the juxtaposition of two holes
June 16, 2010, 4:52 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: ,

In the following paragraph, there are two visions of how we live and occupy our environments publicly.  The first is a ‘left over’ vision that has us milling about in streets, vestigial, undesigned, shopping, getting here and there.  The second is the iconic monumental space that has become more an empty symbol than a real place of public engagement.

The European architect characteristically wants a way out of the limitations and stifling hierarchies imposed on him by his built environment.  And the North American planner longs for a public realm that will allow him escape from his private life which has more or less overtaken him.  Their visions quite accurately describe how we live today:  in North America, we live our public lives in places that are designed for something else – commerce, transport; and in Europe we live in places that were once, a long time ago, designed for collective engagement but have long since lost their vital, proper meaning.

Interestingly, and to provide some context, Roberto Unger, the author and a professor of law, is scolding a panel of luminary design professionals who he moderated in a discussion about public space at Harvard University.  Half way through the discussion, he decided his panel was smart but shockingly passive.  The professionals, to a person, saw their roles in society as merely meeting the briefs of their clients.  Money talks.  No vision.

Both ideas are either spent or empty or both and the author calls for a new program that isn’t passive or fatalistic.  It seems two things confound us:  our passivity and our false imagination.  The power given up to bankers and owners have made us passive; and the spaces longed for, and the activity of longing, compromise our effectiveness to make the cities we need right now in today’s world, says Unger.

Here is the excerpt from Unger’s essay:

So the little hope comes down to this:  the penumbral space where the distinction between private and public breaks down, without anything very much happening as a result, and the vestigial icons that enable us to fantasize about what we have usually managed to get rid of.  This duo is not a program; it is the juxtaposition of two holes.  Neither can fill the other up.  Rem Koolhaas, as a European, is happy to find in New York some release from the obsessional hierarchies and control mechanisms of European civilization.  George Baird, as a North American, wants a larger civic stage on which we inhabitants of the New World can escape our unavailing privatism.  The American looks to the European past, and the European to the American present.  They have both failed, as have we all, to recognize how the iconic and the anti-iconic spaces they respectively prize join to preempt the role of a transformative, democratic vision in our thinking about buildings and cities.

-Roberto Unger, Overcoming Defeatism in the Making of Public Space


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