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Architectural positions on the public sphere: The 2007 Delft Lecture Series

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Tom Avermaete Hans Teerds

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Architectural Positions n the Public Sphere: The 2007 Delft Lecture Series [Dispatch]

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Places, 19(2)

Avermaete, Tom
Teerds, Hans

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Architectural Positions on the Public Sphere:
The 2007 Delft Lecture Series
Tom Avermaete and Hans Teerds

Looking back on architectural theory recent public initiatives overlook The underlying logic of these
over the past two decades, a narrative the longue durée of public space—the changes has been accurately described
of profound loss appears with regard traditional capacity of public build- by Michael Sorkin, who has pointed to
to the public sphere. As theoreticians ings to play a role in the collective a strategy of “Disneyfication” that has
lament what they consider to be a memory of citizens, and of streets and increasingly been applied to cities.
decline in its content and character, squares to offer an enduring structure
some have even been moved to use to the city. Whether in its master incarna-
such dire phrases as “The End of tion at the ersatz Main Street of
Public Space” and “The Phantom The Theoretical Debate Disneyland, in the phony historic
Public Sphere.”1 For years one of the main expo- festivity of a Rouse marketplace, or
During this period, however, nents of the narrative of lost public the gentrified architecture of the
architectural practice has offered a space has been the Dutch architect “Reborn” Lower East Side, this
much richer picture, as illustrated, for Rem Koolhaas. In his apocalyptic elaborate apparatus is at pains to
example, by work on the collective 1994 essay “The Generic City,” he assert its ties to the kind of city life it
domain by Manuel de Solà-Morales claimed that cities were witnessing is in the process of obliterating.4
in Barcelona, the Neotraditionalist an “evacuation of the public realm.”
public projects of Rob Krier, and the He used this slogan to describe the Sorkin warned that even though the
minimal public interventions in Euro- pending transformation of the public theme-park perspective was proving
pean cities of Bernardo Secchi. In sphere into a uniform space of traffic, enormously effective in attracting tour-
the end, one is left to ask: which view implying that squares and streets, tra- ists to historical cities, it might mean
better captures the actual vicissitudes ditional urban expressions of public the end of diverse public life. After
of the contemporary city? life, would be increasingly reduced to all, he wrote, “In the ‘public’ spaces of
The rift between architectural infrastructural figures. If places still the theme park or the shopping mall,
theory and practice was a key subject existed in the new urban world where speech itself is restricted: there are no
of the 2007 Delft Lecture Series, public life could unfold, they would demonstrations in Disneyland. The
which brought together scholars and certainly not be streets. effort to reclaim the city is the struggle
practitioners such as de Solà-Morales, for democracy itself.”5 Sorkin appealed
Léon Krier, Bernard Tschumi, Kengo The street is dead.… Roads are for “a return to a more authentic
Kuma, and Hans Kollhoff between only for cars. People (pedestrians) urbanity, a city based on physical
February and May to debate the state are led on rides (as in an amuse- proximity and free movement and a
of the public realm in cities across ment park), on “promenades” sense that the city is our best expres-
Europe. Its format paired a theoreti- that lift them off the ground, that sion of a desire for collectivity. As
cian with two practicing architects subject them to a catalog of exag- spatiality ebbs, so does intimacy.”6
around the topics “Changing Defini- gerated conditions—wind, heat, In the late 1990s the Belgian phi-
tions of Public and Private,” “Image steepness, cold, interior, exterior, losopher Lieven De Cauter further
Building and Public Space,” “The smells, fumes—in a sequence that is characterized developments in the
Temporalities of the Public Sphere,” a grotesque caricature of life in the public sphere with the expression
“Monumentality and Public Repre- historic city.3 “capsularization of life.”7 He claimed
sentation,” “Alternating Programs that everyday life was increasingly
and Practices,” and “The Perception In Koolhaas’s view, the traditional unfolding in conditioned, private
of the Public.”2 street, with its opportunity for chance spaces of heterotopic character.
What emerged was the view that encounters with the “other,” would
architects and urban designers need be replaced by decks, bridges, tunnels Our everyday life can be described
to take a more nuanced approach to and motorways reserved for specific as a movement, using trans-
the public realm—one that considers urban audiences. If the flaneur still port capsules, from one enclave
change in contemporary public life had a place in this future city, it would or capsule, home for instance, to
not as lamentable, but as offering a be in the highly planned and privately another, campus, office, airport, all-
series of new challenges. The lecture owned interior spaces of hotel lobbies in-one hotel, mall, and so on. One
series also emphasized how many and shopping malls. might say that hyperindividualism

