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Public and private as a topic of a multidisciplinary research

petr kratochvíl – the urban public space

Extract from the book Městský veřejný prostor (The Urban Public Space) published by Zlatý řez publishing house, Prague 2015

“In our country, in Italy and in France a street is sort of great pub or public gardens, a village green, a meeting place, a playing field and a theatre, an extended home and a threshold…”
(Karel Čapek:
Letters from England, 1924)


When Karel Čapek described a London street (“just a type of trough which life flows through in order to get home”) in his Letters from England, the features he missed were those which he believed were characteristic not only of a town in southern Europe but also of one in central Europe: “Here [in London] the street isn’t the most interesting saloon where you encounter a thousand spectacles or have a thousand adventures speak to you, a saloon where people whistle or fight, make a racket, flirt, rest, write poetry or philosophise, relieve themselves and enjoy life and make jokes and discuss politics and cluster in pairs, in threes, in families, in crowds or in revolutions.”[1] That was precisely what Čapek found and appreciated at that time in the streets of, for example, Prague. His inventory of characteristics whereby one could judge whether a street is only a traffic route, an abandoned place, or a public space can still strike us today as a vivid collection of criteria. It is precisely the presence, or at least latent possibility, of the activities Čapek was naming that turns a space into a stage for public life, a place of meeting, a mutual confrontation, stepping out of the sphere of just the individual or family into the open space of social communication.

I do not know to what extent Čapek’s comparison was fair towards England at that time (“The poetry of the English home is bought at the expense of the English street being so unpoetic”). It is more to the point for us to compare it with the state in which we find ourselves in today’s cities. In the course of the twentieth century cities have undergone a radical transformation of their physical appearance and structure, and the forms of life within them have similarly been transformed. Čapek’s description was in one sense a nostalgic look back at a disappearing world. Le Corbusier was at the same time formulating the principles of his Contemporary City of Three Million People, La Ville Radieuse. There are no streets to be seen in his famous coloured drawing, only an empty undifferentiated space in which biplanes hover and cars race by, in which a rational order reigns – everywhere sufficient sun, green and air – but no stimuli or opportunities for people to engage in any of the activities that, according to Čapek, make a city a city. It was precisely this concept of abstract space which then became a handbook for the construction of new urban quarters after World War II and rendered the role of the urbane stage as a public space fundamentally problematical. Nevertheless, the transformations of urbanist forms – the replacement of clearly defined spatial layouts of streets and squares by a neutral area of buildings in open surroundings – were not themselves the main reason for the public sphere of the city becoming problematical, but rather one of the manifestations –  or even consequences – of more fundamental civilizational changes, i.e.: the ever-increasing mobility that releases the bonds tying a person to a specific place while at the same time, through the demands made by transport, depriving urban spaces of their habitable nature; the increasing weight of mediated forms of interpersonal communication that do not need a physical space in which to take place but operate in the virtual space of the media, internet, mobile phones etc.; the privatization and commercialization of spaces in which a significant portion of interpersonal contacts are realised, contacts which previously took place under the open sky of squares, streets, parks and are today concentrated in the monitored interiors of shopping malls; all those are only some of the changes which make not only the form but also the content of the public space problematical. Some radical critics even speak of a fundamental crisis of the public space and connect it with the threat to, or disintegration of, the public sphere in the socially political sense.

We are however at the same time witnesses to a trend diametrically differing from those pessimistic visions of the crisis of the public space. A number of European cities as well as metropolises outside Europe today pay exceptional attention to caring for the public space of their squares, streets, promenades and parks. They demonstrate that the standard and social atmosphere of extensive urban areas can be fundamentally influenced by devoting relatively few means to improving the quality of public spaces. In the 1980s, the pioneer of this renaissance of interest in the public space was Barcelona, where preparations for the Olympic Games in 1992 were connected with a detailed strategy of the modernisation of the whole city.[2] A method that its initiators, the architects Oriol Bohigas and Manuel de Solá Morales, called urbanist acupuncture or the urbanism of metastasis included the building of new attractive squares and parks which, as a focal point of positive contagion, initiated further investment into the modernisation of the surrounding quarter. We could provide a number of similar examples over the next two decades: from New York through Paris, Hamburg and Copenhagen to many Czech cities, one can find sometimes more radical or sometimes more modest, spectacular or practically orientated adjustments to the urban space which can together be described as the recapturing of the public space and the shaping of its widely understood habitable qualities. There may be a number of reasons: a rationalised urban policy, often stimulated by civic initiatives; a counter-reaction to the swamping of cities by individual means of transport and its limitation in favour of other forms of getting around; the increasing role of tourism in the economy of cities; and generally, a transformation of western cities in post-industrial centres.

