Aesthetic Revolution

Society as a Work of Art

The End of Modernity's End?

The Strange Relation of Art and Politics

The Ambivalence of the Public Square

Creativity and its Afterlives

A Game of Appearances


Malcolm Miles
The Ambivalence of the Public Square
(conference paper, ‘The Public Square’, Autonomous University, Lisbon, Jan. 2012)

My aim is to reconsider the idea of the public square: the idea of the public square (not cases of public squares) because the public square is now mythicised as a necessary element in the public understanding of a free society. The mythicized public square is often traced to the agora of classical Athens, imagined as a place of social mixing where political opinions were once - or once upon a time - freely exchanged. The reality is that public squares are a product of modern cities. They are spaces for the display of power through public monuments and public buildings designed to remind members of a society of the values they are required to uphold. In periods of civil unrest these monuments may be attacked or destroyed. Then, if ephemerally, a public square may become a site of social re-formation. The ephemerality of such moments, and their performative character, may be instructive, suggesting that public squares are where citizens are active agents of social, cultural, economic and political change. The public square, then, is a material form of a public sphere in which members of a society determine its values and organisation for themselves.  Yet this, too, follows from a disputable legacy of liberal humanism: a freely acting subject who has agency for change. Is this image viable in the conditions of late capitalism, or as the concept of agency is questioned in post-structuralist discourses? At least there is a need to reconsider the alignment of the idea of the public sphere in relation to public spaces and a public realm of institutions. I begin by looking at a recent public square, Millennium Place, Coventry. I then set out issues around a reconsideration of public squares. But I refer also to moves to privatise public urban spaces, but read this as subordinate to the interrogation of the idea of the public square, or the imagination of a viable public sphere.  

Millennium Place, Coventry

Commissioned by Coventry City Council to mark the millennium, Millennium Place was not unveiled until 2003. It includes an open arena for public performances, and marks one end of a walk through the city centre beginning at the Cathedral (an icon of wartime destruction and post-war reconstruction). Next to Millennium Place is a statue of Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine. At the side is the Transport Museum. Together these institutional presences denote the city's history of motor and armaments manufacturing. A public video screen was attached to the wall of the Transport Museum in 2011. Along the wall below a curved stone bench, and above it are hundreds of small, red metal plates inscribed with pairs of names – a project by the artist Jochen Gerz, titled The Public Bench, unveiled in 2004. The artist's aim was to create a public monument for ordinary human relations. Gerz writes,

The reasons for the choice were not revealed. The second name could belong to a person either living or deceased. It could recall a fictitious figure from a novel, a myth, a dream or a fairy tale. In order to understand the inscriptions more fully one had to contribute oneself. Emotions such as sympathy, admiration, support, memory or love determined many choices. Each contribution was one person's choice. Whatever the choice was, it did not need anyone else's approval. [1]

Most names were drawn from private rather than public life, indicating a society functioning at the level of the domestic and the everyday – though to say this implies a dualism of public and private spheres. Leaving that aside, Millennium Place is multi-layered, its design shaped by different aims – history, future aspiration, regeneration after de-industrialization, creating a public open space. If Whittle's statue implies a conventional regard for those members of a society taken as exemplary in character or achievement, Gerz's installation is a monument by other means. And if the Transport Museum invites visitors to study the collection of vehicles it preserves, the public screen shows sport for more immediate consumption. The difficulty is that not many people use the square, at times difficult to access across a busy road. Until the construction of the Museum and a sign-posted route from the Cathedral through the restored city centre to it, perhaps there was no need for Millennium Place: it is in a way a non-place, more the product of an architect's design than a response to pre-existing patterns of use.

In contrast, Victoria Square in Birmingham, also in the West Midlands, is a well-used public space, not least because it is situated between the city's Victorian town hall and art museum on one side, and the shops and route to the main railway station in New Street on the other. It is used by commuters, shoppers and tourists throughout the day. Nearby Centenary Square is also well used, a pedestrian route to the city's redeveloped business quarter, with a theatre, a television company's offices, two hotels, and the new convention centre and concert hall. In December 2011, Victoria Square was used for a German Christmas Market. There are issues around the design of both squares, and the funding of Centenary Square drained resources for services in outer-city areas. Most jobs produced by the scheme were low-paid, unskilled and temporary. [2] But my purpose is not to discuss urban economies but to ask if city squares are sites of urban democracy – spaces in which citizens mix and exchange opinions, rather than merely pass each other by. Even the street was until recently gendered, [3] and the square more so. Anyone can go to a Christmas market but can anyone participate in the public square? Or are some more present than others?

