By Albert Dijk
Lately, the public realm is subject of a broad discourse. One states that there is no public realm anymore, while others see the public realm visible almost anywhere. It is a discourse present in the debate on architecture for only one century, this in contrast with the long-term debate on architecture present in for instance the books of Vitruvius. Questions as ‘What is the public realm?’ and ‘Where does the public realm take place?’ are key questions in this debate. To me it is strange that the debate on the public realm is present for only this short. The public realm has been a crucial presence in the city fabric. It has been the place where people could meet each other and exchange goods and thoughts. In the contemporary public realm people are not debating anymore. The exchange is gone and people just walk past each other without communicating. In order to understand this contemporary public realm it is necessary to understand how the public realm has been developed. Only when we can see what causes this deaf-and-dumb public realm we can propose solutions to regain a meaningful public realm.
Let us try to get a grip on the public realm and start with the Greek city. The main public space, the agora, is used by all inhabitants of the city and therefore all classes have to come together. It is a melting pot of the city and if you want to buy something, or meet someone, this is the place to go to. The city is characterized by a severe grid with two main axes and where the two axes meet, the agora was placed. In this organisation the buildings function as the enclosure of the public space and the division of public and private is clear (see figure 1). The agora is in the debate about the public realm the archetype of how people see the public space.
The Roman city is the other way around. In this city the public realm of the Greek cities has been developed further. More functions arose and demanded a part within the city. The main public space, the Forum, is not a part of the continuous public space. It is within buildings, as a public atrium, or the space in between buildings. In the same manner the dwellings are organised. All buildings have a closed façade and become a collection of private domains. The border between the public and the private is becoming vaguer and the buildings do not function as an envelope for the public space anymore, like it used to be in the Greek cities. The definition of what is public is already more difficult to define. The main public realm is fragmentised into multiple public spaces. Subspaces of the main public space come into being, but it is still clear to define what is public and what is private (see figure below).
When we make a jump, the coffeehouses of Vienna are the next step in the development of the public realm. In the coffeehouses, which are private, the public realm takes place. According to Richard Sennett, in these coffeehouses the discussion takes place. A new space is rising, the semi-public space. Arendt, Habermas and Sennett have discussed such a space as the Dutch philosopher Rene Boomkens explains. There are restrictions to enter such a space. Not everyone is able to walk in and out. It is only accessible if you comply with the expectations regarding this space. It is even harder to define what is public and what is private (see figure 1). The semi-public space has been introduced to explain this new definition of the public realm, but we are still talking over the same subject: the public realm. What is happening in the public space if the public realm takes place in the semi-public space?
In contemporary urbanism it is even harder to define what public space is. The public space is even more rooted inside the building (see figure 1). As the next step in the development we can say that the public realm takes place in the private space. This gives us trouble to define the public space. What is happening in it? I will explain the contemporary city by looking at Las Vegas. This city is a combination of the Greek and the Roman city. The individual buildings of the Roman city placed in the severe grid of the Greek cities. In the roman city we can see the fragmentation of the public realm. In contemporary urbanism the realm is not only fragmentised, but also privatised. The development of the coffeehouses of Vienna, in where the public realm shifts into the private space, is continued in the casinos of Las Vegas. This space is private property and highly controlled and has the function of being a meeting space.