36 Avermaete and Teerds / 2007 Delft Lecture Series


+ the suburbanization of everyday As a response, de Solà-Morales A third perspective on the appro-

life = capsularization.8 suggested extending the notion priation and temporality of the public
of public space to encompass new sphere came from Bernard Tschumi.
In an earlier lecture, De Cauter spaces such as “parking lots, shop- In his design for the well-known Pari-
had linked this process to what ping malls, vacation centers and sian Parc de La Villette he explored
he called the “Mediteranization” cinema complexes.” He called these ways to serve different publics, and
of historical centers in European “collective spaces” and argued that especially the short-term cycles of
cities. Part of this process was their architects should seek broader appropriation that characterize a space
exclusive and one-dimensional use responsibility for their design. They such as a park. He saw these “events”
for leisure, tourism and shopping. should not concede their design to as crucial to understanding contempo-
Though at first glance we perceive commercial logic and developer rary public space. They involve prac-
a variety of people using streets and standards, but rather seek to trans- tices of shock and reinvention that
squares, he argued, on second view form them into challenging new architecture should accommodate,
we recognize a homogeneous group fields of architectural investigation. creating loci where differences might
using a heterotopian place. De Solà-Morales described this task become visible. Tschumi noted that
“Mediteranization is not so much as “the urbanization of the collective “the event is by definition the place of
a sign of the return to the Athenian territory.” the combination of differences.”12
agora, of a new public life, but rather At the same time, the Italian urban Parc de La Villette was thus
of the injection of an archetype that designer Bernardo Secchi was point- designed to express a superposition of
stems from the dream world of adver- ing to another important aspect of the differences. On the largest scale this
tisements into the real city; the ‘uni- public sphere: its ability to accommo- involved the introduction of a grid
versal beach party’,” he wrote.9 date different forms of appropriation over the site, an open frame within
over different time periods. In the which all activities might unfold.
Perspectives from Practice mid-1990s Secchi developed several Defined elements were then added
The perspectives of Koolhaas, designs for “a project of the soil.” to the grid, such as playgrounds, pur-
Sorkin and De Cauter sketched the For the Belgian city of Kortrijk, this posefully designed gardens, and red
outlines of a broader theoretical dis- involved a minimally defined series of follie pavilions employing a common
course lamenting the increasingly public plains or “galletes” which were formal language. The combination
one-dimensional character of public carefully inserted in the topography to of uniform grid and specific elements
spaces. But other insights emerged in become a substratum for future public offered a clever blend that might func-
the 1990s from European architec- life and building. tion as a background for both daily life
tural practice. Crucial to Secchi’s approach was and singular events.
One of the most interesting was a belief that everyday appropriation
that of the Spanish architect and would take place only if sufficient Hypertrophy of Invented
urban planner Manuel de Solà- time were provided for new practices Public Spaces
Morales. In a 1992 article “Public and to unfold. The design of public space The positions of De Solà-Morales,
Collective Space: The Urbanization must thus accommodate Secchi and Tschumi illustrate a
of the Private Domain as a New Chal- disconnect between theoretical
lenge,” originally published in the …a slower pace, in which everyday debate and actual developments in
Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, he habits can again legitimately play a architectural practice. Indeed, prac-
questioned two aspects of the tradi- role. Too often there is a refusal of ticing architects were discovering
tional definition of public space: that the space of life which is a continu- new complexity and richness in the
it should be publicly owned, and that ous construction site, continuously public sphere. And their calls for
it should be freely accessible by every- traversed by nomadic populations more nuanced attention to it did not
one.10 To de Solà-Morales, both these and activities, never reaching a remain unanswered. Despite the dour
attributes were becoming obsolete, recognizable stable condition. There forecasts of architectural theorists,
and he argued that even in the most is a necessity for a narrative which, during the 1990s architects and city
traditional European cities, much as Wim Wenders says, “protects its governments in Europe started to
public life was developing elsewhere. own characters.”11 regard public space (both open areas

