You Seem Nice, Public Space, But You’re Just Not My Type.

10 March 2008

I spend a lot of time with architects here in Amman. In fact, apart from alone-time (which consists largely of anxiety over my lack of consistent posting to this neglected blog), I spend nearly all of my time with architects. Some of them are very well established regionally, others are months out of architectural school, and many others are somewhere in between. I read wide-ranging architectural monographs that track individual architects’ careers. I see conceptual designs being launched, and meticulous detail work being applied to final designs. Photoshop layers, CAD vectors, and 3DSmax objects promiscuously mingle and are eventually turned into buildings.

And yet, as an anthropologist mired in design processes, I sometimes feel that architectural design suffers from a tenacious myopia in which “design” as praxis becomes abstracted from the social context which precipitated it, and which it is ostensibly supposed to serve. (I’m also interested in the genealogy of thought which could have allowed design to become an isolable entity, a practice. Maybe, something like the Foucauldian archeology of the subject which seeks the development of the “madman,” “homosexual,” or “criminal,” but for the “designer.” I’ll add it to my list of PhD theses to complete). And I’m not just talking about the work of Zaha Hadid and others who are quite forthright about their iconic and sculptural, experimental, art-for-the-sake-of-art contributions to architecture, but also about those who are more committed to integrating social factors into the design process. I find that the design process can very rarely, if at all, shake off the detritus of the insular, inward-directed design studio. I don’t think it is a matter of brute narcissism, but something more fundamental to the craft. Perhaps it has to do with the privileging of the visual over the narrative in architectural design. In any case, it bothers me, and makes the chances of me ever going down the design path myself ever more remote.

But that’s not what I really want to talk about. The point is that the work of largely non-profit groups like Project for Public Spaces is something of an antidote to this design tyranny, particularly when they remark that: “Parks, plazas and squares succeed when people come first, not design…and…Making great public spaces the norm rather than the exception depends on introducing policy-makers at all levels of country, state, and city government to new ideas and approaches.” Well, it should be the antidote. I mean, this work seeks to foreground the intersection of everyday practice, the public sphere, and place. And heck, I’m interested in all of those things! It’s like a slumber party with De Certeau, Warner, and LeFebvre! And I’m invited! (Jane Jacobs is there in spirit, but she’s a girl and no girls are allowed at a guys’ slumber party…not my rules).

But more often than not, I am not entirely persuaded, and I end up feeling disappointed with myself, really wanting to get 100% behind this pro-public space urban planning movement, but always hitting a wall. Of course there is a good chance that my college education has warped me into always being armed with a critique, never being able to totally get behind anything. But maybe my unease has come from something real.

Maybe it came, like most of my clothes in high school, from Easton Town Center. Download a map! (If you visit Columbus, OH, be sure to sit a spell and enjoy the fountain at the Easton Town Square, between the Banana Republic and the Ann Taylor). It was one of the first of its kind – a shopping center modeled on the premise that the classic American main street, with its public spaces and metered storefront parking, is a nurturing paradigm for hyper-consumption. Safe, pedestrian oriented, open to the sun and sky, and well-surveilled (god help you if you are under 16 and on your own after dusk).

Okay, so this is not a fair criticism of those who are pushing public space. They would recoil even more than I at the private-sector perversion of their beautiful vision. But what is their vision? How do they propose it functions? What urban ills does it address, and how? And why, dammit, does it not impress me?!

There’s no reason to rehash the mission statement of the PPS, or any of the handful of similar organizations that have similar aims; indeed, they have websites. But I did have the good fortune to join a workshop in Amman back in November, sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Built Environment (CSBE), which sought to introduce young Jordanian architects to the mechanics of public space and their applicability in Jordan. Lead by Professor Christa Reicher of the University of Dortmund, who herself is responsible for two apparently quite successful public space rejuvenation and development projects in Germany, we were given a whirlwind survey of the nature, history, and importance of public space. Apparently, public space, which perhaps has historically found its most iconic instantiation in the piazzas of 15th century Italy, essentially affords openly accessible places for social interaction. These two elements are crucial; roads are openly accessible, but obviously unsuitable for social interaction. The private residence, shop, or mall (or Easton Town Center, for that matter) may host social interaction, but they are by no means openly accessible to all.

