The multiplicity of Public Space

The concept of public space has a common understanding in daily life, as the space where everyone could enjoy. We can easily identify open spaces like the park or the street as public, as well as the interior of civic or cultural buildings such as the library or the museum. Furthermore, commercial establishments such as the shopping mall is also a type of much-discussed public space. The major concern is its “publicness” and analysed through accessibility and control. Qualities such as open/close are often used to describe public space, or more specifically in terms of porosity or permeability. Through these parameters, different type of public spaces can be read in relation to the social conditions that produces it.

Streets and plazas are the most public and open, often associated with freedom of expression; while the commercial interior is practically public but designed and controlled to serve a capitalistic purpose. Among the spectrum of activities and spatial types, the public space at cultural buildings sits somewhere in the middle. Cultural institutions such as museums or theatres are usually considered to be public, yet it is also carefully curated and controlled towards specific objective. The public space design is reflecting not only the architect’s creation but more importantly the vision imposed by the institution that commission the project. Beyond the built space and throughout the lifetime of the building, spatial practice continues to evolve according to institutional intention.

To investigate the role of cultural institutions (physical places) as public space, three questions could be asked regarding the nature of “public” to provide a framework for such discourse:

1. The changing concept of public space – “what is public space”?

The meaning of public space changes as urban life evolves during the past century, from a pre-modern dichotomy of public versus private realm to the contemporary (postmodern) complexity with blurred boundary. According to Sennett in The Fall of Public Man, in the ancient regime “private” realm was known as the protected domestic zone with family and friends; while the “public” realm is open and vulnerable, surrounded by strangers and acquaintances[1]. The two realms have distinct and opposite spatial notion, respectively the private home and the public spaces such as salons or coffee houses. Urban centres like Paris or London in the 19th century were populated with this type of public space that allows urbanites to meet and interact, building the foundation of modern (democratic) urbanity. Habermas describes it as the “public sphere” and emphasis on its discursive nature, where people gather and freely participate in public discourse[2].

This 19th century concept of public space is portrayed as decent and rational, in risk of decline in contemporary society. Sennett argues that the “proper” public life is being corrupted by causal exposure of the private realm, while the bourgeois public sphere advocated by Habermas is influenced and manipulated by the capital and the state. The critical theorist of the late 20th century stress the political nature of public space and warning its lost of critical character due to the affects of late-capitalism, particularly the mass media and culture[3]. Adorno coined the term Culture Industry to describe this crisis of how the capital (and post-war American pop culture) were systematically deteriorating intellectual life. Although these criticism are not specifically spatial, they serve as the conceptual foundation as we examine contemporary public space and its production.

2. The struggle of public space – “who is the public?”

The intellectual discourse on late-capitalism could have fuelled the social movements in the 1960s. The prosperity of post-war metropolis fail to realise the vision of an enlightened public realm, but grew into the consumer society corrupted by capitalistic power. The reaction to this in public space discourse is a shift of focus from the domestic private versus political public into an opposition of social public against capitalistic private. From the student movements in Paris May 1968, to the wider social rights movements in the western world, theory is brought into action and being taken to the streets. Public space in the city has evolved from the ideal democratic sphere into the stage for struggle and confrontation in the late 20th century.

Many accounts has been written about the effects of liberal capitalism on US cities, from gentrification in New York City[4] to “Disneyfication” of Los Angeles[5]. The civic struggles can be summarised as “the end of public space” proclaimed by urban geographer Don Mitchell. He illustrate through the events of People’s Park in Berkeley in 1960s, where public space is homogenised to serve the capital, as it expel the marginal community of homeless and activist for the benefit of suburban residents[6]. Both groups claims their “right” to the public space, and this is when the discourse has changed from what is public space to who is the public. The contestation of public space can be read through incidents where order and control is exerted by the state or the capital (private interest) against the vulnerable individuals (public good). The struggle of public space has broadened our imagination and understanding on public space, in line with the complexity and heterogeneity of postmodern condition[7], leading to the question of the right to the city[8].

This struggle is particularly apparent at the public space associated with cultural institutions. Although most cultural institutions claims to be open and inclusive, yet order and control is maintained in similar fashion as private operations. Mitchell’s vision for public space is where the collective public can claim ownership to appropriate, although his concern targeted at the marginal community, the exclusion in commodified cultural spaces extends to largely the non-consuming public. Who has the right to use, to express, and to occupy public space at cultural buildings? This debate leads to the question in defining what is public and what is private.

3. The blurred boundary of public and private – “who owns public space?”

Under the premise of postmodern heterogeneity, urban public space can no longer be clearly defined as the opposite to private space. A variety of lens (perspectives) can be used to look at the nature of public space, in this article we would focus on ownership and the right to appropriate.

If we regard public space as where public activity happens, then most urban places from the park to the sidewalk, the café to the shopping mall could be called public space. People enjoy access to urban parks and plazas for leisure activities, as well as cultural or social expression from busking to protest. Notable at many commercial establishment accessibility is celebrated, giving an illusion of genuine public space, although it is in fact a strategy to induce consumption. Urban sociologist Fran Tonkiss suggested that public space is “not defined by who owns it but the public life that it engenders”[9], and this is the nominal definition of public space as we understood it. However, through the cases of civil struggle, it became clear that ownership is precisely what define public space. When activities at the public space is in any case deem inappropriate, they would be prohibited by the property owner, be it private or public. In the name of the right to property, power is exerted from the owner of public space to the (powerless) public user, in form of immediate control to restore order or subsequent measures through design and management. Similar to the incident at the People’s Park, the more recent Occupy Wall Street at the Zuccotti Park was put to an end through the owner claiming property right.

If property owners have the right to dictate the kind of activity to take place, on the contrary, can this status of ownership provide a window of opportunity for civic action in public space with consent of the owner?

The role of cultural institution and Institutional Public Space

There is a relatively clear understanding of state-owned or business-owned public space, with abundant discussions about its public-ness whether in the context of marginal communities or social movements. The public space associated with cultural institutions such as museum courtyard or theatre atrium, however, has a blurry boundary of how public it is. Furthermore, as most cultural institutions were publicly funded, their inclusive vision and the exclusive elitist reality is also up for debate. Reflecting the direction and vision of the cultural institution, this particular type of public space – the Institutional Public Space – is situated in a position between the private and the public, with character and significance that is yet to be defined.

The public-ness of cultural public space is therefore the subject to study, through dimensions of order and control, accessibility and inclusiveness, towards the discussion about cultural participation. Through the reading of institutional public space as cultural / architectural text, it fills a gap in public space study by focusing specifically on cultural space and its institutional relations. The study of Institutional Public Space is also questioning the public position of cultural institutions, and their function as owner of public space. Cultural institutions are playing an increasingly crucial role in time of social issues and cultural commodification. Aligned with their position of the institution, public space can function as a tool of empowerment to cultural participants, where the collective public can claim their right to culture and public space.

[1] Sennett, R. (1977). The fall of public man. New York: Knopf.

[2] Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[3] Adorno, T. (2001). The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge.

[4] Zukin, S. (1988). Loft living: Culture and capital in urban change. London: Radius.

[5] Sorkin, M. (2011). All over the map : Writing on buildings and cities. London New York: Verso.

[6] Mitchell, D. (2003). The right to the city : Social justice and the fight for public space. New York: Guilford Press.

[7] Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism. London: Verso.

[8] Harvey, D. (2003). The right to the city. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(4), 939-941.

[9] Tonkiss, F. (2005). Space, the city and social theory : Social relations and urban forms. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity.

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