POST-IT CITY: The Other European Public Spaces

Giovanni la Varra

The landscape of public life in the European city is changing. The public space of contemporary Europe has its own icons: it is ample, sharply defined, with raw, precious, sparkling materials, fashioned in diverse ways, with a sophisticated composition of green spaces and trees, "hard" and "soft" spaces. The successful articulation of this genre is found in the great, hyper-defined open spaces of the new European plazas, where distinctive first-class businesses move in.

Alongside such spaces are other "public space" that punctuate the urban territory. In the city center or on the edges, at the heart of the nineteenth-century tissue or in the great external zones, they compose an infinite catalogue of informal spaces, with innumerable articulations: street vendors, veritable bars on wheels that bring together young people and prostitutes, policemen and bums, at night in Milan, specially equipped vans serving as discotheques in the streets of London suburbs, the vacant lots of Berlin described by Wenders, improvised raves bringing together thousands of party-goers together in the industrial wastelands of small and mid-sized cities in the heart of Europe, scattered, spontaneous shops on the streets and squares of Belgrade during the embargo, literally occupying the urban public space whose meaning and value they transfigure.

These dynamics carry out a temporary rewriting of the urban space they fill - traditional but also provisional spaces, which are mobilized as a function of events, of the evolution of the city, of the specific individual or group initiatives, constituting a fragile and fragmentary network which filters into the tightly woven structures of urban public space. Post-It City is a functional apparatus of the contemporary city. It is particularly involved with the dynamics of public life, with the behavior of individuals, their modes of encounter, of gathering, of bonding, of recognition, and of distinction, which all leave the traditional paths behind. Equally and more radically, Post-It City is a form of resistance against virtual modes of encounter and the normalization of "public behavior" in the contemporary city - where as Ed Soja reminds us, "even if you donít want to, you have to respect the role assigned to you."

The Post-It metaphor actually concerns a rather narrow spectrum of urban phenomena. But traditional public space, as its representational use value changes, is obliged to take the complexity and heterogeneity of the cultural and social mutations conveyed by these phenomena into account. New collective spaces are joining the network of public places that connote the historical city, and the network of public places that punctuate the density of the contemporary city, which is characterized by a planned diffusion, an extension of relations, an attachment to communication networks. This new reality shifts the traditional dynamics of public life into new conditions. What emerges from these temporary spaces is above all non-codification. Unlike the simulated public spaces whose mechanisms of "controlled reaction" offer inhabitants, tourists and suburbanites very specific chances to meet and exchange, the Post-It spaces have no predominant codification: they are vacant lots, residual spaces around the communications systems, kinds of dikes around urbanized zones-spaces the planner's gaze has left untouched. Their residual character, their indifference to the traditional network, their tangential position to the major flows leaves them at the fringes: on the fringes of the complex stratification of images produced by architecture and urbanism, on the fringes of the tradition of these disciplines, whose projects are closed, limited in time, precisely shaped according to contingent needs.

The second characteristic of the Post-It phenomena is that they are temporary. They unfold in a particular time-span with the presence of temporary participants. During the day, for example, it is quite impossible to recognize any sign of the night-time uses of a shopping-center parking lot. The Post-It spaces occupy a short slice of time in the sequence of a city-dweller's day. In almost every case, it is a narrow interval of space and time that slips in between a series of hypercodified environments. Inserted between the family framework of the home and the mega-interior of the discotheque or multiplex, the teenager's night-time meeting-place is a typical example. It is an individual reappropriation of the modes and times of collective exchange, freeing them from the particular rules of the family framework and from the invasive, normalizing rules of the "architecture of entertainment," to rediscover individualized and intimate interpersonal relations.

Intensification is the third characteristic of Post-It City - the intensification of anonymous, unsuspected spaces and places, "no-man's lands" which are astonishingly available for collective practices. But it is also an intensification of the signifiers fixed in the materiality of the space. Intimate, emotional places for sharing the practices of encounter, which allow themselves neither to be modeled or obstructed. Or personal and collective activities, desires, projections, which occupy spaces without any ambition to lay foundations, to root their presence, and without promoting any antagonism over the use of the space. The "unpolitical" nature of such collective practices cannot be measured by absolute demands or perspectives of radical transformation. In this respect what predominates is above all the disarming effect of Post-It City. Architectural reflection has a hard time translating the nature of these phenomena into its own terms, in order to incorporate them into a project. But Post-It City, if we broaden the meaning of the expression, definitely is the bearer of a distinct and singular project. With Post-It City we want to make an un-predetermined, temporary use of a space which is open like a public space, and subject to perpetual resignification.

Post-It City is like a thread or an invisible watermark that runs through the contemporary city. Invisible at first, the phenomena of Post-It City are not ostensible, even if their nature greatly depends on the dimensions of the territory. It is often a matter of "exposed" places where it is possible to see the city, the landscape, and the territory crossed by the flows of mobility. These places are characterized by what Stefano Boeri has called a "territorial intimacy," which continually brings their residual nature, their marginality into a state of tension. Post-It City is also an implicit critique of the strategies and instruments that preside over the practices of architectural and urban design. The critique is "implicit" because it does not give rise to specific demands. Occupying a space which belongs to no one, doing so temporarily but repeatedly, giving it another meaning inside a small group without modifying its spatial and material nature, is not an attitude which prefigures any particular demand: for example the demand for "inhabitable space," or any other environmental condition, or nay new services.

Post-It City rediscovers the dimension of "do it yourself," as Colin Ward says, a dimension which is above all creative and abounds in its own proposals and reflection. This "do it yourself" denounces the hidden, spasmodic will to impose a practice of collective space, it is foreign to the preordained and preconstituted models of habitat.

But Post-It City is obviously not an anarchic phenomenon. On the contrary, it is progressive and exploratory in its adaptation to a new framework. It is an innovative form of sociality that takes place in specific places and develops partial, temporary, fleeting emotions. There is only the slightest of links between its places of aggregation and their appearances. And these links cannot be interpreted in a single way. Sometimes a tie is made between totally marginal places, constructed by superimposition, intermittence, and gradual accumulations of objects without reciprocal relations, these places can be used for encounters and exchanges of a particular "population." A vacant lot, a strip along the edges of transportation infrastructures, a void that opens up temporarily in a zone of dense construction: chance will define it, by the sum total of stratifications (or subtractions) which, in the course of time, have produced an uncertain, undefinable result, at least in the technical terminology that habitually characterizes the city.

But at the other extreme, Post-It City also extends to places whose formal definition is completely univocal and strongly determined: this is the case of the shopping center-parking lots evoked above, which at night or on holidays become gathering points. The proximity of the major road infrastructures makes them a possible interval, a stopover on a car trip. You suddenly leave the flow, but remain in direct visual communication with it. The automobile becomes a complementary element of this temporary occupation: it marks off a space and signals a momentary presence.

Post-It City seems to stress the extremes of what formally characterizes the city today. It is above all under the conditions of maximum uncertainty and ultimate reduction that it is easiest to reveal the depth of the phenomenon. In this constellation of spaces, which continually "light up" and "go dark," the public life of the European city seems to find the energy of regeneration.

Post-It City is one of the case studies of the USE Project. The description of USE - Uncertain States of Europe by Stefano Boeri is also in subsol.

about Giovanni la Vara >>