By Debika Ray

06 June 2018 - 09:06

Bird’s-eye view of Island at the British Pavilion for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018.
Bird’s-eye view of Island at the British Pavilion for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018. ©

British Council photo by Cultureshock Media

This year's Venice Biennale architecture exhibition is titled 'Freespace'. We asked architecture and design journalist Debika Ray about public space and how the designers of the British Pavilion interpreted the theme.

What is public space?

Space that’s open and accessible. Somewhere people can take part in communal activities, interact with each other, and have more room to live than would otherwise be available to most of us. 

It could be common land and public areas of a city, like a park. Or privately owned spaces that are open to the public. For example, cafes, restaurants, some public transport, and anywhere you need to buy a ticket to get into, like a theatre or football stadium.

Why is public space important?

It knits together individuals, couples and families into a society. The spaces that we share, and how we choose to use them, reflect our common values and make social bonds stronger.

But it’s not enough for authorities and organisations to simply offer a space.

What matters about public space is who owns it, what are the intentions behind it, and what rights people have to use it. In a functional and healthy society, people should have the right to use public space in a way that benefits everyone, without coercion and control.

How should architects plan public space?

Architects need to leave the space loose and flexible enough so that it doesn't dictate to those using it. But they also need to design the space so that it will be used in specific ways that strengthen a sense of community.

Copenhagen’s Islands Brygge harbour baths, designed by architect Bjarke Ingels, is a great example. They are free public swimming baths in the centre of the city, but they are not prescriptive like a swimming pool might be – rather, they operate more like a beach, with areas for play, socialising and sunbathing.

Who do architects consult when they’re planning public space?

Ideally, architects should consult the public, who the space is designed for. But the public is not a homogenous group with a single set of interests. So, for an architect designing a public space, deciding what and who should be a priority is both tricky and important. 

Unfortunately, architects are not often in the position to decide what should be a priority. The people paying for a development, whether it’s a private body or the state, are the ones who usually shape such spaces. There are often competing interests, relating to different demands for exclusivity, privacy and security.

For example, some cities have taken the controversial step of introducing spikes on flat spaces in public areas to prevent homeless people from resting or sleeping there. Many people consider this to be unnecessarily hostile.

How can people influence public planning where they live?

A good example of people shaping public space is the development of the High Line in New York, which is a public park built along an old freight rail line above Manhattan's West Side.

A non-profit group, Friends of the High Line, rallied public and political support for the transformation of an abandoned railway park, and raised millions in funding for the project. As well as raising money and carrying out feasibility studies to prove the project’s economic value, they found creative ways to work with the existing planning system. For instance, they applied for a 'Certificate of Interim Trail Use' to protect the out-of-use rail corridor from development, on the grounds that the country might need it again.

What kind of results do you expect from good public planning?

Antanas Mockus, the mayor of Bogotá between 1995 and 2003, provides a good example. He used humour and playfulness to change citizens’ behaviour in public. He hired mimes to embarrass people into following traffic laws, which he felt would be more effective than punitive fines.

The eternal balance is between freedom and security. People want public space that is safe, clean and orderly. Ideally, this shouldn’t come at the expense of being welcoming, easy to use and adaptable. 

What are some of the consequences of bad public planning?

A lack of public planning does not necessarily mean a lack of vibrant street life – that can emerge in spite of poor planning. But planning that prioritises individuals' homes, cars, privacy and security over flexibility and openness can lead to cities that are soulless, hostile and isolating. 

Several cities – from Oslo to Chengdu – have started trying to reduce the number of cars from their centres. Walkable cities are healthier and happier, and have a greater sense of community.

How has planning for public space changed over the last few decades?

Many cities have privatised public space. A lot of public space today is held by organisations that can control how people use it. That can include preventing some people from using public space to protest or linger.

The company that runs London’s Canary Wharf district, for example, has used the law to prevent campaigners such as the Occupy protests from targeting the banks within it. London is, in fact, now full of many such privately owned public spaces – from Granary Square in King’s Cross to Paternoster Square in the City. It’s inevitable that, in these kinds of spaces, the owners will seek to maximise commercial returns more than nurture community.

How does climate affect our use of public space?

In many hot countries, public space is barely usable because of the lack of shade. Those who can afford to travel in air-conditioned cars do so, and others are left to navigate poorly maintained, dusty roads, which authorities neglect in favour of main roads for cars.

Similarly, in many cold countries, people who cannot afford to spend money (young or poor people, for example) have nowhere to socialise because little indoor public space exists that doesn’t expect them to buy something. Shaded and sheltered non-commercial public space is a must for any city that takes the wellbeing of all its citizens seriously.

How did the architects of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale interpret the theme of ‘Freespace’?

The team created a dramatic installation to make a statement about the notion of freedom. It is a platform above the permanent British Pavilion building in Venice, raised high above all the other nearby structures. It’s called 'Island', and is designed to make you contemplate how a space that’s cut off from everything else can be a place of isolation or of sanctuary, depending on how you choose to relate to others.

The curators of the space connected with the wider context, by inviting people from other countries and pavilions to use the space. It’s a poignant and thought-provoking message at a time when Britain is choosing to leave the European Union – isolating itself from its nearest neighbours, while hoping to build bridges with others.

Debika Ray was on the panel to select curators for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2018. She is the founder of Clove magazine and also writes for Icon magazine.

The British Council presents Island at the British Pavilion for the 16th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, which runs from 26 May to 25 November 2018. 

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