You will enter the city via the main public space, a large road separating two sides of casinos. But you are only able to experience this space by car. ‘…communication works through proximity.’ Due to the fact that the speed of experiencing the public space has gone up drastically, proximity is absent. The only way of communicating to the visitors is by huge signs, instead of the possibility of having direct contact. The loss of direct communication means the loss of the discussion. Only one way communication is possible. Once inside a casino, direct contact is possible and thus the discussion. The public realm takes place in a casino. But the contact with other casinos is dissolved and this results in a fragmentised public realm. The casinos are not linked with one another and are private. Already a shift arouses even before you enter the casino, because you enter the casino which appeals to you the most, or is recommended by friends, or is the expected place of your social class. A competition between the different casinos is the result. The signs, buildings and patios became bigger. It is impossible to reach for the discussion. But this way of how the city is build up, was embraced by the people. The city fulfilled the anonymity wanted by the visitors. They didn’t go there to meet other people, but they went there to win money. To make this general ’…for many, the very construction of the self involves the acquisition of commodities’ states Margaret Crawford. She points out that there is no public realm, or discussion, in which a person is constructed, and people don’t need the public realm anymore. Because of the success of Las Vegas, people picked up this way of making a city. Other cities imitated the success formula and the ongoing globalisation and generalisation of the public space created multiple imitations of Las Vegas.
In Las Vegas an organisational principle is used throughout the entire city; the city has become a theme park. The most famous image of the city is a sign. Theming is introduced in order to stand out, implying that a well functioning space should be more attractive than others, that it needs something extra. This leads to a competition of the public spaces. People are starting to choose between different spaces and because the theme used in a space is mono functional, a like-minded public will come. There is not enough differentiation to encounter other culture which is essential for the discussion and a healthy public sphere. With the introduction of these theme parks, the fragmentation is encoura1ged and the discussion is discouraged.
This new urbanism has proven that it is not working and this is especially good visible in the figurehead of theming cities, Las Vegas. ‘…the occasional communal space that is big is a space for crowds of anonymous individuals without explicit connection with each other.’ Endless hotels and casino’s on the strip, endless numbers of tourists going up and endless the expansion of the city. But because this theme is used throughout the entire city, everything has become the same. How will people make a decision between different casinos?
The problem in the contemporary city centre is this competition of the public space. The theming of a city (Las Vegas as an entertainment city), will lead to like-minded public spaces, or generic spaces if you want. These spaces have no narrative or geographical difference. In order to make a difference, to win the competition, the spaces themselves will also adapt a certain theme. This theme is a subdivision of the main them, for instance a casino in Las Vegas is in a Greek style. For assuring the expectations of the visitors, the owners of the spaces will try to control everything that is happening in these spaces. If there is anything that does not match these expectations, it will be removed.
In the casinos of Las Vegas we can see the coffeehouses of the new urbanism. We can see two factors for the absence of a discussion. First, as shown above, it is difficult to understand this space. And if you are not possible to understand the space, how should you know how to act. If you are able to control the space you will not get this problem of understanding. The one in control of the space can influence the way you act and nowadays the controlling is so present that it leaves no room for a different point of view.
Second, the accessibility of the space is going down which creates distance. The spaces are not public anymore, but owned privately. As David Harvey puts it ‘Distanciation is simply a measure of the degree to which the friction of space has been overcome to accommodate social interaction’ .
In my opinion the new public space, with Las Vegas as a prominent example, leaves no room for the discussion, an indispensable condition for the public realm. People communicate on a shallow level, mostly by signs instead of direct contact. The buildings will become signs, like it is in Las Vegas. ‘Indeed, if most of architecture has become surface, applied decoration, superficiality, paper architecture…how can architecture remain a means by which society explores new territories, develops new knowledge’ or encourage the discussion brought forward by new knowledge, new arguments, different culture. Like Tschumi puts it, we need new instruments to reach a new architecture of the public space. Still the basic principle of his architecture is to create conditions for encounters. Architecture should not continue to create spaces with one forced interpretation. People should be able to create their own opinion and see other interpretations. Only this will lead to a healthy public sphere.
To go back to a system that generates discussion, the architectural language should be understandable and instead of banalities used in contemporary architecture of controlled public spaces, the buildings have to elicit a reaction from the users. The users should be provoked and aware of the environment.
