European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The use of space

Seldom thought is given as to how space is being used. The same applies to daily life. For example, one wonders how people park their car. They do so, as if they cannot anticipate who else will come along the same way. Another observation made by Haroula Hadijnicolou when she visited the Cathedral in Valletta, for when she stepped outside, then immediately into a cafe with tables alongside the cathedral. She concluded here reigns a confusion between public and private space, and due to the proximity, people no longer are sure on how to behave. As a result, one sign thereof is the litter left behind. 

Often the extreme is the case when space is being determined solely by top-down measures. For instance, planners can proceed like the military and erase any kind of resistance or obstacle, so that it is possible to speed through the streets from A to B. Berlin is an extreme example of this military like planning. Such planning interventions can leave huge squares empty since inaccessible such as the Ernst Reuter Platz in Charlottenburg in Berlin. In other words, the planners were not careful to designate negative spaces as having likewise meaning. This viewpoint can be learned from looking at painting in which is made visible the relationship between different space. 

Once a security agenda begins to demand that armies can to pass through the streets, then such an approach ignores completely the need of people to live in a lifely city made up of different, often not easily accesible niches, and therefore can enjoy a diversity. Interestingly enough that became during Martial Law in Poland evident when resisters fled into the old town to escape the police chasing them and where they found many more possibilities to hide and to escape through narrow side alleys. That is to say, a channel constructed in a straight line and a river winding itself through a natural landscape makes all the difference in how cultural diversity is preserved by cities not giving in to just control.

Likewise spaces in cities become negtive if only used by cars, parking places included. No wonder when cars are called consumers of space. That extends itself beyond the city due to vast road systems making even remote places accessible but at what prize? Unfortunately car makers don't care about these implications. They wish only to sell still more cars regardless of the overall impact upon cities, the environment and nature.

A lot can be deduced out of the use of cars compared with transport by bicycle on how spaces have been transformed. If everything is done in favour of the car as status symbol and as vehicle of private transportation node, then this over dominance reduces the quality of spaces especially in terms of eperiences to be made there. Alone the fact that less and less children play in the streets negates the old thought about the street being the best school.  

Once the car has become the most dominant feature, car makers will lobby against any kind of improvement of moving about in the city. This could happen in terms of limiting use of public transport and more so in terms of a city build so that everything can be reached by being in walking distance. The advantage thereof is that pedesterians can reach their destinations or appointments on time since they move about freely, that is never get caught in a traffic jam. Indeed, the quality of life depends on being able to live within much more predictable time measures. That counts when going to work or else when meeting a friend in a cafe. By contrast, use of car entails an unpredictability not easily to be corrected since cars as a mass vehicle are very immobile. For this reason, Valletta as European Capital of Culture would be well advised to take on this topic of traffic culture, and thereby help to resolve the question about the use of car when it comes to use of space.

There is, for instance, the case of Palermo where decisions of city council have been constantly blocked if they would aim to replace use of the car with other means of going about one's business. This is reflected world wide by putting public transport systems always at a disadvantage to private means of transportation.

Palermo could convert potentially underground tunnels into horizontal rolling escalators just like the ones to be found in airports where travellers would have to walk otherwise long distances to reach the gate where they would board the plane. These mobile belt allow the passengers to stand or even better to walk along on these conveyer belts. They move elegantly but with less energy being exerted towards their departure gates or towars the exit. Brussels' airport is a good example of that.

All this is being said to remind in Malta exists a huge traffic problem and where space for housing, administration and just living is a rare commodity. Moving about turns out to be time cnsuming and even to find in Valletta a parking spot is a huge problem. People are forced to get up earlier than others just to make sure that they have a parking spot close to the city. There exists the main administration and hence many work places for people who do not live in that city but are spread out throughout the island. As a consequence use of space in Malta is predominantly a matter of coping daily with an aweful traffic. The problem is a result of an enormous urban sprawl. 



           Main square and bus terminal at the entrance gate to Valletta 

Something went wrong in how road systems were constructed in Malta. The roads consume not only precious land, since they are almost everything: small road and then a semi highway while being confined at the next circle road to waiting time while the one driver up front hesitates to weave into the traffic flow. More so all these roads cut though settlements, villages and the countrysite. As a result, a waste land is being produced. It is made evident by abandoned houses along the road side. For life in these homes has become unbearable. No one prefers to live directly beside heavily used roads. It has made life in many places unbearable, and thus a lot of that housing stock has been simply abandoned.

The depreciation in quality of life is due to not only noise and pollution, but also difficulties to move about in a place completely alienated from nature. Because of the traffic volume, there is also no mediation possible between a car specific transportation systems and people moving about on foot. That contrast is especially evident when going through the gate and entering into Republican Street of Valletta since then all are walking.

