The Compositional Unity of Western Public Space

Products and Constructs

Urban public space: a cosmos that is real and at the same time reinforced by ambiguity. It can be interpreted as a common reality between individuals, speculated through its continuous development, in relation to the unfolding of one’s ‘private’ life; for the duration of which the physical presence abstains from it. The compositional unity of every public space consists of the relationship between one concrete element to the other, relating to the individual user within the space, and all together relating to the collective as a whole. It is the retrospective of predetermined elements, reflecting upon the political system’s manifesto. In the case of the 21st century, according to Capitalism and Neoliberalism, it is coordinated by the ruling class, resulting in elitist spaces that become detrimental to the social dynamic of democratic space. 

All these elements, including the human aspect, can be perceived as ‘manufactured’ embodied and unembodied products, as public space is realised and composed through them. According to the Marxist French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, in his book The Production of Space, there are two different forms of production that affect social space in the city. One is the result of the labour of humanity (human product or embodied product) and the other the result of the intangible constructs of humanity (human construct or unembodied product). These have extended upon the core condition of public space nature, as ‘[space] subsumes things produced’, and undoubtedly things constructed as well. 

The term  ‘human product’ refers to physical interventions within nature, that are materialised in relation to the agenda of the political system. In the context of the 21st century AD, these include private, public and semi-private/public interventions. From the raw materials constituting a vehicle route, to the bus stop signage, to the entrance of a commercial shop. All of these operate, lifelessly, in relation to one another, as semiotics of political and socio-economic values promoted by the ruling economic class, or the 1%.

The evolution of western socio-economic constructs has pushed for the extensive marginalisation of the collective spirit, embracing the individual’s identity by gradually setting them as consciously the only spectator of their actuality within space and time. The term constructs refer to anything which exists intellectually or logically and is used by the cognitive abilities of the individual to identify themselves. It is a ‘production with no products’, as Lefebvre states. For instance: philosophy, theory, history, law, etc. 

‘The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for god’

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

The importance of individuality has been cultivated from the Renaissance (16th century), seen as the foundational era for capitalism, and then moved into the Industrial revolution (17th century) that marked its radical spread. It also marked the cultivation of the economic class system, (or one can also call it the modern caste system)  and as a result the functions that exist within society and factualised within public space. 

The individual’s perspective is the layer of subjectivity that occurs within and subsequently creates social space. It varies initially on an experiential level, subconsciously and unconsciously, as gender, sexuality, and personal identity form perception. Furthermore, sentimental attachment to public space also forms its nature, as a result of memory which translates sensory experience as the unembodied meaning of a particular space. The individual’s understanding of space is then filtered and coordinated through the archetypal western aesthetic, which presents itself as binary opposites such as developed/undeveloped and formal/informal, and is heavily based on economic class. A constant comparison between what was and what is creating the illusion, or disillusionment, of social progress translated in material. 

Speculating public space through the lens of these interrelated and carefully articulated segments, one can’t help but question what is needed to abolish the system which seems to alienate our factual contribution within the built-environment. How can citizens, whether designers or not, abstain from the archetype, from the coercive fetishization of value within material?  How does the individual, estranged from the collective, manage to spark change within the city, when Lefebvre has correctly stated that ‘it has […] been composed by people, by well-defined groups’? In order for these to be realised we have to eliminate political inequality through social movements, that push for a more politically inclusive agenda, within all levels of governing and decision-making. This presupposes of course radical refinement of governing around the world, in relation to radical measures taken by the citizens of the world.  

The most influential movement of 2019 is the well-known global outcry of youth, in regards to climate change, which in return has sparked general environmental awareness as allowed by the political system. This reveals a hidden potential in the younger generations, and especially GenZ onwards, evident in the political activity and utilisation of democratic means to express discontent. Transcendental to previous generations, as they have only existed in a post-cyberspace world, with global connectivity and social media deeply embedded in its roots.  Greta Thunberg, now aged 16, has managed to set an example of taking initiative, through protest-organising, to achieve improvement within the collective; remarkably seen in her speech at United Nations Assembly earlier this year, addressing an older, distant generation. 

The static state of the 21st century within the western countries has to do predominantly with this older, distant generation. A generation that refuses to listen or debate, rather chooses to indulge itself in formalities, money exchanges and petty political dialogues. We have to count on GenZ to reclaim public space, through democratic virtual activity that translates into democratic action within space. The world ought to be pushing for a hybrid of government, where younger and older collaborate to provide a holistic experience to the political agenda. Youth councils within schools and universities should work with agency bodies to integrate proposals and opinions within the decision-making process. These bodies should also aim to integrate people of all classes, genders, and sexual orientations, which as a result will form the public social space as well representative of individuals and social groups. Thus public space can be simultaneously ‘produced’ and ‘constructed’ for one, for us and for the potential of a representative composition.