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When Architecture Speaks up for Public Space

» 18/01/2016
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"Public space is the place of connecting, which may be through Wi-Fi or by means of physical space. A 'smart city' without spatial quality couldn’t be welcoming and it couldn’t be sustainable".
The reconquering of public space seems to be well underway. Now that the compact city has appeared as the new paradigm for a Europe eroded by urban sprawl, it would probably be a good idea to have a look at what is presently emerging as a model of open space for the dense city: the Piazza San Marco in Venice or Central Park in New York. In other words, dilating the tightly-packed urban fabric of La Serenissima in the case of the San Marco quadrilateral, and somewhere to go for a breath of fresh air in Manhattan’s orthogonal grid.

Although these timeless references have founded two paradigms of public space, they haven’t exhausted the genre because, since Frederick Olmsted applied his theories to the territory of New York, the forms of the city have evolved, making urbanites —of ever-expanding numbers on the planetary scale— more and more avid for public spaces they can appropriate.

Hence, as a place of flows par excellence, public space must be both agreeable for people to pass through and sufficiently hospitable for them to want to linger. In its typological diversity, it should lend itself to the greatest possible number of uses, if not all uses. It is a festive place or somewhere to express dissent —as we’ve seen recently in Tahir Square in Cairo or the Puerta del Sol in Madrid— but, above all, a setting for everyday life.

This idea of everydayness raises the question of what the symbol of public space might be. Maybe we could find it in São Paulo, a megalopolis of twenty million inhabitants, with Oscar Niemeyer’s very elegant “Marquise” which, with maximum flexibility, has created an intermediate threshold by grouping together a set of buildings in the heart of the Parque do Ibirapuera. Otherwise, more generally, it might be found in Colombia, in the work of Rogelio Salmona, which is commendable because it has managed to bring about an overlapping of architecture and city without establishing any frontier between them. At a time in which public space is increasingly privatised, these two references from Latin America definitely hold out clues, showing the way to go and the realm to keep exploring.

In the 1970s, which is to say a century after Central Park was first opened, the advent of a new urban machine, the Pompidou Centre, reactivated the debate in the heart of Paris. With the intelligence of their project, the architects, Piano and Rogers, surpassed the mere structural genre to achieve a veritable urban dimension. One can never emphasise enough the fact that this cultural centre, now one of modernity’s cult buildings, didn’t take up the whole site because the aim was to provide room for public space. The form of the outside shell-shaped piazza is an invitation to enter the building whose vestibule is also conceived of as a square. The route continues through the tubular stairway diagonally crossing the façade and leading to a terrace. This exceptional work sealed the deal in 1977 of the inevitable partnership between architecture and city, and opened up the way for a generation of buildings loaded with public space.

Dominique Perrault’s National Library of France would take up the baton twenty years later by wedging an elevated square, accessible by day and by night, into the geometry established by four large towers. After that, the Oslo Opera House confirmed the validity of this generous urban strategy with a project signed by the Snøhetta group and based on an oblique plan in which architecture fuses with the urban reality by creating its own cityscape in the middle of a fjord. In the warmer waters of the port of Marseille, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations designed by Rudy Ricciotti belongs in this category of interface architecture. Here, the “fifth façade” is completely given over to a lofty square set between sea and sky at the end of a route, which is less museum-like than urban, through Fort Saint-Jean.

Still more recently, the Paris Philharmonic Hall in the Parc de la Villette has equally demonstrated that it’s possible to be a musical instrument in the midst of a performance without ever losing contact with the city and, especially, an outlying area of the capital. In Jean Nouvel’s warm homage to Claude Parent, father of “oblique architecture”, public space is prolonged by means of a series of ramps.

Neither should it be forgotten, either, that Lina Bo Bardi conceived one of her masterpieces with the São Paulo Museum of Art. In its formal radicalness, this “port-museum” constructed along Avenue Paulista is raised from the ground in order to free public space, thus providing shade from the sun and shelter from heavy rain. And, also in São Paulo, the Brazilian Sculpture Museum, work of Paulo Mendes da Rocha, is fitted into the site in such a way as to enhance the use of public space. The degree to which culture becomes a driving force of urban dynamics is remarkable.

Along similar lines, these monumental works, these ouvrages d’art and other infrastructures are sometimes able to go beyond strictly functional purposes to become more civil, in the public-spirited sense of urbanity. I refer to Barcelona’s Rambla de Mar by Vilaplana and Piñón, Dietmar Feichtinger’s Simone de Beauvoir footbridge in Paris, and the New York High Line designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. All of these examples confirm that the idea of the “route” is as important as the structure itself. And Marc Mimram’s Rabat viaduct doesn’t contradict this argument in any way since it shows how it can be much more than a bridge. This is also the case of the Galata Bridge in Istanbul which, being of the two-level type, is a perfect example of the question of whether to cross it or to linger.

In keeping with present-day logic which calls for interchangeable functions, one sees the rise of another kind of bridge in Europe: the “bridge-square”, among them the footbridge by Carme Pinós in Petrer (Spain), the square by Sergi Godia and Berta Barrio which is built over the motorway in Sant Adrià de Besòs (Spain), and the future new bridge of Bordeaux designed by Rem Koolhaas. “Bridges are extended words,” says the poet Julien Blaine. Here, “link” is a key word, in keeping with the thesis that the place creates the link.

This brings us to the gist of the matter: linking-up. Public space is the place of connecting, which may be through Wi-Fi or by means of physical space. A “smart city” without spatial quality couldn’t be welcoming and it couldn’t be sustainable. It’s clear that potentiality is the basic idea and the diversity of settings would situate it above design, not to mention what is “over-designed”. At times space seems to be excessively filled with objects, especially when they aren’t an integral part of the spatial concept. The exact opposite occurs in Ripoll with “La Lira” theatre designed by RCR Arquitectes, or in front of Reims cathedral with the “topographical” work of José Ignacio Linazasoro.

Similarly, the transformation of great thoroughfares like avinguda Diagonal in Cerdà’s Barcelona, or Champs Elysées in Haussmann’s city —and here one must recall Godard’s À bout de souffle, when Jean Seberg is selling the New York Herald Tribune on the wide spaces of the famous boulevard— reveals a European tendency in favour of reducing the impact of the car in public space. And, in Marseille, Norman Foster’s Grande Ombrière, which is so attractive that it’s become a selfies trap, was unable to conceal the mutation undergone by Le Vieux Port after Michel Desvigne’s landscaping. From a bird’s-eye view, it seems that nothing has changed even though all the functions have been reversed: more space for the pedestrian and less for cars.
 
“I work for the pedestrian, not the aviator,” wrote Fernand Pouillon in his Mémoires d'architecte. He, who constructed in Le Vieux Port, is also author of the famous Point-du-Jour in Boulogne-Billancourt where, in the 1960s, his commission was to organise 2,260 housing units around a set of public spaces. And, here, today’s obsession with security with its succession of walls and passwords hasn’t prevailed thanks to the architect’s generosity. Yet another example to follow.

Francis Rambert │ Translation by Julie Wark