A shopping street in Utrecht, Netherlands.
Bastiaan Steinmeier/Flickr via Creative Commons license A shopping street in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Last week, I found myself back in Utrecht, Netherlands, the town where I grew up.  When I was in high school there, the largest indoor mall in the area opened up right downtown. It sucked the life out of the city, creating a then-splendid, though saccharine, set of quasi-public spaces that soon turned into decrepit havens for drug dealing and low-end retail outlets. The mall is still there, slightly spruced upbut the real story is the revitalization of the streets around it: Pedestrianized and pumped full of tax breaks, they were filled with shoppers and users of the countless cafés, bars, and restaurants. It was all very pleasant, but really not very different from what was inside the mall, or what you could find in the next town over. If this is public space, if this is the salvation of the city, I am not that interested. I will use it and enjoy it, but only as a consumer sedated by the spectacle our consumer society has to offer.

Several of my recent posts have touched on the notion of public space and identity. My focus has been on asking the question of whether there still is some space, both physical and mental, that we share as a community or communities. The central problem, as I see it, is the privatization of space, as we wealthy few retreat into our conditioned cocoons and condense our contexts into screens, venturing outside in equally controlled environments, while millions are forced to wander a space that does not belong to them, in which they have no rights, and from which they are often excluded. In a virtual sense, our collective identities (and they are always multiple) are more and more the domain of either private entities or state organizations over which we have little control.

This much is, I think, not particularly controversial. The question is what those who have a background and training (and thus, I would hope, skills) in architecture can do in this situation.

If the Twitter-sphere’s reaction to my posts is any indication, what is controversial is my belief that the antidote to this loss of control and collective identity we have been using for at least the last century, namely a nebulous concept called “public space,” no longer suffices. In practice and in its historic origins, public space, as opposed to open space used for, say, military or agricultural purposes, is a middle class phenomenon. When we create new public space today, we make room for pedestrian (often in both senses of the word) shopping or lounging experiences. There is nothing wrong with that, but for me not an answer to the disappearance of a true space of commonality.

The essential issue, and here I follow the thinking of the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, is that any space that is not private is immediately appropriated by the state or by commercial interests, regulated, and thus not free. Any conscious production of space is already a representation of state and capital. The action of making a public space is thus a continual one of counter-appropriation, resistance, or any other tactic that wrests, if even for a moment, a place we can share with others, and in which we can find a common identity, from such oversight.

In the private realm, domestic environments have long functioned as such, with the space of sex being the most visceral place of collective (or at least dual) privacy. In the public realm, “free states” and other quasi-revolutionary spaces behind barricades or in “no-go” zones manage sometimes to create such rooms for being together. I hate to say it, but sex and violence are part and parcel of such a common space. The only alternative is to hide or escape, creating peaceful commons far away from oversight,

John Pawson's 2010 Plain Space exhibition at the Design Museum, London. 
Andrew Carr/Flickr via Creative Commons license John Pawson's 2010 Plain Space exhibition at the Design Museum, London. 

Architecture could and should offer an alternative; as Le Corbusier said, revolution can be avoided (although I am not sure sex can be). It should find ways to wrest a space of common identity from the state and corporate control. There are concrete techniques to do so, and we have been teaching them for centuries. They include blurring or clouds, liminal or expanded border spaces, spirals that combine aspects of the two techniques above in a more stable manner, or, paradoxically, the creation of empty "rooms,“ monumental and non-functional, that carve out a space of such a holiness or wonder that they keep the world at bay.

Architects have tended to concentrate on the latter technique, but the cost and difficult of creating such rooms is such that they are rare. Moreover, monumentality might work spatially, but it does not work in terms of identity, as it excludes through its semiotic messages. Columns and pediments speak of centuries of control, while large spaces in which you do not do anything in particular also weigh on those of us who do not take or have the time to meditate on the freedoms they afford.

Significance or semiotics are important, and not just a question of style or decoration: the messy vitality of spaces that send confused and contradictory messages are, I believe, more liberating than those that tell you what they are and where (or whether) you belong in their confines.

So I would call for an architecture that does not delineate public and private space, does not articulate the common, and does not connect us in a prescribed manner. I would argue for a leaky, confusing, difficult to understand and perhaps even to use architecture that, somehow, somewhere and maybe even sometimes, creates the sense that we are only truly alive when we are part of a social construct in which we can act out the roles we believe or are proper to us.