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Supertanker: ‘there’s creative energy in criticism’

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The non-profit founded in 2003 are self-described ‘facilitators’, exploring the potential for productive forms of densification

Crystallising out of an open-air café in Copenhagen harbour, the urban-social collective Supertanker evade definition other than their own. Self-described ‘facilitators’, the group are emphatically interdisciplinary: coming from fields spanning architecture, urbanism, art and sociology, they set up in 2003 as a non-profit with the aim of exploring the potential for productive forms of densification. They emerged amid antagonistic discussions over the fate of the harbour: criticism was levelled at the area becoming the private reserve of luxury housing and big business – speculative land value misting the air above ex-industrial warehouses – while grassroots groups and small endeavours still held interim occupation of this interstitial terrain.

‘Supertanker’s strategy intimates an abiding pragmatism about the inevitability of growth – rather than opting out’

Supertanker began as ‘a symbol of constructive debate’, mediators in the age-old tension playing out between local stakeholders and the powers-that-develop. Organising workshops, exhibitions and boat rides, they combined tactics in a series of public meetings they called Free Trial. Staging a simile of a court case in which journalists presented opposing positions on an issue of development, this framework gives structural agonism to the oft-fraught meeting between a preservative community and the proponents of the developing city, ensuring advocacy for the former and informed advice for the latter. Anders Hagedorn, a process designer for Supertanker, recalls a case in which the group was commissioned by the city of Copenhagen to hold a meeting on high-rise strategy. Predicting an impasse between the mayor’s office and the public, they began by asking attendees to map where it would be preferable not to go high, implementing the polar structure of the debate against itself, in service of nuance; of a public good. ‘There’s creative energy in that tension’, Hagedorn comments. ‘The critics are voicing something important, and it’s a question of how to integrate those critical notes.’

The high-rise strategy case also became a caution of sole-source finance for the group. The mayor’s office became reluctant to accept challenges to their plan, jeopardising Supertanker’s impartiality: they no longer work in advisory roles without guarantee that challenges will be welcomed, now focusing on a multi-dependent funding model devised to defer accountability from a single source. The success of such a model lies in delicate equilibrium; a balance that must be guarded, actively maintained against the heavy swaying power of capital.

While still subject to the same forces that mandate the interminable and untenable expansion of the city, Copenhagen does offer a privileged environment for groups hoping to experiment with urbanism as a creative condenser. Home to Jan Gehl and famously exemplary of humane urbanism, the city seethes with the potential to use density as a crucible of human connection: in its staunch protection of the pedestrian and celebration of the cyclist, the city avows a liveability unthinkable in the siloed stations of megalopolises worldwide. Since 2005, the city’s public housing fund has also invested in social initiatives as well as rebuilding and renovation, a move which has funded 75 per cent of Supertanker’s more recent work in the Copenhagen suburb of Charlottekvarteret – the other 25 per cent split between the municipality and the housing association.

Contrary to the apparent social good of this funding, Danish housing policy can be decisively cruel. As one of the ‘ghettos’ designated by the former populist government in 2010 (and thus far largely upheld by the new centre-left government), Charlottekvarteret is particularly marginalised – its residents suffer stigmatisation and severe special legislation: doubled sentencing for crimes committed, for example, or a minimum 25 hours a week of mandatory instruction in ‘Danish values’ for children from the age of one. Yet Hagedorn assures that the interests of the funding provided lie purely in social good. Where strict regulations prohibit expressions of place such as painted fences or vegetable gardens, Supertanker’s work here has focused on facilitating projects to support community development and the creation of collective identity. Rather than focusing on a material aesthetic, the group has designed a process for participative action, involving residents in the manifestation of interventions from benches to bins to the renovation of underpasses. Often delving into the area’s history to give root to installations, the engagement of the community further embeds each intervention within local lore: the intangible value of ownership imbued and community networks developed by these projects is immeasurable.

What is striking is not just the impact of the interventions themselves, but Supertanker’s method of engagement with the megalithic, rolling momentum of a massive institutional body or state entity. Their strategy intimates an abiding pragmatism about the inevitability of growth: rather than opt out entirely, forming small enclaves of social good almost independently of political, legal or economic context, by diving into the densifying morass Supertanker are able to strike near the heart, signifying opportunities to make a genuine, replicable and widespread difference.

Lead image: Spelling out ‘No’ in Danish, this ragged banner marks the height of a 2003 housing proposal for Copenhagen harbour, emblematic of the resolute polarity in the debates that sparked the creation of Supertanker. The design for Krøyer Plads that provoked this protest was scrapped in 2005, joining a 20-year story of unsuccessful attempts to develop the former port: a proposal by COBE and Vilhelm Lauritzen Arkitekter was eventually accepted, and was completed in 2016. 
Source: Supertanker

This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today