in search of a new public
in search of a new public
in search of a new public
published (excerpt) in yale retrospecta
...what defines our public realm? who is responsible for it?
who has access to it? who controls it? to achieve an equal
the city, we must address the reciprocity of space and society.
“ I do not think that there is anything that is functionally—by its very nature—absolutely liberating. Liberty is a practice.” - Michel Foucault
“A wall turned sideways is a bridge.” - Angela Davis
In pursuit of more equal access to liberty,
architecture must be understood as inextricably defined by social practice.
Society manifests both through it, as physical expressions of social relations,
and among it, as the sites where those social relations play out. In this way,
architecture is shaped by social practice, as it shapes social practice itself.
Foucault defines this continuum as a
”I think it is somewhat arbitrary to try to dissociate the effective practice of freedom by people, the practice of social relations, and the spatial distribution in which they find themselves. If they are separated, they become impossible to understand. Each can only be understood through the other" (Foucault 246).
There are no absolutes, only dependencies.
The interactions of life cannot be understood independent of their contingent
relationships. Social relations manifest in space, through the accumulation of
individual practices. Individual practices arise in response to social
relations, and along the specific lines of the spaces they occupy. Space
(architecture), while physically static unto itself, comes into being through
people, and in turn depends on people (read social relations + individual
practices) for its eventual definition. Indeed, architecture does not exist
without people. Nor do people exist outside of space.
And through people, architecture is
malleable. It is not absolute. The same space occupied in different ways
produces different architectures. Take the school and the prison: typologically
the same, but socially, functionally, philosophically opposite (…at least, we
hope). Space becomes architecture through occupation. As such, architecture is
both generic and operable: generic in its social ambiguity; operable in its
capacity to be transformed.
The perpetual interplay of individual,
society, and space, and their particular influence on the equality of the city,
plays out with no more drama than in those spaces we know as ‘public.’ Public space, as an idea and a physical
reality, resists singular definition while embodying the confluence of
possibility: the theater of society, spatialized. It is here that my
investigation will focus.
In this paper, I will explore the
relationships between architecture, social relations, and individual practices,
their influence on the right to the city, and a possible reimagination of their
. . . . .
Note: I will use the word ‘public’ in different
ways throughout this paper, both succumbing to the limits of the English language
and nodding to the complexities and contradictions inherent in the word itself.
Indeed, ‘public’ means many things, which I will do my best to elucidate. I
will use it in primarily three ways. First, in
the public realm, meaning that which is in the open and available to all —
this will read as ‘public’ with a lowercase ‘p.’ Second, produced by or belonging to Public entities, meaning that which has
been paid for by taxpayer money, by the government — this will read as ‘Public’
with an uppercase ‘P.” Third, the public,
meaning all people relevant to a particular place or idea — this will always
read with the prefix ‘the-.’
. . . . .
Foregrounding this investigation is the
elusive yet powerful concept of a right
to the city. Coined by Henri Lefebvre and touted by David Harvey, the
concept is simple: the city is ours, and to it we have an inarguable claim.
“Only when it is understood that those who build and sustain urban life have a primary claim to that which they have produced…will we arrive at a politics of the urban that will make sense. ‘The city may be dead,’ Lefebvre seems to say, but ‘long live the city!’” (Harvey xvi)
Unfortunately, we know all too well that it
does not play out this way. The city is violently contested, and dramatically
unequal. For many, the right is only
that, an etherial concept never realized in material form.
“We inevitably have to confront the question of whose rights are being identified, while recognizing, as Marx puts it in Capital, that ‘between equal rights force decides.’ The definition of the right is itself an object of struggle, and that struggle has to proceed concomitantly with the struggle to materialize it.” (Harvey xv).
This is the primary point. Even if we all
do have equal right to the city, the realization of that equality may
not manifest as such. Be it through implicit social practice or explicit
violence, force decides that the city is not equal —its muscle, the hegemony of
unfettered and municipally sponsored capitalistic real estate development.