Are we then witnesses to a crisis of the public space, or to its renaissance? Is the criticism mistaken when confronted with the real state of today’s public spaces, or was it the very thing that created the impulse for an about-turn not only in architectural urbanist concepts, but also in political attitudes to the public space? Or are both valid, and the moments of crisis and renaissance are parallel processes, mirroring the dilemmas of the conflicted civilizational development of the present?  And to what measure and by what means can architecture, urbanism and the fine arts help to form the public space as a lively stage of social communication through their intervention in the urban environment, as a place attracting people to stay and enriching them with the experience of beauty and cultural significance?


Along with the growth in interesting realisations of public space, the specialist literature on this theme has also been increasing, in the form of both theoretical studies and comprehensive illustrated publications. Several anthologies of key texts[3] and books reflecting intellectual development in this field have aimed to summarise the extensive literature.[4]

The variety of approaches in specialist literature reflects the fact that public space is a very complex theme. It is a physical and socio-cultural phenomenon. The structural form and appearance of a public space is as important a component as its living content, the action that takes place in it. Without that filling, alive and at least latently present, the public space would remain just an empty physical shell. If we speak of public space then we must always have the two sides in mind, the physical and the living, and the relationship between them. Public space thus logically becomes a subject of examination by many different disciplines: from humanities and the social sciences through the architectural to the technical disciplines.

Essentially, three categories of approach can be distinguished. They differ by the concept of public space they understand, by the methods they use in its analysis, and by the practical consequences they deduce. The first derives from philosophical, sociological and political science theory and – in the concept public space –  accentuates first and foremost its role as a place where people can share their individual lives and confront other people, experiencing themselves as part of a wider whole – the community. Included here are those approaches in which “public space” is not connected with something physical (with a physical place), but which make use of the ambiguity of the concept “space” – when, for example, we speak of the “space for politics”, of the “space for public discussion”. Public space merges here with the concept of the public sphere.  These approaches can also be useful for architectural and urbanist theory. Although they do not provide a clear practical handbook, they do give it a deeper basis. In the second category of approach we include those reflections that perceive above all what takes place in public spaces, the activities enabled, stimulated, or alternatively disallowed, by the spaces. Obviously, the abundant literature on the conflict of transport with other forms of making use of public spaces dominates these approaches. Finally, the third category of approach is linked with the specific architectural shaping of public spaces and with the reflex of one’s own creative approach. If we had to express these three categories of approaches as encyclopaedia entries, they would be listed as 1. meaning – 2. activity – 3. physical form. Even from this it is plain that the most interesting reflections are those which try to link all three approaches and to look for the connection between the social meaning, the active filling and the physical shape of the public spaces. That should be one of the benefits of this work as well. Individual aspects of this issue include the fact that it is often examined to some depth in the context of differing scientific or creative disciplines, but these often know little about each other’s results, or even consider they could be important for themselves. We therefore think, given the complexity of the problem, it would be relevant to try and span these barriers and build bridges between disciplines – even at the cost that, from the viewpoint of the sub-disciplines, the following analyses necessarily appear incomplete, maybe simplistic.


The Old Testament story about Susanna at her bath has been the subject of many portrayals. One of them, a painting by Hans Schöpfer the Elder of 1537, is particularly inspiring for our theme. In an abbreviation peculiar to the time, he shows two key phases of the story simultaneously. In the first part of the painting, we see Susanna preparing herself for her bath in the garden of her own home, where she is surprised by two lecherous old men. As we know, the old men tried to force her to submit to them by threatening that otherwise they would malign her for having received a lover in her garden behind her husband’s back. When she refuses, they drag her to the square where she is to be stoned. The second half of the painting however reveals the happy ending. The prophet Daniel, who happens to be passing, subjects the old men to an interrogation and when he proves their treachery, the crowd carries out the sentence of death by stoning them.

Dividing the picture into two halves not only presents the essential polarity of the two spheres  – on the one hand the private world of the domestic garden where an intimate activity such as a bath should be shielded from strangers’ eyes, and on the other the public space of the square, filled with many chance passers-by, where court hearings and the enforcement of verdicts takes place alongside many other activities. The painting also indicates the interdependence of the two spheres, or more exactly in this case, shows that only the existence of a functioning public sphere – a just trial in a public space before everyone’s gaze – can guarantee the inviolability of the private world.

