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SIEF2015 12th Congress: Zagreb, Croatia.
21-25 June 2015


Public space as utopia

Location A124
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2015 at 10:30


Elise Billiard (University of Malta) email
Jana Tsoneva (CEU) email
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Short Abstract

Questioning utopias, this panel seeks to explore the different utopias behind the recent calls for public spaces - both as physical places of social encounter as well as in their conceptual dimension as politicized spaces of thought and action.

Long Abstract

The most controversial element today that connects different utopian visions is the fact that they are visions of public space, that is, conceptualizations of communal, political and social life. Whilst the dominant neo-liberal view rejects utopian visions for this precise reason, because utopias are regarded as totalizing projects, there has been a recurrent call for public spaces in urban planning and in academic research. Indeed, does not today's emphasis on a preservation of heritage, the protection of the environment and democratic ideals express a disavowed, nostalgic belief in utopia through organization of public space going back to models such as the ideal Greek city? Green parks, pedestrianized historical centers and regenerated river walks in big cities are praised to be the space where locals meet spontaneously, bridging their differences, allegedly fostering social cohesion. At a time when the loss of a sense of place as much as the loss of social cohesion is becoming worrying for many, public spaces are often seen to provide an ideal solution.

Can a democratic utopia become real through the planning of urban public spaces? If architects can provide the space of utopia to be materialized, does it mean necessarily that they can foster democracy, sustainable heritage or ecological cities? Finally, can utopia be realized by altering material spaces or should there be a stronger focus on the social production of utopia?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Questionning the ownership of public spaces in Malta

Author: Elise Billiard (University of Malta)  email

Short Abstract

In Malta, the State spends little in the maintenance and upgrading of public spaces when it is not selling big pieces of public land to companies or states. In this light, who owns public space in Malta?

Long Abstract

The category 'Public' in land regulations presumes its ownership by the state who acts as the garantor of its free access.However the Maltese example shows that numerous areas are closed or difficult to access. In this light it is legitimate to think that public land is regarded in Malta as a dormant investment that can become a source of wealth when sold to companies or other states (like the recent sell of coastal land to People's Republic of China). The sad state of most municipal parks in the urban districts for instance illustrates clearly that public gardens are not considered an important space fostering social cohesion and well-being. In fact the keen observer will notice that local inhabitants often water plants in public gardens themselves in the same way as they build up small huts that eventually solidify and congregate to form secondary summer villages.

If the state does not anymore act as the guarantor to preserve public land for all, who owns public space?

Utopian futures for whom?

Author: Samantha Hyler (Lund University)  email

Short Abstract

Sustainable cities imagine peaceful, tolerant, and green places free from today's fears of ecological destruction and social and political unrest. But who is this utopian future for, and how can it be achieved? How is sustainability and utopia constructed and maintained, and for what purposes?

Long Abstract

This paper addresses the creation and framing of at times utopian futures in relation to the ongoing vision planning in a Swedish coastal city, which is aimed towards the not-so-distant year of 2035. The choice for sustainable city planning is often motivated by a normative rhetoric of two potential futures: a dystopian or utopian one. Thus strategic urban planners are creating, pursing, negotiating, and maintaining ever-fluctuating utopian (hence sustainable) visions of the future. This concerns the 'elusive promises' (Abram and Weszkalnys 2013) in city planning and it is about the consequences and complications of efforts to envision and plan unknowable futures.

City marketing and branding contribute much to this city's future envisioning process through the use of social media, large promotional fairs, and marketing events among other methods. Posters, a website, and a blog promote the vision by describing a sustainable future in the year 2035. "What do you want?" they muse to their audience. Yet the process of fantasizing about the future raises many questions, not least the question of for whom that future is being built, and by whom. Whose utopia (or ideas of sustainability, democracy, or values) counts in the process of constructing the future? Which future city will come into being and for whom is this future city?

Public space and utopia: the role of contemporary arts

Author: Alexander Kiossev (University of Sofia)  email

Short Abstract

The paper will explore on concrete examples the problematic function of contemporary arts in public space.

Long Abstract

Utopia by its very origin was a vision, a systematical daydream: playful Renaissance literature provided a visionary "nowhere" for critique of and imaginary experiments with the actual reality. During the Enlightenment this literary genre gradually developed to philosophical tractate and a serious plans for social engineering. In all their variants they provided models for spatial organization of the perfect society: from the phalansteries of Fourier, via the geometrical departmentalization of France and the "Haussmann-ization" of Paris, up to Courvoisier's "the city of tomorrow' utopias moved closer to urban planning - they envisioned articulated urban units, models of ideal distribution of working and resting zones, transport routes, private and public spaces etc. .