It is within this frame that contemporary
urbanity must be imagined: architecture manifests not only through systems of
social relations between people, but through financial relations determined by
capital. It is at once a place for people and a source for money…a not so
friendly duality. More and more, the city forms primarily in the image of
capital, only nodding to the equal needs of universal constituents if
financially advantageous. In the capital city, money governs.
And yet, its resulting urban assembly is a necessary
frame through which equality may (or may not) be accessed. In seeking its
possible reimagination, AbdouMaliq Simone insists upon a rigorous consideration
"...how residents are housed, how land is used, how work and income are created, where people can circulate and congregate, how residents can access critical knowledge and use the city as a resource for knowledge, and how residents can effectively register their ideas, needs, and aspirations and participate in the critical processes that determine their livelihoods and rights." (Simone 522-523)
Understood as such, the complex assemblage
of the city is politically imperative, and in perpetual need of critical
. . . . .
Until the 18th century,
architecture was not explicitly present in political discourse. Although it
still may have been conceived politically by those who made it, the arrangement
of space — be it domestic or urban — did not hold a significant place
in the minds of “political men.”
“It was not necessarily a change in the minds of architects, or in their techniques — although that remains to be seen — but in the minds of political men in the choice and the form of attention that they bring to bear upon the objects that are of concern to them. Architecture became one of these during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (Foucalt 240).
Space (the city)
was not a passive backdrop for the construction of society, it was an active
and influential participant, if not a primary driver. And so we measured it,
drew it, reimagined it, changed it, celebrated it, etc. We even rejected it and
started over, erasing or abandoning what once was in pursuit of something
superior. Simply, the relational form of city was understood to have political
operability worth acting on.
No longer. Though
not specifically clear at what moment, this conception of the city has once
again disappeared. Perhaps it was the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, and the
subsequent “death of modern architecture,” that eliminated architecture from
political discourse. Certainly, architects still consider architecture
politically, but politicians aren’t seeking them out, demanding that the city
be conceived differently. Space has been numericized…housing is a numbers
problem, not a conceptual problem, etc.
In this way,
architecture is understood to have agency primarily at the scale of the
building: the single, closed entity. (Indeed, there has always been an
importance placed on the individual building, but in this prior political
period, far more attention was paid to the spaces between and among them.) We
imagine the building as a microcosmic world, defining within itself a capacity
for influence. Take again the school and the prison. Each defines a hard
boundary within which there exists a different world with defined social
relations and expected practices. They recede from the city, which they
necessarily define as uncontrollable, to construct a manageable assembly of the
aforementioned triptych — individual, society, and space — in pursuit of a
“[People] have dreamed of liberating machines. But there are no machines of freedom, by definition. This is not to say that the exercise of freedom is completely indifferent to spatial distribution, but it can only function when there is a certain convergence; in the case of divergence or distortion, it immediately becomes the opposite of that which had been intended” (Foucault 246).
The three must converge in order to successfully
operate. Foucault offers the example of the Familistére, a housing complex that
surrounds an enclosed, interior courtyard, with each apartment door opening
directly onto it. In it, he proposes two extreme social constructs. Populated
by social openness and sexual promiscuity, the space might foster a productive
sense of community and camaraderie — a convergence. Alternatively, inhabited by
nervousness and suspicion, the space could quickly become oppressive in its lack
of privacy and perpetual surveillance. The possibility of space depends
intimately on the social constructs that occupy it.
then, that we create closed, controllable systems of socially constructed space
that enable a specificity in defining that convergence. Foucault calls these
spaces heterotopias, which he defines
as closed, situated utopias.
“We live, we die, we love in a space that is gridded, cut up, muddled…there are areas of passage — streets, trains, metro; there are open areas of transitory halt — cafes, cinemas, beaches, hotels; and then there are the closed areas where we rest, that we call home. Now, among all these places which are distinct from one another, there are some that are absolutely different: places that are opposed to all the others, that are destined in some way to efface them, to neutralize them or to purify them. These are in a sense counter-spaces.”
He offers as
examples the garden, the cemetery, the asylum, the brothel, the prison, the
resort, etc. His archetype, in fact, is the boat, whose walls are not
built of a line, but of an ocean. These spaces exist in contrast to the messiness of the city, purifying it through
their constructed enclosure.
