Think Public Space FINAL ROUND
Work title: Today's Myth: the Image of public space
What characterises public space is not simply accessibility, visibility or legal status as non-private realm, but the ability to promote behaviours triggering transformations in urban life at large. These behaviours, or micropolitics - such as energy saving, recycling, co-working - can equally take place in the domestic sphere, at the workplace and in retail space - in other words, far from what we commonly understand as ‘public’.
If political behaviour can unfold everywhere, public space then is better understood as that space – or those spaces - where our actions impact on communal life. This idea of public space is far from the widespread - and somewhat reductivist - view of it as a ‘container’ to be occasionally filled by a critical mass. Public space is thus less a container than a generator of behaviours and social patterns contributing to the identity of the city, a generator which today seems to have lost its defining quality.
Over the last three decades, the market logic imparted on the city by entrepreneurial urban governments relegated public space, once province of the uncertain and unexpected, to the realm of pre-determination and reassurance. Today’s commodified public space is (over)designed to prevent unplanned things from happening – a space created ad hoc not to function as a catalyst of unexpected events.
Possibly because of this lost quality, public space has now reached a mythical status. It is at once object of mourning by the research community, selling point for developers, object of desire of aspirational real estate buyers. Of course, the gap between what public space is today thought to be, and what it actually is, could not be wider.
Therefore, if ‘public space’ as we understand it today is a worn-out word, we are to turn to other spaces – such as courtyards, staircase landings and waiting rooms – to look for opportunities to subvert the status quo. As the case of the One Chase Manhattan Plaza in NYC suggests, a private space with restricted access has more potential for political action than an easily accessible square. People started perceiving the space owned by JP Morgan Chase & Co. as res publica only after it had been fenced off. Thus, by literally disappearing from the everyday experience of the city, a formerly peripheral space in NYC’s civic consciousness has become central to a rekindled debate on public space.
This interest in other spaces and negational logic inform our proposal. If ‘public’ is now found far from the square of the historical city, and if making public space disappear raises awareness of its value among urbanites, we suggest to reduce Zagreb’s squares to circulation paths, and to temporarily redirect all expectations of public life to hitherto neglected other spaces such as courtyards shops etc. Within this deliberate ‘regime of austerity’ in regards to public space, the iconic Ban Jelačić square is the only preserved in its current size. This is not just to honour the square’s central role in the history of the city, but to concentrate contingent critical masses into one single space, thus increasing the intensity of political expression that is expected to unfold there.