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24 March 2011

The flâneur's surprise

Lessons from the European Prize for Urban Public Space

Based on the analysis of the winning works of the European Prize for Urban Public Space, the author reflects on the sense of urbanity, the ability to coexist,  of public space.

An abandoned parliament building, a rubbish dump, a watchtower, a library, a pavilion-cum-theatre, a vegetable garden, the space under a motorway slab, an opera house, a cluster of lifts, some fishermen’s huts … Doubtless, these are not exactly the kinds of scenes the nineteenth-century flâneur we all bear within would have expected to find among the prize-winning works and special mentions over the six awards of the European Prize for Urban Public Space. The square, the street, the promenade and the park are the classical, almost canonical types that seem to be closest to the idea of urban public space. They bring together conditions that, at first glance, seem necessary and sufficient to represent it. More than anything else they are urban voids, exceptional discontinuities of the constructed mass. When we imagine a city without squares or streets, and hence without facades or doors or windows, we grasp the topological indispensability of these interstices. They define the geometric limits of private property, order it, structure it and connect it with the flow of people, goods and information while letting it receive sun and ventilation and get rid of its rubbish. These vital functions ensure that archetypical public spaces are open, that they take shape at ground level, that they are universally accessible and that their ownership is unquestionably public.

However, when we begin to probe the concept of public space a little, we realise that it is impossible to pigeonhole it into specific formal typologies. What happens, for example, to the canonical square when there is a curfew? Its physical and geometrical properties are not in the least altered and yet no one would hesitate in denying it the condition of public space. Whatever its name may seem to indicate, public space is not a geometric, Cartesian and objective framework, nor even a physical, material and tangible container. It is a subjective place, loaded with political content, which implies urbanity or, in other words, it is defined by the fact of coexistence in community and hence by awareness of ourselves and respect for others. It is, like democracy, something fragile and intangible that comes about intermittently. And, just as a parliament isn’t democracy, the square isn’t public space: in fact, both reside in the civic consciousness of citizens.

This contingency, this autonomy with regard to form, explains the continuous production in our cities of a splitting between the urbs – the hardware, the containing physical support – and the civitas – the software or the contained event –. Public space is a dynamic, unstable occurrence that spreads out and contracts, that waxes and wanes in intensity. Because of this intermittency, it is necessary to keep striving continually to reconquer already built-up spaces that have lost their urbanity. Among the outstanding works presented for the Prize there are interventions in squares, parks and promenades, settings that comply with the classical patterns of public space. Yet they are not there because of the typology of their settings, formerly banal and featureless, stripped of the sense of urbanity and deactivated as public spaces. They are there because of the value and meanings they have regained.

Without moving from the site, a square in the Barking neighbourhood in London1 acquired the centrality of a main square by means of the eccentricity contributed by a series of eclectic, picturesque elements that cater to the collective imaginary. Without any change in its proportion, the Ghetto Heroes Square in Krakow2 ceased to be a space that was offensively indifferent to its dreadful past to become a place of recognition poetically narrating collective memory. In both the double square of Robbiano3 and the main square of Kalmar4 , which conform to the traditional model of squares presided over by churches, the intervention stays close to a classical theme, the ground level itself, not to decorate it with capricious formality but rather to ensure that it expresses, in the former case, the collective uses that the place might accommodate and, in the latter, the language of the cobblestones that have shaped the body and image of the whole city over centuries. In both Kalmar and the Smithfield esplanade of Dublin5 , also coming under the heading of classical square, the reconquest has been preceded by ousting the private vehicle, a clearing up operation that has not altered the basic layout but has rather revealed them as clear spaces full of possibilities for the holding of community events.

