Monday, April 30, 2012

There's something about Public Space

South Miami Farmers' Market in front of City Hall

Perhaps it’s a sense that one has a right to be there.  Perhaps it’s the knowledge that everyone has equal footing and that the social contract is forged by the community, not dictated by a landlord.  So everyone can stand up and breathe in their inalienable rights.  That’s a bit dangerous when you think about it.  What’s it like to have everyone feel they are entitled to do what they want - within the law, of course.  We expect people to act responsibly among their peers according to a shared set of social standards that we all learn as we grow up.  Police intervene only in extreme situations.
Shopping malls are private space.  They imitate publicness, but the rules are tighter so the space feels cloistered and safe.  Parents allow their teenagers to hang at the mall, because they trust security guards to keep the kids out of trouble - mall security in loco parentis.   In this sense, the mall offers an immature version of urban life, like a city with training wheels for those who are not quite grown up yet.  A mall is to the city, as Facebook is to the open web. 
Likewise the architecture of malls is immature.  Focused on shopping, malls are carefully designed to guide people, so every view they take in encounters something to see, which they might buy.  This narrow goal produces manipulative design that serves the city only as far as it must to gain acceptance.  Like the teenagers they attract, malls turn inward, away from the city, usually without depth, complexity or maturity.
So when do we get to grow up?  Where can we be full, responsible members of a complete community, free to cruise the street and cruise the web?   Where do we find mature architecture that treats us with grace, subtlety, and respect?  
Perhaps only by embracing the complexity of city streets and parks and plazas can buildings and people with many purposes interact with each other on the multiple levels of life.  That’s where design can act fully, humanely, and poetically.  The rest is just advertising.


  1. Some malls have streets which simulate real streets, but do not function as such. They turn their backs on real streets, because they don't see it as something of value. They don't seem to welcome those who come by transit, or bike. Most of their tenants are national retailers, with same things sold from Texas to Alaska. Maybe they are mirrors of ourselves and our shallow, consumerist culture?

  2. Very inspiring article Ms. Read. I agree with you 100% that architecture must have a sort of public space around it in order for its function to always keep changing throughout the day. If its an office building that wont be interacted with after 5:00pm, then if it had a nice plaza or public space in front that connected with some other public space then it would work at all times.