Think Public Space 1ST PRIZE
Work title: Grand Hotel Beaux-Arts
(Note: this text is the explanatory counterpart to the narrative that accompanies the panels)
The city of Cagliari (Sardinia, Italy) has a population of 160,000. Given its location and its history it is an example of a mid-sized European city and, in particular, of a Mediterranean coastal city It is part of a wider metropolitan area that grew during the last seven decades through the delocalization to the periphery of major urban functions. In recent years the consolidation of an outlying university and hospital complex has led to the relocation of academic and health care functions that left vacant some large, monumental buildings located on the borders of the old city core, where once stood the pre-modern fortifications. Alongside this migration was the parallel exile in 2014 of the prison from its former home in the city to a brand new high-security complex built at a 12-kilometer distance.
Another exile is that of the young – and not too young – middle class that is increasingly expelled from the city due to the impossibility of finding affordable housing. Following an ongoing process of gentrification, the city center is likely to be taken over by the tourist industry. This inevitably transforms the meaning of the main open spaces of the city . The inner city areas are still inhabited by a petit bourgeoisie (the parents of the new generations) that climbed the social ladder in the 1980s, driven by the waves of economic growth that got them what they still consider the most precious, inalienable of all values: stability.
Their sons inhabit a condition that is somehow diametrically opposed: precariousness, self- employment, lifelong learning; these become the catchwords of a generation that is asked to make of instability a virtue. Such generation is for a large part composed of individuals who, albeit highly educated are poorly productive. Their average income is mostly low and all but constant over time as is the quality of their life, which often deteriorates when they decide to build a family. Their quest for jobs equals their quest for dwelling, giving reason to the ever more frequent calls for hybridization of living and working.
But who should provide such live-work? Is the Welfare State still a possibility? Or are we doomed to learn how to dwell in its ruins?
Those ruins are the remains of a long history of state-driven reformism whose most visible effects are registered in the physical space of cities. Praised by Moderns (Nine Points on Monumentality) and Post-moderns (Rossi’s urban monuments) for their mighty magnetic capacities inside urban processes, the monuments that the state built from the second half of the 19th century to the first decades of the 20th and that are being abandoned today on functional and economic reasons stand as possible bastions to reclaim an idea of the Public.
This is an idea that goes beyond old dichotomies – particularly the now too popular Oikos/Agora opposition – to consider dwelling itself as a public activity. Rather than being converted into museums to supposedly fit within a strategy sustaining a now booming tourist industry in the city, they could be bastions of a somewhat normal life to mark the return of this new disadvantaged classes (and their families) inside the city center. At the same time the occupation of these old institutions can be part of a different strategy, which works on the logics that make tourism also a part of today’s condition of precariousness. The multiple strategies of self-entrepreneurship that have grown in and around the tourist industry – the likes of airbnb and uber – could legitimize a strong call for rethinking the relations between living and working in the city as the very bases of the idea of the Public.
The old bastions of Beaux Arts culture – the massive and complex structures of Prisons, Hospitals and Universities in the case of Cagliari – could stand as architectural palimpsests for deploying such re-thinking. It is the vacation of those buildings that today, even more than the open spaces of the city, can stimulate novel ideas about the very meaning of the public sphere.