Given this sad state of affairs, there needs to be discussed in Malta what difference it makes if children can still  play in streets. If cities are over dominated by cars, the question becomes but what ecological concept of a city is conveyed to future generations? Use of space equates as well with abuse of nature. Less and less untouched places exist, places children could explore to discover with their imagination another world still unknown. That leaves a negative message for the next generations.

What could be done to save the streets to be still playgrounds for children? The difference to what was conceivable before the coming of the car is apparent. Still, there has to be added the fear parents have today. They no longer want their children to play outdoors. It means that the city is no longer a world to be discovered, even though the way home from school should be something like a secret or personal route. Like life itself not being a straight line, Kate in London loved on her way back home to go through the market place, to visit a shoe maker, to talk with some old ladies sitting on a bench and to cross a bridge, in order to be able to walk home beside the channel. She grew up with a profound love for London. An outsider would never be able to comprehend these inherent feelings which go hand in hand with familiar smells and faces, all transforming the specific locality into a space where one lives and has grown up, so that the place is full of memories. It includes that special knowledge about possible short cuts or streets better to be avoided, if not for the dogs there, then for the bad smell and the risk to get involved in a wrong fight.

Naturally this daily use of space reflects something else. The philosopher Hume would frown upon it because it would not confirm his thesis about habits dominating everything else. Precisely the breaking out of habits is a way to see the city everyday with different eyes. Small insignificant things are then noticed just as much as what outstanding landmarks play a role both for locals and visitors alike.

Trafalgar Square or Big Ben exemplify places in which something stands out in both historical and contemporary terms. Nelson's statue reminds of a famous sea battle, the British Parliament of what the Commons stand for: a liberal deliberation about use of common resources - or at least this is thought of being possible in a classless society, but not one in which class distinction dominates.

Thus use of space reflects as well the existence of class society, or in modern terms who is included, who excluded. That connects as well to the importance given to public spaces and difference they make to private spaces. Culturally speaking, it is important to know the different layers of society made distinct by the users of specific space. For it is not only official ownership or private property which characterizes a modern city, but also the social knowledge to whom these spaces belong to. That can reflect the claim of gangs or what neighbors allow to take place in their squares. It is certainly possible that different users come at different times, and therefore a square in Excharia in Athens can be dominated by different groups setting the tone. It can come there to a rally of the neighboring families who wanted the square to be safe again for their children and thus chased the drug trafficers off that square. Those social battles came into consciousness through a film like West Side Storey with most of the fights taking place in the shadow of the cement pillars upholding over head roads bypassing the ghetto below.

Perception on how space can be used does play a role. Therefore, a follow up would be needed to the book by Martin Jay about 'Disenchantment of the Eye'. While the glance can be superficial, another person will note details. It matters, therefore, what can be perceived in one specific space by different persons passing through. An interesting analysis of a modern glance would be to trace what is perceived first of all when stepping into a square. While some look out for outstanding symbols which can immediately indicate the tension between official and inofficial rule. Others would simply follow with their eyes a dog running over the middle of the square. It matters how one enters when space is to be used for a specific purpose. Someone looking for a bench to rest will have another glance compared to demonstrators coming into the square to make their demands be heard. Most of the time all these glances are based on expectations but also on certain memories if some special experiences have been made at that location. Naturally the latter aspect would mean a space entails as well a certain myth or meaning conveyed by what people say about that square. For places or spaces are upheld by certain reputations, and that is due to certain expectations being fulfilled in a certain way. That implies in some places there exists a code for a certain behaviour. Further analysis thereof at anthropological level can entail finding out more on how this implies use of space in a certain way.  

However, it is important to notice as well other details. Less noticed is, for example, the unseeming sculpture of Rodin of the citizens of Calais behind Parliament in London! It can be found in a small park adjacent to the Thames river. How this sculpture (one of many copies) came to be located there, is itself worthy of further inquiry. It symbolizes what brave citizens were willing to sacrifice, namely their own lives, in order to save the entire city from being burned down by the approaching invader. What this has to do with defending democracy can be wondered. Even more important is the underlying message how crucial is the ability to safeguard human beings, so that no such sacrifice is needed to spare the city!

Progress in terms of civilization is only made when free from either/or alternatives which Habermas has called false one. Freedom is clearly something having to do with both space and time, the syntax thereof reflective of the fact to what extent the citizen is free from any coercive logic. 

In the case of Trafalgar Square, it would be interesting to have available a magic like archive which would allow a revue of how different protest movements use this public space. The square lies at the foot of the National Gallery and entails many more memories than what can be reaccounted here.