In seeking to produce
local convergence within other space,
the heterotopia simultaneously produces a local
public: an ‘other’ group fostered by a spatial and social communion. We belong to these closed systems. Take the
brothel, a favorite example of Foucault’s, which produces a sense of relational
connection among male visitors by way of transitive intimacy: they recede to
the same place, sleep with the same women, contract the same diseases, etc.
Schools, hospitals, prisons, mental asylums, too, produce a bounded condition
of localized community, but do so in their extended ritual enclosure.
We all belong to at
least a few heterotopic communities. Indeed, understood in this way, the heterotopic
city — made up of “localized utopias” — suggests an archipelago
of closed systems.
. . . . .
And yet, Foucault conveniently ignores the
space between them, the “space that is gridded, cut up, muddled,” as the
primary site of (di)(con)vergence, defining among it the primary public. Without specific enclosure, controlled
patronage or constituencies, or definable social relations, public space (space in the public realm)
is subject to radical fluctuations in social reality.
This manifests intensely at the scale of
the individual, for whom public space is not equally public…it is
only public relative to identity, position, and perception. While
this is explicit in Foucault’s idea of convergence, for which the reality of a
given space depends on the aligned balance of spatial organization and
social practices, it rarely manifests in common (read: white male) consciousness.
For example, streets, which do often remain more public than most spaces,
quickly become unequally public as night falls, producing for women a
definitive condition of danger without changing much for men (except for those
men whose urban performance produces this sense of danger). With darkness comes
uncertainty. With absence of activity comes both
unwanted spectacle — the lone pedestrian is on display and vulnerable
to engagement — and helplessness — without people around, there is no
social surveillance for protection. In this way, women can experience a
malleability in the reality of architecturally public spaces (streets, squares,
parks, taxi cabs, etc.) through an active variability in their social
It is in direct response to this
uneven divergence of space and social reality that the mayor Bogota
initiated the “Night Without Men,” an annual night on which the city
enforces an early curfew for men and children, offering to women the
equal opportunity to experience the nighttime space of the city as, once
again, public, while also demonstrating to men their interference in women’s
right to the city. Here we see an attempt at enclosing the city towards a controllable condition. Though
gesturing towards autocracy, which ultimately treats the city itself as a
heterotopia defined by the state, this urban gesture selectively alters the social
conditions of the city’s public space as a poignant demonstration from which
all cities (and all men) should learn.
dramatic is the explicit rejection of certain people or behaviors from public
space. Perhaps no more evident than with those who are queer or black, the city
has demonstrated a repeated exclusion through law, social expectation, and
outright violence. In response, each has produced practices of freedom that
discover and perpetuate their own spaces of freedom.
In gay urban culture, this
manifests in the form of ‘cruising,’ in which men frequent secluded spaces that
enable uncommon privacy for publicly unacceptable behavior. Here, those spaces
that might otherwise be perceived as dangerous for the lone pedestrian in fact
manifest an essential freedom for the directed urban cruiser. In the face
of necessity, the urban practitioner innovates, exploiting the ambiguity of
“True public space enables complex, messy, erotic inter-class contact: ‘…if every sexual encounter involves bringing someone back to your house, the general sexual activity in a city becomes anxiety-filled, class-bound, and choosy. This is precisely why public restrooms, peep shows, sex movies, bars with grope rooms, and parks with enough greenery are necessary for a relaxed and friendly sexual atmosphere in a democratic metropolis’” (Samuel R Delany)
. . . . .
Indeed, public space is messy primarily
because it is public. Though often not respected in practice, conceptually it
does not have prescribed social constructs (beyond the loose frame of the law),
nor does it have overbearing patrons (beyond those enforcing those laws). It
is, to a certain extent, generic, framed by its physical constructs of
possibility (e.g. it’s vast, it’s enclosed, etc.).
As a result, it is malleable,
"[the logic of ambiguity] turns the frontier into a crossing, and the river into a bridge. it recounts inversions and displacements: the door that closes is precisely what may be opened; the river is what makes passage possible; the tree is what marks the stages of advance; the picket fence is an ensemble of interstices through which one’s glances pass.” (Certau 128)
Indeed, the government plaza,
conceived as a spatial demonstration of power and commanded by an
autocratic regime, is also the space for revolt.
