The Edge: Ryan Swanson and The Urban Conga

April 26, 2013 9 min read

Profile photo

Novedge: Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do.

Ryan Swanson: My life began in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where I went to high school for architecture. I then moved to Tampa about 7 years ago to attend The University of South Florida School of Architecture and Community Design where I will soon receive my Masters in Architecture.  I'm an aspiring architect, designer and creator. I like to make things and make things for a reason.  I hate making something that has no back story or reasoning for its existence. I try to live by this quote from Jim Henson – "When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope is to leave the world a little better for having been there.” It's kind of cliché but I believe if I'm alive I might as well make it worth it.

Thesis presentation edit

What do I do… Well I try to dip my hand in just about anything I find interesting. I coach and play volleyball, dj on my spare time, and pretty much just try to live life as much as possible.  Which is a hard task to do while in Architecture School. I recently have really gotten into emergent technologies and how they can be used in a large scale realm to push urban activation. So I spend a lot of time learning and designing. I never want to stop learning.

Novedge: How did you become interested in architecture and the public space?

Ryan Swanson: I think my interest in architecture kind of came about when I was young and asked my mom what I could do that involved math and art and she was like "architecture." That started me down this crazy wild path to where I am today. I didn't really get into public spaces until I went to Europe about two years ago. Me and some friends backpacked around for 5 weeks going to about 7 different countries. I began to see what a real public space was and actually be a part of their activeness. It's one thing to read about how a space is in a book than to actually experience it. I saw how people began to come together and interact with one another through the space. It was something that I never really saw in Fort Lauderdale or Tampa in the urban environment.

Interactive final

When I came back to the States I had just actually moved close to downtown Tampa and began to ride my bike there quite often into downtown. Before I never had a reason to drive the 20 min to downtown because there was never anything going on.  I began to ask myself why Tampa was unsuccessful when it came to public spaces.  It had some of the same parks, spaces, and open areas that I experienced in Europe. I began to realize people just either didn't know that the spaces existed or that it was ok to hangout in an empty grass lot. Or, it was just that there was nothing going on for them to want to hang out there. If you look at any big city you can walk down a street and feel like you are alive. Something is always happening or about to happen. I wanted to make this happen in downtown Tampa. I felt it had the potential and wanted to begin to create a change in the social interaction downtown.  Public spaces are a way for people to escape and with the way our world is looking these days people need any way they can get to escape the harsh realities of life and come together.

ICU wall

Novedge: What is a recent project that you worked on?

Ryan Swanson: I'm actually working on a couple of different projects right now. One is this interactive projection installation I call Projecting Fun. The idea for the projection installation is that it is something that can be easy to transport and it can be as big as you want it. The installation is done using the xbox kinect and processing, an open source code driven software.  Right now I have a simple script that reads movements of the body and allows one to dance and play and see themselves projected at a large scale doing it. The idea of this installation is to promote interactive activity in inactive spaces. It draws people in but also makes people begin to appreciate and notice the space they are occupying. My goal is to give people a good time and break up their typical route, but also make them appreciate the space they are in. I have done this installation in two locations, one on the side of an old facade and the other under an overpass. So this is something I have done but I am still working on making it different and more playful.  



The next thing is a prototype for this thing I call the Space Manipulator. The idea is that it's this cube that is placed within an inactive space and it can be broken down to a multitude of spatial arrangements for people to interact with. The idea is to get people to begin to play and work together on something and to create this idea of public interaction. The whole concept is to get people to come together in a space that isn't regularly used but is an interesting public space that should be activated. So when bringing this installation in I hope to not only give people something they can hang out on and move, but something they can begin to discuss and figure out. Public spaces are about bringing people together and creating a place for people to be interactive and become a part of the space. It's about creating a conversation between the human body and the space around them.
The Urban Conga is working on a bunch of different projects right now and they can be seen on our website. But something that has recently fell into our arms is helping design, create, and run a Fab Lab in South Tampa. Essentially we are working to create a place for learning and collaboration. The idea is that the house is always developing projects done by people coming to the Lab to learn and create. We hope to set up a studio in the Lab and begin to collaborate on a lot more public installations with creators from the Tampa area.  

Space manipulator

Novedge: What software do you use?

