Bipolar Space

Listening to Alexandre Chemetoff explaining his Nantes project (lecture Bozar, November 15, Brussels), it just hit me: there ARE alternatives to design and experience urban space. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, till I tried to review some existing projects, trying to look at them from different angles, using a set of bipolar filters to try to understand its real value.


What makes the Piazza Carità in Napoli so special? Isn’t it the multiplicity of that space, where individual ánd collective appropriation of urban space coexist? The perfect chaos of people sharing individual itineraries in the midst of this capital jungle, a city where no one seems to be interested in topdown rules or common sense. This central square has both: individual and collective use of space.  Bipolar space. Flipping through recent magazines or checking our latest architecture or urban design news providers, one would have started to think this dual orientation is no more possible, or even needed.

Bipolar space: when I think about Brooklyn’s East River State Park, New York, where you can join the ongoing hip scene or just disconnect and stare for hours at the water or Manhattan skyline. A place where you can be isolated or be connected. Hence, it’s relatively subtle space codification inside the  park allows an interesting reading of space, even if this area is territorially well controlled on the outside: the park is ruled by opening hours and closing fences, a contemporary necessity to guarantee success, as it seems. The perfectness of this space lies within the layout of private as well as exposed micro climates within one park: here we do not have overall exposure (thank god), neither an exclusive  repetition of small enclaves: we celebrate to have both within reach.

Another example comes to mind: Little Collins Street in Victoria’s capital Melbourne, Australia. Simple and honest property distinction goes together with multiple and more complex indication of private or public properties: here, the streetscape’s layout is not based on one single recipe. Sometimes, you enter a private parking space without any notice, in other occasions you are denied the trespassing of private properties within the same street.

Think about the Carrer de Wellington in Barcelona, Spain: a quiet street, mainly defined by the backstage wall of the municipal zoo, offering a unique and sublime inaccessibility to the wanderer at one side of the road, while the empty or illegally occupied residential blocks at the other side join this strategy. However, at the same time, the adjacent university and related library open up to the space. In this case, complete blockage complements extreme openness within the same urban space.

The Chaussée de Gand in Molenbeek, in Brussels shows the possible breakthrough of weird associations within urban space, simultaneously with a set of well-planned activities. The streetscape is defined by urbanistic mistakes as well as perfect assemblies, by functional misfits (how could we possibly associate a Muslim oriented Mediterranean grocery store with a Belgian patisserie, sharing its entrance with a crappy parking building) and perfect harmony (as we see the entrance to a mosque next to an Arab tea house). Perfectly controlled visual hierarchies alternate abandoned corners, Jane Jacobs’ urban ideal of eyes on the street share space with Ignasi de Solà-Morales’ terrain vague…
It is the bipolarity of urban space, the city’s spaces in their plural dimension, that opens perspectives on a contemporary discourse on urban spaces. No more need for hyper-technological devices, no need for postmodern jokes, moving elements, or explicit graphic design on the city’s pavement, to make urban space work. Just bipolar space. In its purest form.

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