Public spaces:open/closed


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Public spaces:open/closed

  1. 1. OPEN / CLOSEDPublic Spaces in Modern Cities Lilia Voronkova & Oleg Pachenkov 2010
  2. 2. “There is no reason why paintings, cartoons, public displays such as graffiti oradvertising billboards or any other visual image could not be used for visualrepresentation of the ideas produced in social sciences; however until now photo-graphy is dominating in this field”. Harper D. “Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation”
  3. 3. The exhibition OPEN/CLOSED, on display at the Departmentof European Ethnology of the Humboldt University in Berlin,from April to July 2010, has taken an inquisitive look aturban public spaces in European cities. Neither the exhibi-tion nor this catalogue is claiming to have found the answersto our list of questions. Rather, it is an endeavour to try andunderstand what is happening with the city spaces today. 3
  4. 4. About the projectThis catalogue presents the perspective of seven researchers on the public lives in fourEuropean cities: Lviv, Manchester, St. Petersburg and Sofia. For two years (2006-2008) agroup of sociologists, cultural studies specialists, anthropologists and social geographerswere observing the everyday lives of these cities; the meeting of the spheres of work,consumption and leisure; the intersection of issues of race, ethnicity, class and gender; thechanges in design and architecture of public places; and the citizens’ attitudes to currentdevelopments and emerging problems 1.From the very start the project participants decided not to limit their investigations intopublic spaces to fieldwork and interviews but to include the visual representations of publiclife in their cities. We decided to use photographic observation as a method and, moreover,to visualize our results. Thus, we have added a photographic, visual dimension to thediscussion of our ideas stemming from the socio-anthropological analysis of our research.This combination is one way to convey important further facets of our research, which couldnot be communicated (as clearly) through academic texts alone and to reach a wider, alsonon-academic, audience. Texts provoke thoughts, while images provoke feelings. Bothtogether stimulate a more comprehensive reflection on the part of the viewers /readers.For our presentation we have chosen the life of city squares, as traditional urban publicspaces in Europe, from the various different research strands of our project.1 The material in this catalogue as well as in the exhibition is based on the work of the international researchproject “Re-imaging of public space in European cities and its role in social and ethno-cultural integration”,realized by the Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR, Russia) in cooperation with South-WestUniversity “N. Rilsky” (Bulgaria); Ivan Franko National University of Lviv (Ukraine); Manchester MetropolitanUniversity (UK). Supported by INTAS and leaded by Prof. Svetlana Hristova. 4
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  7. 7. What is public space?The dominant understanding of public space is rooted in the ideals of Ancient Greeceand is most often associated with citizens meeting in order to discuss public issues;to produce open and free public debate, and to formulate public concern. We find such adefinition of public space in the works of Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas, the twomost influential social philosophers who formulated the idea of public realm.There is, however, also another approach of associating the public with “sociability” – withthe potential of encounter and communication between strangers. This approach is moreculturally concerned than politically and is most often related to the names of Richard Sen-nett or Ervin Goffman. It implies that people come to public spaces and stay there to en-counter one another, to use this space for gathering and as a stage to perform particularsocial interactions.The main features of public space are considered to be:n public (not private) stewardshipn open access, and the factn the space is “used by many people for common purpose” (Sharon Zukin).The question is, though, whether such an ideal public space, open to everyone, does existin reality. Does it not always imply the domination by some groups? It seems that nobodybelieves in the coherent and harmonious public space of rational debate and consensusanymore. Rather, it is considered diverse, a conflict-prone and contested battlefield of andfor power. 7
  8. 8. City square as a public space – OPEN/CLOSEDSince ancient times, a city square – be it agora, town hall square or market square – hasbeen a public space: A centre of public, political and social life in European towns, a place ofsociability where citizens could gather, for discussions, for spending their leisure time, etc.More recently, however, we can observe that many city squares have been reconstructed,remodelled, aestheticised, privatised and commercialised. Their space has been divided andorganised to support consumption rather than other forms of public life. These processeshave changed not only the appearance of the squares, but also life on them.To what extent can we perceive these regenerated and regulated spaces as “public”? And, inas far as the public is not coherent – for which groups of society is this space in fact “public”? 8
  9. 9. On the one hand, the squares have beendeveloped; rubbish has been taken away,buildings restored, benches installed. On theother hand, all this was done by the meansof private business; the “price” paid by thesepublic spaces for private investment is thatthe squares have been commercialised andprivatised, becoming a source of profit for theowners of new shopping centres. Their spaceshave been organised to support consumptionand the interests of politicians and business-men rather than forms of public life andpersonal communication.On the one hand, all squares are open –physically they are easily accessible; they areat the crossroads of streets and “hubs” ofthe flows of transport, people, goods, lightsand sounds of the cities. On the other hand,they have filters and invisible, yet nearlyimpenetrable boundaries. They are notaccessible to everyone; cameras, police andprivate security are watching and selectingthose who “deserve” to be allowed into thesespaces, and will “kick out” those who do notdeserve. 9
