Beyond Buildings


Great Public Space

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A nice counterpoint to the Pritzker Architecture Prize, on which I commented a few days ago (and which generated quite a few comments, on which I'll write more later), is the biannual European Prize for Urban Public Space. Awarded every other year in Barcelona, Spain with a jury made mostly of leaders of architecture institutions (I was a jury member three times when I was Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute), this Prize goes not to an object, but to a space. It is a helpful reminder of what there is to be done with the spaces we all share.


Magdeburg Library
Photo by Anja Schlamann


The winners this year include one that, though I have not seen it in person, sounds and looks almost too good to be true. The Open Air Library in Magdeburg, Germany, designed by KARO Architekten with Architekturnetzwerk, is a just that: a collection of books available to everyone. It is the result of neighborhood activism galvanized by the closing of the local library in this depressed town in former East Germany. Neighbors got together, collected books, organized readings, and built a provisional space. The government finally gave them a few hundred thousand euros, and the result is what looks like a simple, but beautifully composed set of volumes that border a small plaza. Anyone can add or borrow a book, and apparently, the system works well.

Oslo Opera Plaza


By contrast, the other winner, the Norwegian Opera in Oslo, is more traditional. It is the part of that building, designed by Snøhetta, that is publicly accessible, and it is a space worth noting. You reach it by a narrow walkway that takes you out into the harbor, where the Opera House-proper’s planes start tilting up and out to enclose the grandeur of high culture. You can climb a good ways up those slopes, and the whole creates an outdoor amphitheater with the city and fjord as a backdrop.  


Passage 56


The two co-winners etch out the poles within which most public spaces these days operate: community-oriented, gritty, and participatory; and grand, abstract and almost empty, activated only by occasional and usually officially sanctioned and funded events. The rest of the finalists also fall into those categories, although at least one, the Passage 56 in Paris, by Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree, represents the other trend, which is towards urban gardens.

Collectively, the finalists and, in fact, all the submissions raise the question of what good public space is today. Is it just an emptiness left over after developers have done their thing, which we have to make sure is dressed up real nice? Or is it civic space, good only for official events such as parades, political speeches or protests? Or is it the space that we leave open so that markets, or sporting events can occasionally take place? Or is it just a fat traffic artery? Usually, public space today is a little bit of all of that, and above all else, a place to walk dogs, eat lunch, or cruise for sex. Nothing wrong with that, but someday I would love to see a beautifully designed public space that acknowledged those uses.


Fountain Square


In the meantime, it is wonderful to think that public space could also be a library, a vegetable garden, or a place to sunbathe on top of Aida. The one thing that is missing in all of these laureated spaces, and which is the bane of the latest American public space, is advertising and television. In my native Cincinnati, they ruined a wonderful downtown public space, Fountain Square, with a giant screen that completely dominates the space. Yes, it draws crowds for major sporting events, but should our public spaces really be sports bars without liquor? It is a little different when you look from Barcelona. No Jumbotrons or giant Gap ads there, only culture and cultivation.




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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.