Experiments in Public Freedom

Cities are spatial accumulations of capital and culture that can host and must cater to a vast array of different and often contradictory publics. While public space can be easily conceptualized and designed in response to congruent publics, the incongruency found in cities presents a different challenge: cities require public spaces capable of enabling non-hegemonic identities and events. Due to their role and meaning in constructing and defining cities’ public realm, public spaces are expected to embody a well-defined character and gravitas. However, due to the diversity of publics, these spaces must engage with temporary, overlapping, and often-contradictory sensibilities and occupations. The design question that emerges is how to conceptualize and design public space that embodies a non-hegemonic character and gravitas?

This design theory seminar presents an amalgamation of views from different perspectives (architecture, art, landscape architecture, urban design) that coalesce around six spatial conditions helpful in conceptualizing and designing spaces that promote cultural diversity, social acceptance, and individual spontaneity. Through this amalgamation, this course explores containment, neutrality, blankness, normalcy, anarchy, and amnesia as conditions that can open up public space.

Despite their potential, these spatial properties are usually underestimated because they seem to lack what is generally considered essential for designing successful public spaces: site-specificity, sensibility to local aesthetics, socio-cultural appropriateness, permanent and fixed identity, etc. It is precisely due to these so-called deficiencies that these spatial properties can be instrumental in imagining spaces that enable constant recirculation of multiple temporary publics rather than permanent forms of regulation, identity, or appropriateness.

The course is composed of six sections, one per spatial condition. Each section comprises a lecture by the instructor around a constellation of references (projects and texts) to be discussed in class. For each section, students are asked to analyze an environment of their choice (building, landscape, open space, etc.) that demonstrates the spatial condition being discussed. At the end of the semester, students assemble these six analyses into a design primer to enable public freedoms.