In your space: reclaiming the built environment

30 May 2013

From anodyne shopping malls to flyovers and sidewalks, today’s urban environment exudes what Marc Augé has called ‘non-place’. How has this happened and what can be done? Philip Kleinfeld looks at the physical space of the city and the architects determined to alter it.

One of the Occupy movement's most interesting qualities was its sense of place; In New York, protestors settled in Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public space, designed as a communal concession by the developers of Wall Street.

In London, protestors slept outside St Paul's Cathedral only because their initial choice Paternoster Square - now owned by a Japanese real-estate company - had successfully expelled them. Around the world, activists occupied sites of neoliberal space: business areas, zones of consumption, shopping malls, plazas and private parks. Sometimes their choices were deliberate; sometimes there was no choice.

Back in London, the image of private security guards barricading Paternoster Square's pillars offered a ludicrous insight into the contradictions of capitalist space; the friction between the rights of business to property, and of people to assembly and expression. The outcome was never in doubt - "Between equal rights force decides," said Marx in Capital.

No place for people

Public frustration with the built environment is often explained as a byproduct of urban modernism: its joyless, mechanistic master plans, functionalism and philosophical utopianism. It's a legacy that's far from satisfactory - contemporary cities remain excessively sprawled, car-heavy and stuffed with post-industrial brownfield sites desperately in need of urban improvement.

Today, the aesthetics of contemporary physical space have become dominated by the processes of production and consumption associated with late modernity. Streets and squares have been sold off as part of post-industrial redevelopment plans, pseudo-public spaces have cropped up in the form of giant shopping malls where human behaviour is policed in favour of conspicuous consumption. Individual houses and gated communities have created stratified cities, and towns no longer possess what anthropologists mean when they talk about place. "The space of non-place creates neither singular identities nor relations, only solitude and similitude," wrote Marc Augé in his much-cherished book Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity.

Even spaces that remain separate from the model of consumption and production have internalised the logic of a privatised world - rules, curfews, cameras and guards are everywhere. Democratic assembly is rare, even when allowed. London's Speakers' Corner has become a space for inebriated crackpots and tourists who find the whole concept of public life quirky.

Occupy has helped publicise this conversation; but the popularity of 'flash mobs' suggests public disaffection is more long-standing. Creative public interventions target places of transience, consumption and movement - train stations, supermarkets and shopping malls - provoking human sociality and disrupting the patterns of post-Fordist public life in much the same way as the Harlem Shake.

Around city centres, groups of people - citizen placemakers - stand with megaphones, not to communicate direct political messages (although they do), but to make a more abstract statement about what public life has become: silent and dull. Guerrilla gardeners plant flowers in drainpipes and roadsides, reclaiming the city in profound and meaningful ways. These isolated acts all share something in common: they represent collective 'repossessions' of the public realm, an angst that people no longer participate in the lifeblood of the city, and a determination to create settings that can engage and activate urban life.

Make your place

For those architects conscious of the public mood, the time seems right for a new kind of public space. Take Kurt Perschke's global RedBall Project. By sandwiching an inflatable, 15ft red balloon in the space between buildings, bus stops and bridges, Perschke has created a frivolous but strangely profound exercise in forced place-making - a clarion call for architects, planners, politicians and citizens to do something with the city.

Going Public, Public Architecture, Urbanism and Interventions is an attempt to group together projects from around the world that are answering the call to engage and activate. Its editor Sofia Borges, an architect based in Berlin, is optimistic.

"Traditional or conventional ideas of public space in the city have been squeezed," she says. "The more things are privatised, the more important the green patch in the centre becomes. People need these kinds of outlets, and judging by the projects in this book, there's reason to be excited."

The cluster of works in Going Public suggest her optimism is well placed. In Gaelle Villedary's Red Carpet, the road of a French village is paved with a winding grass lawn. In The Garden That Climbs The Stairs, a project by Balmori Associates, a public staircase has been turned into a vibrant landscape - instigating conversation and participation in an otherwise interstitial space.

