Best Revival

A new exhibition shows that the once much maligned idea of public space is making a global comeback.

In the exuberant spring of 1999, at a conference at Harvard’s design school called “Exploring (New) Urbanism,” Rem Koolhaas faced off against Andres Duany over the state of public space. Remember, if you can, that recent, different world, where each electronic eureka swept over the cultural landscape promising not only instant wealth but relief from the tyranny of the tried-and-true. Work and play, life and—the killer app—love, would be forever remade in a paroxysm of utopian technophilia, reinventing hubris and amplifying the humble word new until it rang with the false authority of a battle cry. As a Web designer at said to me near the height of the ’90s nonsense, “You’ll be okay.” I’ll be okay when? “After. You know, when there’s no more print. Content is content. And it’s all just content.”

That breezy moment got the better of our poor techie and so many others—as well as armies of assumed-to-be more grounded folks: bankers, brokers, politicians, pundits. And that same anesthetizing ether might be blamed, too, for what was said at Harvard the day those two titans of urban vision met, each brandishing a new new for his own ends. It was in that exchange—no doubt driven to the frontiers of irreverence by proximity to Duany’s earnestness—that Rem emitted what might be the signal sound bite in a career built on them: “Public space is dead.” As with any truly effective communication, that maxim entered the culture whole and complete, ready to be repeated. Whatever nuance accompanied it never left Cambridge; faster than a bursting bubble it became a truism. Public space? We all know it’s deader than a Monty Python parrot. It is bereft of life. It has ceased to be. Rem killed it and the Razorfish guys are gonna work on a replacement. They’ll get right on it after they down-load Dow 36,000 and skim it on their Rocket e-books.

The Van Alen Institute, under the direction of Ray Gastil, might be expected to take aim at such a quacking canard. After all, the motto of that Manhattan-based organization is “Projects in Public Architecture.” In its current show, “OPEN: New Designs for Public Space” (on view through October at the Institute’s gallery and likely traveling after), Van Alen has hung a definitive refutation of Rem’s unfortunate bubble-era simplification. The show includes 20 mostly large-scale urban design projects “from six continents” the press release boasts. (They couldn’t find an icebound agora in Queen Maud Land?) Most are recently built or under construction, with the remaining few showing strong vital signs on the drawing board. Indeed, the case for a post-crash (not to mention post-disaster) revival in the existence and vigor of make-no-small-plans public space—so plain already before the nose of any urbanite—is open-and-shut overwhelming.

It is also chastening. What stars have aligned in the bureaucratic firmament that allow Bogota, Columbia—a city with survival on its mind—to complete a 17-kilometer network of spacious pedestrian thoroughfares (with associated parks and plazas, through neighborhoods rich and poor) while Manhattan’s vaunted Hudson River Park is in many places no more than a footpath? And, just to stick with that park, what public/private gods are smiling on the Ponte Parodi in Genoa, where a design by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos will leverage acres of new rooftop public park from a discrete layer of retail on the ground, while the recreational strip on the west side of Manhattan is interrupted every few blocks by heliports, sanitation depots, and golf?

In Melbourne, a cultural complex with a textured plaza decked the railroad tracks and gave the city a focus; in Seoul, an overscaled and underused subway concourse was colonized by a media center. The Melbourne project is the stuff of everyday planning reverie—and municipal intransigence—in the United States, and the subway media center is, as Gastil points out, the stuff of architecture studio whimsy. (“Crossprogramming,” a term popularized by Bernard Tschumi in his early schemes for the Parc de la Villette in Paris, is proving to be the most tenacious of architectural fads. Every studio review at any even half-engaged school will include a few examples: the parking garage—church, the machine shop—school for the deaf.) But there it is in the Chungmuro subway station, ready for its Wallpaper close-up as conceived in angled walls of glass, beaded curtains, and tubular beanbag sofas by New York firm Cho Slade Architecture with Team BAHN.

Most of the examples in the show, like the ambitious plan in Rio to link the hillside favelas to the city with new roads and community centers, do not stray from the natural definition of a public project: by the people, for the people. But several—Richard Gluckman’s Mori Art Museum, parked on the top floor of a skyscraper in Tokyo; Diller + Scofidio’s harborside design for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston; Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (included, appropriately enough, as a provocation)—limit public access, stretching the accepted definition. And here I think Gastil, and “OPEN” curator Zoe Ryan, are onto something. Public architecture is where the designerly rubber meets the road. Architects are of course free to indulge in whatever private kink they want in the privacy of their clients’ homes. But as soon as a design faces a street, changes a vantage or a pattern of movement, invites the masses in or forces upon them a new icon to contemplate, the rules are very different. In direct confrontation with the public, the architect, like any professional, has an ethical obligation to consider its welfare. That is one of the overriding messages of the show: All over the homogenizing world, the great unruly thing called the public still exists. And regardless of the money trail of a given project, conscientious designers responding to that other, often non-paying clientele are shaping this mysterious thing, public space, which—though frayed on the edges of town (out by the malls), rivaled by sirens online, and under constant video surveillance—has never been less dead.

“In this show,” Gastil said, “we are taking the position that public space can be designed.” In a gallery only two miles north of Ground Zero (and the nearby offices of the design-averse Port Authority and the intermittently design-averse Lower Manhattan Development Corporation), that is still very much an optimist’s position. But, as the Van Alen show slyly hints and Frank Sinatra might have sung, If you can make it in London, Liverpool, Oslo, Genoa, Singapore, Seoul, Rio, Bogota, Guadalajara, Barcelona, Tokyo, Graz, Berlin, Johannesburg, Boston, and Macon, Georgia, you can make it anywhere. Even in New York, New York.

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