Sites for Democratic Exchange 

I want to question the assumption that the public square is a precondition for the articulation of social equity. In early modern cities (from the sixteenth century), a prominent use of open urban spaces was for public executions, attracting a good crowd but not inspiring democratic exchanges. In Sixtus V's remodelling of Rome, vistas were opened between pilgrimage sites, creating a model of circulation between iconic nodes. In the plan for Washington DC, Charles L'Enfant took circulation as an end in itself, allied with transparency and equality, expressed in conjunctions of arterial avenues, a grid, and open spaces seen as the city's lungs. The plan, however, echoes that of cities such as Potsdam, Karlsruhe and Versailles – all constructed for despots. [4] Today, large numbers of people visit or occupy The Mall, in front of Washington's sites of political power, or visit the various memorials there. It may be that not all are tourists, and major demonstrations have occurred there - against the war in Vietnam, for AIDS; but power remains inside the White House. The Mall is not a public square but a site of public viewing. The viewers, the audience, are not necessarily empowered by their experience.

Most European public squares are marked by monuments erected from the late nineteenth century onwards. A proliferation of monuments lent historical or mythical inevitability to regimes which were either new (Germany, Italy) or under internal stress (France, Austria-Hungary, England). For instance, the Millennium Monument in Budapest celebrated an imagined continuity from medieval King Stephen of Hungary to nineteenth-century Emperor Franz-Joseph. It was completed only a few years before the Empire fell in 1918. The new regime changed the statues. When it in turn fell, they were changed again. Today it exhibits old Hungarian kings whose names are known by few who visit the square  - which is the point: history as tourist backdrop. During insurrection, however, monuments are dismantled and squares occupied, radically reconstructing spatial meanings. In 1871, Paris Communards occupied Place Vendome and dismantled a column carrying a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte in Roman dress to demonstrate the end of the regime of his Nephew, Napoleon III. When the statue fell it was kicked and abused as if it was the Emperor himself. [5] Similarly, a statue of Stalin was toppled in Budapest in October, 1956, hit with poles, the head dragged across the tram-lines. [6] Perhaps to abuse monuments allows citizens to participate in history.  So, it is acts of resistance, not urban design, which produce public ownership.

In the seventeenth century, the city gate remained as likely a site of unplanned social mixing as the city square. But these were not democratic spaces. Michel Foucault describes them as where lepers once assembled (who were not permitted to enter the city) and when leprosy had vanished where the vagrant and the mad resided: 'wastelands which sickness had ceased to haunt but had left sterile and long uninhabitable' at the city's gates [7] In these margins, the rich and powerful might encounter the marginalised; yet the encounter was only visual - a fear of tactile contagion was real and prevented more. Similarly, foreign bodies were excluded in the ghetto. While it enabled the rise and political inclusion of the bourgeoisie, the modern city is, and always was, a site of confinements and exclusions. Restrictions of social mixing occurred in classical Athens, too. Sennett notes the importance of being seen in open space, but takes speech as the defining act of citizenship and follows Hannah Arendt in asserting that in the polis, action and speech were separated:

The emphasis shifted from action to speech ... as a means of persuasion rather than the specifically human way of answering, talking back and measuring up to whatever happened or was done. To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence. [8]

Arendt explains that outside the polis, which meant for women, slaves, strangers, sailors, and travelling sellers of goods, the right of speech was withheld, while the polis was defined as the opposite of the private household ruled by a patriarch, where free speech was also absent. For Arendt, the dualism is not between public and private in the way it might be understood today, however, as the public and private sectors, but between the realm of publicity and the twilight zone of family life.

