Some 1500 residents of the Barrier neighbourhood in the city of Eindhoven, Netherlands, cooperated in a charming community project called ‘Story of the Barrier’. Designer Rocco Verdult enhanced social cohesion in the area by asking residents to collectively compose a story. The process required each resident to add one sentence to sentences already spoken by neighbours on camera. The resulting YouTube episodes spurred enthusiasm among residents.

Rocco Verdult graduated in December 2008 from Design Academy in Eindhoven. An outsider within the ‘Man & Living’ department, he did not graduate with one of those quirky design objects. In fact, there was no object at all. Instead, Verdult designed and executed various temporary meeting places in Eindhoven, for example by transforming a playground climbing frame into a cosy nomad tent and changing an ordinary Kliko bin into one with turning tables with which any public space can become a ‘Kliko Disco’.

Social designer?

Verdult has never approached museums, galleries or gadget shops. ‘I prefer to get assignments from institutions rooted in everyday society, such as municipalities, health care facilities and housing associations, where I can really meet and work with people,’ he says. He received the Social Design Talent Award from the municipality of Eindhoven in 2009, and was mentioned in many newspapers (Volkskrant, The New York Times, Bright, etc.) as a ‘social designer’. Yet he doubts whether the label is accurate.

‘The term has boomed. Postbags transformed into pillows, or building wells in Africa: just about everything is termed “social design” nowadays,’ says Verdult. He prefers to bring people together in different contexts and projects, ranging from community art and guerrilla marketing to network events, and make them participate. With his hands-on, energetic approach, he is the pivot on which these projects hinge. Rather than calling him a designer, his head tutor at the Design Academy Bas van Tol declared him to be a Situationist like Guy Debord.

Story of the Barrier

Last year Studio Rocco Verdult was approached by Woonbedrijf Eindhoven (Housing Association Eindhoven). Barrier, a former working-class area close to the Philips factories, had been undergoing renovation for over 12 years. During the renovation, residents had been forced to relocate, resulting in a loss of social cohesion and increase in anonymity.

Verdult was asked to come up with ‘something’ to bring the new set of residents closer together. He wanted to set up a project in which residents would truly participate, rather than leaving behind some kind of symbolic piece of art. Inspired by a simple kids’ game in which a drawing is started by one person and continued by the next person, he decided to start a story within the area. Equipped with a small camera, he started to ring some doorbells and ask occupants to add a new sentence to the growing ‘Story of the Barrier’.

Gradually, the plot of the story revolved around a gnome living in Barrier’s playground. Every week a new episode was posted on YouTube. Although some residents were initially reluctant to participate, word of Verdult and his project soon spread throughout the area and many people were enthusiastically waiting until it was their turn. Eight episodes, each 3.5 minutes long, were made, involving a total of 1500 locals in the project.

For Verdult this was an exciting and successful project. ‘It was wonderful to meet so many residents and to give this area some kind of new identity.’ What’s next? Verdult is currently working with a group of residents who share one big courtyard. In the future he would very much enjoy designing for ‘uncomfortable’ situations such as waiting rooms at public institutions. But he would also love to organize fashion shows in public space, the first gay marriage in Russia, and ultimately the peace agreement between Israel and Palestine.

Studio Rocco Verdult

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