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Bik Van der Pol

Hilary Koob-Sassen



The Super-exposed City and the New Limits of Public Space

“The concept of space is not a space” (Bernard Tschumi)

Whether we like it or not, the attractions of the super-exposed city[1] set the norm of the esthetically organized public space. The city becomes the ultimate esthetic space, a stage where we perform as social actors, according to the imposed play. The scripts are ready made by experts, discreet and precise at the same time, with little room for the imagination to interfere and lesser room for the onlooker’s freedom. The joy of discovering the other is replaced by a sort of tele-mediation, by a forced mediation. Thus the city becomes a tele-city, while the process of learning turns into a process to obtain pleasure. As a thoroughly organized playground, the individual no longer senses it directed, face to face, so to speak. Its existence is mediated through small interfaces, easier to manipulate and control. Its very same architecture, as a part of the script, follows a similar televisual and moves away from the old modernist theories. The visual partners will meet there where there is a physical proximity and original esthetics.

The sudden inversion of the opposites cancels the idea of distance within the public space and also annuls the old difference between dwelling and circulation, between the public and private. The scripts always change, adjusting to a larger public and restructuring of the former public space where we could sit and admire quietly the social play. Within the newly built public space, proximity depends on the volume of entertainment, of the pleasure offered by the other. Moreover, the limit area of the city alters according to the risks involved in this interplay of entertainment taken for granted. The definition of the public space had to be redefined. The contemporary urban space is no longer represented by the ritual pageants on streets and boulevards. You just access the image of the contemporary city by clicking on its interfaces. You no longer need to be in touch with the street, the space of the flâneur, now a less safe space; you just perceive the intermediary urban space from quite different locations. The railway station, for example, is one of them. The question we should ask is whether the railway station is still a gate to the City. If we followed Virilio’s logic, the city has become a gateless City, an area of anxiety. However, the station does not seem to have lost its role as a passage from one place to another, it just enhanced its social, architectural, etc. determinations. It can be identified with that place of action which takes over the flâneur’ territory; it is also a street-like passage where you can both sit and walk. As much as a tourist attraction, an information place where you can sense the pulse of the city, it can also be a space of nostalgic withdrawal for those who avoid the city noise.

We’ve remained the same passers-by, the same “metropolitan bachelors”[2] experiencing space and rewriting the history. We respond to the urban rumor, which points to the city’s violent or subliminal signs. That generates also anxiety. We are the first observers of change or negation; we interact with space and change its framework or crush its traces. The town becomes a phosphorescent collage, where the explosion of the architectural space mimics or simulates the film imagery.

To see/notice and to interact are reduced to a process of obeying to and understanding of the relations from within, and of the game that pops up in-between. However, Architecture remains that privileged site that elaborates the performative construction through expression. It is through its inner nature that it produces the configuration of both real and imaginary spaces, thus setting a gap between what our consciousnesses fully accepts and what may be declared logically possible.

There are two different procedures that confront in the case of a city. The first one is material, precise, belonging to the architectural space itself that not only obeys the technical traditional constraints, but also establishes the plan according to terrorist risks as well. The second one is non-material and belongs to the field of representation, image, and message. As a limit to an urban territory, the debate around the public space is similar to the one around a means of mass communication. It is a landmark and interface of the whole human circuit, from culture and politics to entertainment. The public space has become a tool that manipulates both the sense and erroneous interpretations. As a place of adjustment, of exchange, of communications, of experiencing the first contact, it surpasses its mission. As the flâneur’s space, it can swing between two extremes. It is either a tourist territory – and so there is a vivid concern for its esthetic space – or a no man’s land where you should not venture. The tourist and the tramp[3] are the two social characters that populate permanently interacting with the urban space. Both postmodern actors can express the social script in its entirety. The tramp is a pilgrim to nowhere, traveling along an unorganized space. Their stay for a certain period of time gives structure to the vanquished territory, though different from the native viewpoint. This is why the entire range of entertainment, the restaurants, the commercials, the electronic messages are aimed to conquer them. While moving about the places inhabited by other people, the two actors offer the most interesting performance, that of wonder, of fleeting pleasure, of the most impressive contacts with the city. However, the super-exposed city changes them into patterns meant to monopolize the entire daily living space. Yet, disappointing one’s hopes, the public space appears as an architectural and identity space, one fully open to small narratives; it also favors the mediated information against the directly felt one. Thus the life-like effect will successfully replace the reality at hand.

[1] It is an allusion to the chapter “The Super-exposed City” from Paul Virilio’s book, The Critical Space, a translation published at the Idea Design & Print Publishing House, Cluj, 2001

[2] „Metropolitan bachelor”, a term used by Rem Koolhaas, starting with the analysis of Marcel Duchamp’s work The Great Glass. The discussion around this work is more than difficult, and the speculations turn to be quiet creative; one of the possible translation would be the description/representation of a new coherence of urban life.

[3] Following the demonstration of Zygmund Bauman, The postmodern ethics


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The Super-exposed City and the New Limits of the Public Space
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