It seems upsetting to me that this basic typology warranted so little deconstruction. I immediately think of online communities, which afford robust social interaction and profoundly open accessibility (of course, online communities require a modicum of technical competence and hardware investment… but I question the homologousness between “no blacks allowed” and “no n00bs allowed”). It seems that a lot of assumptions are being made, not the least of which is that true, civically meaningful interaction must be face-to-face, embodied, and ambulatory.

Jane Jacobs, in her monumental study of American communities, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, made a similar assumption. Well, she made a lot of assumptions. And don’t get me wrong, it is very much a classic. I adore that the urban planning world could have been turned on its head by a woman with no formal design or planning education, and that the power of her work could emanate not from a mastery of technical arcana, but rather from her embodied experience. I adore the devaluation of the technical in lieu of the common sensical. Less science and more humanities. Less AutoCAD, more flea market. But in any case, her analysis echoes the work of urban sociologists like Elijah Anderson, who in turn depart from Goffman’s work on ‘footing,’ all of whom take an interest in the small embodied cues that, arguably, constitute the essence of social interaction. In these cases, the social dynamic is shaped by the movement of the body. Though Anderson is more sensitive to the very fine bodily cues that organize racial space, Jacobs is primarily concerned with the movement and mixing of bodies through space. Part of her work (and I don’t have the book with me so I’m going off of memory here. But you ought to read it on your own anyway because, for all of its flaws, it’s neat), for instance, deals with visibility and the conditions by which the spatial organization of bodies (specifically, around a street) allows for communal surveillance and community regulation. The ease with which bodies can circulate determines the health of a space.

And so, public space which facilitates the sustained movement of people, whether by retail, aesthetic allure, or the self-amplifying draw of people-watching, engenders healthy, self-regulating communities. Communities are organisms. (Organisms? Them’s fightin’ words…)

To get back to the workshop, as Professor Reicher’s presentations went on that day, the implicit logical progression seemed to be (and though I am being a bit sassy here, I am not misrepresenting the gist of the explanation):

Public space → social mixture → democracy/commerce → a happy, harmonious life

Once this was established, the rest of the workshop (the second half of day one and all of day two) was devoted to design techniques and strategies to build public spaces. I was left horribly unconvinced, and became downright fidgety. The presence of public space leads to greater social admixture? I suppose in a mechanical sense that is true. But this facile little movement fails to comment on how quietly but determinedly normative these spaces are. That, for me, was a crippling fault of Jacobs’ work, for instance. As much as she would like to construe her self-surveilling communities as organic and “healthy,” they fundamentally operate on processes of inclusion and exclusion. And while it is a pleasant fiction to believe that the healthy community is excluding only the most dastardly, criminal elements, while including everyone else, I think it is indeed a fiction. At one point, Jacobs, in a particularly parochial and anachronistic gesture, decries the presence of a dance club in one of the communities she illustrates as a failing community. “Healthy” communities are excellent for those who enjoy chit-chats with the owner of the corner store. They are not good for people who like to dance, or who tire of the tight-knit, everyone-knows-everything-about-everyone small town set up, or who don’t like it when the neighbors’ eyes follow them down the street. They are not good for people who do not have families. Who are homosexual. Who are politically radical.

In Amman, there is a social group, essentially teen-age boys, called the shabab, who are systematically excluded from most quasi-public space areas. Now, I won’t deny that the shabab can be annoying, immature, and raucous. Sometimes they’re just plain assholes. But one must ask just how much of their behavior is the innate irascibility and ruffianism of male adolescence, and how much results from their systematic exclusion from all of the even halfway interesting places in Amman, which is, frankly, a pretty boring city. Amman sorely lacks public spaces, and the hippest place to hang out is Mecca Mall, a mammoth shopping compound that is “family friendly,” i.e., exclusive of shabab. Again, here lies my ambivalence for the public space discourse: truly, Amman suffers from the lack of easily and freely accessible public spaces. This needs to be acknowledged and addressed. But the “freely accessible” part is constantly being curtailed and circumscribed in the planning discourse. The consensus of the young Jordanian architects was that the barometer of a healthy public space in Amman is whether or not a space is comfortable for women and [engaged] couples. Anti-shabab, and heteronormative. Public space may lead to social mixture, but it is a very prescribed mixture.

