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Public Space - Consensus or Conflict?

19. October 0000

Platz da! Consensus or conflict? The exhibition in the Architekturzentrum Wien has a definite answer: both

The production of space is a central aspect of capitalist economy. The urbanist development has reached great importance within the dynamics of capital accumulation. Be it the privatization of areas, the new forms of mobile communication, the changes in urban space, or the disappearance of the café as agora of political life and debates, the confrontation of ideas in public space is getting increasingly scarce. In order to decode the new usages of public space, the exhibition “Platz da!” delivers an analysis of the relation public-private that is constitutive for the form and sense of public spaces in contemporary cities.

After the religious wars the public sphere was limited to politics, as opposed to the private sphere. Based on the modern idea of the state as a neutral entity, religion was no more a public matter but a private one, belonging to privacy. The political and ethical neutrality of the public realm was characterized in a way that one can only behave as a public person in public, meaning that one could not (or should not) shower, cook or urinate on the sidewalk.

This has changed radically in recent times. The development in communication technologies has converted the private into public, down to the most intimate details. This invasion of the public into the private permeates all spheres of life – glass facades, reality shows, and camera surveillance. In this area of conflict between public and private, the public must be preserved as instrument of common welfare and the private as the refuge of intimacy.

In order to exist, even the private needs the public, i.e. the recognition of the private nature of certain things by the others, as well as the transformation of the subjects into public individuals when they appear as citizens taking decisions. Currently we are witnessing a rebirth of individualism, which requires a revision of the role of the state as warrantor of the freedoms and rights of the subjects forming the social totality. The withdrawal of the nation state and new tendencies in politics imply a greater participation of civil society, but this participation depends on the ability to organize and articulate a consensus.

What does it mean to reach a consensus, to negotiate the use of public space, to determine it in the first place? The establishment of consensus relies on the acknowledgement of alterity and the necessity of finding a “commonplace” on which to base human coexistence.

In a world where new technologies alter the notions of time and space and dissolve the boundaries between intimacy and publicity, the relationship with otherness is transformed. This mutation in the relationship with the other also modifies the sense of public space. Will it be able to retain its function as social glue and place for debate?

The exhibition approximates the topic of contemporary constitution of urban spaces from various angles: conception – how urban realities are conceived and produced, consensus – how stakeholders make their input, coordination – how these new realities are organized.

“Platz da!” avoids the simplistic categorization of stakeholders, especially the classification as inhabitants, designers and deciders. These categories would be doubly disappointing: on one hand they would leave aside the economic stakeholders and on the other hand the variations resulting from changing situations.

A distance emerges, between the spheres of reflection about the policy to pursue (public debate) and the transformation of this debate into collective decisions: urbanization and its corresponding form of public administration entail the paradoxical effect of obscuring the decisionmaking processes’ transparency.

Should public space then advocate conflict or consensus? The answer is: both, as consensus without difference would be meaningless. The ideal public space is a space of perpetual conflict and its methods of resolution, as well as the initiation of new conflicts. (ca)

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