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 right to
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 codependent triptych.

”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 reciprocal existence.

. .  .  .  .

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 of:

"...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 stewardship.

.  . .  .  .

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 specific end.

“[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.

It follows, 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 conditions.

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.

More 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 space.

“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, operable, potent.

"[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

Through collective social action, space transforms.

Perhaps even 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 military post.

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 life.

"Here administrative, political, judicial, commercial, social, cultural, and religious activities all found a place together in the heart of ancient Athens” (Thompson 4).

If a heterotopia is a closed, situated utopia, an agora is an open, shared, and diverse utopia, composed of many smaller utopias.

It brought together into collective public life all that composes urbanity: temples, theater, law-courts, stoas (“teaching porches"), commercial space, library, city hall (with laws on display), fountain houses, archives, civic offices, administrative buildings, the senate, monuments, the mint, and Panathanaic Way (a major thoroughfare that doubled as a recreational path for athletic events).

Further, the architecture itself embodied its specific urban agenda through the invention of the Stoa: large covered porches that extended off each building, producing unspecific spaces of mediation. In capturing this space, which exists conceptually but only manifests architecturally, with expansive zones of shelter, the stoa realizes a truly public space of gathering. Indeed, it is among these arcaded spaces that Ancient Greece’s famed Socratic civil society played out, establishing for themselves the title of “teaching porches,” hosting constantly the debates and dialogues of everyday citizens and renowned intellectuals.

To reproduce the Agora is to open those institutions which operate heterotopically and unveil their function into the shared realm: community centers, advocacy offices, educational facilities, fabrication workshops, small businesses, coworking spaces, performance venues, culinary experiments, farmers markets. This is the issue today with community facilities: they still exist as heterotopias, operating out of closed buildings that exist in isolation. In proximity with the necessities of life, they come into view. Civic engagement is happenstance, not sought out. You almost do it by accident just by shopping for groceries. Suddenly, visibility a productive and generative architectural condition, not just a spectacle.

It must also be noted that the Athenian Agora serviced a population of 10,000 people. A contemporary agora typology cannot be a one off like Times Square, but must instead populate a constellation for which the sites themselves are equally important as the character of the architecture. The conception of each star, and their collective figure, poses a new possibility for a reimagination of urban convergence.

.  . .  .  .

Instead of heterotopias, isolated places of difference, we might seek to produce agora-like synotopias, open places of togetherness. Perhaps through them, we can uncover the precarious difference between civility and community. We’ll see if Obama’s library is a start…


Certeau, Michel De. The Practice of Everyday Life. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1998.

Delaney, Samuel R. “The risk and reward of anonymous and unchecked interpersonal contact is the very essence of the city.” Architectural Review March 2017 (2017).

Foucault, Michel. “Space Knowledge and Power,” (Skyline interview, 1982), in Paul Rabinow (Ed.) The Foucault Reader. (New York: Pantheon): 239-256.

Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso, 2013.

Simone, Abdoumaliq. "The Urban Poor and Their Ambivalent Exceptionalities." Current Anthropology 56.S11 (2015).

Thompson, Homer A. “The Agora at Athens and the Greek Market Place.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 13, no. 4, 1954, pp. 9–14., www.jstor.org/stable/987633.

Weizman, Eyal, Alessandro Petti, and Sandi Hilal. Architecture after Revolution. Berlin: Sternberg, 2013.