Originally, then, the political city was a division, almost a division of labour, within the city. It was not the product of specific spaces, but made use of them for its purposes. In particular, as Sennett writes, the colonnaded stoa on the north side of the agora in Athens, built in c.460ACE, housed discussion. Other shaded sites housed eating and drinking, making deals, and undertaking religious observances. [9] Banking took place in the open, where it could be seen, in the orchestra. But the free exchanges which took place in the stoa were not open to anyone.  Sennett elaborates that citizenship was a privilege: 

... most of the ceremonial and political events that occurred here [in the agora] were out of bounds to the immense population of slaves and foreigners who supported the economy ...the number of citizens in Attica during the fourth century B.C. [was] 20,000 – 30,000 out of a population of 150,000 to 250,000 ... [and] never more than 15 to 20 per cent of the total population, or half the adult male population. [10]

Sennett adds that to participate in the assembly (pnyx), where persuasion by words led to decisions (policies), a citizen had to own a talent of silver (about 1,000 days' pay for a labourer) and to be vouched for by his neighbours.

The wasteland outside the city gates described by Foucault is like the space of those denied speech in Athens. But, as Foucault describes, the inhabitants of the margins were increasingly confined, through the Age of Reason, in a series of new, specialist spaces: the asylum, the poor house, the clinic, the prison, the school .... At the same time, the Enlightenment equivalent of free speech was also housed in specialist sites and institutions. These constitute the modern public sphere for the rising commercial class, the bourgeoisie. Political action took place in open, public spaces only in times of upheaval or during election campaigns (often drunken occasions in the nineteenth century). The origin of the idea of the modern public square, then, is partly in the site of open-air discussion among a privileged class in the stoa, and partly in the interiors of bourgeois institutions such as the professional association or academy. Debate was certainly conducted in the latter, giving rise to an imagined public sphere which was (and is) open, at a future time, to democratisation. The idea of a public square is inherently ambivalent - an idea denoting an imagined free future; and a material site designed for social ordering.

The Modern Square

If the dualism of classical Athens juxtaposed the public and familial, in the modern city the axis is between the state as agent of regulation for the public good and the interests of the

owners of private property and wealth. In the bourgeois tradition – re-cast in an excessive form of neo-liberalism – the owners of capital seek to limit state regulation. The rise of a professional class, meanwhile, produced a protective mentality among its members, who regulated new admission to institutions by exams or introduction by an existing member. Jurgen Habermas expresses an ambivalence which reflects this situation's contradictions:

The usage of the words “public” and “public sphere” betrays a multiplicity of concurrent meanings. Their origins go back to various historical phases and ... fuse into a clouded amalgam. Yet the very conditions that make the inherited language seem inappropriate appear to require these words ... [11]

He notes that public buildings house state institutions – like the public library – and that there is little affinity between this use of the term public in relation to the state, and another use of it in public opinion. But public opinion is supposed as the product of debate in public spaces, of mutual acts of persuasion undertaken rationally, without concern for private interests. He also notes that the idea of a public sphere derived from classical antiquity retains an unusual status:

Since the Renaissance this model of the Hellenic public sphere, as handed down to us in the stylized form of Greek self-interpretation, has shared with everything else considered “classical a peculiarly normative power. Not the social formation at its base but the ideological template itself has preserved continuity over the centuries – on the level of intellectual history. [12]

Hence the public square has become a template for the space designed for acts of democratic exchange, but never was that. The idea of a public sphere is, as Habermas assumes in the sub-title of his book: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, essentially modern.

The categories public space, public realm, and public sphere are also modern, and denote three different entities. A public sphere is a metaphorical site, a series of acts which produce new meanings for the geographical sites in which they take place. A public realm is the site of the mediation of public issues, often in institutions housed in specific buildings, a set of interactions in pursuit of understanding but also tending to protection.  A public square, as an archetype of public space, is where a society's dominant ideology is presented for the public gaze. The extent to which such mixing in the square is outside conventions of social ordering, until recently with clear divisions of class, race, and gender, is very limited. A work such as The Public Bench might seek to overcome those limitations, but I am not sure how far it does that in ways which have any consequence (except possibly for participants who remember the experience).

Transitional Spaces

Of greater interest, to me, are transitional spaces. These are neither public nor private but situated between the polarities. For example, the balconies which overhang the narrow streets of Mediterranean cities are extensions of domestic space also used for exchanges between dwellers across the street. Again, the café is a form of space used by groups within a society, such as artists and writers in Paris or Vienna in the late nineteenth century, as movements were formed by the association of like-minded individuals outside official institutions. The dualism then was between the public and the personal, as artists and writers took their own states of psyche as subject-matter (as in French Symbolism). 

