Urban acupuncture


The phenomenon of urban acupuncture can be seen as just an innovative curiosity, but increasingly it appears to be an effective solution for revitalization projects, especially in the big cities, metropolises, and megacities without fundamentally interfering with the overall architectural layout of the city or directly demolishing and replacing them with expensive modern buildings. Therefore, urban acupuncture is now gaining increasing popularity in the world of sustainable development projects at a local level. Metropolises like Taipei or Brazil´s Curitiba have already had a positive experience with this and these cities represent a pattern that is truly worthy of following. The technique of urban acupuncture draws its philosophy from traditional Chinese medicine and applies it to the part of town where ´acupuncture´ revival is so desperately needed. It follows that the city is a living and breathing organism with its own needs. Overall, current intellectual opinion of urban acupuncture suggests a blend of eco-environmentalism with new progressive architectural techniques. One of the biggest assets of this method is the active involvement of communities in the revitalization projects in which the area is located. Today, among the main promoters of urban acupuncture are the Finnish architect Marco Casagrande, Brazilian architects Leonardo Shieh and Jamie Lerner or American artist Miru Kim. They directed their attention to the new emerging issues of rapidly growing cities and brought forward new solutions in the form of ´therapy´ by urban acupuncture.
Business district in London near canal area called Little Venice. Photo: Barbora Sajmovicova
Business district in London near canal area called Little Venice. Photo: Barbora Sajmovicova



The roots of urban acupuncture

The roots of urban acupuncture lie in the 70s when it began to bring the topics of ecology and social ecology into the world of design and architecture. The world discourse was reacting to the exaggerated optimism of the 60s, the so-called ´oil shocks´ and a number of other global problems and issues. The main subjects of research and discussions began to be environmental, developmental studies and a new view of the Third World and alternative sustainable solutions. Ecological issues began to slowly enter the wider public consciousness.



Gordon Matta-Clark – the mastermind of urban acupuncture

American artist and architect Gordon Matta-Clark is regarded as the godfather of urban acupuncture by many. It was he who noticed the possibility of using abandoned buildings, which were transformed into specific art installations. He identified the flaws in urban space – which led to the later development of urban acupuncture.1.Viz. https://kylemillermsis.wordpress.com/2011/09/25/urban-acupuncture-revivifying-our-cities-through-targeted-renewal/ Matta-Clark was born in 1943 in New York to an artist mother, Ann Clark, and a Chilean painter, Robert Matta. This artistic environment was reflected in Matta-Clark´s later studies. He graduated from Ithac Cornell University in Architecture in 1968. At this time there was also a leading theorist of modernist architecture, Colin Rowe. Matta-Clark also met Robert Smithson who deeply influenced him with the theory of entropy.2.Viz. http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/6636 Matta-Clark applied entropy not only to the physical but also to the abstract, especially in terms of linguistics. He coined a famous term Anarchitecture3.Ibid. and the pun: ´Anark Kit Puncture, Anarchy Torture, Anartic Lecture, An Orchid Texture, An Art Collector4.Cit. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Matta-Clark Shortly after graduating, in 1969, he actively cooperated with Willoughby Sharp on project Earth Art for the White Museum of Art in Ithaca.5.Ibid.

Sharp was a strong motivator for Matta-Clark´s move to New York, where he started fully realised his artistic projects – thanks to which he very soon became famous among other artists in New York´s SoHo. For example, in the early 70s, he was one of the founding members of the artistic Food Restaurant in New York and also participated in numerous exhibitions and projects. This whole decade was very fruitful for Gordon Matta-Clark. However, he was most known for his buildings-cuts. Matta captures his work not only through photography but also by producing documents. He died very young, at 35 years, of pancreatic cancer. His death became the impetus for a number of retrospective exhibitions, eg. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Badischer Kunsverein in Germany or IVAM Centro Julio Gonzalez in Spain.6.Viz. http://www.eai.org/artistBio.htm?id=333



