USF Architecture Alumnus Ryan Swanson Looks Beyond Florida to Make Cities Better Through Play

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A woman takes a selfie in front of "Oscillation" in Grand Rapids, Michigan

A woman takes a selfie in front of Oscillation, a new traveling installation by The Urban Conga that was rated in the top five among 5000 entries to the ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Ryan Swanson, USF architecture alumnus and founder of The Urban Conga design firm, is part of an international discourse on play and urban design as a member of the arts and urban design collective Creative Producers International.

The opportunity to travel and meet new people from around the world has brought new energy to Swanson’s practice as a designer, fabricator, and educator advocating for playful urban design as a way of solving key issues cities face.

“It’s been amazing,” said Swanson. “It’s really interesting to connect with people from around the world and realize that they have the same problems you have in developing a business or being a creative mind, even in a different city, and also hearing their different issues within their cities.”

The Urban Conga makes playable products and interactive installations that have the power to bring new life to public spaces.

Swanson founded the company in 2015 as an expansion of some key ideas in his master’s thesis on activating underutilized spaces.

With the motivation and support of USF architecture faculty members Bob MacLeod and Josue Robles as well as former USF professor of architecture Vikas Mehta, Swanson quit his job at an architectural firm and began to pursue what would become The Urban Conga.

A man and a young girl play The Urban Conga's marimba bench outside the Straz Center in Tampa, Florida

You can find a marimba bench by The Urban Conga outside the Straz Center along Tampa Riverwalk in downtown.

The company’s first product, a customizable bench that can be played like a marimba, invites the public to do more than just sit, but to create music and share in an activity that might not otherwise occur in a space.

“I don’t want to just put stuff out there that is playable, I want it to have some type of impact to the area,” said Swanson. “Anyone can make a cool bench, but what else is coming out of that kind of thing?”

In 2017, Swanson was selected to take part in the Creative Producers International for his work with The Urban Conga.

The collective, hosted by British arts organization Watershed and supported by Arts Council England, British Council, and the University of the West of England at Bristol, meets each October in a new location for a series of workshops and a conference on making cities better through playable and interactive design.

This October, Swanson and the cohort went to Tokyo, Japan as part of the collective. They worked with Japan Railways Group on ways to initiate public spaces in a country where public activities are not fully embraced.

With the support of Creative Producers International, Swanson is writing a guide on how to create playable cities. He will show community leaders how the sometimes misunderstood concept of “play” can be used to improve specific areas of city life.

“It’s not just for kids, it’s not just a fun thing to implement,” said Swanson. “There’s actual economic or social values that are brought to the community through this type of work.”

He is sending surveys to city officials around the world and carrying out observations of sites with Urban Conga products to discover what is important to city leaders, how public space activations might be used to solve specific urban problems, and the effectiveness of site activations.

This year, Swanson has seen The Urban Conga expand its presence beyond the state of Florida. Currently, Swanson is busy working with Westfield Malls, the City of Cleveland, an apartment complex in Suwanee, Georgia, and an architectural firm in Mexico City, Mexico.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, The Urban Conga’s Oscillation, a new traveling installation, was one of five finalists in the ArtPrize international art competition with over 5000 entries. The piece, a collection of angular three-dimensional shapes covered in reflective color-changing film, uses and proximity sensors to create sounds triggered by how close people are to the shapes.

The installation took social media by storm as the people of Grand Rapids used the piece to take selfies with and share their experiences.

In the spring of 2019, Swanson will return to the USF School of Architecture and Community Design to co-teach a critical urbanism studio class that allows students to create their own urban interventions for the Tampa Bay area. Students design, fabricate, and observe their works in the public sphere to ultimately judge and learn from the effectiveness of their designs.

In March, Swanson will present at South by Southwest once again, giving a full talk on urban investment in play.

For more on The Urban Conga, visit their website.

See Oscillation in action in this video.