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How does an art institution come to be? Historically, private collections were made public – the Soane Museum for example, or the Louvre, where the king’s private collection was opened to the public after the revolution. In most cases, though, a building was constructed for or around a collection in one way or another. MAXXI is a different beast altogether, a museum with a building that will collect the art as it goes along.

The art museum as an institution and building has gone far from the palatial, awe-inspiring institutions of the 19th century, where the architecture gave the institution gravitas. The 20th century art museum was a different affair, less monumental but much more radical; take the Guggenheim New York, for example. The 1970’s witnessed yet another incarnation of the art museum, exemplified by the Centre Pompidou in Paris; here, the art museum took a step out into the city and became instrumental in redefining local neighbourhoods. A transparent wall dissolved the border between the city and the museum. It was only a matter of time until the architecture began aspiring to being a work of art itself. Arguably, the era of iconic architecture was ushered in by Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. The museum building became as important as the collection it housed, if not more. Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI in Rome is in many ways the logical continuation of this development: a museum without a collection, a museum that is solely architecture. This evolutionary process gives rise to the question: what in fact constitutes an art museum – its collection or its building?

MAXXI is dedicated to 21st century art, and its collection is to be assembled over time.  It is a museum of future art and architecture. At this moment in time, it stands almost entirely empty in wait of the future, which will adorn its halls with a collection. When I visited earlier this year, the only work on display was a beautiful and comprehensive Luigi Nervi exhibition. The Italian Nervi was the mastermind behind a great deal of grand 20th century architecture and almost certainly a source of inspiration for MAXXI’s design. At the time of my visit, three of the five gallery suites were closed and all of the visitors were congregated in the spectacular entrance hall, and I had the outstanding Nervi exhibition all to myself. I’ll come back to Nervi in a moment.

MAXXI is in many ways a curious project. Perhaps most peculiar of all is that a museum of the future has been constructed in Rome, a city with perhaps more history than any other European city and which is incidentally barely able to handle the upkeep of its countless historical treasures. A few hundred metres away from the Nervi exhibition stands one of Nervi’s original buildings in a state of disrepair. Perhaps it is this very burden of the past that has inspired the museum in the first place; Rome may well need to forget the past once in a while and focus on the future.

The MAXXI is located in northern Rome, in the Flaminio district. Large-scale installations such as Flaminio Stadium and military compounds intermingle with residential districts, and the variation in scales has a strange effect on the urban life; some areas feel almost deserted, whilst others retain the vitality of most of the grand city. From the main approach at Via Flaminia, the museum is all but invisible, its presence signalled by great flags that lead the visitor to the museum. It is a strangely humble approach. Only when one is more or less in front of the museum compound does it suddenly rise up out of the urban fabric; a moving, twisting thing.

One of the museum’s objectives has always been to infuse this area of Rome with life and vitality, presumably in the same way the Centre Pompidou effected Beaubourg. The Centre George Pompidou reaches out into the city, its transparent walls animating the square around it, and the building becomes a part of the urban fabric. The MAXXI, on the other hand, is a compound; its urbanity is inside a clearly defined border, with heavy gates designed with patterns similar to the shape of the museum. The gates are open during opening hours, but the museum has neither desire nor ambition to melt into the surrounding city.

The compound itself is made up of quite a few renovated barracks buildings and Zaha Hadid’s new museum. Between them is a landscape/urban space, also designed by Hadid, where lines and materials swoop through and “energise” the space. This space has the potential to become an interesting space in daytime, although the museum’s enormous gates keep it quite separated from the surrounding city.

The MAXXI was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects in the late 1990’s, and like any humongous, technologically advanced building, it took a long time to build. This means that the MAXXI is a product of Zaha Hadid’s office from the days before NURBS modelling software changed the output forever. In terms of ZHA chronology, the building looks as if it should have been finished quite a few years ago. On the other hand, the energy of the architect herself is more present and palpable than in her later work.

It is never very much fun to analyse a Zaha Hadid building from a functional perspective; it almost inevitably leads to a certain smug satisfaction in the observation of mistakes in execution and design. The same goes for materiality and detailing, which have never been the office’s strong side – and let’s face it –are simply not the reason why people choose ZHA. Zaha Hadid is employed is to deliver grand architecture, architecture with spectacular spaces, energy and power, architecture that defies gravity.