Jaime Lerner – the pioneer of urban acupuncture

If Gordon Matta-Clark was the spiritual father of urban acupuncture, who developed a new conceptualisation of urban space, then Jamie Lerner would be its pioneer, who transformed all into the practice. The eminent architect and advocate of alternative and sustainable low-cost projects was born in 1937 in Curitiba, Brazil, into a family with Polish roots. In 1964 he graduated from the Escola de Arquitetura da Universidade Federal do Paraná. Seven years later, he was elected Mayor of Curitiba. He served the office of Mayor repeatedly (1971-75; 1979-84; 1989-92). In 1994, Lerner was elected as the governor of Paraná and re-elected in 1998.7.Viz. http://www.greengurus.co.uk/2009/07/jaime-lerner-curitiba.html

During his term as governor, he had to deal with a large amount of pollution in the bays. He was aware that a large-scale project to clean up would lead to a huge debt for the region. He approached the problem with remarkable inventiveness. The idea consisted not of increasing the budget, but in changing the mentality of people. The acupuncture stick was subsequently conceived: if a fisherman caught a fish, the fish was his property. If fishermen dredged waste, the management bought waste from the fishermen. This project had a tremendous impact, not only on the economic situation of fishermen, who were not dependent only on the fish, but especially on the bays. There were cleaner bays in direct proportion to the growing number of fish and restoration of life in the waters.8.Viz. https://www.asla.org/ContentDetail.aspx?id=30875

The second ground-breaking project was fast buses (Bus Rapid Transit system, BRT), which replaced the underground tube. It was a highly economical solution and BRT was the first of its kind in the world. Moreover, Lerner also participated in a large architectural project for Sao Paolo and proposed a ground train around which is a long network of parks. Very interesting were also his portable streets that restored life to the abandoned and declining space in city.9.Ibid. Lerner defines urban acupuncture as: ´These are small interventions that can provide new energy to the city, and provide assistance during the process of long-term planning, which has to take time10.Cit. https://www.asla.org/ContentDetail.aspx?id=30875 His several years of work brought him many awards, including the highest prize of the United Nations Environmental Award (1990), the Child and Peace Award from UNICEF (1996), the World Technology Award for Transportation (2001) and the Improvement of Quality of Human Settlements from Sir Mathew Prize (2002).11.Viz. http://www.wri.org/profile/jaime-lerner Lerner dedicated his book Acupuntura urbana to this alternative method of urban acupuncture where he indicates that planning is a project that cannot produce immediate changes. According to Lerner, urban acupuncture is a spark that leads to subsequent actions.

´The city is not problem. It is a solution.´ Jamie Lerner



Urban acupuncture as a strategy for Sao Paolo

The junior supporter of urban acupuncture is Lerner´s fellow Brazilian architect Leonardo Shieh. Shieh was devoted to the idea of urban acupuncture in his thesis as a strategy for Sao Paolo and it was the name of Jamie Lerner which appeared in the introduction as an acknowledgement. Shieh focused on the question of how small and precise architectural interventions and changes can be cataclysmic to the great urban transformation in Sao Paulo. He partly based his thesis on the work of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, published in 2000, designed by Malcolm Gladwell. According to Gladwell, human behaviour is determined by ´epidemic´ patterns. The pattern is subject to three stages, from small changes (having a big impact), through the so-called ´contagiousness´ (infectiousness) to the one dramatic moment, the so-called the ´tipping point´.12.Viz. Viz Shieh, L.: Urban Acupuncture as a Strategy for Sao Paulo. University of Sao Paulo, 2001, p. 45.

Shieh used just one example of Gladwell´s Broken Window Theory as one of the precedents for his urban strategy. The theory of Broken Windows was developed by criminologist George Kelling and has had a huge success in the fight against crime in New York. The New York police force, according to this theory, focused on minor offences and vandalism, not only on the streets, but especially in the metro. The New York underground system in the 80s was in a deplorable condition. The small changes applied to the subway set in motion changes in the urban environment.13.Ibid., p. 46 Shieh is convinced, based on the Broken Window Theory, applied in practice that these small interventions changed, not only the environment of the city, but even the perception of people, it minimises crime and what is more, these interventions can lead to a reduction in the number of suicides.14.Ibid.

