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

Adoptions of public spaces- The effects on “public life”

Constantina Theodorou, published on Architektones, vol.11, April 2014

Dos Jotas / DON’T EVEN THINK. New York series 2014

On the sidelines of the hot urban news now, there are some other minor news, which may not seem worthy of attention at first, but in a quiet, subtle, and insiduous way, they prepare a new state of things for the Public Space in Greece. The matter at stake here, is  the private management of public space, a very familiar model in other countries, institutionalized in many different variations. In Greece, it hasn’t obtained yet any official legal form, though the following examples pave the way for it, eliciting social legitimacy and consensus.
In the shadow of all the big urban issues last year we came across these little news. First all it is the Municipality’s decision to assign the National Garden to NEON foundation (Daskalopoulos, its founder, is one of the most economically powerful men in Greece and big art collector) in order to expose its sculpture collections and organize art biennales and other events. Then it is the initiative for the “adoption” of Syntagma square by the owner of Grande Bretagne, Athens’ most luxurious hotel lying just adjacent to the square, and last of all it is the initiative of the NGO “Paradigmatos Charin ” (aka “For example”) to renovate playgrounds in Athens, starting with a playground in the central neighbourhood of Koukaki, one of the least problematic areas of Athens of crisis. The first case, of NEON foundation, is fortunately at this moment on the court, after the intervention of “Friends of National Garden” group, who accuse NEON for intending to change the form and function of the garden, which is a national monument under preservation. As for the playground initiative, the whole neighbourhood rose up against it , as a response to the cut tress and the strongly intrusive design.
In the cases of National Garden and the playground, the nature of interventions, whic had to do with alterations of the existing landscape and cutting of trees, had an impact to some sensitive citizens, who reacted against them. Instead, the polishing of Syntagma’s square didn’t bother anyone at all, maybe because no one paid any attention to the rest of the news, that the maintenance of the square is undertaken by the hotel owner, with all that this entails. Continue reading