UNPUBLIC SPACES OF EUROPE (U.S.E.) – On Places, Non-Places and Other Spaces of the European Contemporary City

  • Abstract:

    “You will find everything sold together in the same place (…): figs, witnesses to summonses, bunches of grapes, turnips, pears, apples, givers of evidence, roses, medlars, porridge, honeycombs, chick-peas, law suites, allotment machines, irises, lamps, water-clocks, laws, indictments”.

    Eubulus, IV century Greek poet (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistai 14.640 b-c)

    Between the romanticized version of a Greek agora and the intense contemporary shopping centers there isn’t probably a disparity as considerable as we can imagine, since both can be easily mistaken with the ancient markets and the public squares of today. Before, as now, there is a clear separation between the production of discourse and the experience of the symbolic spaces of the city.
 On the other hand, it is a fact that public space is not anymore what it used to be. Following the emergence of a new urban condition, other outstanding elements — such as stadiums, thematic parks, artificial beaches, industrial showrooms or multi-purpose indoor arenas — appear nowadays as meaningful places of the contemporary metropolitan landscape, in addition to the traditional network of public spaces. Amongst them, the shopping center is not only one of the most striking elements of contemporary city, but also a “quasi”-urban component where notions such as “public” and “private” or “non-place” and “place” are challenged by the ambivalent nature of this architectural typology. And shopping centers are, in fact, more than just mere sites for consumption. In the scenic environments of its “streets” and “plazas” — like in the historic, dense and “compact” city — we wander, eat, drink, rest and consume symbols and merchandises. So visiting them is, today, not so different of going to the “center”.
    If today, undoubtedly, urban daily life is both linked to the use of public spaces and shopping centers; it’s not surprising that phenomena such as urban tribes, sport celebrations, strikes or political demonstrations are both visible in city squares and shopping center plazas, where these are increasingly more and more common.
 And therefore, shopping centers are currently urban elements that we cannot continue to ignore in the theorization of the present and future of urban public space.