“Sous le pavé- la plage!”, or “Underneath the paving stones – the beach!” was a graffiti painting in Paris, associated with the Situationist International movement that referred to the festivity and creativity that exists underneath the repressive and pacifying order of the society they perceived.
The state of the urban public spaces are these days often under debate. Cities grow and the nature of the city changes, and with them, the functions of the urban spaces change. The public space has in many cities been reduced to shopping arcades or billboard foregrounds. Since you never meet anybody you would like to meet in a public space anyway, what is its function? This change is more than likely to continue over the foreseeable future. Very few of the public squares function as they ideally would. Perhaps the time has come to look at different forms of public spaces. As our public life almost is reduced to shopping, it may be time to ask ourselves whether the public spaces of our time should have another form in order for them to fulfill the functions we associate with public spaces. The functions we associate with public space would be a much longer post, here I will focus on spaces where we meet people and spend time.
There is hardly any inland capital in Europe that has not created some sort of artificial urban beach during the last summers. First out, in Europe, was, quite suitably, Paris, where the mayor had a beach created along the Seine in 2002. This was done primarily for all the people who had to spend the summer in the city. It was a huge success and has been repeated every year since. Other European capitals have also created beaches of their own, Dublin, Berlin, Budapest, and there was for a short while even one on a small parking space in east London.
I believe it was Reyner Banham who referred to the beach as the last public space in LA, referring to Venice Beach and Santa Monica. To a certain extent, the same could be said for Barcelona or Rio De Janeiro. The beach is the space where we spend our spare time, not in the square. The beach is where we meet people and socialise.
What is really so fascinating about the beaches is the ease with which an urban space is re-programmed. Through pouring a few tonnes of sand on otherwise abandoned asphalt, a completely different urban space is created. An urban space with its own rules that do not apply outside the sand box. Through this simple act, a space is created that does not reduce the visitor to consumer or spectator, which most of what we call public space does these days. The set of rules and roles that we normally associate with our city do not apply any more. A new set of rules and the roles we play are clearly defined by the sand. Your primary function as a human being is no longer to consume products or experiences, but rather that of being. Beaches have been associated with leisure for the last hundred years or so, and this association seems to carry almost seamlessly into a drab urban setting.
During the one hundred years that beach culture has existed in Europe, the rules and behavior we associate with the beach is so ingrained in our collective mind that as soon as we see sand, parasols and somebody tells us it is a beach, we accept it and adapt our behavior.
This all gives me a certain hope for the future of public space. It furthermore beckons the question what other ingrained sets of rules and behaviors could be translated into working public spaces for the contemporary and future cities.