Bottom-up, not top-down: Collectif Etc believes in involving citizens in urban development. Our friends at Pop-Up City talked to Victor Mahé, one of the collective’s founding members.

For those in France, it’s hard not to get inspired by the country’s biggest event and festival that brings millions of people to the streets every summer: the Tour de France.

For Collectif Etc, a community of architects founded in Strasbourg in 2009, this two-wheeled caravan served as a blueprint for their very own Détour de France – a bicycle trip stopping at several French cities to support local networks and projects that improve urban space.

Based on the belief that citizens of all ages and backgrounds can be actors of urban development, Collectif Etc projects aim to involve the local population in the creative process of “space-making.”

By the end of their nationwide journey, Collectif Etc had carried out more than twenty such interventions. “Sometimes, we stayed in one place for fifteen days, sometimes for an entire month,” says Victor Mahé, one of the collective’s founding members.

Collectif Etc Place au changement from above
Collectif Etc designed a public square of 670 sqm in Saint-Étienne.and built it with the inhabitants in a participative process in July 2011.

Bringing people together for real

Before taking off, Collectif Etc knew ten city-shapers across France they wanted to meet and support. “Initially, we planned to do just three or four projects. In some cities, people were really waiting for us. News spread so fast by word of mouth that people literally sent us to other cities to help local city-shapers.”

At every stop, the collective spent between €500 and €2,000 on materials and food. Locals were only asked to provide a place to sleep. Most project funds were donated by relatives of the collective’s own members, but they also received some financial support from the European Union and the French Ministry of Culture.

Asking Mahé about the most impressive project of Détour de France, he mentions “Les Arpenteurs”, a 1980s architecture group who wanted to create a comfortable urban space where homeless people could mingle with other locals in Échirolles (a suburb of Grenoble). “In the end, we managed to unite these two social energies. It was the kind of project where we truly committed ourselves to bringing people together for real.”

And while the collective left the city after two weeks, the two different groups of locals and architects continued working together on the project. “The site itself lives on after we left and the difference between those groups created a new kind of dynamic. If people get involved in processes of urban development, it changes their perspective of the environment,” adds Mahé.

Collectif Etc planning the au changement
work in progress the place au changement by Collectif Etc
the place au changement by Collectif Etc
Helping hands place au changement Collectif Etc
Gardening at place au changement
Preparing place au changement
wood work place au changement collectif etc
wood lounge place au changement collectif etc

A house for the neighborhood

Back in the summer of 2011 — the heyday of the financial crisis – Collectif Etc’s first ever Détour de France project involved the temporary transformation of a derelict space in Saint-Étienne’s Châteaucreux neighborhood.

The plot was meant to be developed, but since the institute that owned the space could not find an investor, it issued a call for ideas for temporary revitalization measures. Collectif Etc won the competition with their plan to create a house for the neighborhood.

They wanted to transform the public space into an imaginary housing blueprint, including separate rooms filled with furniture and plants. “Our task was not to create a piece of art to look at — it was more about creating a place to be used by the people who live nearby.”

During construction, which took over a month, the designers received support from the local community. “We didn’t have any expectations. We just came with tools, we bought materials, and we drew a house blueprint on the ground. Then, a lot of people came by and started to help us.”

The aim of the project was to create social energy by bringing as many people as possible together – and it worked. “We’re happy that the place is still there and that people are taking care of it.”

Collectif Etc architects mobile Parliament
Collectif Etc Belsunce building
Collectif Etc. Auto Barrios colors
Collectif Etc Strasbourg barbecue
Coolectif Etc urban gardening
Collectif Etc carousel
Collectif Etc Belsunce construction
Collectif Etc. Reims Croix Rouge
Collectif Etc urban gardening
Collectic Etc Halle Puget

Up next:

After two years of writing, the collective recently published Détour de France: An Education off the Beaten Path, a book that looks back on their city-shaping journey.

Now, the designers are working on, a platform that enables aspiring city-shapers to exchange experience and ideas and link up with like-minded others. “The aim is to create joint products that everyone can get involved in.”

The designers are currently living in Marseille where they want to realize their new dream: their very own urban playground. “In the near future, we are going to rent two floors of a building in the city. We’re going to live on the first floor, while the ground floor will become a workshop for locals. There’s also a garage across the street that we want to turn into a neighborhood shop,” says Mahé.

“People are more aware of their surroundings when given the chance to organize themselves around the space where they live. Far more than permanent projects, temporary installations are a great tool for achieving these goals because temporary installations seek momentum.”

For more information, please visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Twitter!

All images incl. header image: Collectif Etc