The second precedent for Sao Paulo was Barcelona and its regeneration projects in the 80s, which started the revitalising processes of the 90s. In the beginning, the changes had the character of small, inexpensive and local procedures. There were gradually more and more projects which successfully revitalized the city, resulting in the election of Barcelona as the host city of the Olympic Games in 1992.15.Ibid., pp.48-49.

The last mentioned precedent for Sao Paulo was the Capital of Colombia, Bogota. The local governor Enrique Penalosa (1998-01), following the example of Jamie Lerner, went ahead with the revitalization solutions (eg. Bus system, etc.). Penalosa, unlike Lerner, added even further actions when he began experimenting with the introduction of Car Free Day. The day fell on Sunday and local authorities closed 120 km of roads for seven hours. Just these seven hours without car traffic had a strong impact on the local environment and it reduced pollution in the city. People started to use more bus services and they rode bikes or walked. The extensive changes also included the construction of 300 km of bicycle paths, planting 100,000 trees and renovating or building over 1,000 parks.16.Ibid., pp.51-52. According to Penalosa:

´people thought it was a punishment of God to live in Bogotá. They hated the city (…) in three years, the citizens´ image of the city and their relation to it has changed dramatically. People have begun to care for the city. They have pride and a sense of belonging17.Cit., Ibid., p.52

Shieh mentioned several similar cases, such as Paris during President Mitterrand´s time and Les Grands Projets or Chicago and its Millennium Park. The common denominator is still the same idea: how small, pre-planned and precise actions can initiate larger changes. Shieh carefully elaborated on the architectural plan for Sao Paulo, which included twelve subjects requiring urban acupuncture. The project developed holistically with respect for the so-called ´historical triangle of Sao Paulo´. Architectural interventions include: maintaining the existing square Pátio do Colégio; new planting trees and remodelling open space on Carmo Square; two new buildings and the renovation of the existing plaza Sao Bento; a new building and remodelling of open space on the Sao Francisco Square and Bavilacqua Plaza; new building and renovation of Sé Plaza; new building and remodelling of the enclosure of the Square Caixa; renovating the existing building of Triangulo; maintaining the existing Patriarca Square; remodelling of open space at Theater Square; construction of new building at the Pavilion at República Plaza and remodelling of Arouche Plaza.18.Ibid., pp. 95-96

The Brazilian architect anticipates from this project the underlining of the historical parts, extending their open space and thus opening them to human and cultural activities, a ban on parking of cars in certain places and the expansion of green areas. New buildings are designed to revitalize open space and to bring commercial, cultural and educational programs into the places. The areas that attract dubious people should be eliminated and reconstructed thus offering a pleasant environment to urban residents. Shieh´s work thoroughly elaborated the idea of urban acupuncture as a serious methodological process of low cost and efficient architectural rehabilitation of cities. Metropolises like Sao Paulo with more than 11 million people truly need fast and efficient solutions and the new trend of urban acupuncture appears to be the most beneficial.



Taipei and Casagrande´s therapy

Finnish architect Marco Casagrande is internationally renowned for his environmental architectural plans for the project in Taipei, Taiwan. Casagrande, unlike Shieh, did not stay only on a theoretical level but he put urban acupuncture into practice. Marco Casagrande was born into an Italian-Finnish family in 1971. In 2001, he graduated from the Teknillinen korkeakoulu (Helsinki University of Technology). Soon he began to combine architecture with other scientific disciplines and installed a number of buildings across the world. Shortly after, he began to combine architecture with other scientific disciplines and installed a number of buildings across the world. The architecture symposium in 2002 (the initiation of the architect Chi Jinan) in Taipei approached Casagrande and one year later he returned and started studying an organic layer of the city. During this study, he found himself in a settlement near Gonguang, Treasure Hill. From the view of the local government, Treasure Hill was an illegal settlement and was designated for demolition. The hill was surrounded by a series of handmade dwellings, stacked one on top of another, clogged with waste and filth. Elderly and less mobile people threw rubbish out of their windows and onto the streets.19.Viz. http://thirdgenerationcity.pbworks.com/w/file/22199740/urban%20acupuncture.pdf