"The more things are privatised, the more important the green patch in the centre becomes."

Dutch designers Remy & Veenhuizen have achieved something similar by challenging the function of an object as unglamorous as a freestanding fence by warping the metal into shapes that can be sat on without compromising its primary defensive function. The logic of these understated architectural insertions turns on what Danish town planner Jan Gehl has called low-intensity chance and passive contact, the idea that human activity "is more rewarding and more in demand than the majority of other attractions offered in the public spaces of cities".

Folly For A Flyover is a more literalist attempt at humanising the doomed spots of urban modernism - a temporary cinema lodged in-between the east and west-bound carriages of the A12, a classically modernist structure once named Britain's worst road. Like other temporary 'pop-up' structures, Folly For A Flyover breathed life into the urban fabric by acknowledging the need for flexibility often rejected by architects searching for immortality.

Super spaces

The popularity of these small-scale urban interventions may seem to suit the business models of European practices at a time when newbuilds are difficult to finance, but some larger projects are beginning to surface.

Young Danish architect Bjarke Ingels has been particularly outspoken about what cities lack and what they need. In response, his practice, the Bjarke Ingels Group, has created a new brownfield public space that is 'active' almost to the point of caricature. The one-mile long 'super park' is something of an urban ballet, stretching through a district of north Copenhagen where more than 50 different nationalities live side by side. It incorporates objects relevant to each one of those cultures, crowd-sourced from the people themselves.

"For a lot of time, there was too much interest in separating everything. But that's not what makes a city exciting."

"Superkilen is a large-scale project but it's all about context," Borges says. "It's about finding the cultural quirkiness of these different places, and acknowledging and catering for recent immigration into the city."

Like so many of the projects discussed here, it rejects one of the central tenets of functionalistic physical planning: the segregation of the city into its various functions. The single space features different, vibrantly coloured sections dedicated to different purposes: eating and drinking, sport, music and deliberation.

"I would hope that an interesting public space is about more than just attracting one kind of person," Borges says. "For a lot of time, there was too much interest in separating everything. But that's not what makes a city exciting. I think finding something that attracts people, young and old, for different reasons in a collective cultural experience is the sign of a strong and successful project."

High hopes

It's hoped that the provision of stimulating, consultative public spaces will dissolve the need for the kind of dramatic visual interventions associated with postmodernist architecture and its aesthetic of individuality, pluralism and artistic statement.

One of the most popular projects of the past decade - the New York High Line - is testament to that hope. The park owes its existence to the efforts of Joshua David and Robert Hammond, two local residents who worked tirelessly to preserve the area for use as a public space. When the architects and landscapers transformed the elevated railway into a public park, their efforts were universally applauded. The park offered new perspectives on the built environment and a place that people can use rather than just look at.

Of course, it's hard to know whether the forces that have undermined the provision of active public space can be beaten by the kinds of urban insertions listed here. In Life Between Buildings, Gehl paints a depressing picture of the modernised city with its low-density, single-use zoning and suburbanisation policies, its dependence on the automobile and absence of people. These processes persist in many European cities where the route to social stratification is being worsened by gentrification and cuts to housing benefit. Even in emerging economies, where planners and architects had the occasion for genuinely new ideas, the same tropes have been carelessly replicated.

But there is room for hope. The Harlem Shake, flash mobs, giant red balloons, recreation parks, fences, railway lines - these are projects and actions, some satirical, that offer microcosms for what engaging, urban life could look like.

Critic Ken Worpole said good architecture is the interaction between life and form. Insofar as these projects embrace that truism, the future of public space holds promise with or without the structures that invariably govern it.

Kurt Perschke’s RedBall Project.
The Garden That Climbs The Stairs, by Balmori Associates.
Gaelle Villedary’s Red Carpet.
The one-mile Superkilen in Copenhagen was created by the Bjarke Ingels Group.
The Superkilen project features different sections dedicated to different purposes.
Remy & Veenhuizen took one metallic fence...
... bent it until...
... it made an attractive seating area.

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.