TECHNE 19 (2020): The public space

Public space and the contemporary city. A narrative of places, time, relationships

Emilio Faroldi
Dipartimento di Architettura, Ingegneria delle Costruzioni e Ambiente Costruito, Politecnico di Milano, Italia
Published May 5, 2020
How to Cite
Faroldi, E. (2020). Public space and the contemporary city. A narrative of places, time, relationships. TECHNE - Journal of Technology for Architecture and Environment, (19), 9-16.


The reconfiguration of the post-modern city promotes the public space as a place of excellence for material, social and sensorial exchange, restoring the primitive and noble taste of a sphere aimed at collective practice, an ideological model of lifestyles, and a recognised narrative form of evolution and growth of the city.

This space, at the moment, in search of an intimate new identity, is attempting to regain the meanings attributed to it in the past within the Italian cultural context, i.e. urban archetype, meeting space, symbol of the most significant social nuclei; and a geographical, organisational, morphological centre of the city, or a nodal element of its natural module of growth and reading.

Architecture has the task of transforming the immaterial entity of dialogue and socialisation into the material layout of squares, the stones of public spaces, and the streets and districts of cities. Architecture translates the collective consensus into forms and spaces, identifying the theatre in which people spend most of their active existence. The public space is a place of dialogue, read and interpreted as a form of comparison, an absolute context of expression of the city’s culture and of a society that is increasingly easy in terms of communication.

The morphological, functional, and organisational criteria of the open space are no longer deciphered as a negative sphere in the urban fabric but elected as a generating element. These aspects once again characterise the main proposals for transformation of the most emblematic urban systems of Europe, giving the square the role of amplifying the values and contradictions of an architecture that is no longer monodirectional from a linguistic and functional point of view.

The forms of construction and use of public space, the blurred boundaries between the private and public spheres of a situation where places for work, homes and spaces for social interaction interpenetrate, and question the definitions themselves while acknowledging their multiplicity and complexity.

The public space through its architectural soul, services, and variables related to safety, usability and comfort, identify the indicators of highest incidence in relation to the quality of the urban context. It represents a cultural value par excellence, both in historical cities, where it is part of the relationship between the characteristics of the architectural heritage and the processes of its enhancement, and in the context of new interventions, within which, the collective space itself becomes the collector and condenser of the main energies of a place.

Environmental protection, health and safety, mobility and accessibility to services, to which the strategies for a consistent physical densification of presences are now added: these values embody the centrality of new emerging needs, ending up being configured as essential rights of proper planning.

The concept of accessibility of public space, its tendency towards total fruition, must and will have to innervate the multiple sectors of the individual levels of the local government. Environmental and urban planning and design, culture, training, mobility, psycho-physical well-being, technological innovation, work and security are the essential cornerstones aimed at ensuring a widespread diffusion of places and flows.

The positive influence generated by the collective space pervades the perception of the quality of life and the consequent physical and psychological well-being of people in the confined and open anthropised spaces. Public space once again becomes a sphere of identity and a meeting place, faithful to the need to articulate the urban structure and diversify the practices that manifest themselves in it.

In some situations, the regenerative path of spaces is the result of a unitary process, while in others it represents the sum of individual and targeted actions, aimed at pursuing results in the spheres of accessibility, technological evolution, and mobility, by means of a logic that pursues an easy relational capacity and a consistent practice of socialisation.

The level of quality of life, in relation to the urban environment, is introduced through the evaluation of the advantages and opportunities to which each citizen can aspire, especially considering aspects related to the services present and their degree of permeability, the economic sustainability generated and the social equity resulting from these lines of action.

The United Nations highlights the important role of open public spaces, emphasising the value of design on a human scale, with configurations of places able to strengthen cohesion, inclusion and sharing, thus promoting cooperation between stakeholders and those responsible for the governance of the territory. Public space coincides with the space of collective life in which different complex social groups converge, and their differences are highlighted and enhanced.

The architecture of the future must be characterised by a growing participation of users in the organisational and formal definition of public space: certainly not for morphological issues – we defend our profession – but in order to define a framework of demands and performance that monitors the relevance and usefulness of solutions.

