I once had a packrat for a roommate, and of course, I didn’t know this about him before we decided to cosign a lease. I’m not a packrat. Quite the opposite, in fact. The minute I find myself holding onto a particular object for solely nostalgic reasons, I take that as a sign that it’s high time I commit that thing to the trash.
This came to a head when we began to talk about what to do with shared space in the apartment. I had a bedroom, he had a bedroom, but we had a living room, dining room, and kitchen to “fill,” for lack of a better word. Seeing these spaces as empty, he felt a need to place objects in the room—a tattered couch, a broken lamp, dated A/V equipment, and so on—and I, on the other hand, as a self-nominated minimalist, said to him, “I’d like to fill this space on the wall as well, but I’d like to fill this space with nothing. That is, nothing is the ‘thing’ I’d like to put there.” We didn’t end up renewing our lease when the time came.
Granted, I was young, he was young, and neither of us were necessarily right. We were simply two different people with different ideas of how to treat shared space. But as I’ve come to see in the past years since that time, ideas of space pose serious dialectical controversies in the present urban environment.
Use of public space is a controversial topic when it comes to political protesting, such as during the recent riots in Turkey where police have used tear gas and water cannons this past week to stop protests in the streets. This was also one of the main (if not convoluted) issues brought into conversation during the Occupy Wall Street protests, where protestors took over entire streets, which are in the realm of “public space.” People believe in space enough to take a high-pressure hose to the face.
Not to mention, space is king for the built environment. It’s what frames the built environment, which in turn reframes space. As such issues continue to heat up in the political world, it will be curious to see how these actions affect the built world—and vice versa.
Yet public space doesn’t have to be a discussion that emerges only through protests and riots. I recently learned of artist Graham Coreil-Allen’s work taking a guerrilla approach to the exploration of public spaces, and “how overlooked features of the city are experienced at a pedestrian level,” which is how most of us experience the space of the city. The description on the website for his project, New Public Sites, reads, “The project starts with a radically expanded understanding of civic space and proposes alternatives for representing and activating the potential for such under-recognized sites through interventionist nomenclature, mapping, video and walking tours.” The project was one of many highlighted in the ‘Spontaneous Interventions’ exhibit that first premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2012 and is now showing two blocks from the gb&d offices at the Chicago Cultural Center until September 1st.
New Public Sites essentially documents and defines different public spaces that are overlooked or underused—such as parking archipelagos (little islands of vegetation in vast parking lots), front stoops (anyone can sit there), tunnels, and much more. He then provides guided pedestrian tours of these spaces, mainly in Baltimore where the project is based. With an expanded vision of what a public space really is, people have the potential to use those spaces for things like urban gardens (Coreil-Allen refers to this as “situational agriculture”) or as a point to just sit and enjoy the view. The implications of his project have the potential to shed new light on our collective cosmopolitan experience—on the way we move through the urban space, how the way we move affects the built environment, and how our environments in turn determine the way we move.
Considering urban space in this way, the conflict I had with my roommate translates just as well to the urban fabric—but as urban density increases, it’s an absolutely essential question: what spaces are better filled, and what spaces are best filled with “nothing?”