A note should be made to explain the difference between a space that is not understandable and a provoking space. The provoking space can be understood for it provokes. If it is not understandable you wouldn’t understand that it is provoking. Therefore architecture like Adriaan Geuze proposes in the book Architectural Positions , just to disorient the users, is not the right solution. Instead people should be so well oriented that they can form their own opinion and will get aware of their own thoughts. Then people will be able to react and start a discussion.
Like the readymades of Duchamp. A common and understandable element placed in a different context. The alienating of the subject makes you start to think about it. It becomes more clear what it is, or what it should be. As he states it: ‘The curious thing about the readymade is that I’ve never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me.’ It shows the multiple explanations of the object, leaving room for different interpretations. According to Karl Ruhrberg there were individual strategies for his work: either combinations, or new interpretations. Duchamp’s work with foundings and the search for a definition of art was something picked up by the surrealists. Already in 1913 he stated that art is a matter of definition, a settled expression. It is possible to play with this definition and define it in a different way. His influence was major and visible in the work of for example Picasso’s Bull head, Andy Warhol’s Soup cans or the drawings in the subway of Keith Haring.
Interesting is the work An Oak Tree of Michael Craig-Martin. The work consists of a glass of water on a glass shelf with an accompanying text, which states that the work is a fully grown oak tree which looks like a glass of water. Craig-Martin sees the work as a deconstruction to reveal the artist’s and the viewer’s belief as the basic component of art. This definition shows how to reach for the discussion. That is the main goal.
Richard Sennett explains this as a temporary suspension of the use value of an object, its decontextualized state making it unexpected and therefore stimulating. In other words, it is interesting to see if an object can be placed in a total different setting and thereby gain a total different value. Will we be able to reach such a value in architecture? By giving it a totally different context, will the object have a different meaning? Still the element that has been used is explainable.
To make it more concrete, Frederic Jameson is talking of how to get towards new meanings, realize a utopia. ‘…when it reveals the operation of the Utopian impulse in unsuspected places, where it is concealed or repressed.’ As this statement shows, the Utopia is concealed or repressed. The new means of which Tschumi is talking are already present in society. What we need to do, is make them visible.
To reach architecture that can summon the discussion there are different strategies. It should make the utopia visible, which is now repressed and concealed. By decontextualising, combining or new interpretations we can make it visible again. And when we see it, we are able to discuss it, and form an opinion; the discussion.
1. De architect themanummer 30, p. 10-17, Openbare ruimte of openbare leegte
2. Rene Boomkens, The temporalities of the public sphere, in: Oase #77 Into the open, p. 9
3. Venturi & Scott, Learning from Las Vegas, 1977, MIT press, Cambridge, p. 9
4. Margaret Crawford, The world in a shopping mall, in: Michael Sorkin, Variations on a theme park, 1992, p. 11
5. Avermaete, Havik & Teerds, Architectural Positions, 2009, SUN Publishers, Amsterdam, p. 31
6. Venturi & Scott, Learning from Las Vegas, 1977, MIT press, Cambridge, p. 50
7. The term generic city is used by Koolhaas in his essay ‘The Generic City’ published in S,M,L,XL in which he describes how cities are going to be when this form of urbanism is continued.
8. David Harvey, The condition of postmodernity, 1990, Blackwell Publishing, USA, p. 222
9. Bernard Tschumi, ‘Six concepts’, in: Architecture and Disjunction, 1991, p. 236-237
10. Avermaete, Havik & Teerds, OASE 77, NAI uitgevers, Rotterdam, p.43-57
11. Avermaete, Havik & Teerds, Architectural Positions, 2009, SUN Publishers, Amsterdam, p. 101-109
12. Wikipedia – Readymades of Marcel Duchamp
13. Karl Ruhrberg, Kunst van de twintigste eeuw, 2005, Taschen, Köln, p. 458
14. Ibid, p. 457
15. Wikipedia – An Oak Tree
16. Richard Sennett, The fall of public man, 1977, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York, p. 3 – 44
17. Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the future, 2005, Verso, London, p. 3
© 2013 Buro A.D.