In that respect, MAXXI is a success. Since its opening last year, critics have used all the bombastic words in their vocabulary to describe and praise it. It has been compared to baroque masters like Borromini and most other great structures of the eternal city. ZHA aims to merge landscape and architecture, which is a very interesting ambition indeed. In MAXXI, it is rather successful. The great entrance hall which connects all of the spaces feels more like a canyon or a cavern than a space inside a building. It is a fluid space that meanders, turns and twists and captivates. The colossal entrance hall is a marvel to the eye, its grandeur only slightly diminished by the hollow ‘clonk, clonk’ as one ascends or descends the metal staircases. The great hall has justly been referred to as Piranesian, and one can readily see why. The meandering staircases interweave high above your head, disappear and reappear in a very complex space. The sheer energy of Zaha Hadid is very present, and it is breathtaking as a space. The architecture must however be measured against its ambitions.

A Piranesian system is by definition introverted, forever losing itself in itself, and it is very difficult to imagine it relating to a world outside. MAXXI is attempting to be both extroverted and introverted simultaneously, and should probably be credited for succeeding so well in the circumstances. In order to complete the Piranesian illusion, a looping system is essential. It requires continuity. In order to simulate infinity, all spaces must lead back to the starting point in one way or another. The MAXXI, however, has its fair share of cul-de-sacs, which are fatal to the illusion of infinity. It works some of the time, making those galleries which lead you into a blank wall or a window out onto the rather dull surrounding neighbourhood all the more disappointing.

The ambition level of the project is extremely high, and the museum contains a number of fantastic spaces within its gargantuan shell, the most magnificent of which is the giant hall. Spatially, it almost succeeds in creating the illusion of a Piranesian warped space it intends to, but where the building attempts contact with the city outside and in the cul-de-sacs, the illusion is brought to its knees. Ironically, it is when Zaha Hadid acknowledges the context that her architecture suffers, at least in this case. Still, the ambition and energy put into the project have to be applauded – it is a spectacular achievement to construct this building anywhere, perhaps even more so in Rome, a city notoriously difficult to build in.

The MAXXI was built as a kind of speculative art museum, almost entirely without a brief; the program will supposedly emerge over the coming century. It is an art museum built backwards, where the building is constructed first and subsequently over time filled with art as the century goes on. It is a fascinating experiment in how to construct a museum from zero. This concept as well as the museum building itself are very much products of their time; the age of iconic architecture, where form and architectural form triumph over content and substance, where the ‘container’, so to speak, is more important than its content.

Is MAXXI the ultimate incarnation of the iconic building – architecture entirely without a programme? This remains to be seen. Should it manage over time to fill its vast, curvy, cavernous shoes with an interesting programme and collection, it may well be successful; if not, it will become a gigantic folly, a testimony to the credit-happy-go-lucky days of the 2000’s.

-Most links in this post link to websites in Swedish-

In recent years, almost every medium- to large-scale urban project in Stockholm has been subject to such massive public and professional resistance that in the end, the projects have been abandoned. Naturally, this situation is not unique to Sweden or Stockholm, but it has reached a paralyzing level,  veritably hindering the city from development. Projects become bats in the upcoming elections. Most recently, the shadow government promised a more popularized version of the most prominent project at the moment, Slussen – the Lock – which connects the Gamla Stan and Södermalm.

The project’s background is basically this: Gamla Stan, located on a central island in Stockholm, is the oldest remaining part of medieval Stockholm. In the 1930’s, the old lock connecting Gamla Stan and Södermalm was replaced by a traffic solution primarily designed for cars. In many ways it was an ingenious solution, integrating underground, pedestrian, automobiles and buses in a complex shamrock-shaped traffic system designed by Tage William-Olsson.

Today, the traffic node of Slussen is in a state of disrepair. The concrete is deteriorating and for the last two decades, a solution has been sought to replace the existing design. The existing structure is generally deemed unsafe and beyond repair, and decreasing levels of traffic make the original design ineffective.

Design competitions were held, and when the dust cleared in 2004, Swedish architects Nyréns came out with the winning proposal. However, this was not without controversy, and in 2008, the urban planning department informed the architects that their vision was too boring, and the very next day they invited some of the world’s more famous architects – including Jean Nouvel, Sir Norman Foster and Bjarke Ingels – to come up with inspired designs for replacing the traffic node, using Nyrén’s traffic planning.

The city chose Foster and Partners’ proposal. However, the proposal was not very developed, and in subsequent design stages most of the more spectacular features, such as the meandering pedestrian bridges, were erased one by one until finally, the city ended up with a design that was pretty low-key and streamlined, but which included a large amount of commercial space meant to finance part of the development.

