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14 June 2020

"Domi manere convenit felicibus": Notes on the Health Crisis and Public Space

Xavier Monteys

Public space tends to be valued as a democratic place par excellence. Now, confinement has made us idealise it as a space of freedom as well, in contrast with the home to which we have been restricted for so long. Xavier Monteys suggests that we need to rethink this overvaluation and speaks out in favour of stigmatised domestic space. Our home, inviolable and guardian of our privacy, he affirms, is our true space of freedom. Those who are happy at home should stay there, as the old saying advised.

I believe it is appropriate to begin with a few thoughts on the oft-repeated idea that public space is democratic space par excellence. It is true that it is a place for making political demands—and, paradoxically, whether they are democratic or not, as we have confirmed in several recent examples—and it is therefore democratic. But the fact that the idea of demonstrating at home to demand democracy makes no sense, for example, does not mean that domestic space is antidemocratic space. The widespread view, which we have shared unreservedly so far, should not be contemplated, especially in the context of this crisis, without at least trying to “balance” it with the space on the other side of the mirror, namely private space or home. I must recognise that my opinion concerning what we have called public space has changed, and now I have certain reservations about some of its attributes.

In any case, the street is a place for free expression and able to accommodate the most diverse events. It is the place of the “theatre of the city”, the urban stage which we endow with meaning on a daily basis with our routine activities. The place we have continued to attend during the pandemic from our box seats at home, although the work being performed outside was comparable, in its austerity and slow pace, with Noh. Nevertheless, public space is not necessarily the good space. And although it may seem out of place that I am writing this while still under the effects of the pandemic and doing so here, under the auspices of the European Prize for Urban Public Space, these words might serve to encourage a “conversation” among articles, even if said conversation is not happening in a conventional way. After all, readers are the ones who will be able to stage the conversation in which these few lines will represent one more voice.

In my first note on what we might define as an overvaluation of what is known as public space, one thing is that, for the moment, the street that has been recovered is the commercial street which, in fact, has been in service throughout the crisis, in a slowed-down version. Yet, it is one that seems to capitalise on being in the limelight and that appears to have been missing the street of terrace bars, now idealised to the point of exaggeration, when not so long ago, they were the target of quite a range of criticisms from different quarters. It is also known that, owing to the crisis, the Barcelona City Council has ceased to receive in the municipal coffers a large amount of income in the form of taxes on terrace bars. Hence, it is understandable that there has been a notable change in the “official” view about this business that is carried out in public space, though this does not mean it is a more democratic business than any other. Nevertheless, we should not go back to occupying the street in exactly the same way we did before the crisis, either with regard to the number of terrace bars or in their position on the pavements, which they occupy as mere “extensions” of the bars and not as spaces for observing life in the city. We will go out into the street again, return separately, without the children who, until now, have spent more time than ever before with their parents. Children have been turned into just another multipurpose item, to gauge the quality of public space before the crisis, and now to camouflage the adults’ desire to be out in the street again. In any case, we will all go back to our activities, but will we go about them in exactly the same way as before? I hope not.

The second point is that, in trying to revise our opinion about public space, perhaps we should start by daring to see it not as something that forms a whole and therefore requiring political measures that are adequate for this status but, rather, we should start thinking that it consists of parts that are so diverse that, in many cases, we would doubt that they form a whole. When we talk about public space in Barcelona, we are lumping together streets that are as different as avenues, the streets of the Eixample neighbourhood, crossroads with chamfered corners (so different from streets), streets in neighbourhoods like Les Corts, Sants, and Sant Andreu, or the meandering and dead-end streets of the old city. We jumble together squares like Glòries and Sant Felip Neri, and small gardens of private origins with parks, and parks that are so impossible to compare as Turó Park and Creueta del Coll, or the different gardens of Montjuïc. Then there are the beaches, the port and Carretera de les Aigües, and we speak of something unitary when we refer to pavements, the road, or flowerbeds. I wonder how we would think about all this if, instead of resorting to the soothing Scandinavian balm of “life among buildings” as a definition of public space, we accepted that public space as such does not exist, and that what we have, in fact, are parts that do not, as such, form a whole. In this way, taking nothing for granted, and not letting ourselves be trapped by any commonplace about a common place over which we exercise control, impose a project, or make a claim, we might perhaps find a state of mind that is free of what is functional and from the often alienating contemporary political vocabulary. This is why we have liked the clean, lighter, carless or almost carless street, with more birds and free growing plants, with no terraces, especially silent, and tourist free, which has helped us to see it as if it had never existed before.

The third point is that overvaluation of public space has meant that we only object to it being poorly designed or because there are too many cars. I wonder whether, in this acritical overvaluation, a determinant role has been played by the fact of having an opposite to which the adjective “private” has been affixed in order to set up a contrary position. So, “democratic” public space has been given its polar opposite of domestic space and, perhaps without realising it, we have stigmatised private space, or home. During this crisis we have sometimes been able to read between the lines, and other times to read explicitly expressions like “we’re locked up” or “we’re confined to home” and are therefore deprived of public space and hence of freedom. The space of home has unthinkingly been presented (or, who knows, whether it was maliciously calculated) as our prison. I myself have probably contributed to this overvaluation of public space, so I think it is a shared fiction by means of which, while we praise the space we have in common, we have stigmatised private space, our true space of freedom, the space—and it is worth remembering this—that helped us to bear the Franco dictatorship; the space in which we can still do things that are simply prohibited in the street (and maybe all the better for that). Domi manere convenit felicibus[1], as Claudio Magris wrote in the opening pages of Danube when referring to love of one’s birthplace and absence of an obsession about leaving it. Our home is inviolable, or at least it was until evictions became frequent. Now we run the risk of evicting ourselves if we persist in this mindless adoration of democratic public space.

But, paradoxically, the home has never been as public was it has been during this pandemic. It has been described in numerous tweets, filmed, photographed, and also tipped out into the street from windows, terraces, and balconies. We were not only wanting fresh air and sun, and everything related with being healthy (another functional slogan), but we were also wishing to get out, to look out over the beautifully empty street, and to be in it without setting foot in it. In this dispute between home and street, public space has become subliminally present, and it seems that the only “good” housing buildings are those that have shared spaces, places to socialise, and for neighbourly relations. It has turned into the model of a type of building that we should be critical of, and that should make us think about the extent to which spaces are being shaped in order to pry into activities that deviate from the community’s rules of collective functioning, spaces in which one cannot live without agreeing with the neighbours, which is just another form of control. The example of public space has thus been an invitation to strip the home of one of its most important attributes, namely privacy. In any case, as a result of this crisis, and also paradoxically, speaking of public space has made it more than ever possible to speak of home, our space of freedom par excellence. 

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[1] Those who are happy at home should stay there.

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