The Paradox of Public (&) Design: Public Space and Nuances of Freedom
Since the freedom implied by the word public is just as elusive, the task of designing a(ny) public space can then be thought of as one of designating freedom, mobilizing it, giving it form. As a middleman of sort, or better yet as a translator that is able to materialize, to mold all those other (faceless or not) forces and idea(l)s into a public (space), the designer is in a position to read between the lines, to leverage one toward the freedom of the other, or for that matter to collude with one’s power against the other. Design can be a genuine or ingenious process of metamorphosis, no doubt. Though, more often than not, unfolding such a becoming — or design as an act of unfolding design as an image of becoming (a process of becoming in itself) — has revealed the latter as a Machiavellian scheme, in which invisible powers take on a public embodiment — hence its integrity — so to normalize their abstraction, hegemony, violence, and to further integrate — or make integral — their yet unforeseen ends. In this case, embodiment is not synonymous with empowerment, because a seemingly proportionate give-take exchange becomes in fact monopolized, a perpetual take(over) masked as a general and generous giving. As such, design becomes a closed loop, a vicious cycle. It doesn’t enable transformation nor a transition, but it assures the rebirth or recolonization of an already established hegemony.
If public projects are described as open through the shapes of their form, their uninterrupted circulatory flow, their multi-program flexibility, their material transparency, and their environment sustainability — among others — then I want to know how these attributes enable the public in return. How do they designate bodies to access and discover their own, as well as their shared freedom in such a place? How does form, flow, flexibility, transparency, sustainability extend similar dimensions of tolerance to the public?
I take open here to imply a given degree of freedom. If we think of architecture as a framing of sorts, then the drawing, the plan, the building become both a device, a witness, a documentation — an artifact of the impossibility to capture or enclose all space — and a mechanism of unfolding it, to (both) discover its human(e) dimension(s) and to test its own (aesthetic and ethic) tolerance toward these dimensions. Why, then, in renderings or any visual documentation, public space is shown as a place of enchantment through recreational activities enabled by service-base programs (such as cafés, concerts, vendors, etc.), and not as a place that allows disenchantment too — where it is safe to protest — that accommodates different types of learning — that is bare from imposed propaganda — thus allowing a leisure of a different kind, an immersion in another sensory experience, that of trees, minerals, textures, sounds that are often drowned out by the spectacle of the images and artificial colors of the city? Why can’t I see or envision the flow, flexibility, transparency or sustainability of the public dimension(s) as tolerated by the enchanted image? Why am I not convinced by the community it portrays?
Because I know a few of its people and I am aware of the socio-economic context they inhabit. Their true shared values and struggles cannot be erased by the image — the opportunities to ameliorate should not be dictated by it either. The enchanted image doesn’t capture, distribute, nor encourage the disenchanted public it represents. It is interested in only redesigning its (designer + bigger forces) dimension of reality, because what good is a designer if s/he doesn’t design. It’s what separates them from their public. It is also the wrong way to go about the privilege and the responsibility given to one as a (public) designer. One should not forget nor dismiss the fact that the public, too, can be an ingenious co-designer. It is why every year, when the city shuts down for various mass-celebrations, I ask myself, it wouldn’t be that different to organize mass-resistances instead. Why is it so difficult to do though? This swelling of the public through planned distractions, why can’t it also become a way to somber it up — to lay it, the city and its institutions bare?
It might indeed be a privilege to be bumped up from a designated public to a designer, but a designer mustn’t forget that s/he will always be part of a community that shares a common reality, no matter how constrictive or constructive s/he designs it to be. The designer’s involvement then can be more than just privilege, it can become a choice to extend this freedom to their community — an invitation to design their livelihood together.
The question thus becomes, a two-parter: first, Which power (ethic) does the designer follow? and then, Which power (force or regime) does public form and livelihood follow?
In Albania, public space has always been designed through oppressive means, be they political or economic. Public livelihood has always been designed as a perpetual struggle to ensure continued dependence — not to encourage or allow independent thriving. It has always been a space that has enabled only the freedoms sanctioned by hegemony, as evident by its increasingly repressive public. The nuances of freedom its society has been subjected to for decades, if not centuries, hasn’t varied much, it has only deepened and normalized the shadows of its public. Bottom-up transgressions of these sanctions have always been harshly punished. But, enforced political mass-gatherings and state propaganda activities, which can also be considered (scaled-up) transgressions, are revered as the right to (practice) free-speech, as democracy at work.
So, who does public space and its public belong to, if not all? Has the public been deterritorialized from the impossibility of its enclosure, the openness and freedom inherent in it, only to be reterritorialized as a belonging to someone? And if its openness — to be shared by all without the fear of prosecution, to use it to speak up — has always been such an impossibility, can we (for sure) say that Albania has ever been truly public? Was it ever given the freedom to discover its own nuances of it? Is there such a freedom left anymore?