The study of public life

Research Background for the current project: Experience Cultural Public Space |

There was a paradigm change around mid-20th century in urban design and planning, from the Modernist top-down planning manifesto to a concern in human-scale urban experience. Urbanist such as Jane Jacobs advocated an observational approach to learning about how the city works (1961). This is a view shared by the Danish architect Jan Gehl, who over the years has developed a comprehensive methodology to study public space, which is effectively the study of public life that focus on people and activities (Gehl, 2013). These studies looked at the static public space and speculate the activities happen, or could happen in it. What if we extend the scope to look at the interactive aspect of these actions? What is the specificity of public life when it is placed in cultural context among the wide spectrum of generic public space?

Interior, exterior and semi-open public space

Public space studies generally only account for activities in open spaces outside of the building, yet this research proposes a broader perspective for an understanding of public space that includes open space as well as the public interior. Architectural scholar Mark Pimlott stated the significance of public interior for its “great impact on the shaping of public life and the public’s sense of its capacities and liberties” (Pimlott, 2016, p. 10). Particularly at a cultural premise, a sense of liberty in creative expression should be encouraged, although it is often the opposite case as the interior of cultural buildings is usually imposed with order and control. Even without explicit prohibition, users tend to behave differently once they pass the threshold from open to interior space despite both spaces are proclaimed to be public. This difference in the experience of the interior and exterior public space at the cultural building would be the core subject of investigation in this research. Pimlott traces the genealogy of public interior through different architectural types, with findings of common spatial qualities such as transparency and permeability that speak of the nature of a democratic public space. These will be spatial qualities referenced to as we evaluate the spatial condition in this study.

While the above approach looks at individual instances, collectively public space is also experienced as a continuous journey. In a perspective to read interior and exterior public space together as a whole, the emphasis is placed on the flow through and between different spatial conditions, where the sequence of spaces is defined by its boundary and opening that translates into the idea of inclusion or exclusion (Hillier & Hanson, 1984). The overall spatial organization of the cultural building and its interior/exterior public space can then be understood as a reflection of social relation, in which the architectural element is the device of management and control, in a broader sense it can demonstrate how institutional influence is imposed on the production of public space.

Studies of public space experience reveal a close connection between the making of public space to its institutional context. The role of cultural institutions is understood to encourage artistic expression and cultural participation, and its public space is expected to be one of the vehicles to achieve these goals. However, in a case study of the transformation of the London South Bank cultural complex, urban researcher Alasdair Jones pointed out the risk of apparent openness and inclusion at cultural public spaces, where institutional curation might turn into adverse effects in the production of public space despite of good intentions (Jones, 2016). It leads to the question of the balance between curation, control and unintended uses of public space especially in a cultural setting.

Cultural public space and its user

Behind the investigation of user experience and spatial conditions is the core question of how cultural public space can be an inclusive space for everyday activities, and the implication of institutional influences in the production of public space. Culture has a welfare tradition as a policy component, particularly in the European context, where it is supposed to be inclusive and engaging for public participation as demonstrated by the design of post-war European Cultural Centers that represents such vision (Grafe, 2014). The Hong Kong Cultural Centre master plan was conceived in 1974, although not explicitly pronounced, the influence of British policy direction can be seen in the proposed idea of a civic cultural center, which put this study into a historical context as we investigate the contemporary experience of the space that was designed half a century ago. What was the original intention and how has it been changed? User experience can be an indicator to examine institutional intention for the planning and realization of spatial initiatives. The focus on the user and their experience is a view shared by architectural historian Kenny Cupers, as he suggest how the “user” of public space is to be understood as a collection of specific individuals instead of a generic public “subject” (Cupers, 2013). This has built the theoretical groundings for our investigation of public space in an experiential perspective, as well as the approach towards a qualitative and personalized account of the public space experience.

The works cited above presented several approaches that address the issues regarding cultural public space, which would be adopted in different degrees during the process of this research:

  1. Static observation (Jacobs & Gehl)
  2. >> Identify spatial conditions (Stevens & Sennet)
  3. >> Analysis social relation of public interior (Pimlott & Hillier+Hanson)
  4. >> Reveal institutional influence on public space formation (Jones & Grafe)
  5. >> Conclusion: Production of (Cultural) Public Space

Ultimately, key emphasis is placed on the user and their experience, as argued by Cupers that the architecture (in our case public space) is not a singular or neutral notion but encompass of individuals and diversity. With this central concern, the research is also a pilot study of an alternative approach in experiential study of public space, to extend the static observation of user activity to a dynamic documentation of experience in a first-person perspective.

  • Carmona, M. (2010). Public places, urban spaces : the dimensions of urban design (2nd ed ed.). Burlington, MA: Architectural Press/Elsevier.
  • Cupers, K. (2013). Use matters : an alternative history of architecture. Abingdon, Oxon, New York: Routledge.
  • Gehl, J. (2013). How to study public life. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  • Grafe, C. (2014). People’s palaces : architecture, culture and democracy in post-war Western Europe. Amsterdam: Architectura & Natura.
  • Hillier, B., & Hanson, J. (1984). the Social Logic of Space. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Jones, A. (2016). Orchestrated public space: the curatorial dimensions of the transformation of London’s Southbank Centre. In S. Golchehr, (Ed.), Mediations: Art & Design Agency and participation in public space, conference proceedings (pp. 244-257). London, UK: Royal College of Art.
  • Pimlott, M. (2016). The public interior as idea and project. Heijningen: Jap Sam Books.
  • Rossini, F., & Yiu, M. H.-l. (2020). Public open spaces in private developments in Hong Kong: new spaces for social activities? Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability, 1-25. doi:10.1080/17549175.2020.1793803
  • Sennett, R. (2018). Building and dwelling : ethics for the city. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Stevens, Q. (2007). The Ludic City: Exploring the Potential of Public Spaces. Florence: Routledge. Taylor & Francis Group.

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