Most important is that spaces are not just physical entities. They are in the imagination folies to construct and reshape constantly something which is literally in the air. It might be the Marathon run through London during the Olympic Games or else a protest against Britain about to enter the war in Iraq in 2003. Street protesters would hold up their posters on wooden sticks and therefore the entire crowd would resemble a strange kind of 'Schilderwald' - forests of signs. Even the red double deckers would be crowded out or barely be noticed when passing through the square. Yet when things quiet down, then there is again just the fountain with the pigeons. It leaves the imagination free to interplay with what took place there before and what might show up in future all while a kind of continuity in time is guaranteed by the towering statue of Nelson. This then reminds more of war as continuum of self assertion. In such a glance of history evaporates any other thought about what might have been another way to retain memories of the past while beseeching at the same time a continuity not very much in favour of stepping out of bad habits. All what then can be heard is the refrain of that famous song "when will they ever learn!"

The art of using space


All of this has been said on the basis of poetic reflections of space e.g. Bachelard and the space a sea shell entails in terms of millions of years. For instance, it can be noticed that the glance is directed towards what dominates an urban space e.g. in the past it has been a cathedral. There appears to be a kind of dialectic between edifice and use of a particular space by inhabitants opposed to official forces. This use may also change over time. Use of space has a tradition but how it can be used for some specific purposes, that is revealed when Occupy Wall Street suddenly used a park for meetings even though that park was privately owned and therefore forced sooner or later the police to act. That is the case of a society putting a higher value on private than public property.

That confusion between private and public is exactly what is entailed when saying this space has a special meaning. It is like a myth which ensures a self fulfillment of what one expects when going there to experience something unique since only possible in that space and not in any other. Naturally this may not be true in reality. Other uses may come and go but they are not remembered so much since they have not altered the major paradigm of how this space can be used for what purposes.

To put it mildly, a church cannot be used for a football game, but even then many churches have been transformed e.g. when Glasgow became European Capital of Culture, a church became a cultural centre. Naturally such a new use would entail the removal of all the benches and altar, that is an alteration of what constitutes the basic structure of a church. Space for whorship differs from a space used for theatrical purposes.

Even then Bob Palmer may differ here since he was one of the first artistic directors when Glasgow was ECoC in 1990 to convert a church into a cultural centre, and thereby bring people back into the centre of the city. But that reuse did not deviate so much from the church. It was still a place of gathering even though under very different circumstances and principles which suggests Oliver Leronte Schultz might be onto something when identifying use of space as an expression of a certain power. This power is exercised by subsuming everything else which takes place in that space. By putting everything under certain principles, space is made into an enclosure of certain meanings.

It would then be critical to trace what evokes a certain image of the new use of space since this expresses how people come to identify with this new use of space. For instance, they would no longer refer to the cross as symbol of a Christian church, but rather they would point to a flute or two people sitting symbolically on a bench to underline the new meaning. 

All that has, however, not as of yet evoked a sense for what is meant by the art to use space. Michel Foucault came the closest when saying, that it is for philosophers to create space but not to preoccupy it oneself. When Foucault attended a conference in Berlin with the seeming title 'No Future', he remained silent all along. He let others speak. This art of giving space to others makes it also crucial in times of intensified discussions about too many migrants coming or not into the country. If everything is reduced to physical space and to the number of people, it can seem to be too much. That is how Cameron in the UK would argue when citing how many migrants came into the UK alone this year compared to last year. Yet anyone who has ever lived in a community flat will know that within the same space it can be too tiny for the three people while at the same time it can be experienced that 23 people live together and yet everyone thinks there is more space to take in more people. Clearly the difference is how the objects within the space and then the overall space is literally 'occupied' by one or some people who attach a certain meaning to the place and space, and who would be deeply disturbed if new people would come along and overturn the meanings they have given to all objects in the space. Thus the prime art is to give rather than take space, and to limit the use thereof by allowing only certain meanings to manifest themselves or to claim these and no other meanings must be observed. The latter can mean the chair has to stand in a certain way, otherwise it would be taken as disorder and considered to be highly disturbing.   

Use of public spaces can become controversial discussions especially if there stands suddenly a horse with three legs as was the case in September 2014.



A horse with only three legs upset people for an obvious and not so obvious reason. As someone would explain once the leg of a horse is damaged, it gets usually shot. That leads to the more subtle point. The missing leg creates a special kind of free space. The horse cannot step on someone toes. As subtle as this point may be, it serves as a reminder that sculptures tend to frighten more easily people when compared to a painting for the simple reason that sculptures take away space.

Naturally there is an entirely different matter if an exhibition about Ancient Greece reminds of the first free standing sculpture. That became a replica of man himself.

^ Top

« Cultural Mapping | Conference: Cities as Community Spaces 2016 »