At this point, the chaos erupted. Suddenly, alternative solutions were being presented left and right. One such solution, independently presented by a number of architects, vows to make the traffic apparatus more or less invisible and buries the underground line. Invisible solutions are always a hit with the public, so the solution got a lot of media attention for a while. Yet another privately presented solution was entailed the conversion of the bridge to a kind of Ponte Vecchio, complete with replicas of traditional Stockholm buildings. Then Bengt Lindroos, one of the last grand old Swedish Modernist masters, surprised the city with his version – a less commercial development with more public spaces; perhaps the only professional alternative proposal I have seen so far.

Then the public demonstrations, petitions and marches started. Last week the shadow cabinet presented their version in an attempt to gain a few votes it being election year, after all. It was a slimmed down populist version with a very odd pyramid as the centerpiece. Now, yet another group demands that the possibility of constructing a replica of the original 1930’s design be investigated, or repairs to the original structure if possible. The debate rages on, and we will see what the results are when the smoke clears.

It is a large-scale public project, and as such, public debate is essential, but this has turned into a farce. Politicians have turned the project into a battlefield for the upcoming election, which, however irresponsible, is an effective way of winning votes. Some unfortunate developments in central Stockholm in the 1960’s still haunt every project proposed in the city’s central areas, and politicians have been extremely wary of public opinion ever since. This creates populism and compromises that are sometimes good and prudent in retrospect, and sometimes very unfortunate. As a result, the city has become extremely polarized socially – poor satellite suburbs surround a rich and exclusive urban center, fostering segregation of which Stockholm has only seen the beginning, one that will most likely haunt the city for many decades to come.

This is not the first time a project has been deadlocked by tumultuous dispute. A couple of years ago the city held an architectural competition for an addition to the Public Library, one of Sweden’s more famous buildings. A winner was chosen from the around 1200 proposals the city received from across the world, and then the public bashing started. The Swedish public seems to view architects as malefactors out to destroy the city that the inhabitants love and cherish. Here, as in the case of Slussen, individual architects emerged promoting their own designs, determined to sway public opinion, and thereby force the publicly sensitive politicians to consider their project. A number of cheap appeals to public opinion were launched.

Again, demonstrations, marches, petitions appeared overnight, all focusing on Heike Hanada, the German architect who had done nothing more than submit a proposal for a competition. She was ridiculed by the media, the architectural press, and a number of self-righteous and self-proclaimed experts screaming bloody murder. In the end, the politicians caved in to public opinion and scrapped the project on the pretext that it would have been more expensive than first estimated. The politicians neglected to notify Heike Hanada directly. It was an inappropriate project, but the fault was not Hanada’s but the organizers of the competition.

This current situation is unsustainable. The combination of opportunist politicians, opportunist architects,  lobby groups and an intoxicated public resistance to any change whatsoever has resulted in a polarized debate where projects are slowly killed step by step and development becomes next to impossible. The question is what can be done about it.

Sweden lacks an independent advisory board of architects, a common institution in most European countries. The UK has two separate independent advisory boards: English Heritage and CABE. English Heritage is mostly concerned with preserving the cultural heritage, while CABE focuses on quality in design. Both are more or less funded by the Department of Culture. These two bodies often disagree, but the main objective is always to find a solution that will make everybody as happy as possible, both now and in the future. The key is that these advisory boards are independent. Although they have a certain political agenda, they are not affiliated with any particular party and thus can make professional opinions based on their (sometimes) objective analysis. This system is not perfect, but it involves two independent professional bodies, which is as close as you come to an expert opinion.

Stockholm has a “Beauty Council” which is the local version of CABE. This is however financed by the council, and twelve of its thirteen members are appointed by the City Council, although only four are directly politically appointed. The members are artists, politicians and a mere two architects, which strikes me as odd, but probably resonates the Swedish lack of confidence in architects. Riksantikvarieämbetet (RAA) is the corresponding Swedish version of EH, but most of the practical responsibility rests on the (politically appointed) County Council.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with democracy and transparency in architecture. However, when every instance intended to provide professional and objective advice is politically appointed, we end up with the subjective and opportunist advice to subjective and opportunist politicians – an undesirable situation. The time perspective of politics is very different from the time perspective of architecture and urban design. Politics usually focus on shorter terms while architecture and urban design has to work for decades or centuries – and for that reason, an independent architectural and urban advisory board would be a good idea in Sweden. The nearest equivalent to this is the Swedish Architects’ Association. But they can hardly be said to be objective as they are the architects’ union, like the ARB in the UK.