Places 19.2 37
such as squares and park and public augment their appeal in interna- tive emerged of important challenges
buildings such as museums) as a tional guidebooks, advertisements and responsibilities.
matter of concern. and websites. Too often new public Two important concerns were
Projects in Barcelona (Spain), Lyon spaces were regarded merely as stage raised in particular. One was
(France), and Groningen (The Neth- settings for concerts, festivals, or described by de Solà-Morales as
erlands) highlighted a growing aware- made-up festivities with little relation follows: “a shopping center or a
ness of the value of public space in a to long-term qualities of the city. peripheral supermarket, an amuse-
new competition to establish regional Many such spaces had two ment park or a stadium, a large
“poles of attraction.” Attractive public common denominators: a fascination parking lot or a shopping gallery…
space was seen as key to catching the with image quality and a concern these are the significant places for
attention of both the local population with short-term activities. Attention everyday life, these are the con-
(for entertainment and shopping) and was aimed at the fleeting logics of temporary collective spaces.” The
the international public of congress consumption and mass and congress embedding of private spaces into the
participants and tourists. tourism, as new or renewed public collective structure of the city clearly
During the 1990s leaders in major spaces became integral to a society remains a worry for many.
European cities (and also second- of spectacle. A recipe of beautified But participants in the seminar
ary ones) became convinced that the public spaces, spectacular public series sought to interpret this as a
reimagination of public space should buildings, and throbbing public challenge for the future. Michiel
be part of a general strategy to put events became the accepted norm. Riedijk was specific:
them on the map. The results were
staggering. In city after city public The Return of the Perennial Architects are by default con-
spaces were developed or redevel- and Difference demned to think and work for the
oped: squares, streets and quays were Have things changed since the future. The past does not offer
beautified; iconic public buildings 1990s? In architectural theory, per- clear-cut answers for contempo-
erected; and abandoned industrial spectives have hardly altered. In 2007 rary challenges. Architectural
areas redeveloped into public parks. phrases such as the “evacuation of the and urban design must regain the
The public squares of Barcelona, the public realm” and “the capsulariza- conviction that new solutions, tech-
Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, and tion of life” seem to reverberate more nologies and instruments allow for
the conversion of the Ruhr district intensely than ever. And renown the design of a more comfortable
of Germany into new park areas theoreticians are still claiming that and durable world.
became the templates for a variety of traditional squares and public build-
strategies applied across Europe. The ings are obsolete, eventually to be The other main concern was the
outcome can only be described as a replaced by electronic highways, chat need for a careful consideration of the
hypertrophy of public space. rooms, and virtual communities. different temporal qualities of public
The new buildings and spaces But what has become of the more activity. A recurrent theme here was
were often very successful and had optimistic view among practitioners? the need to renew concern for the
strong visual impacts. The contours This question provided the incen- longue durée of public projects. In
of the Bilbao Guggenheim, the foun- tive for the Delft spring 2007 lecture rethinking the design of public spaces,
tains of the public squares in Lyon, series. Titled “Architectural Posi- a number of presenters argued that
and the public parks of Barcelona cut tions,” it aimed to convene leading new emphasis should be placed on
a high profile in the commonly held architects and ask them for their their ability to structure the long-term
imagery of these cities today. views on the changing public sphere. development of the city, not merely
In these major cities attention Once again, the perspective from lend it a quick imagability.
to public space was embedded in a practice differed greatly from the In the words of Felix Claus:
larger plan to improve the public tone of mourning that is the grist for
realm. Unfortunately, however, this contemporary architectural theory. Public building is asked to stand out.
was not always the case in secondary Not a single practicing architect It represents society.… We want
locales, where occasional investment claimed that the public sphere was to build strong buildings because
in public space was seen as a way to being “evacuated.” Rather, a perspec- their strong presence could change