“In Tahrir, the cleaning of the square is what turned it from being a “(P)ublic” space — the space of the regime — into an effective political common” (Weizman 171). *my capitalization
social action, space transforms.
more powerfully, collective social action can make space public (public
in the sense that it is available to all). Weizman powerfully demonstrates this
potent capacity for conversion in the reappropriation of the Oush Grab Israeli
The site had an infinite history of
Israeli military use, and was at no point accessible to the Palestinian
population, until one day it was evacuated. Suddenly, it was vacant, open, unclaimed.
Out of this newfound accessibility emerged completely new perceptions,
vantages, possibilities. It "offered local people the opportunity to see
their own city from this direction for the first time" (Weizman 13).
"Having access to the evacuated military base we experienced the most radical condition of architecture -- the very moment that power has been unplugged: the old uses are gone, and the new uses not yet defined” (Weizman 13).
Some believed that, because of its
indeterminacy and vacancy, the compound should be secured and guarded. Instead,
EW et. al. fostered it as the only true public space in the Bethlehem area,
organizing tours, planting olive trees, using the watchtowers for bird
watching, etc. Out of this came a willingness and enthusiasm from the
municipality to develop it as a public park. Persistent activity fostered
the possibility of a public in place of a guarded void.
. . .
Public space is public because we
say that it is, not because it is paid for by a certain party. Indeed,
Washington Square Park, the New Haven Green, and Zuccotti Park are each
spatially public, but differ financially. Washington Square Park is
traditionally public, owned and maintained by the city; the New Haven Green is
owned and operated by a small non-profit group, “friends of the New Haven
Green;” and Zuccotti Park is a POPS, a privately-owned-public-space held by
Brookfield Properties. While each
operates similarly, allowing generally indeterminate public use, the complexity
arises when there is disagreement (certainly, the regime didn’t in Tahrir).
Occupy Wall Street revealed this precarious
relationship between the public nature of a space and its expected social
constructs, determined (it turns out) at a certain point by its owner. In this
case, it was the privately owned public spaces that actually operated more
publicly than the Publicly owned ones, namely because their patrons were more
forgiving. In fact, ironically, the entire movement was only possible because
Wall Street let them Occupy. As many different patrons did, the Brookfield
Group could have disallowed the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Similarly, the New
Haven Occupy movement lasted longer than any other in the country primarily
because it was allowed to. Once the
‘friends of the green’ decided that it was over, however, the occupation
disappeared in days.
As such, public is only
conditionally public. Such is the Hobbesian agreement.
. . . . .
So what are we to do? Public space
is multiplicitous, ambiguous, precarious, variable. It is easily coopted and
transformed. It is bounded by those who own and maintain it.
There is perhaps a lesson in
Foucault’s description of some eighteenth century South American house. Just
before their entrances, there were small unenclosed rooms that opened onto the
outside world, intended for use by truly anyone: “anyone at all, at any
hour of the day or night, could go into this room, rest, do whatever they
wanted there, and then leave the next morning without being seen or recognized
by anyone.” This is true public space: you can traverse, use, linger, sleep,
gather, etc. without being bothered or even noticed. And it is made possible by
a trusting social agreement between people.
How might this scale to include
diversity of life and the possibility of creation? Indeed, there need not be a
one-to-one relationship between spaces of possible freedom (public space) and
the existing practices of freedom (existing social constructs). Novel and
liberating forms of architecture present the hopeful spark of a catalyst,
offering in their openness the growth of new and before un-conceived practices,
the mixture of people its kindling.
There is perhaps no more convincing
example of this than the Ancient Greek Agora, which translates to “gathering place,” “open place of
assembly,” or “public marketplace.” At the center of the Athenian Polis,
the Agora represented the nexus of civic, commercial, cultural, and even erotic
"Here administrative, political, judicial, commercial, social, cultural, and religious activities all found a place together in the heart of ancient Athens” (Thompson 4).