Beyond Buildings


After Flight 253

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All conditioned space is conditional.
—Rem Koolhaas


We seem to be in for another bout of paranoia. I am sure that it sounds irresponsible to call security measures that, but somehow I refuse to believe that any steps we can take, however stringent they might be, will ever stop true terror. The climate of fear makes us scared and look scared, heightens the visibility of our control systems, and itself opens a space of terror. Moreover, the more we try to restrict movement and control space, the more we diminish the commons, that free space that makes us an open community.


Public space is certainly not what it once was. A creation of the same industrial revolution that created the middle class and extended private control to more and more aspects of our physical environment, public space was the place in which that middle class could operate and through which it could define itself. As we know it today, it consists of those spaces necessary for the movement of people, and, to a certain extent, goods, and data. In addition, it consists of some places we have carved out within our cities as purposefully non-private, non-productive, and restrictive of through movement: squares, parks, beaches, and other marginal areas. There we can be citizens—which is to say, free members of a rational society. What we do not have in our daily experience is a space that anybody can use as they see fit, and that is by definition free without your agreement to be part of what we define as a democratic, civil society. How you behave in public space is highly determined, while most such places are under continual surveillance.


What has grown exponentially in the last few decades is semi-public space. This includes shopping malls, entertainment and convention areas, and airports. The latter is not even true public space, as its real purpose is to facilitate movement, and thus it is productive, not non-performing. However, in order for airports to work, they have to sedate us so that we do not notice the incredible inefficiencies built into our transit system. So they give us the sense that we are free to lounge around on the periphery of the gates. On top of that, the combination of highly condensed and powerful technology and the necessity to open this space up to large groups of people creates the potential for the dark other of public space, namely the space a certain part of the public uses to destroy what we share. The potential for fear and freedom are both built into and controlled by the system that creates airport space.


As such, this is only the most extreme case of the problem of public space: to keep alive the notion of being shared, open, and free, it has to allow for those kinds of activities that might destroy the systems of control that make it possible. And this is, in the end, what true terror wants to achieve: to reveal the systems that control our lives but that hide themselves. They reckon we will not accept such naked control, will revolt, or will tell our system to do what it has to do (i.e., force Israel to give up Palestinian land) to make the threat go away.


But we want security and control. We want to live. We want normalcy. We want space we can predict and that will frame a reality we know and think we can trust. So we will sit, having been patted down and our background checked, with our hands folded on our laps, staring into space that we thought had been granted, but that is not ours.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.