The private aspect of public space

space appropriation

the private aspect of public space
Dr. Ami Ran

The term ‘appropriation’ usually carries negative connotations, especially when speaking of public property usurped by private, commercial or political bodies. This article is not about robbing agricultural lands; not about expropriation - with or without the blessing of the authorities; not about preventing access to the beach - with or without the support of the underworld; not the blocking of roads for religious reasons or merely for appearing important; not the local, regional or national master-plans attempting to dictate the market forces for political interest; not the Bedouin sitting on every free spot in the Negev for lack of any (democratic) force to stop them; not the “hilltop” youth settling in the valleys as well, for ideology or against it; not the lackadaisical water policy that is drying up the country and its inhabitants; and not the marinas intended only for the extremely well-off. And, to make things clearer - we detest any nasty act of appropriation which is irreversible.

The discussion proposed here, then, deals with affirmative appropriation activities, ones that contribute to the dynamic enrichment of the built environment.

The point of departure is the incessant struggle among all the architectural users for control over the in-between spaces. This struggle is a cornerstone of ‘dialectic materialism’ - a basic term in the Marxist approach claiming that the components of the environment, by struggling with each other, affect the way in which the world is perceived.

The relation between this idea and public space was dealt with by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who developed the theory of ‘habitus’ to explain the spatial aspect of social struggles. Bourdieu argued that the existence of a socio-spatial ‘field’ was dependent on the existence of ‘interested parties’ and ‘objects of struggle’ (P. Bourdieu, “Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action”, 1994).

The argument suggested here is that every socio- spatial struggle entails space appropriation. And in turn, that every act of appropriation, whether it is legitimate, moral or normative, is a key factor in the urban space, particularly in the ways it is experienced.

Prof. Bill Hillier, the developer of the theory of Spatial Syntax and currently head of Bartlett, claims that there is no mystery behind the term ‘urbanism’. Urban space is space in use. The use of open space, to Hillier’s mind, is the essence of the relations between architecture and its synergetic product - urbanity.
The importance of usage in urban space serves also as the foundation for the theory of Defensible Space, which categorically advocates space appropriation as vital to consolidating the community’s safety (Oscar Newman, 1972). The idea is that acts of appropriation require the presence of residents in the desolated public space, while other residents are at work during the day.

Research done in this area at Illinois University has recently found that when residents appropriate the space bordering on their homes, they feel a greater sense of responsibility toward the public space, and this improves affinities within the community (William C. Sullivan, Dept. of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois).

Such ideas are also supported by Chinese geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, who contends that space attains urban significance when it requires constant definition of the user. To illustrate his claim he uses the picturesque example of Goethe who described the encounter between people in space through split-second encounters of balls on a billiard table.

To hone the connection between this picturesque situation and architecture, one may consider the relationship which develops in the marketplace between buyers and sellers, and between them and the place. If architecture is the one that provides the arena, then the event - including acts of appropriation, is the one to lend the place its unique character. Like jewels on a woman's neck, china on a shelf, pictures on the wall, stalls in the market streets, cafes on the town square, street vendors, flower sellers, and even advertisement billboards.

If we use the billiard table as the simile, we can extract a number of rules that characterize, in fact, every creative urban activity.

The first rule is that the deployment of the “balls” is never known, and is totally random.

The second rule is that every new situation is affected by the previous one, and in turn it will affect the next situation.

The third principle is that what enables the balls to move freely is the vacant table.

The fourth is that when the game is over, you clear the table and it’s always ready for the next game. The table may get old and scratched. Sometimes it’s repainted and parts changed. But as long as you can play a new game, it remains suitable for interaction.

Appropriation may be seen, then, as a positive factor of public space. The question is: when does this act venture away from the rules of the game? According to the rules extracted from the billiard table, one can surmise that as long as the appropriation is temporary and transient, it may enrich and consolidate the common space. In other words, as long as one may, at the end of the day, clear the table and enable new activity, this may grant the open space content that will enrich it as the arena for interaction.

On the other hand, appropriation activities that perpetuate themselves unilaterally cancel out the potential to operate freely and democratically in space. Disastrous examples for appropriation of this sort are abundant at the beginning of the article, and there seems to be no argument about the damage each of them causes the public space in particular, and the society that accepts them without blinking an eyelash.

The question remains: may one include in this list appropriation of a mental nature? Since this is merely a rhetorical question, the answer is of course - yes. And there are many of this sort. An example of irreversible appropriation carrying also mental implications is the high-rise housing that absolutely takes over the sky-line - albeit legitimately - blocking a free view of the scenery and even the sunrays.

An example more mental in essence is the newly-rich houses that developed in the build-your-own-home neighborhoods in many parts of the country during the 80s and 90s. Regarding this architecture, one can only say that it appropriates not only the character of the public space for the sake of the ego of new home-owners, but also does so to eternity, thus leaving no room for other acts of appropriation.

If we compare, for example, this type of building to the community settlements being built nowadays, we can conclude that the almost dogmatic, formal moderation does grant greater leeway to random appropriation - such that does not enforce itself on the space for a long period of time.

Indeed, space appropriation is an important factor in the symbiotic relation between the private and the public. It is a dynamic variable creating ever renewing tension between the architecture which provides the court, and the individuals moving in and between it. When they operate harmoniously, they create urbanism. When disharmoniously - disturbanism.

illustrations ahead

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