Ryan Swanson: Software is something I told myself I want to have a vast knowledge in. It's like being a painter; you don't want to paint with just one color. Through architecture school and 3d modeling I have become really familiar with 3ds Max, SketchUp, V-Ray, AutoCAD, and Photoshop. I use these programs for prototyping ideas and mostly for rendering and setting up files to be laser cut or CNC routed. 3ds Max is also good for animations for showing how interactive installations work or for getting accurate prototypes to pitch ideas.  When showing people what you plan to do it's all about making it as pretty as possible and 3ds Max can do that for you. Rhino, with the Grasshopper plug-in, is probably the program I use the most for modeling and designing ideas.  Rhino is great for parametric modeling and also it has an endless supply of plug-ins and can do a multitude of functions. Grasshopper is a generative modeling tool for Rhino that uses algorithms to create form. It also can be interconnected to Arduino which is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. The two can be used together to create real world interactions and create a digital model from that interaction.  Another program I use for interactive projection installations is Processing. It is another interactive open-source software that runs off of Java. The great thing about Arduino and Processing is that everything is open source, so everyone is willing to share ideas, code, and help. The idea is to keep pushing the limits and for an idea to keep growing. So if you make something maybe someone else can make something cooler with the thing you created and then so on. I believe technology is important to keep up with the ever growing society we are in. So I keep trying to find new software that I can learn to make things better and bigger with.


Novedge: What is the Urban Conga?

Ryan Swanson: The Urban Conga is a collective group of creators activating urban spaces through interactive installations.  We stimulate urban spaces through exploration, activation, and above all interaction. The objective is to spark a conversation between the public realm and the human body through interactive installations. Our mission is to start The Conga Line!  We want to collaborate with other creators and begin to start a movement in inactive areas.


We are not a group of artists that create static public art to make a dollar. Our philosophy is to inject care into local communities by accentuating and enhancing the beauty of the current urban conditions! With like-minded passions to better communities, we are turning unused and overlooked urban spaces into interactive places to live, learn, and love your city. The Conga started in September 2012 when I and a couple of other students at the University of South Florida School of Architecture realized we were interested in solving the problem that our downtown is having with activation. So in doing my thesis I tried to incorporate my research into The Urban Conga in how to interact with people and what they best respond to in order to begin to activate these unused spaces. Our goal is to start a movement! We hope there will begin to be an Urban Conga group everywhere just giving people something to do and interact with and have fun. Our whole motto is "Come out and play!"


Novedge: What are the rewards and challenges of being part of a collective, such as the Urban Conga?

Ryan Swanson: Everyone works in groups in school and hate it. I feel this gives a false reputation on collaborations or working in a collective effort.  In the working world this is something a majority of people have to learn to accept and deal with. I think working with other people is how to make something better. If you lock yourself in a room you are only getting one perspective on the thing you are doing and that is your own. When you put together a bunch of people that have different skill sets something amazing happens. IDEO is a design consulting firm that solely believes on creations through a collaborative effort. They are one of the top design consulting firms in the nation due to this mind set.  If you look at any online open sourced software, people collaborate everywhere. Someone puts up some code that does a basic function and someone else takes that basic function and makes it fly a rocket ship.  Maybe that's a bit extreme but my point is that things grow from a collective effort, every time being pushed to be better and different. At the same time you do run into problems with communication and people not being on the same page,  but I feel in the end the rewards out way the some time bickering and arguments over how things should happen.  The way the Urban Conga is set up is anyone can come to us with an idea and the motivation to make the idea happen.  What we want to do is make that idea for an interactive installation happen. Either through helping that person with funding or just helping them build and design it. Ever since we started this collaborative group so many artists, performers and creators have reached out to us to make stuff happen. People need something that is actually out, doing stuff that they can sort of latch onto. Collaborating with these people just helps me learn more of their specific skill set.


Novedge: What advice would you give to people looking into going to college to study architecture?

Ryan Swanson: If you want to study architecture in college make sure it is something you are truly passionate about because it takes over your life!!! Keep your mindset open when it comes to what design and architecture are when starting. You will realize that the knowledge you learn in architecture school can be used in so many different ways of design not just in building buildings.  Also architecture school is all about teaching the art side of things and not the real side of architecture so make sure you study how things functionally work and about coding and all that jazz as well as the fun stuff. Architecture school becomes a part of your life you kind of begin to realize no one outside of architecture school really understands what you are going through. It makes you feel sort of like an elitist in the college world but also excluded. Learn to love the studio and make it your home. Working in the studio is the most important part of architecture school. It goes back to the whole idea of putting different skill sets into one room and learning from one another. The main thing is just to hold on for the wild ride architecture school will bring you!

Want to see more of Ryan's work? Check out his website and Vimeo channel.

And here's a link to The Urban Conga's website.

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