Neither is it surprising to find among the notable works of the Prize open spaces that fit urban archetypes that are almost as classical as the square. The seafront promenade in Zadar6 and that of Benidorm7 have undergone vigorous transformation working in favour of a sense of urbanity. The former resolves the meeting of city and water with a set of steps that invites crowds to enjoy contemplating the sea and the listen to the music performed by the water itself. The latter unfolds in a pattern of colourful, sinuous forms with sufficient power to temper the speculative effervescence of the skyscrapers competing for the seafront, civilising them in a unitary embrace. In Rotterdam8, few pedestrians ventured on to the central pavement of Westblaak Avenue until it was turned into a skateboard rink and an appealing meeting place for skateboarders and spectators alike. Without being subjected to any morphological transformation, the streets of Folkestone9 have been filled with personal experiences through a public exhibition of photographs contributed by its inhabitants.

If all these interventions have introduced a sense of urbanity into pre-existing archetypes, others have started out from much more accidental situations. The geographic barrier represented by a ravine or a difference in level can lead to the construction of a bridge or stairway that, over and above its connecting function, can take on monumental significance. This is the case of the lifts in Teruel10 that complement both the function and the monumentality of the stairway of the Paseo del Óvalo. There are also accidents of less natural origins, defects or impurities that the urbs itself generates in the course of its permanent metamorphosis. Sometimes they are vacant sites that are waiting to be filled with new civic uses. The Reudnitz Park11 in Leipzig is fruit of the citizens’ conquest of the former site of a railway station destroyed in the Second World War. The Tilla-Dureiux street-salon in Berlin12 celebrates the emptiness of the strip created by the obligatory separation imposed by the Wall, while offering yearned-for space in the recently built-up surrounding area, a recreational area, like a green beach. A crevice between two buildings, which was not apt for construction, was taken over by residents in a Paris13 neighbourhood who planted a collectively-run vegetable garden. The demolition of the Can Mulà textile factory opened up a wide, open space the old centre of the town of Mollet 14, offering the unwonted opportunity for rethinking the centre of an already-consolidated town.

On other occasions, however, accidents in the urban fabric are not open empty spaces that can more or less easily be converted into archetypical public spaces but alien bodies, troublesome presences that also offer the opportunity of being assimilated by civitas. In this case, we are confronted with built-up volumes, which might be disconcerting when it comes to considering them as public space. Yet, when they are covered or even have facades, they do not cease to be fully loaded with a sense of urbanity if it is understood that this sense is autonomous from the form. In Zaanstadt15 the motorway slab that split the centre of Koog aan de Zaan was turned into a great civic arcade that was able to accommodate the requirements of the citizens’ different programmes. In Berlin16, the Volkspalast initiative neutralised the symbolic charge of the abandoned GDR parliament building by temporarily converting it into an experimental cultural centre.

Pre-existence is not a necessary condition for a built-up mass to contain public space. If we accept the autonomy of the concept vis-à-vis forms and typologies, a newly-constructed building, too, can be impregnated with a feeling of urbanity. The construction of a row of fishermen’s huts has equipped a breakwater in the port for a very deep-rooted local activity in Cangas do Morrazo17. The Torre del Homenaje (Homage Tower) in Huéscar18 restores the dual function, as both landmark and lookout, of an old watchtower. The former orients the residents within the urban fabric of the town, constituting an icon that commemorates a shared historic past, while the latter offers a point for enjoying a panoptical view from which the town is recognised and becomes aware of itself. Through very different means but with similar effects, the different sections of the roof of the Oslo Opera House19 gently emerge from the waters of the port to offer pedestrians, who can walk freely all over it, an iconic meeting place and attractive lookout over the city and fjord.

The Norwegian opera house demonstrates that, with the help of certain public functions, the iconic charge of a single, isolated and compact architectural object can exercise a dynamising influence over its wider urban context. In Copenhagen20 , the insertion of a forcefully present floating platform now enables citizens to enjoy healthy, accessible and safe bathing without leaving a canal which is full of significance for their city. Somewhere between clear space and building, the open-air library of Magdeburg21 made the most of prefabricated pieces from the façade of a demolished building, thereby achieving a powerful iconic charge and rising as an emblem of a promising future for the run-down neighbourhood of Salbke. In Innsbruck22 , a single building containing a series of community facilities has managed to forge deep centrality in an insipid residential estate that was notable for its lack of public space despite the abundance of public land. In Rotterdam23 , the insertion of a small theatre-pavilion has programmatically activated a lacklustre square.