In the meantime the modern public sphere emerged and moved into opposite, non-spatial direction. Starting from French salons and English teahouses it transcended all concrete forums and expanded toward ideal communicative space of huge social agents (humankind, civilization, Europe, nations, classes, races etc.).

Given these two centripetal historical developments - can public space be utopian today? There are opinions, insisting that contemporary public arts are the only possible agent of such secondary "utopeanization" of public space, capable of including freedom, flexibility, and imagination in it.

But is that really the case? Contemporary arts have problems of their own: narcissism and scandals, pressure of arts markets, self-isolation (although on global scale) into professional networks having little to do with public mission and external audiences.

The paper will explore on concrete examples the problematic function of contemporary arts in public space.

Geothermal resources and everyday practices of wellness: the Icelandic swimming pool culture

Authors: Ólafur Rastrick (University of Iceland)  email
Örn Jónsson  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on perspectives form ethnography and sociology the paper explores the everyday practices and routines fostered by easily accessible and low-priced public swimming pools in Iceland that were introduced on bases of ample geothermal resources in the country.

Long Abstract

Due to abundant geothermal resources Icelanders enjoy the comfort of inexpensively heated homes and easily accessible year-round public spaces where young and old can gather irrespective of social standing, age and bodily condition. The outdoor public swimming pool has in recent decades become the most frequented gathering place nationwide fostering utopic characteristics as a place of democracy and wellness. As a part of a study on the impact of the 'geothermal' on everyday life of Icelanders the paper focuses on the rhythms and routines of daily use of the cheaply and widely accessible pools and hot-tubs. On daily bases the facilities attract hordes of people that prepare themselves for the day in public in contrast to the overall trend in other affluent societies that have made the care of the body a private affair. Drawing on ethnological and sociological insights the paper scrutinizes these practices with reference to conceptualizations of cleanliness and wellbeing and exploring gender sensitive rules and stringent boundaries of nakedness in public and private open spaces. The study is based on detailed survey material gathered from different parts of the country reflecting diversity in age and gender and mapping everyday practices of the Icelandic swimming pool culture and the qualities of the pool as public space.

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Utopian spaces: the lived space of a marginalised waste picking community

Author: Nandini Sen (Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany)  email

Short Abstract

Excluded from Calcutta city planners’ spatial matrix and consigned to invisibility, waste pickers of the city reclaimed for themselves ‘the utopian space’ at a considerable distance from mainstream socio-spatial relations and state presence.

Long Abstract

Excluded from Calcutta city planners' spatial matrix and consigned to invisibility, waste pickers of the city reclaimed for themselves 'the utopian space' at a considerable distance from mainstream socio-spatial relations and state presence. The emphasis in this paper is to study how marginal community appropriated abandoned land in ways that proved productive of group cohesion by nurturing collective memories, cultivating the idea of a new life (formed by magical invention, effective negotiation, cynicism and illusion), fostered a desire for escape. I refer to this magical space of the marginal community as 'utopian space'.

Urban spaces are in strategic control of the powerful (state, mainstream). Strategies of powerful regulate geometric shapes of space through concrete fire proofing, fencing, lines of demarcation, legal boundaries in order to reduce unplanned contingencies. Marginalised community form utopian space on different principles since they cannot apply the Euclidian theories on stolen-illegal and grabbed derelict land. Short-term tactics are developed to protect the integrity of the magical space by continuously working in concrete, embedded, day-to-day ways to repair and maintain the bonds and boundaries. Marginals know they run the constant risk of being dispossessed of their magical space at any point of time. Spaces of their shelter, leisure, markets and transport pathways are defended by tactics, ruses, humour, governed by a constant sense of situational immediacy. Regardless of clever such subterranean tactics are they count for nought if overwhelmed by vulnerability of utopian space.

Playfully public: Edinburgh botanical gardens as utopian spectacle and neoliberal project

Author: Kirstie Jamieson (Edinburgh Napier University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores Edinburgh Night in the Garden in relation to the city’s history of festivalized public space. In doing so, it identifies two interwoven teloi that have instituted festivals as an affective idiom used in the name of neoliberal urban growth; the festival gaze and auratic experience.

