Of Other Public Spaces

(Originally published in Bauwelt #39-40.11, Berlin, 2011)

In Des Espaces Autres, Michel Foucault wrote on other spaces as sites where a sort of heterotopia takes hold. As opposed to the unreal, perfect spaces of utopia, he mapped interconnected places and functions that became the recipients of an anxiety previously focused on time and history. As Foucault suggested, these emplacements are like mirrors of reality.

In a moment of crisis and complexity, however, the multiple mirror effects in these sites lead us to acknowledge heterotopias as heterogeneous spaces where the public and the institutional spheres get blurred and confused. These simultaneously “isolated” and “penetrable,” imperfect public places are exemplified in psychiatric hospitals and prisons where deviant practices are abducted from everyday life.

Foucault spoke as well of spaces “capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”: the theatre, the museum, the library, and the garden. Parallel to these spaces of cultural accumulation, he even referred to heterotopic spaces that celebrate temporariness, as the fairground or the festival.

Today we speak of theme parks or shopping malls as sites that have further complicated the mirror game that heterotopias create in regard to a society and its values at a given moment in time. The new playground that Madrid-based architects SelgasCano have created in the historical city of Mérida is one such case. As it were, a youth center reinterpreted as a playground turns into an intricate heterotopia.

In a moment in which successive riots across the continent violently shatter the normative boundaries separating the common street from private property, such unexpected architectural statement may even drives us to cross-examine the nature of public space in contemporary Europe.

Far from the madding tourist crowd that pours permanently into this ancient Roman outpost and world heritage site, the Factoria Jóven sits in a peripheral neighborhood just outside central Mérida. It is the kind of new, unforeseen architectural program that reflects current structural changes in our society.

As European countries face outrageous youth unemployment rates within its more educated generation ever – from a rising average of around 21% to a shocking rate of 41,6% in Spain, as published by Eurostat for 2010 – municipalities like Mérida now decide to invest on building facilities that cater for the needs of their idle youngsters, rather than addressing only child or senior care. As Foucault intimated, even in a society “where leisure is the rule, idleness is a sort of deviation.” Once the system is not able to offer productive roles to the young, the political thinking behind the Factoria Joven avows that one better have a specific site for them to expend their creative energies.

As known since the advent of youth culture and its Rebels Without a Cause, the alternative would be to have these unoccupied, inconvenient people rummaging through public space, searching for something to destr.., er, to play with – or, at least, looking for an available space in which to express their feelings, their (out)rage, or perhaps simply their boredom and lack of goals. The Factoria Joven can then be seen as a highly positivistic program that found an innovative architectural translation in the proposals of SelgasCano.

For one, the project’s festive nature is cleverly bound to appeal to its young destinataries. The Chinese dragon that offers the building a grand metaphorical form; the colors that give it an extraordinary vibrancy; the off-the-shelf materials that cleverly respond to a condition of everyday vulgaridad (ordinariness) advocated by the architects; and, last but not least, a choice of functions that mimics its users’ typical urban and leisure practices, are all qualities that were ingeniously combined so as to create an ensemble that is both cultured and potentially popular.

However, one of the most outstanding contributions of the architectural proposal – at least regarding the optimistic interpretation of the building’s institutional goals – is also the fact that, through the organization of its different micro-programs, the Factoria Jóven emulates public space, that is, it engages into a curious revision of heterotopic space.

The scheme houses computer and media rooms; it offers spaces for workshops and for dance and music practice; it provides meeting and leisure spaces. These are all organized as enclosed islands within a small undulating archipelago of landscaped and concrete surfaces where teenagers can bike or skateboard. Within this playful, and yet enclosed compound one can also find a wall for graffiti and another for climbing.

As one staff member proudly told me when I visited the grounds in one Spring torrid afternoon, the media room was the only one that, for obvious reasons, had video-surveillance. Recurring to the language of everyday urban practices as a unifying motto – and reconstructing those urban settings that are precisely equated with the supposed idleness of reckless youngsters – the architects provide for a more discerning type of theme park.

In this sense, nonetheless, this space establishes a peculiar contrast with another recent project that also engaged into the reversion of a classical heterotopic space: the Open Air Library, by Karo Architecten. Whereas the project in East Germany turned a typical institutional interior into a truly accessible public space – out of a collaborative effort and a collective sense of trust – the Factoria Jóven turns an alternative urban space into a safe, enclosed zone.

By interiorizing what would normally be a space laying outside institutional control, the project guises the top-down approach with a friendly character that is certainly welcome, but may be also slightly paternalistic. In its meticulous, generous and fresh recreation of a faux public space, the Factoria Jóven succeeds in cunningly engaging its audience with a cool, pop attitude. On the other hand, it addresses the less sunnier side of Foucault’s heterotopic sites: “we think we enter [them], where we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded.” From a Marxist perspective, this playground – and its successful design – would only be contributing to postpone the social problem it is supposed to solve. Yet, one knows that immediate issues have also to be temporarily faced until the conditions arise for a more effective societal change.

This being said, the very temporariness of the Factoria Jóven acquires a distinctive meaning and returns us to the potential of architecture’s political task. While the vox populi initially questioned the investment put into what looked like too much of a transient construction, this position overlooked some relevant issues. The current building discourse in Europe, duly supported by an architectural establishment interested in maintaining its status and income, still claims for an economic sustainability largely based on constructions that are energy-efficient and desirably lasting. As these claims are held up by increasingly rigid regulations, they would seem rational if only they weren’t so untenable vis a vis the current European climate of financial stress. As such, one is prone to reconsider that ephemerality at a considerable lower cost – an economy of means designed to fit its purpose for a limited span of time – arises as a plausible answer while the “society of affluence” is provisionally postponed.

At a time when architects should themselves be calling for new construction to come to a halt, the ephemeral is a possible response – an adequate reply, anyhow, to a consumer society in which turnover cycles are progressively reduced as a form of feeding economical activity, creating jobs and boosting productivity. In Spain, Italy or Portugal the existing built imprint is already excessive for those countries’ needs. So, every building in newly reclaimed land becomes offensive. Reconstruction is, in this condition, suitable. Recycling – as in Factoria Jóven’s furniture or Open Air Library’s facade – is to be welcome. And, ultimately, the temporary is the last acceptable option so as to ensure that architecture still rises to answer current needs and is yet able to invent new hybrid, heterotopic public spaces for our times.

Pedro Gadanho, Lisbon, September 2011

One response to “Of Other Public Spaces

  1. Pingback: Beam me up, Scotty! (Os Idos de Março) | shrapnel contemporary

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