In this sense, there are two polarisations, opposite to each other, that can deal with the decision-making practice. On the one hand, a deterministic and centralistic vision sees the political decision-maker and the professional as an essential combination, sufficient for making a decisive, lasting mark on the fabric of the city by introducing ideas and concepts resulting from the dialogue between these two actors. On the other, a sort of extended Placemaking, based on a practice of shared design of public spaces, was already theorised in the 1970s by the “Project for Public Space (PPS)” movement arising the experience of several activists such as Jane Jacobs, William White, Jane Addams and others. This practice, which has involved more than 50 countries throughout the world, invites the inhabitants to collectively re-imagine and reconfigure the city starting from public space, taken as the “beating heart” of the city and delegated to formulate the identity of the place in favour of an entire community.

The public space is to be understood as a collective spatiality confined within the edges of the built area and beyond, which then creeps into the urban layout and also lurks in the essential semi-public parts of the project: the courtyards, private gardens and the spaces around residential buildings. It is a dynamic and fluid element without solutions of continuity, a moving environment that leads us to a temporal reading of the places designed, and the activities that take place within them.

Acting on the identity and morphological-spatial reconfiguration of voids and the performance and environmental requirements of open space means intervening on the landscape, urban and otherwise, which Italian and European culture identifies as the primary cultural asset on which to base any action of transformation, protection and enhancement of design instances.

Public space is a primary factor in the city, and can compose and organise, giving meaning and order to the main activities of social life: «On the other hand, conceiving of the foundation of the city by primary elements is, in my opinion, also the only possible rational law; that is, the only extraction of a logical principle in the city to continue it» (Rossi, 1966).

Today, encouraging a debate about the reconstruction of public space means tending towards the creation of conditions for the moral and civic rebirth of the community, entrusting to the city — and its extraordinary capacity for welcoming, sharing and sociality — the role of gauging an urban democracy of which public space is the backbone. The most representative meaning of this is in the shape of the square, elevated in literature to a social and anthropological space which, going beyond its nominalistic and physical meaning, becomes a place of convergence of relational and emotional tensions.

At its origin is the need to offer opportunities for meetings, exchanges of knowledge, experiences, and the implementation of a project for common growth. The square is the extreme purpose of setting up a representative area of the customs and practices of a community, pointing out the founding reasons of aggregative will, and the aims to be achieved collectively.

Starting from the original matrix, it is known that the square is not only identified as a physical place. It represents the mirror reflection of the culture of a community, a living organism, since «it welcomes the innovations linked to the spirit of an era before other urban places» (Pisani, 1990). In the square, physicality and immateriality, transit flows and currents of thought are intertwined: it is the privileged place of encounter, dialogue, and social exchange, able to make up for the physical vacuity that often connotes its spatiality.

This semantic versatility is confirmed by Italo Calvino (1972) when he states that «[…] every time you enter the square, you find yourself in the middle of a dialogue», a social and cultural dialogue that springs from the possibility represented by the public place to host the unfolding of social life, evoking the collective identity of a community.

For a century, architects, urban planners and historians have complained about the «death of the square», an end characterised by the difficulty of comparison between the reasons of social modernisation and the historical form of the square and of experiencing it. Its functional matrix has seen the places under examination progressively suppressed by the static or dynamic occupation of cars, as well as physical and visual media, altering the conditions that have made the square the vital centre of the historic city for centuries. These factors have never disappeared, but were simply transferred into other polarities, more domestic or in places with a more markedly recognisable and often multiple functionality, so as to ensure a mixture of uses certainly close to the contemporary need to save time.

The debate on the loss of the centre has been fuelling urban planning and urban composition for years: there are those who accept it as a modern form that supports the expansion of the forma urbis towards the shapeless suburbs, and those who counteract this trend by means of redevelopment and reconversion actions aimed at reshaping space according to contemporary ways of living.

The socio-cultural rebirth corresponds to a re-birth of the concept of open space, which identified the Middle Ages as the epicentre of the culture of the square. People faithfully observed the practice of urban pauses, during which they gathered near the monuments, as Paolo Portoghesi (Pisani, 1990) says, allowed them to breathe.

At this time of radical social transformation, the square acquired the role of urban instrumentation, of compositional means of choice for a surgical redevelopment of the urban fabric. In evolutionary terms, the reorganisation of the urban layout that took place in the nineteenth century determined the violence of the genetic nature of the square and the imposition of a functional vocation that was never innate to its origin: the urban pause.

This is a consolidated concept that can be traced back to the evident indifference towards the design of open public space manifested in the Modern Movement: it is as representative for the rationalist culture and the technological dimension acquired, as much as it is detached from the value of the square as a spatial element. The myth of functionalism and the construction technique revolution opened up new worldviews in the 1920s, expressed in polemical attitudes and utopian sentiments.