38 Avermaete and Teerds / 2007 Delft Lecture Series


the environment.… It is an issue of …the project presents an overview York: Hill and Wang, 1992); and Bruce Robbins, ed.,
content and not of images. There are of a possible new spatial condition The Phantom Public Sphere (Minneapolis: University of
too many images. It has to be about that can be created in the sprawl Minnesota Press, 1993).
the content regarding social respon- and be drawn from the inherent 2. For an overview of the program of the Architectural
sibility. This has very much to do characteristics. After-sprawl aims Positions seminar series, see
with urban design; durability. to demonstrate that there can be a 3. Rem Koolhaas, “The Generic City,” in Rem
contemporary urbanity that is not Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, S,M,L,XL (Rotterdam: 010
Beyond addressing the present founded on the classical dichotomy Publishers, 1995), p. 1254.
cycles of building, deterioration and of the city and countryside. It 4. Michael Sorkin, “Introduction,” in Michael Sorkin,
rebuilding, architects and urban finds possible ways to connect that ed, Variations on a Theme Park, p. xiv.
designers should refocus attention on urbanity to a public space based on 5. Ibid., p. xv.
the capacity of streets, squares and a shared notion of perception and 6. Ibid., p. xv.
important public buildings to serve accessibility….” 7. Lieven De Cauter, “The Capsule and the Network:
as organizing figures within a city. Preliminary Notes for a General Theory,” in the
But several speakers offered a second A New Future for the architectural journal OASE 51,“Re: Generic City”
reason for the longue durée. They iden- Public Sphere (2001), Nijmegen, Uitgeverij Sun.
tified public places and buildings as In general terms, participants in 8. Ibid., p. 56.
“sites par excellence,” where crucial the Architectural Positions seminars 9. Lieven de Cauter, De capsulaire beschaving, Over
collective issues such as sustainability confirmed the pleas of de Solà- de stad in het tijdperk van de angst (Rotterdam: NAi
can still be addressed. Morales, Secchi and Tschumi for a Uitgeverij, 2004), p. 32.
Thus, in his lecture, Léon Krier more nuanced approach to the design 10. The article was translated in Dutch and
argued that “the main concern of of public spaces. No doubt, defini- published in the architectural journal OASE 32, “De
architects today should be the rela- tions of public and private are today transformatie van de metropool” (1992), Nijmegen,
tion of building to available resources. shifting to give increasing impor- Uitgeverij Sun. An English translation of the article
The realm of public building is one tance to the private sphere. And, no will be published in a forthcoming Architectural
of the most obvious terrains for an doubt, the high expectations con- Positions Anthology, which will present thirty-six articles
architect to consider these issues.” cerning spectacle and image within by architects on “Architecture, Modernity, and the
Several presenters also characterized the public realm will continue to Public Sphere.”
the field of public space as one where create volatility within contemporary 11. Bernardo Secchi, “For a Town-Planning of Open
architects can engage with broad public programs. Spaces,” in Casabella 597-598, January/February 1993.
social considerations beyond fleeting Yet, despite—or exactly because 12. Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction
commercial logic. of—the complex temporality of the (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), p. 258.
Another important theme was present-day city, concern for the 13. Hannah Arendt, “The Human Condition”
multiplicity. While it is generally longue durée should be a key consid- (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1958),
acknowledged that processes like eration for contemporary architects p. 13.
“Disneyfication” and “Mediteraniza- working in the public sphere. The
tion” create homogeneity in the use design of public spaces can provide
of space, de Solà-Morales, Tschumi, an expansive décor for this alter-
and Juhani Pallasmaa claimed that nating life; it can offer a frame for
architects should aspire to strategies public events and habits; and it can
that offer room for the expression of offer room for expression of differ-
difference—for the unexpected, oth- ence. In short, it can create places
erness, and the unknown. for meeting and exchange—or in the
Projects presented illustrated words of Hannah Arendt, “action
attempts to come to terms with these and speech.”13
new principles. For example, Lieven
de Boeck of Xaveer de Geyter Archi- Notes
tects proposed a strategy for “After- 1. Michael Sorkin, ed, Variations on a Theme Park: The
Sprawl.” As he claimed, New American City and the End of Public Space (New

Places 19.2 39

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