The Swedish Architects’ Association did however recently bring forth a political program, proposing a coordinated architectural political policy. This is in many ways a great idea. An architectural policy has been accepted in many cities – Copenhagen is a nearby example. Copenhagen city council recently published “Arkitekturby København”, which is a set of architectural strategies and priorities explaining how the council wants Copenhagen to grow. One of the essential points of this document was that the council adopted it unanimously. This means that the document can lay out long-term architectural strategies that last longer than one four-year-term, and this is essential. Denmark also has the DAC, the Danish Architecture Centre, an organization funded primarily by the Ministry of Culture, which serves as a presumably objective body of professionals who comment on developments and inform the public through Copenhagen X, a public information project aimed at informing the public about new architecture.

In Sweden, the parties bicker and argue using architecture as bats; this is not very encouraging for developers who feel that the future of their project is insecure and dependent on the outcome of the next election. A unanimously adopted program however will provide the longevity that is needed for all parties, architects, developers, council and inhabitants. An political strategy for architecture which takes a long-term perspective and adopted independently of party lines would create a much more stable platform for the discussion of architecture, for architects, for politicians and for everybody else.

Neither the British nor the Danish systems is perfect, but at least there are organizations and strategies to deal with these situations, whereas Sweden is dominated by anarchy and rampant opportunism. One way or another: to get out of the current conundrum, Stockholm needs to develop a long-term architectural perspective.

This can be achieved by implementing a political strategy for architecture, which needs to be adopted by a broad majority in City Hall so that it remains valid after the next election. In addition to this, I think it would be an excellent idea to create a politically independent body of professionals that can review or comment on projects from a reasonably objective perspective with a long-term focus. In the proud Swedish traditions of self-proclaimed self-righteous know-it-alls, I guess I will just have to go ahead and form it myself.

The other day, the scaffolding came down from one of the most awaited construction projects in Berlin this year, at least by me; the L-40 at the end of Linienstraße, on the corner of Rosa Luxemburg Platz and Torstraße. For once, I can easily fit architecture, urbanism and art into the same post.

The building is designed by BundschuhBaumhauer in collaboration with artist Cosima von Bonin and is located in Mitte on the border of Prenzlauer Berg, in other words, right where the New Berlin is rising. The block the L-40 has landed in was constructed in the first decades of the 1900’s and centered on the Volksbühne, the People’s Theatre, from 1914. The block around it was a homogenous composition of residential buildings, some were destroyed during the Second World War leaving the area full of holes that have since gradually been filled in.

The reconstruction of the neighborhood left an empty, awkward, triangular site at the northern end of the Volksbühne area. Despite its central location, the site remained empty for many years, its shape made development difficult. The origins of the building that now stands there was a smaller art project for the site created by Roger Bundschuh and artist Cosima von Bonin, in the form of sausage stand a few years ago. In dialogue with the client, the project evolved to become a residential building.

The thing that attracted me right from the start was the uncompromising nature of the project. The concept was a black concrete monolith, and now, as the scaffolding comes down, there is a black concrete monolith. In Berlin, concepts are so habitually washed down and value-engineered that when the building finally stands there it looks like pre-fabricated standard issue, and is usually very hard to distinguish from similar projects that have gone through the same process. Not so here, this building is anything but run of the mill, its exterior is rather hostile with its sharp corners in combination with large solid walls of concrete. This may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the perseverance in pushing such a project through is astounding.

As a work of architecture I appreciate the clean lines, the material qualities of the concrete, and the idea of turning the standard Berlin tenement house inside out. One of the primary concepts of the project was to attempt to open up the courtyard rather than use it as a second grade source of light that is one of the main problems of the Berlin tenement blocks. All of these are qualities that are not very common in architecture in this city. A rigid planning code and cost cutting measures create numerous obstacles. The flats themselves are interesting, and quirky. For a speculative project, they are frankly courageous in their layout. The building is as mentioned a speculative project, and this means that the flats are designed for hypothetical buyers, in this case hypothetical art-collectors. Yet they are highly personalized and anything but standard. The flats are laid out with an Elizabethan long gallery as a centerpiece. This is a rather introverted space with mainly skylights, intended for the display of artworks and is a form of a private gallery. This is an interesting take on the flat layout, and I really enjoy the fact that somebody has got the guts to do something other than the market optimized solutions routinely employed by everybody these days.

