4.241J | Spring 2013 | Graduate

Theory of City Form

Lecture Notes

Lec 22: Cases I: Public and Private Domains

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Lecture Summary

The subdivision of the city into public and private domains around issues of use, ownership, control and meaning is more complex than it seems. Often advocates of certain preferences, mostly for increased amounts and quality of public space, conveniently refer to past cities where the definition of public and private was not the same as now. For one, Hannah Arendt’s conception of Greek public life and the agora, where “everything can be seen in public” and which offers a release from individual subjectivity, speaks to a short period of democracy where women and slaves could not participate in the rhetoric of the agora. It was not the pristine place as idealized by Aristotle but a “jumble of crowded downtown streets… where public buildings stood in the midst of market stalls and taverns.” The Roman Forum, a public space not for popular rhetoric but for grand speech, was symbolically connected and referenced outward to the city and to the empire. Feudal society lacked the concept of privacy so available in the contemporary world: “any individual who attempted to remove himself from the close and omnipresent conviviality, to be alone, to construct his own private enclosure, to cultivate his garden, immediately became an object of suspicion or admiration.” Habermas considers the liberal public sphere of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to have emerged parallel to that of the bourgeoisie. Sennett tells the story of private control enabling activity which would not take place in public: in a private coffee bar close to the docks in London, the site of news and gossip about maritime trade, aristocrats, needing this kind of information, found it necessary and possible to associate with sailors, something they would not do in public. Sennett is generally critical of the public domain in the contemporary city, as obsessions with selfhood diminish the need for public space and intercourse with strangers. Jackson characterizes the public square now as simply a place of passive enjoyment but Scruton regards public places important in the city because they force people into the uncertainty and fluidity of civil society as opposed to the intimacy and security of the private family.

New York’s Rockefeller Center is arguably the most successful public open space, other than parks and gardens, of the past century. Tied into the tight spatial network of Manhattan—it even adds a road to it—it fits into and enhances the pattern around it. Where there is no powerful enough informing context, the form of public open space seems quite arbitrary, such as in the case of Boston’s City Hall Plaza, where the form is borrowed from medieval precedent. Despite competitions which have produced visions of morphological and programmatic changes to this plaza, it remains unable to satisfy either in terms of function or of meaning. Much of the failure of such attempts are laid at the feet of the suburban and electronic city where putting one’s body into public space is unnecessary; the lack of functional need where dense housing does not exist; the capacity in the capitalist city for citizens to identify psychologically with private artifacts, such as skyscrapers; the attraction of environments associated with commerce, the book store cum coffee shop, rather than those associated purely with civic purposes; the sense that the street and commerce are more attractive as public places; and the replacement of the insecurity and lack of quality of public space by private facilities, as in the case of new sports facilities. (Sorkin sees these replacements in the shopping mall as ersatz, controlled and ageographic.)

The contemporary city has public and private streets, public law courts with street facades and private law courts in the comfort of skyscrapers, public post offices in private centers, private and public schools which, despite Krier, have similar forms. Are privately owned churches public because they pay no tax, and restaurants, public in use and appearance, private because they do? Does a citizen who owns part of an army camp or a nuclear plant expect access because of public ownership? Is the image of an insurance company skyscraper in Boston more significant in the city than its city hall which the mayor has thought of selling? Who minds if a private restaurant spills over into public open space in return for the restaurant maintaining the space? Such agreements and partnerships are part of the multiplicity of palpable and hidden public private arrangements in cities, and any theory or practice which does not account for them will be inadequate.


Handout for Lecture 22 (PDF - 3.4MB)

  • Page 1: List of attitudes to and practices regarding the past
  • Page 2–3: Introduction on the history and memory as presented in the 1994 Jerusalem Seminar on Architecture
  • Page 4–5: Extended reading list for this lecture, taken from 4.241J as taught in Fall 1997
  • Page 6: Response to Leon Krier’s position on walking-distance communities

Examples, Precedents, and Works

Assisi, Piazza del Comune, Palio di Siena, Piazza del Campo, and Great Cathedral (Italy); Boston’s City Hall Plaza (Massachusetts, United States); Rockefeller Center, Manhattan, Herald Square (New York, United States); The City Tower (Louis Kahn); National Commercial Bank (Saudi Arabia); entry for Pravda (Konstantin Melnikov); Constantinople (Turkey); (New York, United States); Lever House (SOM); Ford Foundation Building (Kevin Roche); Bank of china Tower (I.M. Pei); Centraal Beheer Insurance Company Building (Herman Hertzberger); Trump Tower (Der Scutt); Citicorp (Hugh Stubbins)

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Spring 2013
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