Out of curiosity I recently opened Google’s search engine and typed “public space NYC.” 1 I did this expecting that “parks and recreation” might appear, with some sort of official definition and a set of rules. Yet, the first hit—actually, almost the entire first page of results—was dedicated to Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS). You can find a legal definition, location, quantity, and even some advocacy work around the spaces. One official city government page even boasts that POPS create 3.5 million square feet of “public” space “in parts of the city with little access to public parks.” 2 No mention is made as to why those areas lack the public resources to create city-owned parks to begin with.
I became interested in POPS in 2011 when people in New York City set up tents in Zuccotti Park, known back then as Liberty Plaza. This move would serve as research in action, asking for a clarification of the rules
governing POPS, and testing how public they truly are. I helped to found and lead a collective project called #whOWNSpace, which sought to question the often-conflicting rules governing privatized public space and POPS, to advocate for changes when necessary, and to propose alternative policies, uses, and designs for shared spaces. 3 The #whOWNSpace collective made maps that showed the location and rules that regulate both POPS and city-managed public spaces in Manhattan and led workshops in the Financial District, Midtown, Upper East Side and Greenpoint to document the design and rules of POPS. We also successfully led a public advocacy effort that helped lead to the re-opening of the plaza by creating visualizations of the POPS regulations that the New York Police Department violated when they evicted the Occupy Wall Street camp, put up barriers around Zuccotti Park, and asked people to report the violations
to the Department of Buildings.
As we worked on #whOWNSpace projects it became clear that we must negotiate what ties public, shared, and common resources. According to the Department of City Planning definition of POPS, private developers provide somewhat open and accessible spaces to the public in “exchange for additional building area or other considerations such as relief from certain height and setback restrictions.” 4 Through an open process, our study of public space looked at the sometimes hidden conflicts that are part of a political experience in the public sphere. In one example, we found that many of the legally unenforceable rules posted in POPS turn them into inert spaces for passive uses like eating lunch. The interior POPS at 66 Wall Street, for example, had a plaque in 2011 that prohibited “Excessive Use of Space,” whatever that may mean. Active uses—including canvassing, holding meetings, organizing communities—are not allowed. Yet, these activities are critical in a democratic society, as they help people become informed and to participate
in the political system.
As the focus of #whOWNSpace began to shift, I received a commission from the Queens Museum to work on community engagement in Corona Plaza: a new plaza the Department of Transportation of New York is building at Roosevelt Avenue and 113th Street. The commission was an opportunity to collectively explore conflict and negotiation with residents of Corona, Queens, while thinking about the future of this plaza.
Given that the commissioning institution was an art museum, I could not help but think about Claire Bishop’s 2004 essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” Nicolas Bourriaud first used the term relational aesthetics to describe the work of a group of artists in the 1990s interested in exploring artwork that focused on “human interactions and their social context.” 5 Bourriaud uses the work of artist Rirkrit Tiravanija—who came to fame in part by cooking and offering Thai food to gallery visitors—as a main example of “objects that produce sociability.” In contrast, Bishop asks, “if relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?” 6 Or as I often wonder: if we all eat Thai food together in the same room do we really create a coherent and actionable “public
?” For Bishop, this view of relational aesthetics seems to require a sense of shared subjectivity
. In order to fully participate, one would have to identify with a hegemonic group (i.e., gallery patron) with little room for other kinds of interactions or questions.
Keeping in mind these issues of subjectivity and conflict in contemporary arts practices, we began work in Corona. There, we worked with a complex constituency
that could broadly be described as one composed of immigrants, but in reality represented many nations and racial, ethnic, and gender groups, with very different views on how to use the space. The question then became how to create tools for engagement that could allow conflicts and anxieties among users of the space to be visualized. The goal was not to try to “solve” any of those conflicts but rather to understand that public spaces are built on contradictions inherent in even well-meaning projects like this plaza.
The first action in the plaza happened in January of 2013. We began by affixing six street signs to the infrastructure of the plaza—the 7 train, street posts, fences, etc. Each of the signs explored a potential conflict or boundary around six topics: belonging and identity, public services, green spaces, mobility, local economies, and political power. Furthermore, each of the signs were comprised of:
• A potential conflict or boundary that may keep Corona Plaza from being used fully by the community.
• A diagram that reveals how permeable that boundary is.
• A description and a key question for each boundary.
• A translucent spatial diagram that looks at the boundary’s effect in the spatial experience of the plaza.
Together, the signs created what passersby called a “low-tech augmented reality” diagram of the plaza.
The signs were placed in the plaza for one weekend when our team was present to interact with passersby. During that time we collected stories
such as one of a cyclist who asked us not to use his name. He told us about living in a small apartment with three other people who, like himself, moved to New York from Mexico. He used his bicycle to get to the plaza because the apartment was about 2 miles from the station and not near a bus station. He did not usually use the plaza, due to its strong police presence (this location has one of the highest percentages of stop-and-frisk searches by the New York Police Department). 7
Finally, he explained that, as a single man, he felt unwelcome in nearby parks and public spaces because neighboring playgrounds have signs stating, “Adults allowed in playground areas only when accompanied by a child under the age of 12.” This and similar stories by local residents helped us begin to understand how everyday uses of the plaza were intrinsically tied to the rest of the neighborhood’s systems.
