Matthew Mazzotta: How Can We Redesign Overlooked Spaces To Better Serve The Public?

Jul 23, 2021
Originally published on September 21, 2021 1:30 pm

Part 4 of TED Radio Hour episode The Public Commons

Artist Matthew Mazzotta says every community needs public spaces to gather, discuss, and address issues. He works with towns to reimagine overlooked buildings and give them a new public purpose.

About Matthew Mazzotta

Matthew Mazzotta is an artist and activist focusing on the power of the built environment to shape relationships and experiences.

Mazzotta works with local residents to invent spaces — from active systems that convert dog waste into energy to light city parks to physically transformable buildings that turn main streets into movie theaters to traveling dining experiences that bring together chefs and climate scientists to serve meals made of local plants endangered by climate change. He was named a TED Fellow in 2020.

He received his BFA degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Masters of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Program in Art, Culture and Technology.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Harrison Vijay Tsui and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

On the show today, the public commons. And we've been talking about what it takes to build a public space that makes people want to gather there. But what about places that have been forgotten or abandoned? Artist Matthew Mazzotta helps towns and neighborhoods redesign these old spaces, giving them new purpose. Here's Matthew's TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MATTHEW MAZZOTTA: I work with communities around the world. And as we know, every community has problems. Some of these problems are solved through the ballot box or city hall meetings or community efforts, like bike lanes and potholes and school budgets. But some problems are beyond the reach of these structures, like food deserts, community well-being and the loss of cultural identity. These problems cannot be solved with the existing tool sets. I believe that public space is the most potent place to discuss these issues because it contains the richest diversity of perspectives. And that's what makes it so powerful.

The existing parks, town squares and sidewalks are not enough, though, which is why I'm interested in creating a new type of public space, one that's built by the community and designed specifically for their needs. I start by listening and by setting up actual outdoor living rooms, complete with couches, tables, chairs, rugs and lamps as a way of holding meetings to learn about the issues directly from the community. I use this technique to capture the voices and ideas of people that might not have time or feel comfortable in more formal meetings.

In York, Ala., the residents bear witness to the abandoned houses that cover the town, which are a constant reminder of the white flight that took place after segregation ended, when white homeowners left the area and let their houses fall into disrepair. Teaming up with the people of York, we transformed an iconic, pink-sided, blighted property in the middle of town into a new house called Open House. However, this house has a secret. It physically transforms into a hundred-seat open-air theater for plays, movies, music or whatever the community would like to experience. And when it folds back up into the shape of a house, the image of the reclaimed pink siding reminds people of the past. After its opening, the mayor saw the potential in Open House and held the next town hall meeting there. The excitement of this unique gathering space brought new energy and gave a fresh viewpoint to collectively discuss the future of the town.

In Cambridge, Mass., to highlight the issues of energy, waste, and climate change, we replace the garbage can in a park with an anaerobic digester to transform dog waste into usable methane gas. Burning this methane lights the park and reduces greenhouse gases. By slightly changing an everyday experience in public space, the Park Spark Project provokes neighbors to have conversations about the natural and built systems around them and their connection to the environment.

In Lyons, Neb., residents spoke about the loss of social life as downtown storefronts began to shutter their doors, a result of the slow violence of disinvestment which has left many rural downtowns empty. To address this loss of human connection, we used an abandoned storefront to turn Main Street into a movie theater. The storefront wall is modified with hydraulics so that the awning and false front fold down over the sidewalk with the push of a button, providing seating for a hundred. And so that summer, we turned downtown into a movie set and the townspeople into actors to create the movie "Decades," a history of Lyons' downtown from its founding to the present moment. On opening night, the main street, which is usually empty after dark, filled with people to watch the story of their town, leaving locals to question, how will we write the next chapter of Lyons? Well, the next chapter started with a series of movie screenings, public events and international musicians, as well as a low-budget film community that has blossomed in Lyons, bringing in people from all over the world, and a permanent art gallery that has opened next door.

My work harnesses the power of the built environment to focus on issues that communities and local governments have failed to address themselves by creating projects so custom fit that the community naturally makes it their own. When people from all walks of life have a shared experience in these spaces, it can lead to a paradigm shift in how we see our home, our community and the world. And although every place I've worked is unique, it all boils down to one thing. If people can sit together, they can dream together.

ZOMORODI: That was artist Matthew Mazzotta. You can watch his talk and see these places at ted.com

Thank you so much for listening to our show today on the public commons. To learn more about the people who were on this episode, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. If you've been enjoying the show, we'd be so grateful if you left us a review on Apple Podcasts. It's the best way for us to reach new listeners, which we are really trying to do.

This episode was produced by Katie Monteleone, Rachel Faulkner, James Delahoussaye and Harrison Vijay Tsui. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. Our production staff at NPR also includes Jeff Rogers, Diba Mohtasham, Matthew Cloutier, Fiona Geiran and Sylvie Douglis. Our audio engineer is Brian Jarboe. Special thanks this week to Jess Alvarenga for her help too. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint and Micah Eames.

I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.