Of all the places to set up an “inflatable classroom” and community event space, a dumpster seems among the most improbable. Dumpsters are smelly, uninviting, and unsightly. They sit on the street as hulking reminders of the excesses of human waste. Perhaps this is why John Locke was intrigued by the challenge of doing something constructive with them.
An architect by profession, Locke also teaches a course at Columbia called “Hacking the Urban Experience” and is the founder of a group called the Department of Urban Betterment (DUB), identified on its website as “a broad cross-section of individuals from a variety of disciplines dedicated to the potential of design to improve the urban experience.” As a part of these latter two endeavors, Locke and his design partner, Joaquin Reyes, dreamed up, Kickstarted (last fall), and then realized (this fall) the playfully named Inflato Dumpster.
“Broadly speaking, the goal [of DUB] is to challenge the boundaries of public space in New York. What that means is to find opportunities for creating things that have a tangible, worthwhile benefit to the areas in which they exist,” Locke tells Hyperallergic over email. “As an architect regarding this specific project, I was very interested in what it means to create actual space on the street, not a backdrop, but an enclosure that people can walk inside, look around, in a type of environment that they hadn’t seen before.”
The Inflato Dumpster both is and is not what it sounds like: it is not an inflatable dumpster; it is an inflatable space ballooning out from inside a dumpster. As detailed on Locke’s blog, the inflatable shell was created from strips of polyethylene and Mylar, which were carefully configured to give the shell a shiny, appealing look but also to allow for windows that visually connect the interior and the street.
Still: Why a dumpster? Locke offers a number of compelling reasons on his blog: “the dumpster … kept the project in the realm of the recognizable, and fed into the transgressive feeling of being inside of an off-limits space,” while practically, “it gave us a solid structure to anchor the inflatable, to resist any uplifting wind loads barreling down the avenue” — in addition to offering its creators about 160 square feet of space, which Locke points out is “bigger than my bedroom.”
The idea conceived, Locke and Reyes needed a location in which to implement it. After many walks and conversations, Locke settled on three blocks north of his home, in the neighborhood of Manhattan historically known as Bloomingdale, which covers the Upper West Side area north of 96th Street and south of 110th. “The general location is a nice mix of a confluence of factors, while the actual block chosen is directly adjacent to the street life-killing Con Ed substation,” Locke says. “The thought was that this would be a good challenge, to temporarily convert one of the most barren corners in the neighborhood — dominated by the 30-foot-tall, blank, formidable stone substation façade — into an activated, vibrant site for community interaction.”
The first iteration of Inflato Dumpster lasted for three days in late September and featured a mix of different events: a performance by musician Amani Fela, documentary screenings by filmmaker Simone Varano, and a 3D printing and modeling workshop. “There was a bit of hurdle in asking someone to give a lecture, host a workshop, perform a song, screen a documentary, etc. inside of a dumpster,” Locke explains. “Understandably, it’s a little off-putting and sounds weird. The public schools in the area didn’t return our messages and neighborhood groups were unsure if it would work. However, the groups we did work with were awesome and totally unfazed by being in a gold/silver inflatable inside of a dumpster.”
“The goal wasn’t to lecture,” he adds, “but to make it a fun, valuable experience that can be gradually honed and refined as we move forward.”
In order for it to be a fun and valuable experience for the community, though, Locke and Reyes had to get the community inside — which proved harder than expected. “While to us the enigmatic quality of the piece was really compelling, that same mysteriousness made it more of a challenge to convince people that it was open and accessible to everyone,” Locke says. “Since this is so far outside the realm of a normal street experience, and doesn’t read as a more passive, typical public art project, much of our work during the three days was to act as carnival barkers, explaining what the Inflato was, and that yes, people can and should go in the dumpster. Without explanatory signage people would assume it could be some type of exclusionary private event and walk right past.”
Eventually they did come, and by the end of the three days, Locke says he had neighbors calling to him as he walked down the street with the deflated shell. The project was, perhaps unsurprisingly, especially popular with kids, including one child who “came inside, took a look around, and just started running around and yelling in the most pure expression of joy I’d ever seen. His parents were just staring dumbfounded.”
Although the first run is past, the Inflato Dumpster will return. Locke, Reyes, and the Department of Urban Betterment are working on plans for another iteration next January, in the same neighborhood, this time with a musical theme. “Sound emanating out from the inflatable is a great way to give it an audible presence to complement the visual,” Locke says. And for those passing by unawares, it can only make the silly, shiny, inflatable structure appear more strange, and hopefully more enticing.