If the concept of public space is defined by a sense of urbanity that makes it independent of forms and typologies, it is also free of restriction of size or scale. The results of the Prize reflect the capacity of some interventions to go beyond the scale of a square, an esplanade, a park or a building to take in a whole area of the urban fabric. In Espinho25, a holistic intervention founded in the aims of improving urban space, providing better public facilities, rehabilitating the town’s historic legacy and recovering natural resources has had transcendental effects in its improvement of the physical and social reality of an isolated, decaying neighbourhood. Along similar lines and with a strategy that is in keeping with the urban scale, a series of concise surgical operations have reinforced the physical and social cohesion of Buenavista del Norte26.

Besides injecting urbanity into an existent urbs, operations on the urban scale can also civilise spaces that are not built up. Flooding of the Gállego River in Zuera26, the River Ter in Girona27 , and the River Besòs in Barcelona28 created zones not apt for construction that the urban fabric had been incapable of assimilating. The conversion of these three river beds into fluvial parks maintains and reinforces their character as natural spaces, external to the urbs. Yet, at the same time, it fully integrates them into the civitas of the adjacent cities in offering their inhabitants a close-to-hand chance for escaping the urban hustle and bustle. Somewhat similar but in a much more extreme position, is the case of the Begues29 rubbish dump . Its remote natural setting makes it difficult to understand why it might be deemed urban space. However, apart from its conversion into a public park that generates energy and fulfils a significant educational function, the raison d’être of this piece of infrastructure is inseparable from the metropolitan reality that brought it into being and that it served for over thirty years.

All these interventions demonstrate that the concept of urban public space transcends the typology, the scale and the situation of the container wherein it is found. If its condition of space and its condition of being urban are not always evident, neither is its public status. The action of the State, of the public sphere, excels in its capacity for injecting urbanity into high-cost productions of sweeping scope, for example those of Mollet, Espinho, Oslo or Benidorm. On other occasions, nonetheless, civil society is obliged to emancipate itself from the upside-down protection of the State when confronted with its negligence. This is particularly reflected in cases like the Volkspalast in Berlin, the Magdeburg library or the vegetable gardens of Leipzig and Paris. Their existence does not culminate with the physical construction of a designed object, but is continually developed in an ongoing social, cultural and political production. Here, the citizens take the initiative for the project’s promotion, participate in its conception, work together in the construction and even control its use and take over its management. In these situations a sense of urbanity, along with a capacity for coexistence, is especially reflected and this is what the notion of public space implies. And, to the surprise of the flâneur, this sense constitutes its single necessary and sufficient condition.

1Barking Town Square [London, United Kingdom, 2008]. A new main square in the suburb of Barking. First Prize of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2008.

2Plac Bohaterów Getta [Krakow, Poland, 2005]. Refurbishment of a square in memory of the victims of the Krakow ghetto. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2006.

3Piazza Nera Piazza Bianca [Robbiano, Italy. 2005]. Remodelling the space in front of two churches in the old centre of Robbiano. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2006.

4Stortorget [Kalmar, Sweden, 2003]. Renovation of paving in the cathedral square. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2004.

5Smithfield Public Space [Dublin, Ireland, 2000]. New public space in the Smithfield esplanade. Joint Winner of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2000.

6Morske orgulje [Zadar, Croatia, 2005]. Sea organ in the new esplanade of the Zadar peninsula. Joint Winner of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2006.

7Paseo Marítimo de la Playa Poniente [Benidorm, Spain, 2009]. The complex strip of transition between city and beach unfolds in a brightly coloured repertoire of sinuous forms with sufficient power to order the seafront facade and bestow a unitary character on it. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2010.

8Westblaak Skatepark8 [Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 2001]. New public park in the central space of Westblaak Avenue. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2002.

9Other People’s Photographs [Folkestone, United Kingdom, 2008]. Artistic intervention that gathers together collective memory by means of an exhibition of personal photos taken in public space. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2008.