However, Casagrande described the settlement as a primary energy point surrounded by a ´fictional´ reality with a relentless atmosphere of life. At the time when Casagrande decided to maintain the community and take an active role in the revitalization process, the settlement was being destroyed by bulldozers. It was not long until the local inhabitants of the village began contributing to the revitalization process. Later the students from Tamkang University and the National Taiwan University joined and their number reached 200. The influential Taiwanese architect Shih Yin-Ju also joined in alongside Casagrande to revive the small settlement. Everybody brought out their garbage and cleaned the streets. After the cleaning, Casagrande started to build wooden stairs to the upper dwellings and through this he supplied access to the home and the street for all residents of the settlement. Casagrande managed the impossible – to stop the demolition work and he highlighted this issue to the general public. The Taiwanese government has left this settlement as an example of a sustainable eco-colony. Furthermore, which of course is important, he actively involved the community in the revitalization process and changed their view of their homes and the environment in which they were living. People began carefully taking care of their neighbourhood and bringing out the waste, which caused a total transformation in thinking. Casagrande adds modestly: ´For the ecological urban laboratory I had to do nothing, it was already there. What I did was to construct wooden stairways and connections between the destroyed houses and some shelters for the old residents to play mah-jong and ping-pong20.Cit. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treasure_Hill

The metaphor of an ecological laboratory for Treasure Hill is indeed fitting, since it is true that the village has now become an ecological area. There is the main aim of recycling and filtering dirty water, using a minimum amount of electricity and composting organic waste from the surrounding city of Taipei. The project of urban acupuncture was targeted precisely and it touched the chi of the city and healed its meridian which stands on the main flow of energy of the city. However, the area was closed due to security concerns during the reconstruction work. It was opened again three years later and only the 22 original families could return there. This rehabilitation of the settlement attracted criticism, especially because of the conversion of the initial ecological settlement into a village celebrating art and creativity, which is compromising the nature of indigenous people.21.Viz. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treasure_Hill

Marco Casagrande about urban acupuncture



Artists and their perception of the urban world

Not only have these environmental architectural projects raised the profile of urban acupuncture, but also the artists who have reflected current issues of cities and urban spaces. An active artist engaged in town and urban acupuncture is the American Miru Kim. She was born in 1981 in Massachusetts, but raised in Seoul, South Korea. In 1995, she returned to her hometown and began studying at Philips Academy in Andover. She moved to New York in 1999 and continued with her studies at Columbia University.22.Viz. http://mirukim.com/biography.php (available on URL 17. 3. 2014) Finally, she graduated from the Pratt Institute in New York in 2006. In 2008 she became famous for her series called Naked City Spleen, issued in the Gestarc Gallery in Brooklyn, which was expanded and exhibited later in various parts of the world. Controversy sparked by the exhibition called The Pig That Therefore I Am exhibited in the New York gallery in 2011. Kim posed for nude self-portraits in various positions in one of the giant intensive pig factory farms, in which there are 90% of all pigs in the United States. According to her it was the most frightening experience: ´I learned first-hand that there is absolutely nothing enjoyable about industrial hog farms. (…) The clanking of metal crates, the screams and grunts, the smell, the filth, the dreary eyes of pregnant sows confined in gestation crates (…).´23.Cit. http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/high-on-the-hog-miru-kims-the-pig-that-therefore-i-am/?ref=culture&_r=1

Rachel Park wrote in her article called Miru Kim: Exploring the Unconscious of the City of her photos as remarkable, especially for capturing the nudity of the artist. The documented nudity, either in the French catacombs, factory farm, underground, in a tunnel or in the ruins of abandoned sites of cities, according to Park, was not seen as ´cheaply´ or even provocative. The artist Miru Kim perceives the human skin as a sensory organ, mediating the exchange between the interior and the exterior of human being. She aims at industrial structures through all the senses and sees the city as a living organism that not only feels, breathes and has a pulse of life, but also has its internal organs, to which Kim approaches. She arranges a unique and quite simple look into urban spaces through her work that a person in everyday life hardly registers. Through visualization, she reflects the current issue of the internal environment in cities and shows their ´hidden sides´. Your body and your soul enliven the places in which she was immersed.

