A breath of fresh air for public spaces

“The classic ideal of the theatrum mundi”, wrote Richard Sennett, “attempted to convey one union of aesthetics and social reality. Society is a theatre, and all men are actors.” Sennett’s 1974 book The Fall of Public Man, from which this quotation is taken, is a brilliant excoriation of the decline of the city, written at the moment when formalised urban existence was becoming atomised by the increasingly inward-looking self-absorption of the baby-boomer “me generation”.

Richard Sennett, founder of Theatrum Mundi

Sennett contrasted the life of the 18th-century Enlightenment city, where the public sphere was codified as the theatrum mundi, the theatre of the world. Almost four decades after first describing the decline, Sennett has returned to the territory to do something about it. How might public spaces be designed, or redesigned, to breathe new life into our cities?

In the intervening years, everything Sennett identified has been amplified. At the same time as self-expression and the expression of personal feeling have been enshrined in culture, civic space has been privatised. The institutional fear of terrorism and crime means that our streets are now under heavy surveillance, and clumsily policed. Life has moved from the public realm of streets and squares and markets to the controlled sphere of the mall, and public life has become confused with commercial transaction and consumption. White flight from the city centres has continued to accelerate and the emergence of gated communities has amplified a feeling of fear and separation, of two classes living side by side but not acknowledging the presence of each other.

Sennett’s ambitious new forum, Theatrum Mundi, has an intriguing partner programme called The Global Street, under the auspices of Sennett’s wife, the sociologist Saskia Sassen, who coined the now-ubiquitous phrase “Global City”. The Global Street is an investigation of the effects of globalisation and its attendant migrations and radically shifting labour markets on city streets.

At ‘Light and the City: Culture, Design and Industry’, a Theatrum Mundi event held in Frankfurt in April

The idea of the programmes, which are based in London, New York and Frankfurt, is to provide a platform to explore how the arts, particularly the performing arts, and the professions, from sociology to planning, can revivify the public realm. It is ambitious and can sound almost hopelessly idealistic, yet at its core is a serious attempt to provide a forum for speaking about things that have seemingly faded into the background.

Modernist planning orthodoxy, itself a response to the unregulated industrial city, swept away a knowledge of how communities operate in public space. Its ideas were utopian but simplistic; one example was zoning, in which activities were confined to certain areas: retail, office and commercial functions, industrial zones, residential suburbs or clusters of tower blocks. Jane Jacobs’ 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities drew attention to what had been lost – the complex ecosystem of community and street life, the particular blend of uses and classes, of stoop-sitting and community surveillance – which defined the truly urban experience. Sennett praises the friction of communities rubbing along together, forced to mix, not necessarily always comfortably, by the terms of the contract of true urban existence. But Jacobs was writing more than half a century ago – and in many ways her legacy has been confused by being co-opted by reactionary positions.

Sennett and Sassen have brought together a panel of practitioners, performers, thinkers and activists and aim to revive the debate about cities and space, embracing every aspect of public urbanity from the particular problems of creating civic space in informal settlements to ideas about how sound affects the city. If, for instance, free speech is being curtailed as protest is criminalised, what physical form might a space for free speech take?

When, in the aftermath of 9/11, architects began to rush to propose replacements for the Twin Towers in New York, long-time local activist and all-round intellectual Michael Sorkin suggested that the most eloquent memorial might simply be a site for free speech. A place of tolerance and liberty that exemplifies something about the difference between a one-time American dream and the terrorists who sought to destroy its ideals.

It was a brilliant piece of provocation – but how might it have worked? Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park is often cited as an exemplar of exactly such a space – but isn’t it actually a kind of place of exile? A place where harmless nutters can be left to rant and rave amid the greenery of the park (symbolically separated by trees from the physical fabric of the city streets)? Could we not have a new agora? Something that takes gathering and protest more seriously?