The borderline between art and architecture is fuzzy at best, and sometimes produces very amusing or tragic hybrids and results. This blog has previously covered the collaboration between Chipperfield and Gormley in Kivik, Sweden. This structure was conceived and built as a sculpture, and led an existence as one, until one day, some unhappy neighbor filed a complaint to the local council, claiming that it was in fact a building and not a sculpture. The local council resolved the question in a very bureaucratic way, declaring:

“A building is a durable construction of a roof and walls that on the ground, and is large enough to allow people to enter” (my translation, the Swedish version can be found here)

This meant that the structure had been illegally constructed since it did not have planning permission, furthermore would the sculpture then have to be adapted to the rather rigorous Swedish Construction code, equipped with 1.10 m rails on the platforms, disabled facilities and so forth. In short, as art it was a great project, while as architecture it became useless.

The indistinct border between art and architecture is an issue that has haunted primarily the architectural profession at least since Michelangelo’s day. This text will not attempt to settle that question but will only mention a few questions that pop up.

The building has been called a hybrid between art and architecture, or a sculpture to live in. The origins of the L-40 building were, as I mentioned previously, an art project on the site. If this building is a sculpture, then whose sculpture is it, and of what? Is the building a sculpture full of wealthy art collectors’ condos for the enjoyment of the city, or does the building in fact become a monument to the egos of its builders, or its wealthy art-collector inhabitants? The second possibility is decidedly less attractive. It is hard to see it as a work of public art as there is no public access to the building. I usually do not have any reservations about architects referring to public buildings as art projects. Here on the other hand, we are looking at a private structure that has an enormous impact on the context, and the questions of whose artwork it is, and its role in relation to the public become relevant.

I prefer to look at it, not as a sculpture with elements of architecture, but rather as an art project that became architecture at one point. As far as I have understood the design process, the artist on the project Cosima von Bonin was more involved in the early stages of the project, before it turned into architecture. In my opinion, the sculptural part may have been an integral part of the process, but the end result is so much more attractive if we look at it as architecture rather than art. The questions raised by it as an art project would have an impact on its role and functionality as architecture, and in an urban context.

The relationship between art and architecture is never easy or simple. Architecture needs to be “nice” in the sense that it is created to make the situation better for somebody, to shelter, to protect, to sell or some other reason. Architecture needs a purpose. As a consequence, architecture needs to be “functional” in the sense that it is always measured in relation to its purpose. Art suffers from no such petty preconditions; it can be whatever it wants to be, it can ask questions or provoke in ways architecture is not allowed to. Art is often more interesting if it is not nice or functional, while the same work as architecture would lose all legitimization, and sometimes vice versa.

Whichever way you choose to look at it, the L-40 project is an interesting exploration of the enormously complex borderline between art and architecture, on a scale and level rarely experienced in Berlin these days.

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One of these days, it will be twenty years since the Berlin Wall fell. Since then, Germany has been reunited and Berlin has risen like a comet, or phoenix, and crash-landed again. During the first few years after the wall came down, there was an investment in the reunited city that rarely has been rivaled in Europe. The Reichtag, the entire Government district, Potsdamer Platz, the new Hauptbahnhof and so on, the list is long. At some point however, Berlin ran out of money and the city has been struggling economically since. The construction has continued, and if you thought Potsdamer Platz was a low quality project without any connection to the existing city, it’s nothing compared to what is going up these days along Bernuaer Straße or in Friedrichshain along the Spree.

Most of the projects mentioned above are or were built on the land where the wall used to run, and why not? Suddenly there was an abundance of land in the centre of a city of three million, a rarity anywhere in the world, and in Europe in particular. To some, the void left after the wall is a scar, an open wound, and to them the voids can’t be filled rapidly enough. The voids then appear as an open wound, of an uncomfortable past, and as long as the scar is there, the division of Germany, and the inequalities resulting from the unification are present. These memories can’t be put into the history books as a past until the void is filled. As long as the wound is open, the past leaks into the present. Monuments make history, while scars keeps the past in the present, since the results, and not the monuments of history are what we are presented with, the events must still be contemporary rather than historical.

The voids can however also be argued to be a symbol of freedom, as a symbol of democracy and of opportunity. The wall was the millstone around the neck of Berlin, and what is left after it was torn down is practically the opposite. The cultural capital Berlin has become would be unthinkable without the voids, this is where nightclubs, art-installations, concerts, flea markets and so on thrived to make Berlin what it is today. These spaces that can be used for anything, or for nothing. These are spaces where experimental culture can thrive and evolve. It is in these spaces that lack programming that you can try to use in different ways, these spaces are the cornerstones of cultural innovation in this city. The symbol of oppression became the stage for freedom.