Miru Kim: Making art of New York´s urban ruins



Urban acupuncture and its future

The increasing rate of urbanization and migration to the cities is, surely, a result of the transformation of human society, a result of the industrial revolution and the subsequent increase in the level of human life, especially in towns and cities. People choose the way in which the city offers social and economic security, but also provides prestigious education and a cultural background. If we take into account that urbanization is more of a determining phenomenon of the late 20th century and a definition for the 21st century, it would appear that we face a number of questions as to what direction the largest metropolises take in the world today. An important factor that co-creates the daily urban environment is the number and density of population, which is increasing from year to year. The prediction for 2044 is that the total population of earth will number over 9 billion, more than today´s 7 billion.24.Viz. http://www.census.gov/population/international/data/idb/worldpopgraph.php There is no precedent in human history in which the human population has grown so dynamically. It follows that there will be a number of problems: environmental pollution in urban areas, narrowing green spaces, plummeting living standards of people in many parts of the world and cities falling into barely redeemable debts.

The question is, how does one cope with the negative impacts of increasing urbanization? Fortunately, a number of experts have responded to these challenges with the theory of urban acupuncture, with this method providing fast, efficient and economical solutions in parallel with large and long-term plans. Many architects have introduced urban acupuncture into practice and the results were not long in coming. It turned out that pre-planned and well-considered small changes can put into motion the whole consciousness of the ´urban organism´. For example in Curitiba, thanks to wider acupuncture practices, the living standards of people in comparison to the neighbouring cities of Brazil have been raised. It seems that urban acupuncture is so far the best solution for the present layout of the global environment that takes into account both the living standards of the people and the environment in which they live. In comparison with ´eco-fascist campaigns´ urban acupuncture is real, warm and fertile. The new urban-ecological method of urban acupuncture responds to human needs and also the needs of the urban organism, as well as an ancient Chinese healing response to the needs of the human organism. In conclusion it does not interfere aggressively but maintains and preserves the urban ´ecosystems´ in order to be closer to the word ´symbiosis´. It takes ecological and environmental topics and compliments them subtly with new architectural and modernist trends and ideas. So, it is simple. The aim of urban acupuncture is to revive, maintain and in particular to improve the environment in which the humans of the 21st century chose to live, so why not use it more?

Michele Twomey and Gerry Gordon about urbann acupuncture





Shieh, L.: Urban Acupuncture as a Strategy for Sao Paulo. University of Sao Paulo, 2001.

Bending Sticks. The Sculpture of Patrick Dougherty

Biography of Gordon Matta-Clark

Casagrande, M.: Urban Acupuncture

Gordon Matta-Clark (Online Works)

Gordon Matta-Clark (Wikipedia)

High on the Hog. Miru Kim´s ´The Pig That Therefore I Am´ (Interview with Miru Kim)

Interview with Jamie Lerner (American Society of Landscape Architects)

Jaime Lerner: Curitiba

Jaime Lerner (World Resources Institute)

Miru Kim (The Official website)

Patrick Dougherty (The Official website)

Treasure Hill (Wikipedia)

Urban Acupuncture: Revivifying Our Cities Through Targeted Renewal

World Population: 1950-2050 (United States Census Bureau)


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Ethnologist, Editor in chief of The Ethnologist

MA et BA Barbora Zelenkova (Sajmovicova) was born in 1985 in Prague. She graduated in Middle Eastern Studies (Near Eastern Studies) from the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen in 2013 and also in Ethnology from the Charles University in Prague in 2015. During her studies in Pilsen she focused on Somalia and Somali people and in Prague on Czech Orientalist and Arabist professor Alois Musil. Since 2014 she has been living in London, where she founded the website The Ethnologist, where she is editor in chief. She is also involved in translating (English/Czech, Czech/English). During her university studies visited Middle East, for example Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan.