Women have once again lost space. On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that a Massachusetts law establishing a buffer zone around reproductive health centers, intended to protect the privacy and safety of patients and staff, was unconstitutional. This came right after the court’s ruling on Wednesday that police may not search the cell phones of arrested individuals without first obtaining a search warrant. This sends a mixed message on how we should see space, and also an ironic and disturbing one: The place of commonality or gathering has turned into the safety of distance and disengagement. Instead of having democratic spaces where we define ourselves collectively through debate or just by hanging out, we have a safety zone that protects (or, in the case of women visiting an abortion clinic, used to protect us) from each other. The virtual space of connection and sharing is something that now is not only invisible, existing as it does more and more in the ether, but is also out of bounds, hidden and dark to common oversight.
What particularly disturbs me is the manner in which the sense of security and well-being that space gives us (“I just need some space”) is now tied completely with ownership and individual rights. From the mundane (fighting for armrest space on the airplane, fighting over property lines with your neighbor) to the important—such as giving women a chance to work through their own life issues without being confronted by protesters—space matters. But it only matters in a negative way, as a way of keeping others out. What we have lost is the sense that space is something we venture into because it is a stage for society, a place where we can realize ourselves in relation to others and the reality we share.
As I pointed out in my last article, we now define ourselves as a country through a defensive posture, creating bunkers that architecture has to work very hard to turn into spaces that show that we are also the bulwark of democracy, that this country is a good place to be, and that we are an open society. The work of architecture is clear: to structure, literally and metaphorically, that open, shared, and democratic space.
Within this country and beyond, we use the crutch of cultural programs, even more than political ones, to create good shared spaces. The boom in the building of art museums and performance spaces is, I believe, as much a result of that need as it is of the desire to build monuments or create spectacles.
Landscape architects around the world have, in recent years, been more successful in creating such structured spaces, perhaps because they do not have the distractions of other functions. (I use the word "functions" deliberately here, as I feel that function-driven architecture misses the point of why we make something beyond structures that don’t fall down.) Landscape designers have shown—from Chicago’s Millennium Park and New York’s High Line to the reclaimed industrial landscapes of Germany’s Ruhr region and the new community gardens sprouting up across Europe—that you can have secure, safe, and pleasant places that invite you to be together. For a good compendium of their successes, review the most recent winners of the European Prize for Urban Public Space. Yet there, too, freedom disappears: Public spaces as places of either sexual or political freedom disappear under the withering eyes of security cameras and design that has to be open enough to allow for surveillance.
But, the crux of the matter remains: How could we design shared public space that is an integral part of our daily lives, that is safe, and that makes us come to a sense of shared destiny, if not a shared past? Instead of designing office buildings or hospitals, could architects or at least architecture students, try to design the space in front of an abortion clinic?
In my own life, I have been contemplating a return to academia, and, if I do so, that is what I believe a focus for any good design school should be.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.