HACKING CITIES (2015-)
Labyrinth is a project all about place. Every city has hidden stories hard-coded into its buildings, its streets and its art – stories that quietly enforce the rules we live by. We ‘hack’ cities for meaning, uncovering those stories so that together we can rewrite the rules.
I began Labyrinth in 2015, building on the previous decade-and-a-half of work done by collaborators who led alternative city walks in Melbourne, Australia. Since then I have designed Labyrinths for a diverse range of different groups – in London, Melbourne, New York City, Washington D.C., Dallas, and San Antonio.
The concept for the Labyrinth is taken from the ancient practice of walking a reflective pathway, but with one major difference. Whereas the labyrinths of medieval cathedrals took pilgrims away from the world they inhabited, these Labyrinths embed the experience at the scale of a city and focus on familiar spaces.
Like the ancient labyrinths, however, the twists and turns are designed to deeply disorient before finally reaching a dead-end – a point of reckoning. Only a gradual, careful reorientation can provide the pathway out again. That’s what make these Labyrinths powerful. We uncover hidden stories to cultivate new agency for change.
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The Riverside Church, New York City
The Riverside Church in the City of the New York is one of the most iconic churches in America. Built by billionaire philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller Jr., its pioneering Liberal preachers secured a reputation as the nations pulpit. Having recently purchased the remaining corner of its double-block island in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Riverside engaged Labyrinth as part of larger project to explore future development. My work involved a deep dive into the church’s history and architecture, as well as its location at the border-zone of Morningside Heights and Harlem. I designed a Labyrinth in two parts, the first explored the local neighbourhood and the second the internal spaces of the building complex. This was a major piece of work that took months to research and write. The result was a story of struggle that began with this iconic sculpture.
The National Mall, Washington D.C.
I was invited to design a Labyrinth in Washington D.C. for a gathering of leaders from the global Bible sector. The result was a walk that took around 30 people from all over the world around the National Mall. I knew they would represent a very wide spectrum of political views, but they were all commited to the Bible as a sacred text. With the reassertion of the Religious Right putting Trump in the White House it seemed appropriate to uncover stories entangled with biblical narrative. I chose Mark’s Gospel to echo Abraham Lincoln’s famous quotation of Jesus, ‘A house divided cannot stand’.
Afterwards I made this 30-minute documentary film to try and capture the experience.
The Alamo, San Antonio, TX
The Labyrinth at The Alamo was designed as part of a program hosted by Matryoshka Haus, a non-profit supporting organisations working for social change. The Alamo is an iconic site for Texas, but the story everyone knows masks a much more complex history, one that involves addressing deeply embeded racial inequality. Several different groups have now walked this Labyrinth and I have subsequently developed a range of additional materials on San Antonio with other local organsiations.
St James' Piccadilly, London
In the heart of London’s West End, St James’s is the self-confessed favourite of Sir Christopher Wren’s churches. With a sanctuary that houses both homeless people and lunchtime concerts for wealthy local professionals, the space is a fascinating meeting point for wildly varied social class and politics. Its physical location at the meeting point of Establishment club-land (St James) with the consumer tourist centre (Regents Street) makes it more fascinating still. I was engaged to design a Labyrinth as part of a larger piece of work by The Curiosity Society on the church’s future use of space – and how those choices relate to its geographical context in the city. Delivered on the UK’s first day outside the EU, the Labyrinth was called Take Back Control and explored the powerful human – and divine – drive to master the world.
Designing a Labyrinth is always an exhillarating experience, full of risk. It requires deep research and extensive editing, but the real challenge is providing a disorienting experience for people in the place they live or work. That requires deep listening and relentless attention to detail – translated with empathy into a compelling story.
With every Labyrinth I have designed the phrase I most want to hear is that a partcipant has experiened a familiar place in a profoundly new way. I’m proud to say that has been consistent feedback – and something I never take for granted.
“Matt Valler has an incredibly unique way of seeing and hearing the stories that make a place a place. The Hacking experience he curates is an innovative, interactive, and creative educational tool that deeply enriches the learning experience. I found the approach he’s built not only enlightening, but profound and inspiring. I also find the work particularly valuable within organizational/communal contexts. Learning such contexts anew through the fresh narratives that the Hack uncovers gives communities/teams opportunity to explore identity, strategy, and purpose with a depth that might otherwise be difficult to access.”
“Matt Valler listens to spaces – city blocks, buildings, streets – the way some people listen to music. He hears deeply, and he hears particularly, pulling out voices that were diminished until he made them available again. His process is invaluable for anyone wanting to discover the truth about our shared spaces.”