The past is held up for its lack of lasting values, in favour of the exaltation of a mechanical and technological purism that can be made tangible in artefacts with a clear value of use: the identification of a productive function of free and open spaces is difficult and of no interest to the new modernist dogmas. In this way, there is a substantial division with significant relational consequences between full and empty spaces: buildings and public space separate each other.

The architectures, freed from the corridor road, are transformed into scientifically functional volumes in their morphological characters, oriented according to conforming codes, investigated in the details of distribution and in the figure of the individual housing units. The urban void, first forged by buildings into streets and squares, becomes a prisoner of zoning, of the standard, of ethereal relationships between purist masses that communicate with each other or, even more so, that relate to a distant landscape whose measure is lost.

The development of a line of thought aimed at a critical review of modernist dogmas, observed in Italy since the 1950s, sanctioned the revision of the rationalist lesson also on the urban scale: the result is a slow, constant recovery of the historical memory of the square, and its counterparts, as a central node for the redevelopment of the existing city and the design of a new city.

The post-war condition, characterised by the theme of reconstruction and the treatment of the large voids forcibly created also within the historical city, highlights with great energy the cultural crossroads on which some reflections can be based.

The 8th CIAM congress, convened in London in 1951, addressed the problem of the city’s nucleus: in this context, the definition of urban space proposed by J.L. Sert appears to anticipate a topical condition. The city is born in its public spaces, in those areas he defines as empty spaces: in them resides the heart of the city, the latter understood as the real urban condition (Sert, 1952).

“Squares, agoras, and amphitheatres in the open air represent, from this moment on, the desperate attempt use an autonomous, artificial and separately constructed element to stop the inevitable tendency towards dispersion and isolation that modern architecture seems to fatally tend towards” (de Solà-Morales, 2001).

The lack of continuity of attention to the architecture of the square has prevented the formulation of a common perspective: this lack has led many designers of the current scene to devote themselves to individual research looking for tangible opportunities for experimentation. This shows a fruitful willingness to investigate, which at the same time imposes new and different interpretations each time and demonstrates the difficulty of defining a shared orientation for the redevelopment of the urban structure.

In a scenario in which the operational rules and planning tools are expressed with great indecision, what appears extremely clear is the need to give back to public space the value of structure, of focus of the urban fabric, of a connecting hinge between private life and public function, and of an instrument that can regenerate a weak and sadly optional civic consciousness.

In this way, a process of typological and structural metamorphosis of the open space is affirmed, which progressively replaces the physical recognition of the square as an enclave with residual spaces, places of traffic and places of consumption: an abrasion also of the territory that devalues the historically consolidated semantics, generating a dynamic of identification of the socialisation space – not through the specification of physical canons, but through the recognition of the flows and relationships that it generates. In this sense, the square, understood as a place of transit, subverts its original nature: along with its endogenous function, defined by a process of formation connected and enslaved to a specific building or function, the contemporary square is replaced because it is a place where flows converge, renouncing a peculiar destination and welcoming in itself a new multiplicity of meanings (Favole, 1995).

The plurality of uses and functions to which the square must respond decentralises the current reflection on the evident need to associate changing functional destinations with different squares, adjacent to each other and well thought out. Talking about a system of squares – or of public space as a system – becomes an essential operation: a sort of functional attribution, defined in accordance with an overall project, which envisions the complexity of the intervention in the definition of the individual, and vice versa.

This design strategy creeps into a systemic conception of public space, absolutely relevant in the new urban conformation, which consists of nodes and flows. It brings to completion a network of squares similar to those that the building processes of the past effectively proposed and implemented through the juxtaposition of urban blocks, giving them logical continuity. Set upon by the anonymous symbols of a widespread globalisation and characterised by a constant loss of functional meaning, open spaces translate the reliable measure of the degeneration of values, hierarchies, and symbols into spatial images.

Places of commerce are turning into actual attractions and socialising poles, increasingly abstract from the context and responding to apparently random dispositive dynamics. Indeed, contemporary structures hardly manage to maintain a recognisable urban form for long, and this prevents the formulation of long-term strategies.

The addition of these and other reasons led planners and designers to approach the theme of the square, and more generally the city’s open spaces, through two dichotomous attitudes. On the one hand, a tendency to limit the concept of open space to a simplistic operation of superficial window-dressing through actions that can be summarised in the concept of street furniture, often by falsifying already limited objectives. On the other hand, is the habit of dealing with the theme of the square by means of logic attributable to the family of large urban infrastructures and delegating them as simple elements of passage and sorting nodes.