10Remodelación del Paseo del Óvalo, la Escalinata y su entorno [Teruel, Spain, 2003]. Construction of a new system of lifts next to the Teruel stairway. Joint Winner of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2004.

11Stadtteilpark Reudnitz [Leipzig, Germany, 2002]. New urban park on the site of the old Eilenburg railway station, and reorganisation of traffic in its surrounds. Joint Winner of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2002.

12Tilla-Dureiux-Park [Berlin, Germany, 2003]. Creation of a new park next to Potsdammer Platz. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2002.

13Pasaje 56 /espace cultural écologique [Paris, France, 2009]. Popular initiative has transformed a neglected passageway of the rue Saint Blaise into a collectively-run ecological vegetable garden. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2010.

14Centre Multi-funcional de Can Mulà [Mollet del Vallès, Spain, 2000]. New urban centre consisting of the municipal market, the Town Hall, and several residential buildings surrounding a central public space. Joint Winner of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2000.

15A8ernA [Zaanstadt, The Netherlands, 2005]. Revamping of the space covered by the A8 motorway in the old centre of Koog aan de Zaan. Joint Winner of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2006.

16ZwuschenPalastNutzung/Volkspalast [Berlin, Germany, 2005]. Temporary reconversion of the Palast der Republik into a multifunctional cultural centre. Special Prize of the Jury of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2006.

17Casetas de pescadores en el puerto [Cangas de Morrazo, Spain, 2008]. A row of fishermen’s huts has breathed life into the breakwater of the port with an activity that is deep-rooted in the town and appealing to the eyes of passers-by. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2010.

18Torre del Homenaje8 [Huéscar, Spain, 2007]. New public lookout built over the remains of a medieval watchtower. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2008.

19Den Norske Opera & Ballett [Oslo, Norway]. The roof of the opera house emerges gently from the waters of the port of Bjørvika to offer pedestrians splendid views over the city and the fjord. Joint Winner of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2010.

20Havnebadet [København, Denmark, 2003]. New public baths in the Grand Canal port, in the Brygge Islands neighbourhood. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2004.

21Open-Air-Library [Magdeburg, Germany, 2009]. The residents of a socially disadvantaged neighbourhood organised in order to collect books and share them in an open-air library that they constructed, following a participative process, from prefabricated pieces of a demolished building. Joint Winner of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2010.

22centrum.odorf [Innsbruck, Austria, 2006]. New square and multifunctional building between the two residential estates of the Innsbruck Olympic villages. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2008.

23Urban Activators: theater podium & brug Grotekerkplein [Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 2009]. The insertion of a theatre-pavilion has programmatically dynamised the old main square and articulated its relationship with the Delftsevaart canal. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2010.

24Programa de Reabilitação Urbana da Marinha de Silvalde [Espinho, Portugal, 2002]. Urban refurbishment of the seaside neighbourhood of Espinho; integral planning of public space, renovation of buildings and environmental enhancement of the shoreline. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2002.

25Tenerife Verde, Lote 9 [Buenavista del Norte, Spain, 2002]. Revitalisation of the urban fabric with the superimposition of a nodal network consisting of four public spaces joined by a system of walkers’ routes. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2004.

26Recuperación del Cauce y Riberas del Río Gállego [Zuera, Spain, 2001]. New park and riverside walks in Zuera, environmental enhancement and urban reorganisation. Joint Winner of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2002.

27Parc del Ter Central [Girona, Spain, 1999]. New metropolitan park in the central reach of the River Ter. Environmental recovery and new accessibility to the riverside space. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2000.

28Recuperació Mediambiental del Tram Final del Llit del Riu Besòs [Barcelona, Spain, 2000]. New park and riverside walk in the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona. Special Mention of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2002.

29Restauració paisatgística de dipòsit controlat de la Vall d’en Joan [Begues, Spain, 2003]. Closing down of the tip for waste materials from the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona and its recovery as a public park. Joint Winner of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2004.


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