This information helped us develop “A Shared Plaza,” a large-scale game
designed to bring together inhabitants and organizations in Corona to collectively develop a cohesive statement of values and list of priorities for Corona Plaza’s development. The game consisted of fifteen 40-by-48-inch game “pieces”. We designed three different pieces for each topic using readily available and inexpensive materials such as wood palettes and milk crates. Each piece represented related functions. For example, the Community Programming pieces contain a set of bleachers and the Local Economies pieces can serve as tables to set up around the plaza. Finally, the “playing field” consisted of tape on the ground that allowed only twelve pieces to be placed at once on a three-by-four grid.
The game was played on a snowy day in February 2013 with a crowd that numbered consistently around thirty, even in the less-than-perfect climate. Together, we discussed the future of the plaza—even its most contentious issues—and moved the pieces around as we gave prompts for discussion. We talked about the very different experiences men and women have in the space, we talked about policing and how stop-and-frisk indiscriminately targets young men from the neighborhood, and we talked about fears of gentrification in relationship to the Mexican vendor who sets up an illegal food stand to sell her tamales every day.
The conversation lasted several hours, and at the end of the day no final “designs” were made for the plaza. Instead we talked about the type of actions it would take to continue this conversation on social and spatial issues. When the commission ended, I gave the Queens Museum and the RBA Group (the landscape architecture firm chosen by the New York Department of Transportation to design the final plaza) a list of the issues of most importance to local residents. I also made a simple design recommendation to create a flexible open plaza with opportunities for communal conversations. To help foster future dialogue, I have just begun designing a new series of panels and furniture pieces that can attach to existing infrastructure. These panels will serve to hold information on larger systems affecting the neighborhood to help with the ongoing discussions about the plaza by local residents.
I am still working on research and engagement projects in Corona that will be compiled into what I am calling an urban action plan. As the research moves forward it will continue to be a conversation with local residents. The project will also continue to work with some contemporary ideas of political engagement in art and design projects. I am particularly interested in political theorist Chantal Mouffe’s reading of agonism
and the potentials it may hold for a design process. Mouffe describes “possible forms of critical art, the different ways in which artistic practices can contribute to questioning the dominant hegemony” in the following way:
Once we accept that identities are never pre-given but that they are always the result of processes of identification, that they are discursively constructed, the question that arises is the type of identity that critical artistic practices should aim at fostering. Clearly those who advocate the creation of agonistic public spaces, where the objective is to unveil all that is repressed by the dominant consensus are going to envisage the relation between artistic practices and their public in a very different way than those whose objective is the creation of consensus, even if this consensus is seen as a critical one. According to the agonistic approach, critical art is art that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate. It is constituted by a manifold of artistic practices aiming at giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony. 8
Both #whOWNSpace and the project in Corona Plaza have shown that architectural research and experimentation can happen through direct action and engagement. Both projects have used open processes alongside digital tools, workshops, and conversations to deepen our collective understanding of what public space may mean and how to create it. In fact, the next step for us is to take the lessons learned through these processes and apply them more directly to architectural designs that, like the games we deployed in Corona Plaza, can facilitate ongoing discussions. The work so far has taught us that this type of architectural experimentation works best through testing, deep engagement and discussions, and ultimately flexibility for designs to allow conditions and spaces to change.
- 1. “Public Space NYC,” Google search. Accessed June 1, 2014.https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS503US503&ion=1&espv=2&es_th=1&ie=UTF-8#q=public%20space%20nyc. ^
- 2. “Privately Owned Public Spaces,” New York City Department of Planning, accessed June 1, 2014, http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/priv/priv.shtml. ^
- 3. #whOWNSpace blog. http://whownspace.blogspot.com/. ^
- 4. “Privately Owned Public Spaces,” New York City Department of Planning, accessed June 1, 2014. http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/priv/priv.shtml. ^
- 5. Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. (Dijon: Leses Du Réel, 2002), 14. ^
- 6. Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110, (Fall 2004): 51–79. ^
- 7. “Stop and Frisk Map,” WNYC, accessed in June 1, 2014, http://project.wnyc.org/stop-frisk-guns/. This map by WNYC shows Corona Plaza and the area around it as one of the areas with most stop-and-frisk incidents in New York City. ^
- 8. Chantal Mouffe, “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art & Research (Summer 2007), http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/mouffe.html. ^
Quilian Riano is the founder and principal of DSGN AGNC, a collaborative design/research studio exploring political engagement through architecture, urbanism, art & activism. Quilian holds a Masters of Architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and currently teaches design studios at Parsons, The New School for Design and Pratt Institute of Technology.
#whOWNSpace credits:DSGN AGNC TEAM: Team Leader: Quilian Riano. Team: Rena Mande, Amanda Rekemeyer, Philip Grimaldi, Melissa J. FrostCOLLABORATORS: Public School New York, 596 Acres, Change Administration, Not An Alternative, BRUNO.CORONA PLAZA credits:DSGN AGNC TEAM: Team Leader: Quilian Riano. Team: Nicholas Ter Meer, Scarlett Esion, Rena Mande, Jessica Sanclemente, Emily Mintz, Roberto Bassi. PARTNERS: Queens Museum of Art, Queens College.