Long Abstract

Edinburgh exists as the pre-eminent city of ambient festival space boasting as it does a calendar of conspicuous cosmopolitan public life that announces the arrival of a self-consciously international urban mood. The city's longstanding 'reflexive accumulation' (Lash and Urry 1995) of ambient environments as a distinct signifier of cultural identity continues to mine the performativity of public space as evidence of a cultural and participative destination.

Over the past two decades and beyond the self-proclaimed Festival City the curation of affective urban space has been sustained by the viral discourse of Creative Cities and European Cultural Capitals. Today, in Edinburgh it seems that the lexicon of festivalized public space may be shifting its performative emphasis towards technologies of attunement that privilege both more sensory and bounded public spaces. The city's most recent addition to its calendar is Night in the Garden, a light installation that for the first time in the Edinburgh Botanic Garden's history allows visitors at night.

This paper explores the Night in the Garden's curated shadows in relation to the city's history of festivalized public space. In doing so, it identifies two interwoven teloi that have instituted festivalized public space as a recognisable affective idiom used in the name of neoliberal urban growth; the festival gaze and auratic experience.

The city of Dimitrovgrad: from utopia to 'inconvenient heritage'

Author: Petar Dobrev (Sofia University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper deals with the discourse metamorphoses of the Bulgarian city of Dimitrovgrad - perceived as an example of socialist utopia, today it receives a different official interpretation - as an 'inconvenient totalitarian past', but its utopian roots seem to have survived until the present.

Long Abstract

Talking about a reinvigorated belief in utopia through organization of public space, it is interesting to take a look back at history and, specifically, at the previous attempts of creating a radically new civic reality. The focus of this paper is the Bulgarian city of Dimitrovgrad, built shortly after the establishment of the socialist state of Bulgaria. Defined from its very beginning as 'The City of Youth' and 'A Wholly New Reality', Dimitrovgrad was perceived as an example of the socialist utopia. Its builders directly stated their intention to break off with the past and even overcome the constraints of time and nature to build the "Home of Socialism", where the new socialist citizen was supposed to be born. Today, 25 years after the end of socialist rule, Dimitrovgrad receives a completely different official interpretation - as a part of a 'pan-European network of totalitarian cities'. 'Inconvenient and terrible past', which through the neo-liberal European policies can develop tourism and create economic benefits. Based on extensive field work, this paper analyzes the discourse metamorphoses of the city, whose utopian roots seem to have survived until the present, despite all changes.

Warsaw’s ‘Palace complex’: an actually-existing stalinist utopia in a capitalist city

Author: Michał Murawski (University College London )  email

Short Abstract

Tracing the afterlives of Socialist architecture in late-capitalist Warsaw, this paper provides ethnographic material for a critical engagement with philosopher V. Todorov's (1991) contention that 'Communism produced ultimately effective aesthetic structures and ultimately defective economic ones'.

Long Abstract

My argument begins with a brief historical survey. I trace the continuity between paradigmatic (built and unbuilt) monuments to gigantism across successive stages in Soviet history: Tatlin's Monument to the Third International (1919), Lissitzky's Wolkenbügel (1925), Boris Iofan's Palace of the Soviets (1934) and the seven Stalinist high-rises built in Moscow between 1947 and 1953. I examine these against the background of foundational Constructivist notions: Lissitzky's idea of the Palace of Labour/Culture as 'power source for the new order' (1929) and Moisei Ginzburg's notion of the 'social condenser' (1927).

Turning to ethnographic and archival data collected during fieldwork in Warsaw (2008-2010), I argue that the material and ideational content embodied in the above achieves a remarkable level of fulfilment in the form and function of the Palace of Culture and Science, a skyscraper 'gifted' by the Soviet Union to Poland in 1955. Echoing Constructivist language, the Palace's Stalinist designers envisioned the Palace as a 'distributor' of 'architectural power … throughout the city as a whole', and as a 'transformer … of the infrastructure of social ties' in the city (Goldzamt 1956). Deploying ethnographic materials, this paper shows how the Palace today – despite (or because of) the collapse of the state socialist system in 1989 – exerts a more powerful impact than ever before on Warsaw's architecture, on its political, commercial and cultural existence and on the social lives, bodies, minds and affects of the city's inhabitants.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.