A skatepark in San Pedro, California

A Theatrum Mundi/Global Street debate in New York earlier this month raised some powerful issues. Teddy Cruz, who works on the highly contested US/Mexico border between San Diego and Tijuana – which he sees as, in effect, one city with a wall through the middle – used the example of a bunch of kids who tried to create a skate park beneath a freeway flyover. They found the plot was a kind of no-man’s-land, slipping between the auspices of the transit authority, the local authority and private ownership. They needed to form an NGO and become experts in property law to create their space – but once they did so they became specialists, able to help others.

At the same time Cruz organises events (or rather événements in the Parisian 1968 sense) at the border to highlight iniquities and paradoxes. Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti discussed their experience of creating a public space for a community in the occupied territories of the West Bank, on land where ownership had never been formalised. The locals wanted not the conventional city piazza but instead a walled court where women and children could feel secure. It became a roaring success despite defying expectations of what we might think of as heterogeneous civic infrastructure. This is design, but not necessarily as we know it. There’s nothing flashy here, no attempts to create a photogenic landscape aimed at glossy mags and lifestyle supplements.

In other sessions there were studies of Peckham High Street and the complex web of global infrastructure that it links to, alongside explorations of space for protest, and of dance and space, and of Peter Brooks’ use of public space for theatrical performance. In that last talk, the Paris-based British architect Andrew Todd showed plans for a demountable performance structure that could be used to experiment with performance in public space. This could become one of the first physical fruits of the Theatrum Mundi programme. It is a bamboo structure, next to the River Seine a little outside Paris, which aims to create a versatile theatrical space from the most minimal of components, a kind of rough-and-ready Globe in which design and aesthetics are supplementary to an idea of performance and engagement.

Ambitious, unashamedly intellectual, slightly scattershot but also provocative, this is an attempt to grab the debate around the design of public space back from private interests and disinterested bureaucracies. Academics are sometimes criticised for only ever writing and talking and never doing but this is a subject that begins by necessity in conversation in cities around the world. Theatrum Mundi is itself a kind of proto-public space, a forum and a space of stimulation. I look forward to its future.


Loose leaves: Page power

The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design, Phaidon Press, RRP£140, www.phaidon.com

Truly an archive, this extravaganza spans the centuries since the Gutenberg Bible. It’s 500 sheets in a box, so each entry is like an individual art work: a double-sided A4 card with the selected design on one side and its backstory on the other. A defiant stand, perhaps, against the digital world, and all about the beauty of paper and printing. It‘s hard to use – how do you find a specific sheet? The publishers suggest you “organise the unbound cards however you wish” – which may well mean they get organised all over the floor. Perfect for devotees, it’s more like a super-indulgent box of surprises, from the iconic Gitanes packaging to Milton Glaser’s I Love NY and album art work.

Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, by Stephen Bayley, Carlton Books, RRP£25, www.carltonbooks.co.uk

The last time a prominent cultural commentator took on the notion of ugliness it was Umberto Eco, whose riff on beauty’s opposite proved more interesting than his treatise on a more pleasurable aesthetic. Is repulsiveness in the eye of the beholder? And what do someone’s images of gore, deformity and violence tell us about them? Now Stephen Bayley takes up the same themes, investigating everything from kitsch to industrial landscapes, Nazi regalia to concrete roofing tiles, grotesque animals to poverty, hirsuteness and gargoyles. The illustrations are myriad and the smart text is littered with questions to which there is probably no answer: “Is science aesthetically neutral?”; “Does poverty inhibit beauty?”

New York Drawings, by Adrian Tomine, Faber & Faber, RRP£16.99, www.faber.co.uk

Anyone who relishes New Yorker cartoons and covers will instantly recognise Adrian Tomine’s style in the decade’s-worth of work collected here. As an illustrator and graphic artist, his mood is understated, flat-planed, ruefully observing of our social foibles, celebratory but sharp, in fact all the more incisive for its apparent gentleness. The book opens with a treat for fans of the acclaimed Optic Nerve series, which has been running since 1991 (when its creator was a mere 17-year-old). This comic-strip intro charts Tomine’s own progress from “lonely, socially inept teenager living in Sacramento” to New Yorker staffer still star-struck by the company he keeps but above all by the adopted city he loves.

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