  10. 10. Social life on four city squaresWhat was revealed in the cases we investigated?Many of the photographs presented here demon-strate that squares have preserved their socialfunction as public space. There is a resistancetowards total commercialisation. For instance,some public spaces are taken over by youthsubcultures. Undesirable guests and trouble-makers, these teenagers invade public spacesand their backyards. They use the city squaresaccording to their own ideas of communicationand leisure. They drink alcohol on the benches, siton the stairs and banisters, use monuments andfountains not for spectatorship but for play andinteractive communication.Still, squares leave some space for idle walkingunconnected with consumption. Frequently, theyalso become places for social protest againstpolitics and the political economy of consumeristsociety. Thus, our research has shown that citysquares stay contested spaces and their publicfunctions are often hampered and limited.What is it that we are witnessing on the city squarestoday? Is it the “fall of public man” as RichardSennett called it, or, rather, various forms of whatMichel de Certeau called “(re)appropriation” ofpublic spaces by city dwellers using them for theirown purposes? 10
  11. 11. In St. Petersburg homeless people and poor pensioners are hiding in the backyards of thebuildings surrounding Sennaya Square which they used to live in. The square itself hasturned into a transit zone occupied by shopping malls and car parks. This has made thesquare cleaner and safer; but has it made it more public? 12
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  14. 14. On Cathederal Gardens in Manchester security guards are protecting buildings from theteenagers who are occupying the square. And the teenagers themselves are limiting –although mostly symbolically – access to the square by other social groups. Does this meanthe square is open and/or public? 17
  15. 15. Battenberg Square in Sofia is sometimes open for the manifestations of public opinionand civic activism. But isn’t civil society often reduced to the commercialised festivities ofconsumption and politicised demonstrations? Do any of these activities make the squarea “public space”? 18
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  17. 17. Market Square in Lviv accommodates official unveilings and public protests as well asfamilies with children, subcultural youth and performing street musicians. However, noneof these, or any other, public activities could take place on this central square withoutofficial or unofficial sanctioning by the city authorities. Does this very fact allow consideringLviv’s Market Square an open public space? 20
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  19. 19. Transforming images of the squaresCity squares today represent one of the best examplesof the processes of “visual aestheticization” of urbanspace. The modernist ideas of beauty, order and “purity”have changed the appearance of European cities. Asstrict shapes, beautiful buildings and clean spaces havebecome the standards of urban spatial design, squaresas the quintessential public spaces have experiencedsignificant transformations and become subject of the“passive spectatorship” (Richard Sennett) of looking,rather than living.Another trend of late modernity – the domination ofmarket relations and total commercialisation of sociallife – also has consequences on the aesthetics andvisualisation of cities and their squares. It resulted, forinstance, in the mushrooming of advertisements inmyriads of possible forms and shapes. The image of thesquare has been commercialised by a profusion of smallshops and department stores, by shop windows andneon lights, by giant billboards and “sandwich men”.Furthermore, the visual aesthetics and actual appear-ance of the squares and other public spaces incontemporary cities have also been politicised byslogans and symbols representing political power, byevents like demonstrations or protests, by people, suchas the police, as well as by buildings like those of the cityor state authorities. 23
  20. 20. In fact, the space of the city squares is permeated by a varietyof contradictory and competing forms of image-making or“visualisation”.In spite of the fact that the squares are flooded by videosurveillance cameras and other means of visible and invisiblecontrol, their spaces are (re-)appropriated by “visual tactics”of the city dwellers – by their mobile and temporary activitieslike vending or open air gatherings, by private advertisements,asphalt drawings and graffiti, or by defiant appearance.Artists offer their own repertoire of visual aestheticisation ofurban public spaces. They bring trash aesthetics or “chaos”of public actions and carnivals to the squares; they use abricolage tactic of re-coding and re-interpreting the signs andtexts already existing in public places; they re-appropriate themeans of advertisement (like projections and neon lights,billboards and posters), turning them into art tools andapplying them to the symbolic re-conquering of urban space. 24
  21. 21. We will live like – in Europe (corrected to: in shithole)
  22. 22. Re- thinking public space? The current anxiety of philosophers and social scientists about vanishing public spaces in cities is rooted in the very fact of the blurring and disappearance of two key characteristics of urban public space – the notion of gathering and the notion of public-ness. Should we not – instead of mourning the “good old public space” – take the changing realities of late or post-modernity into consideration and adopt a new approach to “public-ness” in order to understand public spaces in European cities today?28