Habermas and Sennett both discuss coffee houses as sites of verbal exchange. In England in the late seventeenth century some coffee house proprietors were also publishers, and political pamphlets circulated first in their coffee houses. The coffee houses thus played a key role in constitutional debate, and enhanced the conditions in which the Glorious Revolution of 1688 could occur. Habermas saw coffee houses as central to bourgeois democracy, noting that there were 3,000 in London by the early 1800s; the writers Dryden and Addison met their followers in specific coffee houses, and their writing was thus legitimated in the contacts made there between them and members of the governing class. Habermas continues,

Thus critical debate ignited by works of literature and art was soon extended to include economic and political disputes, without any guarantee ... that such disputes would be inconsequential ... . [13]   

Habermas adds that only men were allowed into coffee houses, and he could have mentioned the requirement to pay on entry, but his main point is, 'The coffee house not merely made access to the relevant circles less formal and easier; it embraced the wider strata of the middle class, including craftsmen and shopkeepers.' [14]

Sennett draws out another aspect of coffee-house verbal exchanges: the production of equality in a specific way of speaking:

As men sat at the long table, telling stories of great elaborateness, describing wars or the demeanour of leading citizens ... they have only to use their eyes and tune their ears to “place” the stories or descriptions as coming from one with the point of view of a petty-minded clerk, an obsequious courtier, or a degenerate younger son of a wealthy merchant. But these acts of placing the character of the speaker must never intrude upon the words these men use to each other, the long periodic sentences flow on, the familiar descriptive phrases which everyone has heard a hundred times before are invoked once again ... Coffeehouse speech is the extreme case of an expression with a sign system of meaning divorced from ... symbols of meaning like rank, origin, taste, all visibly at hand. [15]

As Sennett says, free conversation – without reference to rank - also occurred in the coaching inns of the new turnpike roads, where travellers met. But in the eighteenth century the coffee house was overtaken by the gentlemen's club, where members were admitted on the say of existing members; and by the rise of the street as public thoroughfare, a site of informal relaxation, strolling, and conversation between those who recognized each other. The street, however, remained off-limits to women not in the company of men until well into the twentieth century. My point, however, is that transitional spaces, between public and private, played a crucial role in political re-formation by suspending social rank - though the suspension, like suspension of disbelief in the theatre, did not apply outside – and by offering a safe place for subversive persuasion.

The Departure of the Public

Given the ambivalences of the public square, is it necessary to defend public space against privatisation? If social change arises in the café, why protect the piazza? The two, of course, have been merged. Most new public spaces are spaces for consumption. Liverpool's main shopping centre has been re-categorised as L1, an open-air mall regulated by a private security force employed by the developer. At the same time, social housing is increasingly influenced by the idea of defensible space promoted by Oscar Newman, leading to gated compounds for the poor just as the rich have theirs – both designed to state a social class in unmistakeable terms. Anna Minton writes of an award-winning social housing scheme with small windows, reinforced steel doors, iron gates, and a grey aluminium roof 'with a military feel to it'; she adds, 'It ticked all the requisite boxes – security grilles, electronic security, anti-climbing paint and perimeter fencing ... [and] looked like a prison.' [16] So, open (public) and enclosed (domestic) spaces are increasingly constrained within the dominant economic order's categorizations of social groups, under an imperative to consume or be marginalised. Zygmunt Bauman writes,

... such urban spaces where the occupants of different residential areas could meet face-to-face, engage in casual encounters, accost and challenge one another, talk, quarrel, argue or agree, lifting their private problems to the level of public issues ... are fast shrinking in size and number. [17]

Bauman argues that public space has been deserted by the agents of democracy, and that the task of intellectuals now is to repopulate it. I take this as a metaphor for the reintroduction of politics into public debate, but I also think of the Occupy movement in late 2011, for whom taking over public space had the revolutionary significance assigned to taking over the means of production.

But while the defence of public space is necessary, it was never where movements for social change occurred. Although sudden moments of transition did occur, such as the pulling down of statues, the ideas which informed and led to insurrection were discussed elsewhere, often in transitional spaces. While all this goes on, still, new public spaces – like Millennium Place in Coventry – are ubiquitous in re-development schemes. As real freedom is erased, its badge is promoted in ersatz spaces which connect nowhere with nowhere else, and are little used.