So, in these days of celebrating the Mauerfall, can’t we just agree that the few spaces left are monuments? If we regard these spaces monuments of freedom and cultural assets rather than scars and potential eventual economic assets, we should all be all right.

Basically a monument is a space or an object designed primarily to commemorate a certain occasion or person. The function of the monument is solely to preserve this memory, it has no other programming. This is the beauty of the monument, and over time the function of the monument changes, but it gets a justification, or legitimisation through its nature as a monument. When there is a monument, planners and architects do not need to find a function to fill out the space, to assign it a function, or to program it in any other way.

If we decide the voids of Berlin are spatial monuments, they are no longer empty spaces without function. On the contrary, the void becomes a space to preserve. These spaces are not empty canvases to be filled out in order to complete the city, they already have a function, albeit an informal one. They are just spaces that are free, to use or to inhabit in different ways as long as it is of a temporary nature. The activities taking place in these spaces are themselves monuments to freedom, rituals enhancing the role of the monuments.

The rituals of these spaces already exist, they are already functioning as the monuments of freedom in everything but name, so why not just see the voids as the monuments they are, and allow them to continue to evolve and enhance the cultural life of Berlin?

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The first time I walked by Times Square a few years ago, I didn’t think very much of it. The place had already gone through its transformation from seedy to touristic and the place felt mainly like a scaled up version of Piccadilly Circus, taller buildings, more lights and more traffic. It possessed no qualities to make you want to stop and experience the space, but rather functioned as a backdrop to the idea of the city, a typical scenography space with no life of its own.

On my return last week, the space had gone through a gargantuan transformation. Streets had become pedestrianised, people were standing still on these and staring upwards with vacant looks on their faces. At first I figured some kind of super-villain had taken over the city and hypnotised everybody, you know, like in the comic magazines. Then I looked up and saw the giant Television screens on the facades, even an auditorium with no stage but facing the screens.

Looking back down again, I noticed families sitting around tables, watching and listening and discussing the shows with friends, cops or basically anybody standing nearby. In a sense the place has been turned into a giant living room, or a temple to the gods of television depending on the level of cynicism applied.

I have a hard time making my mind up about this space. If we start with the positive view of it, as the living room of the city. Times square has become a place where people feel at home and enjoy the spectacle without fear or suspicion, an otherwise far too common ingredient in our relationship with the city. People behave like they would in their home in front of their own television set, but in urban setting. The space turns the home inside out and puts it in an urban setting. It is a setting everybody knows and the rules and behavioral patterns are clear to everybody, making it an easy space for people to appreciate and experience the spectacle in some form of unity that crosses the borders of your standard urban tribe.

It doesn’t really matter that they’re all tourists, they are all just humans together enjoying a spectacle together that they would otherwise have enjoyed separately at home. Perhaps something good will come out of this, it is always a good thing to me when people choose to do things together and in public rather than in private. In that sense this is a new type of public space, where the private space of the home has become public. This is a very comfortable way of creating public space, and an interesting one.

With a more cynical approach on the other hand, the new Times Square reminds me a lot of George Orwell’s 1984, just take a look at this, and compare it with the image above. It is very easy to read the space as a space of open mass-indoctrination, of hypnotising people, telling them what to think and how to consume themselves happy. In a sense it displays very openly all that is wrong with television and what a powerful weapon it is. The agenda for the space, and for how it is used is set not by the participants in the space, but by somebody else somewhere else with their own agenda. This prospect becomes really frightening when you walk by the nearby Newscorp building and read their news-ticker for instance.

In that sense, Times Square is no public space at all, but rather something potentially like a permanent mass-meeting. A very strange space where the TV-personalities and spectators are replaced but the meeting goes on. In that sense, it’s a great relief that this space is in cosmopolitan New York City rather than somewhere with a more homogeneous population; the heterogeneity of NYC should keep the space from being abused to any greater extent, at least for the time being. It is however a very powerful space, and I suspect that sooner or later somebody will discover this and use it for something that I’d rather they didn’t.

I am, as I mentioned above, extremely ambivalent to this space. Public life is good by definition, to create contact between people is always a good thing. On the other hand is this a space that appears so easy to abuse, but that’s probably just my skepticism to television talking, go and have a look and make up your own minds.

The average American household apparently has a television set turned on four eight hours and eighteen minutes daily, so it’s no wonder the place is packed with people and will be a success.

“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.