City issue

Urban Theory, articles and research

The shifting Public Space

Constantina Theodorou, Public Domain, curated by Artemis Potamianou & Giorgos Papadatos, Lo and Behold edition, 2015, Athens

The debate around public art has to deal with the exceptional difficulty of being founded upon a ground that is anything but solid: that of public space. Once public space had been understood as a term, becoming potentially public, a representation of the function of democracy and hence subject to all its nuances, it remained constantly in question, much like democracy itself. And while the theoretical debate moves into increasingly intangible realms —to Bruce Robbins [1], public space will always be a spectre that was never there, existing only through its absence— in real life the quest for public space is stepped up as local authorities, companies and organisations try to capture its spectral presence and delineate it in the form of designs, programmes and redevelopments for better public spaces. The standardised, predictable results vindicate the laments of urban planners and human geographers who claim that public space as we knew it is finished [2] – if, indeed, it ever existed . The recognition of what is lost re-triggers the search for it, although it is not certain whether the spectre of public space can ever become tangible, even fleetingly; whether it can fit into the pattern of reality and have all its contents gain the designation ‘public’ – public art, public debate, public action.

The lost squares
Reclaim the streets. Whether as a slogan of the activist movement of that name which claimed the streets for pedestrians or in its subsequent guise as the ‘occupy movement’ or, conversely, as the beacon in the programme of former New York mayor R. Giuliani [3] and his many subsequent imitators who pledged to remove the ‘undesirables’ from public space, the very same war cry about reclaiming public space permeates the rhetoric of both sides. At the back of all those quests for an ideal public space there is always this nostalgic, idealistic image of the traditional square, the ancient Greek Agora, the European square. It was on these, and for these, squares that the recent battles of democracy were fought. The greatest virtue of this ideal public space is its accessibility to all, since public space is activated by the crowds that fill it.

It is precisely in the name of accessibility that the ‘public’ aspect is debased. Continue reading