It seems to me the most important thing I could work on right now is public space and how we produce it. So many of the issues that face us — climate change, racial justice, poverty, social alienation — are tangled up in how we share space and the various ways we compose, construct, or configure it.
As a designer trained as an architect I’m predisposed to immediately start inventing things and finding solutions, but I’ve finally started to understand that there are some pretty fundamental problems with design. Specifically, theres an inadequate model of agency implicit in the idea of designing and embedded in the techniques and practices of design.
I want to unpack some of these techniques and practices to understand this better, but I thought the best place to begin is making six initial assumptions explicit (and signalling a fraction of my debts). So here goes…
Assumption 1: Dissent is as important as consensus for public space. This doesn’t just mean that public space provides a forum within which we might disagree about this or that. The disputability of the forum itself has to be part of its definition. (I learned this particularly from Jacques Rancière, Bonnie Honig, and Sara Ahmed).
Assumptions 2: Public space doesn’t exist by default. It’s not natural or inevitable, but has to be achieved somehow. It also has to be kept going, which is why care and maintenance are so important. (I came to see this by reading Hannah Arendt, Peter Sloterdijk, and Noortje Marres).
Assumption 3: Public space is made up of buildings, organisms, objects, affects, infrastructures, stories, machines, programs, credit facilities, networks, policies, media, archives … To understand public space, we’re going to need some pretty clever charts, diagrams, and travelogues. (Thanks Keller Easterling, Shannon Mattern, and Bruno Latour for making things more difficult).
Assumption 4: Public space isn’t made only by professionals and experts. Public spaces are constantly being made and remade in informal, amateur, ad-hoc, and illicit ways. (I learned this from the anonymous barricaders of Paris, archaeologist Arthur Evans, and from conversations with my friend, artist Layne Waerea)
Assumption 5: Public space and design are culturally-specific and historically-situated conceptsthat need to be relativised. Indigenous understandings of being in a shared world, anticapitalist and decolonising perspectives, and voices from the margins are essential for this. (Among many, thank you Jade Kake, the SOUL Campaign to protect Ihumatao, the Vā Moana research group at AUT University, and Anna Tsing’s mushrooms)
There are probably lots more assumptions I’ve made! For now, I’m writing these down to serve as a reference points marking where I’ve arrived at so far, and where I’m setting out from.