  23. 23. We cannot deny the fact that city spaces are gradually transforming into “places oftransition”. Today “space of place” is more often replaced by the “space of flows” (ManuelCastells). Places are lacking their roots and authenticity; they become “other-directed”places full of people from elsewhere, going elsewhere. Gatherings in contemporary cities areof temporary character and replaced by events. Squares become sites of temporary stay –people come here not to be together or interact, but to wait for the friend(s) who they will goto the shopping mall or to the multiplex with.Does this mean the end of the gathering-oriented public space like the ancient square?Or should we think of urban public space in new terms – movement, flows, mobility? Whyshould public space always be considered as permanent, in the context of staying andstability? Could it instead become temporary, flexible, movable – and still remain public? 30
  24. 24. Public-private and the individualSince its inception, the term “public” hasbeen opposed to the notion of “private”.Privatisation of public space has, for a longtime, been considered the main threat topublic space. Nowadays, however, publicspace is threatened not only by privati-sation, but also by individualism (ZygmuntBauman).The danger is not just that somebody isinterested in appropriating public spacefor private interests like private business;another trend is the lack of interest inpublic concerns among individuals(Norbert Elias). “The individual is the worstenemy of the citizen”, - said Alexis deTocqueville. Public issues are not much indemand.As long as public space is constituted byactivities physically filling it and by actorsperforming them, the vanishing of thepublic itself means the vanishing of publicspace. This is why public space is more andmore often characterised by the “void”,by categories of negation, such as the“non-places” by Marc Augé or the “place-less” by Edward Relph. 33
  25. 25. Public space in transitionThe question for us is – how to correlate these new concepts of space and place with theoriginal notion of public space? How much of public-ness and which part of it remainsin public space in the age of mobility and individualisation? Could public life in any of itstraditional understanding be performed by individuals in the urban spaces characterised bythe “fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral” (Marc Augé)?Probably, we should admit that public space in the city is not a goal in itself, but a means– of performing public life. So, public space only makes sense as a condition to be used bythe “public”.Perhaps the gatherings of numerous citizens for discussing public concerns in city squaresparticularly designed for this purpose are outdated? Are traditionally understood publicplaces not too self-concerned, too static, too introvert? Should we follow Doreen Massey inperceiving the places as “events” and “processes”?Should we indeed think about public space in the categories OPEN/CLOSED or would it notmake more sense to analyse it from the perspective of STATIC/DYNAMIC, STABLE/FLEXIBLEor PERMANENT/TEMPORARY?The ultimate question is, therefore, whether we should change our way of thinking abouturban public spaces… 34
  26. 26. What for?We have tried to let you feel the complex, and sometimes contradictory, ambiguous natureof the “public-ness” of urban squares in different city contexts. We decided not to put thenames of the cities under the photographs. The idea was not to concentrate on a particularcity and not to compare them with regard to the extent of their openness-closeness. Wewanted to confront the viewers with the life of the squares, to provoke reflection about publicspaces as such, to illustrate different aspects of the lives of the city squares in contempo-rary Europe. Our aim is to let you decide for yourself whether the spaces represented in thepictures are OPEN or CLOSED, or both, or neither, and to allow you to raise totally differentquestions, as we finally did ourselves. 36
  27. 27. Space for your thoughts: 37
  28. 28. LiteratureAugé, M. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London: Verso, 1995.De Certeau, M. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.Arendt, H. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.Bauman, Z. Liquid modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.Bauman, Z. The Individualized Society. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001.Elias, N. The Society of Individuals. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991 (1939).Goffman, E. Behavior in Public Places. Notes on the social organization of gatherings. New York:Free Press, 1963.Habermas, J. The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeoissociety. Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1989 (1962).Harper, D. Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies, Vol. 17, 1; April 2002,pp. 13-26.Massey, D. Spatial Divisions of Labour: Social Structures and the Geography of Production. London andBasingstoke: Macmillan, 1984.Relph, E. Place and placelessness. London: Pion, 1976.Sennett, R. The fall of public man. New York: Norton & Co, 1974.Sennett, R. The public realm. Gary Bridge, Sophie Watson (Eds.) The Blackwell City Reader. London:Blackwell Publishers, 2010, pp. 261-272.Zukin, S. The Cultures of Cities. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1995. 38
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  30. 30. We would like to acknowledge all the people whose support has made the exhibition and this cataloguepossible. We are grateful to the Department of European Ethnology, Humboldt University of Berlin fortheir support. Special thanks to Dr. Leonore Scholze-Irrlitz for her help with organising the exhibition andpreparing the catalogue and to Cordula Gdaniec, for her help with editing this catalogue.Supported by:Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation,Centre for Independent Social ResearchHumboldt University of BerlinThis work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported LicenseTo view a copy of this license, visit Lilia Voronkova, Oleg Pachenkov, 2010Design: Katja Schmidt, Lilia Voronkova, 2010Photographs: Lilia Voronkova, 2010 – all photographs, except for: Oleg Rybchinskiy, 2010 (pp. 20, 21, 22, 25, 35) Dimitar G. Katerinsky, 2010 (p. 18) Luchezar Antonov, 2010 (pp. 19, 32) Craig Young, 2010 (pp. 16, 29, 31)Exhibition organised by:Lilia VoronkovaISBN: 978-3-00-032961-6Published by:urbanXposure ( in Berlin 2010 40