Private and Public Space

5.End Result

Growth Is the Engine of Change — LNV (2000)

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The tradition of western urbanism may be summed by two concepts: the classical and the vernacular. The former term has been so misused that it may render the proposition either nonsensical, or incomprehensible to most of us. Yet, embracing this basic distinction between two different modes of building is fundamental for managing the growth of our cities. Detroit City filing for bankruptcy in the summer of 2013 presents the alternative. Faced with pending crisis, and famously phrased by Canadian critic Northrope Frye, we must learn to “distinguish where we cannot divide.” (open cit.)

At the origin of the urban project lies a fundamental question about intent: do we mean to make a building or design a city? These are two modes of cultural expression, as well as two types of economic structuring.

The use of language is problematic. A better opposition of terms may be ‘monumental’ and ‘vernacular’; or ‘timeless’ and ‘of its time’. Of course, with the term ‘monumental’ we engage the problem of Modernism, of the private building achieving ‘monumental’ scale with the advent of the elevator and steel frame structures. Luxembourg urbanist Léon Krier references the vernacular to the tectonic way of building and to the private realm. The classical he ascribes to the symbolic and public construction. The distinction draws on neither social, nor material values since all of us participate in public and private life. Rather, it points to a fundamental difference: The articulation of the private and public spheres with vernacular and classical types. These concepts bring into sharp focus the necessity to build two cities side by side at one and the same time: the collective and the individual; the monumental and the urban; the public and the private; the universal and the local.

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Krier-public-private

The True City — Léon Krier (1985)

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The challenge is getting the balance right. In every era, every city and every neighbourhood must distinguish between private profits and the public good. They must find the balance point between the few ‘public’ places sufficient to support social functioning amid the vastness of the ‘private’ quartier home to everyone’s everyday private affairs.

We see this distinction clearly present in urban platting. The street is the site of private life and the square or ‘urban room’ the locus of the public, communal activity and symbolic expression. Both streets and squares make up the public realm, yet the number of streets far outnumbers the number of squares. Furthermore, each one supports a different level and quality of social functioning. Thus, the center should be an open and public place supporting high levels of social mixing. The periphery should maintain contact between neighbours supporting day-to-day activities closest to home.

Of course the terms ‘classical’ and ‘vernacular’ have been greatly misappropriated in our age making the task of articulating this difference that much more difficult.

For example, ‘classical music’ more often references the music publishing industry, and the licensing of a canon, than any specific mode of music making and performance. The classical has come to stand for the publication and distribution of music products more than music performance and the process of its making. Similarly, folk, pop, jazz and traditional music genres aiming for the vernacular mode of expression have been dominated by the recording industry for nearly a century. The result has been a blurring of the line separating cultural consumption and the commodification of products for mass distribution. You get what you pay for.

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1923 Picasso

“Buste de femme, les bras levés” (1922); “Pipes of Pan” (1923) — Picasso

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In the last century one painter was purported to have had a classical period. It was Picasso during the time in his life that coincided with the run up to the 1929 Wall Street crash. An economic bubble that enveloped the entire western sphere. While the pictorial invention of the Spanish painter remained consistently strong and stunning throughout his life, the subject matter of the so-called classical period more often resembled people engaged in leisure activities wearing underwear, or the Venus shown complete with arms (but not knowing how to pose them), than any image of a collective ideal of the perfectibility of human nature.

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Villa.Savoye

Villa Savoye, Poissy-sur-Seinne — Le Corbusier (1929-31)

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In the end ascribing to Picasso a classical period amounts to confusing events in the life of one individual with the events in the historical development  of the community. A classical period is being used to sell the work of a single artist, rather than to symbolize an epochal achievement in society as a whole. It becomes transparently clear that what we are witnessing is the positioning of a product in the art market, rather than a new development in the life of the people in the north-western Mediterranean. In that same period and place the Corbusian villas were likened to a ‘classical modernism’ in architecture. Yet, both the villas and the canvases were more like products made for private consumption by an elite clientele than the expression of a new form of public life.

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1927 model vehicle

1927 model car — shown driving in an unidentified urban setting.

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The hubris that accompanied the economic boom of the 1920s gave way to totalitarian regimes in Europe and to the creation of mass markets in the Americas. In both cases the hegemony turned to the domination of public space. The eastern totalitarian regimes followed Picasso’s lead and produced a chunky and lifeless classicism. Targeting mass markets the automobile industry in the west flaunted the ‘dumbing down’ of our culture. By the 1950s the appropriation of symbols and meanings was complete as the industry rolled out model names like, “Commander, Thunderbird, Bel Air, Golden Hawk, Fury and Impala.” These names returned as Google hits for the search string “Detroit Classics” during the week following that city’s filing for the largest legal bankruptcy in the U.S. (22 July 2013).

Seen from the vantage point of the digital revolution, the printing press (1450) triggered a new level of understanding and self-awareness in the west. Publishing hastened the use of the vernacular over the Latin (classical) language, increasing the currency of new ideas, and breaking down the barriers and divisions between the personal and public spheres. However, the same revolution that wrested power away from the few returning it to the hands of the many also triggered a crisis in social functioning. Liberating the wealth of the western tradition from private hands necessitated a new organization of the collective to ensure someone was minding the store with the best interest of the community in mind.

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The Urban Quartier

The Quartier — LNV (2000)

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The renewed interest in building ‘good’ communities today—a rekindling of interest in the meaning and making of place—carries the DNA of a new modern age. With digital media leveraging the dissemination of knowledge in an unprecedented manner we are empowered to make better decisions in the construction and management of cities, neighbourhoods and quartiers.

The opportunity for the reformulation of the structure and functioning of our society is once more at hand. Keeping two modes of cultural expression in clear distinction will help us to navigate the choices between individual and shared values of community and values of place. We must understand once more that the greatest number of buildings in a district or quartier must function in the background, quietly shaping the public real. Only in a few key places should the community aspire to erect monumental expressions of place celebrating the life of the community, sustaining social functioning, and marking the uniqueness of that one special site.

We cannot build ‘good’ urbanism entirely of either public or private fabric. Good urbanism results from achieving the right balance in each place between monumental expression and background construction. We cannot pick one at the exclusion of the other. When cities have been built entirely in the name of social justice they became dominated by despots. When cities have been built giving too much control to private, corporate interest the result has been either the bland, sprawling suburbanism, or the anonymous downtown cast in constant shadow where towers appropriate the monumental scale for private purposes.

We look to each society and every community to find and maintain its own point of balance between the public and the private; the classical and vernacular; monumental and background; public investment and private gain.

 

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