This rupture in the public space progression hints at further fissures. I am also not convinced that social admixture leads to democracy. As I noted above, I think any kind of truly kind of open mixture, which presumably is a prerequisite of the democratic process, is simply not possible (and indeed, perhaps not even sought after) in the current public space paradigms. Furthermore, there seems to be a notion, echoed in some of the publications of the PPS and in the workshop, that the physical proximity of people naturally and unproblematically leads to some kind of emotional empathy. There is a breathtaking belief (I think it is one of the core beliefs of multiculturalism, or at least cosmopolitanism) that contact breeds accommodation. That if we surround ourselves with [generic] variety, we will come to embrace [generic] difference and march off into the [abstractly] democratic and inclusive sunset. Or, on the economic side, that the mixing of the wealthy and the poor in a single space can bridge the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. This is at best naïve, and at worst horribly ignorant. As I tried to illustrate in my last post, the limits of multiculturalism cannot be elided, and there are lines of otherness that cannot be crossed. Nearness does nothing to temper any feelings of fundamental alterity.

It seemed to me at the time, and still does, that these problems were glaring and demanding serious reflection. But they were not touched upon. The architects threw themselves with gusto into the design process, creating very aesthetically appealing (though somewhat monotonous) boards, using a variety of different color markers, and a nifty technique for making appropriately abstract yet stylistic foliage. One young man poured his very being into the creation of, admittedly, rather attractive lighting fixtures to grace the public space his comrades were conceptualizing. The technical competence of the architects was beyond reproach, and despite the monotony of the format, the drawings were of professional caliber. But in the end, the architects were as they were expected to be: fine draftsmen. Whether it was “design” is certainly debatable.Undoubtedly, Amman suffers quite seriously from the dearth of public spaces. And I don’t want to get mired in the whole “well islamic architecture is more inward looking and anyway historically Islamic cities have not formed the civic structures that in the West paved the way for a finely developed civil society” debate; the fact is that Amman is not a Mamluk fiefdom, but a contemporary, increasingly globalized, world-class city that cannot but suffer from an underdeveloped spatial repertoire. Traffic is a scourge as it is in any other sizable city; yet Amman is hideously inhospitable to pedestrians. If designers were more inclined to think about these things, perhaps good changes might emerge in the Jordanian urban fabric.

And that is where I end up. Designers can make small fixes. They can intervene productively and positively on the small scale. They can be consummately skilled problem solvers. I say these things with complete sincerity. But I am profoundly unconvinced that designers can solve the larger societal ills that are only partly and opaquely manifest in the urban structure. In fact, and this needs maybe a lifetime of research and contemplation to adequately address, I wonder if the very essence of the “designer” as s/he functions in the current world order in fact precludes the kind of radical transformation of which many designers believe themselves capable.

Perhaps the discourse on public space bothers me because it does not problematize or culturally contextualize the connections between space and social life. Frankly, I feel bad about the whole matter! Urban planning is one of the few paradigms for large-scale societal intervention that takes an interest in the social and cultural. It just does it so half-assed sometimes. Hence, I think, my ambivalence.

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2 Responses to “You Seem Nice, Public Space, But You’re Just Not My Type.”

  1. Robert said

    The progression from public space to democracy might yet represent a plausible intuition, but the architects certainly overestimate the depth of the influence of their designs, both because of and regardless of their lack of engagement with cultural context. To maximize their effectiveness, one would hope they would at least have the humility to consult sociologists, if not the insight to seek out anthropologists as well. From your description, it sounds like they already feel quite comfortable with their ability to direct what they know about social behaviors, dispositions, and trends toward their social objective (which probably means they’ve been mesmerized, directly or through their instructors, by works written by economists).

    At the same time, whether or not they engage with the particulars of their cultural milieux, they’re probably thinking of a timeframe of 20-50 years for progression to democracy, given the sorts of discourse heard in international governing bodies over the past 60 years regarding nation-building. If they’re taking the Italian piazza as their model, the fact that those piazzas existed for centuries before democracy came into full bloom might be relevant. This of course is not to say that contemporary nations which the industrially developed world would like to goad into democracy will also require centuries more, or that the influence of the piazza necessarily requires that amount of time to work its wonders. If public spaces do have an influence, though, the architects ought to temper their expectations with an awareness of potentially countervailing factors. Were they to begin planning the content of putative democracy-promoting activities to occur in their public spaces as a guard against these factors, they would no longer be acting as architects but as amateur policymakers (which they are free to do. I am merely distinguishing their influence qua architects). Strictly as far as delimiting the physical form of social interactions, their powers are only modest to advance the cause of democracy, and even more so if they do not engage with those who devote their time especially to the study of the social negotiation of the use of space.

