Public Space Jaime Iregui
“Urbanism and information are complementary in capitalist and anti-capitalist societies; they organize silence. Ideal urbanism, in both the East and the West, is the projection of a conflict-free society.”1
Nowadays it can be said that in almost all big cities public space has undergone a transition from being a place for meeting and socializing into one of mere transit from one point in the city to another. The design of public space seems to be oriented more toward optimizing the flows of production of a capitalist system which expands without apparent resistance than toward satisfying the desires of the citizens for well-being and recreation.
However, if we understand the city as a spatial product, and if we ask ourselves about the instances from which it is produced, we think initially of the State and its regulatory function. This is what determines the stability and permanence of the city in its physical and sensory aspects.
Some of the ways in which the State regulates the production of public space are through its rules, its urban structures (streets, squares, neighborhoods, etc.), and through its short, medium and long-term fiscal policies. But this does not occur only in the case of the State and of the logic of Capital. Public space is also produced—and transformed—when it is critically inhabited, traveled across, and appropriated.
New ways of getting closer to the experience and conceptualization of space are being created through disciplines such as art, geography, sociology, urbanism, anthropology, and political science. These enable the production, ordering and practice of spatial configurations that differ from those defined by the hegemonic systems that have throughout history determined the ways of using, representing, and inhabiting space.2
As the French thinker Henri Lefebvre would say: space is produced as merchandise is produced. It is done through three different spheres.
The first sphere is where production is linked to the representations of power and capital. It is the space conceived by the State, town planners, architects, and technocrats. The second sphere is the space experienced by its inhabitants through symbols, images, and exchanges; where the image of the city is built collectively through experience, through dialogues formed from the observations of every citizen, in the way in which specific places are appropriated to load them with meaning and sense (streets, parks, buildings, monuments, etc.). And finally we have the third sphere—space as it is actually used, that is to say, the ways in which every citizen inhabits and traverses the space of the city. In this sense, each sphere can be thought of in the way that people read and interpret the city through the text built by the State and the town planners.
These three spheres are related to the thoughts of the philosopher Henri Lefebvre,3 linked at the same time to the Situationists. In his work La production de l’espace (1974) Lefebvre proposes to “defetishize” space in order to stop its perception as an inert and predetermined dimension. Space is something which is alive and dynamic, which is produced and instituted not only through the regulation of the State and the designs of town planners and architects, but also through everyday experience (images, symbols) and the ways the common citizen has of using and observing it.
In this context, public space is instituted as a space of representation where images, ideologies, symbols, and spectacles circulate, and where they are appropriated by citizens. This is the space in which the illusion of progress which represents the continuation of a certain model of the city takes place. This is where the constant evolution of cultural manifestations toward ever more reduced states takes place, where novelty is spectacle in the exhibitions of formal commerce; where the public space is regulated to exhibit the power of the State.
The public’s critical consumption of these representations takes place here as well. That is to say—contrary to what was thought until the second half of the 20th century—consumption is also a place of production in that it generates appropriations and ways of use specific to a consumer who reinterprets, redefines, and transforms the symbols which surround him.
In this way public space can be understood as a stage where every citizen produces space from his observations and his journeys, where he too plays a role, and where the city is represented in rules, symbols, and images and—naturally—in the observations and experiences which every citizen uses when reflecting on it and traveling through it.
1 / Vaneigem Raoul, “Comments Against Urbanism,” Internationale Situationniste no. 6 (August 1961), http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/comments.html.
2 / In the context of contemporary geography, Milton Santos from Brazil defines space “not so much as a thing or system of things, but as a relational reality: things and relations together. It is important to consider the three ways in which space can be conceptualized. First, space can be seen in an absolute way, as a thing in itself, with a particular, specific existence, in a unique way. This is the space of the surveyor and the cartographer. [ … ] Secondly, we have relative space, which highlights the relations between objects and which exists because these objects exist and are in relation to one another. [ … ] Thirdly, there is relational space, where space is perceived as content and represents inside itself another kind of relation which exists between objects.” Milton Santos, Metamorfosis del Espacio Habitado, Oikos-Tau, Barcelona 1996.
3 / According to Henri Lefebvre, space is produced in the way merchandise is produced: “Space is where the discourses of knowledge and power are transformed in real power relations.” Lefebvre identifies three dimensions of space. One is the representation of space by engineering and architecture professionals in terms of, for example, buildings and roads, usually produced by the public or “official” space. The second is representational space, that is to say, images produced according to space which is more felt than thought. The third dimension is that which Lefebvre calls spatial uses, that is to say, the routes and networks of everyday life.