Contemporary public space has a strong effect on its visitors, something that can only be described as a kind of irresistible desire to wander. Wrenching us away from the straight lines and hard pavement of city streets, the public spaces of the twenty-first century move us in other ways, at other speeds, across their undulating surfaces. No wonder we feel the need to scale them, to cycle and jog across them, and to wander aimlessly through them: this new breed of public space works like a landscape, daring us to lose ourselves even if only for a second.
It is not by chance that urban designers are attempting to evoke this free and easy sense of wandering in a time when urban life is increasingly frenetic, where it can feel that we inhabit the spaces of the city always on someone else’s terms. Public space by definition escapes the kind of control we find in other places – whilst such spaces may be adorned by statues of Kings, Queens and Emperors, they are in reality open to being claimed by anyone. In belonging to no-one, they belong to all of us. In this sense, public spaces feel like some of the last truly free places in the city, and perhaps this is what makes them so indispensable and alluring to the city dweller. In them, the visitor can see the edges of what is possible to do or say; an exploratory energy exists in that glimpse.
There is a growing preoccupation among urban designers to provide an antithesis to the widely accepted rigidity of city navigation. From the mile-long stretch of Copenhagen’s Superkilen to the elevated expanses of the High Line in New York, the acclaimed public space designs of recent years overflow the edges of the traditional urban grid and are made of wild forms, reminiscent of natural landscapes. When describing their prize-winning Twisted Valley project in Alicante, Spanish architecture office Grupo Aranea openly admit that “the sinuous braids” of their system of bridge-like walkways “have no relation” to the street grid of the adjacent city; their curving form suggests something entirely new – a city without buildings, with only pathways. Either raised above city spaces and buildings (in the case of the High Line and Twisted Valley) or wedged between them (in the case of Superkilen), new public spaces maximize the land they occupy, creating useful places out of previously neglected in-betweens and structural leftovers. In taking on such difficult sites, these spaces create new routes across and through the city, revealing new perspectives on once familiar views. In some cases – like the High Line – the success of these projects in fact constitutes their greatest threat, as the dreams that they inspire result in unprecedented real-estate spikes as investors fight for a piece of the re-imagined city. In other cases, such as urban common gardening projects, the value generated by the site is consciously redistributed amongst the community, who gain access to fresh veggies and the possibility to share meals together. This movement is beautifully exemplified in the large-scale communal gardens of the French atelier d’Architecture Autogéré (the “studio for self-managed architecture”).
Like the three-hour Hollywood blockbuster, the expanded “format” of new public spaces tell us increasingly complex stories, thereby drawing us deeper into their “plots”. Spanning six city blocks, Copenhagen’s urban park, Superkilen, is designed to do exactly this. Opened in 2012, the park results from a collaboration between Danish architects Bjarke Ingels Group, art collective Superflex, and landscape architects Topotek 1. A Disneyland-like supermarket of dreams, the park acts like a catalogue of signs and symbols, drawn from the surrounding residents’ pasts. In dialogue with the project team, residents selected objects from their memories of foreign countries, places they’d lived, or thought of often. Those objects were then re-imagined and symbolized in the park. The resulting space is kaleidoscopic, a curated Las Vegas Strip in miniature, mixing the familiar with the surreal and the kitsch. A wander through the Superkilen presents an encounter with an enormous black bull from the Costa del Sol, a Thai boxing ring, a Jamaican sound system, benches from Brazil, palm trees from China, and neon signs from Russia. One could almost imagine that the park itself moves around the world during the night, recharging its “shelves” in order to greet Copenhageners with a fresh array of global eye-candy every morning.
It seems that the world over, urban designers and city dwellers alike are using public space to revive dreams of distant landscapes that have become hidden from view. Far from the neon lights of Superkilen, the soft, ochre, dune-like surfaces of Lab Architecture Studio and Bates Smart’s Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia, fantasizes a landscape buried beneath the industrial, colonial city. The words of Paul Carter’s Nearamnew, a poetry work that stretches across the surface of the square, invites visitors to trace the footsteps of “the many who have gone before.”
The “publicness” that makes public space, well, “public”, rests on an absence of control. Contemporary urban design translates this absence into freedom of movement, a quality that is amplified by the expansive, free-form spaces across which we are invited to wander. Charged with the kinetic energy of moving bodies, today’s public spaces are dreamlike. They are the wild heart of the organized city grid. It is not surprising then, that contemporary “best-practice” public space designs increasingly resemble landscapes. In wandering, cycling, jogging and strolling across and through these spaces, perhaps it is time to admit that we are not in fact trying to get from A to B so much as to lose ourselves a little, and in getting lost, we dream of new, and other, urban futures.
Written by Helen Runting, Urban Designer and PhD Candidate, KTH Stockholm.
Enjoyed ‘Dreamscape’? Check back next week for the another instalment from The Journal, Issue Three. Or to find your own complimentary copy of The Journal, visit Herschel Supply stockists around the world.