In this context, it seems logical that the square, which is designed in terms of redevelopment of the existing or new intervention, must respond to the need to identify and enhance «spaces “between things” that are significant because they are equally used by those who live there, whether they are places and provide opportunities for meeting, attendance and “aggregation”» (Secchi, 1993).

The void thus becomes the bearer of a multiplicity of meanings, not only because of the memorial and identifying value it assumes in sociological terms, but also because materially and physically it manifests itself as the place of penetrability, possibility and flexibility, giving rise to unexplored design potential (Espuelas, 2004).

The design of the public space represents, in its depth, the design of a landscape. In other words, it is an interaction between things that establishes a connection between what exists and what is in progress, in a continuous growth of multiscale relationships and dynamics, within an overall project of common space.

In such a scenario, open green space plays an increasingly important role in the process of territorialisation of the sustainable city, no longer conceived as a transposition of natural space within the urban fabric, but as a place of activity, a new square in the leisure society. The functions of green areas, their new horizons of use, in relation to the opportunities linked to urban sustainability, represent design scenarios of primary importance, aimed at contributing to the improvement of leisure time usage as an area not of waste, but rather central to the citizen’s quality of life.

The city changes with unexpected speed: its spaces become victims of abandonment, redesign, redevelopment and epochal addition. Logics of temporary urbanism, favoured by the weakness of previous urban policies, which have given way to urban uncertainties that are often visible and verifiable: these restore importance to the human dimension as the central soul of the project, a true barometer of the widespread perception of uncertainty that engages modern society.

It follows that the action of designing a space intended for the community cannot disregard the involvement of figures capable of becoming bearers of widespread knowledge who are able to incorporate, across the board, environmental, technological, physical-technical, anthropological, and sociological reasons in the propositional activity.

A public space must not only be able to impose order on «the spaces that constructive density and functional diversification make it difficult to reconcile» (Espuelas 2004), but it has a profound reason linked to its role as an activator of social flows. It is a space that, deprived of its own function, therefore in the absence of users, loses its deep meaning of connective tissue.

Consider, for example, the musings of Peter Zumthor, from one of his 2003 notebooks, when he tells of a morning sitting in a square in the sunshine, trying terminologically to define the added value that he acknowledged in that space, and identifying it in the atmosphere as an element of emotional perception. Public space is made of people, men and women, society: in this recent period of forced physical confinement and prohibition of free access to public spaces, this assumption seems to us to be absolute.

The square is a synthesis of the convergence of flows, relational exchanges and emotions. It is a meeting of visions and visuals, a place where points converge. It is the result of the urban area that surrounds it and qualifies it, but it is always an individual space, which cannot disregard a subjective reading. It can only be guided by excellent design and disposition that is able to correctly channel the visitor’s perception towards the sensibility that he or she follows the most.

«Given the semantic and operational scarceness of public spaces in responding to the increasingly urgent need to provide different spaces for a changing society, the aim is no longer merely to build an effective urban form, but to investigate the relationships between mobility, collective spaces and private spaces» (Aymonino, 2008).

«Architecture is the fixed scene of man’s events; charged with feelings of generations, public events, private tragedies, and new and ancient occurrences. The collective element and the private element, society and the individual, stand both separately and combined in the city, which is made up of many small beings who seek their own settlement, and together with this, one with this, their own small environment which is more suited to the general environment» (Rossi, 1966).

Architecture is the subject of the dialogue. Public space and public architecture define architecture in its highest essence. A pulsating architecture of stratifications and relationships that form the life-blood of the city, determining the evolution of its shape and the shaping of its use: the square and the collective space define the primary places where public events and private experiences meet each day.

Public space interprets movement, time and change, because public space is never the same as itself, but is the expression of a continuous revolution and a repeated change: a narrative structure, a time of storytelling and experience that, while marking different episodes, varies its nature according to the themes encountered.

Contemporary life promotes the development of a dynamic public space, as a key connecting element between experiences: a unique opportunity to reactivate social flows, coagulating in itself the salient moments of collective life, including cultural exchange, the market, transit, play, but also rest, a time of meeting and contemplation.

It is an entity that will increasingly have to consolidate space, reconnect places, share time, qualify rest, and strengthen relationships.


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