms, gray for stairs and green for moveable parts.
Heide calls this production process and its outcome “Playmo,” the name comes from “playmobil,” a Lego-styled child’s creative play toy. Heide says that using milk crates was like playing with big Lego pieces.
“PlayMo was born from the intention of inventing a space that turns into a place where people meet, spend time and play,” he says. This year Playmo won the Melbourne Design Award for innovation in urban design, beating a multimillion development project in the process.
If Playmo acts as building blocks, then CityLeaks is its philosophical foundation.
CityLeaks is a pseudonym used by Heide when carrying out his interventions. The name, inspired by WikiLeaks, is based on the idea that a city’s residents should be its authors and uses the PlayMo structure to challenge the assumption that the city is composed of spaces authored by companies, institutions and developers.
“CityLeaks takes on the associations of anonymity, community and truth that WikiLeaks celebrates as its core values. We consider ourselves the voice of urban dwellers. It emphasizes the city as a platform for citizens to announce themselves,” Heide says.
Both physically and conceptually, Heide’s CityLeaks seeks to inspire Melburnians to take the time to explore moments, spaces and places in their city.
“In order to grow I believe we need to allow things to happen in uncontrolled ways. If a city gets too clean it becomes a museum and museums usually tend to preserve things. Without contrast a city will stagnate and die off,” he says.
He explains that CityLeaks is a vehicle for which to test ideas outside the boundaries of client needs. As a professional architect, it has afforded him the freedom to do things that he would not be allowed to do otherwise. The self-professed agitator claims that the city is his “playground and laboratory.”
The challenge issued by CityLeaks is to reconsider how we inhabit our cities, to ask questions such as why do we leave the identity of our cities solely in the hands of politicians, governments, developers and investors? Why don’t we start creating, inventing and changing the cities ourselves?
Heide himself is not a stranger to urban guerilla acts.
Hailing original from Austria, Heide would carry out “small interventions” in his hometown of Graz to “explore the history of places.” Here he introduced small gestures in the manifestation of a seat or bench that appeared to be part of an existing structure but on closer inspection was clearly not part of the original design.
“The interventions and furniture were so well camouflaged … seeming natural to their site … that it was often hard to point to them. I wanted people to think, ‘Was this here before?’ or ‘Is this actually something new? What else have I missed?’ I guess this could be called a form of ‘urban sensitization.’”
Heide wants to encourage others to take the CityLeaks concept to other parts of the world. He’s even created guidelines to help aspiring urban interventionists create their own CityLeaks-style investigations in their hometowns.
According Heide, a CityLeak act can be done anywhere but the strategy must be specific to the context. For example in Melbourne the laneways and cafe culture have made milk crates an ideal building material which may not be relevant to other places.
“Every city is different and therefore every city needs different strategies. Unlike Melbourne, a gridded city like most Australian urbanized areas, European cities have grown a lot more than they have been planned. You find odd corners and niches everywhere.”
While encouraging the spread of his urban interventionist ideas, Heide is also looking at ways to reward “individual or community-driven investments” in society that lay outside the bounds of best practice. He wants to call this initiative the “Illegal Awards.”
An advocate of leading by example, Heide exlains that, “sometimes permission is not always necessary, and sometimes things have to be done before they can be understood.”