    Additionally, the mechanisms that might eventually realize the progression to democracy in the long run would include some that, for the short run, contradict what is likely the architects’ vision of how events would play out. Even if public spaces offer the hope of building empathy among disparate groups, they also are places for unrest and upheaval within and between groups. They are the place to stage a spectacle that might trigger a change in awareness or behavior in the larger society, or to cement and maintain a status just attained (e.g. la Revolution Francaise et la guillotine). If a private interest establishes dominance in a public space, even momentarily, it symbolically impresses upon the public the imminent prospect or the reality of the private interest securing a measure of control over the community or over a community policy. Shunned groups can choose to risk pushing themselves into public spaces and thereby create an avenue through which to push into the larger society. Their push may trigger riots or just some grumbling from the existing crowd. The architects at your workshop probably did not have such things in mind as contributors to the building of empathy, but historically, public tension has played a role.

    After all this, though, I would be willing to accept the progression if the meaning of “–>” were changed from “causes” to “substantially enables” (and if the happy and harmonious life were excluded entirely from the equation; that’s waaaaaaay overreaching), and if it were understood that the addition of public spaces without any other guidance of public phenomena would require generations or even centuries for the intended effect to work itself out. Proximity does occasion thinking about others’ motivations, at least among more sensitive individuals (I mean “sensitive” in a purely receptive sense; responsiveness and active concern are not implied). These thoughts may occur entirely out of curiosity or for tactical purposes, but they must happen, and they will influence the message and the effectiveness with which a society teaches its next generation about the order of things. Over successive generations, the lesson will eventually alter. Provided that ethnic cleansing is not triggered by some means, related or not to this gradual empathizing, accommodative messages will have a chance to multiply. (Counterexample: India’s caste system prescribed definite limits to accommodation and democracy, and they surely had public spaces in larger cities. My response: that’s way, way, way too complex and unfamiliar a historical scene to ask me to analyze and make a counterfactual prediction in terms of an India that was never colonized by Britain. If you command me, “Well then function as a mentat, b*tch,” I assure you I will still request more data. Furthermore, I expect neither of us to do the exhaustive and exhausting research necessary for me to evaluate the counterexample (as a mentat or otherwise), so we’ll just have to leave it as a lingering doubt of mine. Oh, the agony).

    I’m befuddled at the belief that public spaces will play a role in narrowing the rich-poor divide. What, is there going to be a pressure gradient that will cause osmosis of credit from rich to poor? Do the rich wear billowy clothing with Ben Franklins lodged precariously in undersized pockets? If the architects are referring to a social divide between rich and poor rather than an economic one, then one could argue that the rich and poor might be more likely to engage in brief, casual conversation as public spectacles arise, but rare will be the instance where something occasions any of them to make an effort to see each other again (though slightly less rare will be those get-togethers instigated under the auspices of teenage infatuation. Yea, teen pregnancy may be the great hope of civilization…(just kidding)).

    Anxiety about this blog doesn’t really comprise such a large portion of your alone-time, does it? It’s admirable that you have a strong desire to formulate and refine your thoughts, which happen to be very good thoughts to ponder, but I hope you don’t fear that your mind ferments with every hour you don’t birth an idea onto a page. I’m beginning to form a similar worry myself, and thus am considering developing a blog. Right now, though, most of the things in my mind that I urgently need to work out are personal, and I am not the sort to expose those to public view, even if that public were only to send one representative to my page every six months purely by accident. For now, I only hope that the responses I’ll be providing will be worth the attention of the blog’s illustrious author.

  2. ghirbaal said

    Howdy Robert, sorry for not responding earlier. I want to give you my sincerest thanks for your post: you caused me to step back a bit and reevaluate what I had hastily written. I think I both was harsh and spoke carelessly. I appreciate your problematizing the notion of time-frame, which I had neglected. I do agree that substantial interventions into spatial form will have repercussions which are probably only intelligible substantially after the fact (be it 20 or 50 or 100 years). But still think “substantially enables” is a stretch (though it probably is a more accurate interpretation of designers’ intents than my crude “causes”). Or, if it does enable democratic social forms, I am not convinced that its mechanism for doing so lies in the enabling of a phenomenological block-party, in which merely sensing the existence of the other will entail the blossoming of accommodation. Proximity may provoke change, particularly over the long term (as you usefully pointed out), but accommodation is a tall order.

    Anyhow, thank you for taking my post seriously enough to write such a reasoned response (though the post hardly deserved it), and also for the Dune reference, which always delights me. And my blog-anxiety is largely healthy, I think. For now.

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