Returning to Millennium Place, the intention of the artist was to draw out personal meanings in a public space, as if to re-occupy the city-centre regardless of consumption or the exercise of power. The project addresses everyday life, and states an implicit democratisation in that there are no hierarchies of class, race, gender or age in how the names are displayed. Yet I ask if this represents a democratic gain when no political question was asked. The personal may be political, and the political certainly affects personal life, but the qualities of a public sphere, even in imagination, include speech and action, not just visual display frozen in time.

Does The Public Bench follow a common practice of siting bronze likenesses of literary and historic figures at street level as if the passer-by might meet them by chance? And does being named in public constitute an intervention in the conditions by which we are conditioned? If it does, I am not sure where it goes.

The Public Bench has not met with universal acclaim. Questions were raised as to the possibility of controversy following the artist's previous work in Hamburg (subject to hate graffiti), and because the names were uncensored. The city's Press Officer commented, 'Gerz's work is thought to be extremely thought-provoking, and public art ... is never intended to be liked by everybody. It ought to be disliked by as many people as like it.' [18] That's interesting. Perhaps to provoke is as much as art can do today. To bring personal life into public space is a form of occupation – a reassertion of lived over conceived space in the terms of Henri Lefebvre's critique of spatial production [19] - and a rebuke to the impersonality of much public space. Still, I return to Bauman's remarks on the shrinking public sphere, and note that Krzysztof Nawratek writes,

Why is the disappearance of the political community crucial in understanding the crisis of the City? Because the lack of a political community is the lack of any community. ... What connects the City's inhabitants? Shopping together in a suburban mall? The fact that we were all in a multiplex once? So what? The potential in this cinema or that shop to meet others? That's clearly absurd. [20]   

Looking at Millennium Place, does the personalisation of public space contrast with the presence of the public screen above it? What, in any case, is to be owned: space or the image of the city? On 17 September, 2011 demonstrators occupied a public space in New York to refuse the power of global capital over their lives. The Occupy movement had no structure of leadership, and no manifesto. It rejected the system by which 1% of the population  own most global capital and construct the economy to increase their own wealth at the expense of the other 99%. Perhaps Occupy created a public square as the material form of a public sphere, a site of self-regulation and consensus for a new society shaped by direct action, where a sense of being present among others was transformative (at the time, perhaps after). Occupy was criticized for a lack of policies but perhaps Occupy offered a glimpse of living the revolution before the Revolution which is far more valuable than a manifesto.

[1] Gerz, J. 'The Public Bench', [accessed 14 December 2012]

[2] Loftman, P. and Nevin, B., 'Pro-growth Local Economic Development Strategies: Civic Promotion and Local Needs in Britain's Second City' in Hall, T. and Hubbard, P., The Entrepreneurial City, Chichester, Wiley, 1998, pp.129-148

[3] Wilson, E., The Sphinx in the City, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1991

[4] Sennett, R., Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, London, Faber and Faber, 1995, pp. 263-265

[5] Miles, M., Urban Avant-Gardes, London, Routledge, 2004, pp.1-7

[6] Michalski, S., Public Monuments: Art in Political Bondage 1870-1997, London, Reaktion Books, 1998, p. 142, p.144 fig. 96

[7] Foucault, M., Madness and Civilization: A history of insanity in the age of reason, London, Tavistock, 1971

[8] Arendt, H.  The Human Condition, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1958, p.26

[9] Sennett,  Flesh and Stone,  p.54

[10] Sennett, Flesh and Stone,  p.52

[11] Habermas, J., The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge (MA), MIT, 1991, p.1 ISBN 0 262 58108 6

[12] Habermas, p.4

[13] Habermas, p. 33

[14] ibid

[15] Sennett, R., The Fall of Public Man, New York, Norton, 1992, p.82

[16] Minton, A., Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city, London, Penguin, 2009, p.

[17] Bauman, Z., Globalization: The Human Conseqences, Cambridge, Polity, 1998, p. 21

[18] [accessed 14 December 2011]

[19] Lefebvre, H. The Production of Space, Oxford, Blackwell, 1991 ISBN 0 631 18177 6

[20] Nawratek, K., City as a Political Idea, Plymouth, University of Plymouth Press, p.27