On the social level, the theme of public space is always the counterpart of private space, and its meaning is examined in the context of this relationship. The difference between the two spaces meanwhile does not have to be physical – the same garden can be private and public, just as the same building can alternate its public and its private function over time. Nor does the deciding factor have to be who owns it – many publicly used spaces are the property of other subjects besides the city or some public institution. This distinction is frequently expressed through free access to a public space, unlike entry to a private space, limited to those entitled to it. The legal distinction however does not express the essential thing: what is it that makes a public space public, what does its public nature provide, and in what role do we ourselves enter it? If we reject physical features as being unnecessary, and even a legal statute, in the essential determination of what is public space, we must turn to an examination of what the very word “public” means, and how it is conceived in political philosophy and sociology above all.

The German American philosopher Hannah Arendt give two meanings of the word public in her important book The Human Condition (Arendt’s preferred title was Vita active): “It means, first, that everything  that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality.  …Second, the term ‘public’ signifies the word itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished  from our privately owned place in it.” [5] For Arendt, then, the label public relates primarily to human activity and to its specific method – to action that distinguishes it from other forms of human activity, that is, labour and work. Action, which includes language and speaking, is not directed to the provision of our livelihood basic needs (like labour), nor does it deal with some subjects (like work); its meaning is to represent a person in their uniqueness and to establish thus relationships with other individuals. A person lets others know who he or she is through his/her action and language. To show them this, he or she needs a public space that is above all a space for showing. Action and speech create a space between the participants, which can find its proper location almost any time and anywhere.  It is the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as they appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things but make their appearance explicitly.”[6] Arendt is thus not interested in the public space as a physical space; public space can constitute itself anywhere by means of human action. At the same time, the nature of this action is in her understanding in essence political, or more exactly, pre-political. In the public space it is about action with regard to other people, about mutual self-limitation in a common search, thus about basic elementary relations between people before these relations are institutionalised in real politics. (For Arendt the historical archetype of such action is the Classical agora.) Conversely, the private sphere is reserved for those activities whose intimate nature (e.g. love, family relations) would on the contrary be denied if presented (shown) on the illuminated stage of the public space. It is interesting that Arendt attributes true reality only to that which is shown on the public space (without denying the importance of an intimate subjective sphere), as though only by entering the public sphere can anything verify itself as real.

Hannah Arendt’s book is the philosophy of politics in the most general sense of life in the community, the polis. At the same time, the author’s roots in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and in the thinking of Martin Heidegger that she studied in the 1920s are evident. That is plain also from her idea of the intersection of the varied perspectives of viewpoints in the public space, for everyone looks on another’s world from a different position. The meaning of our living in a common world is fulfilled in a comparison of the different perspectives and the fundamental benefit of the public space rests in the offer of this possibility. “The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.”[7] This thesis is at the same time an indicator of the threat to a common world (and we can add to the public space), if the only perspective is dictated by some totalitarian regime or if society is broken up into isolated individuals.

What connection can these reflections have with the theme of the public space as a physical location, created by architectural and urbanist means?  Arendt says that public space can originate anywhere as an effect of human action. At the same time, however, this thought contains the fact that it must originate somewhere, that it must have some basis in a physical location. Whoever shows themselves in the public space is a real person encountering others in real space (again we recall that the archetype is life in the Greek agora). Arendt always speaks of first-hand encounters, of speaking face to face. In this connection, it we can hardly disregard the physical dimension of the public space and the role it plays in the constitution of the public space. Arendt does not herself write directly about this, but her remarkable metaphors suggest it, when she compares public space, the space between people, to a table that brings men together and separates them at the same time, preventing them from colliding with each other.[8] Undoubtedly however, her basic idea that public space is a location where we can in this way show another who we are, is an important guideline for understanding the deeper meaning of the public space, even if our concern with it is at an urbanist level. One more important conclusion for architectural and urbanist practice can be deduced from her thesis that public space is established by human action – thus the physical form of the public space should not be overestimated; it merely offers an opportunity for public life, it cannot constitute it itself. At the same time, this role should not be underestimated, for the absence or unsuitability of such spaces can essentially weaken public life.

We will not analyse Arendt’s reflection on the collapse of the public space in the Modern Age and especially in mass society any further. For the purposes of the next exposition, we will only emphasise that she understands the golden age of the public space to be based on Classical times.[9]

The dissimilar historical origins or supposedly ideal forms of the public space expressed by various authors is a striking indication that the importance of the public space is also differently understood. Hans-Paul Bahrdt, the German sociologist, explains his concept of public space using the example of the mediaeval market place. His book Moderne Grossstadt  (Modern City),[10] published a few years after Arendt’s, connects the constitution of the public space with activities that take place between traders and purchasers, thus with the sphere of labour and earning a living which Arendt does not acknowledge as having a constitutive nature. (Arendt explicitly emphasises that action in the market it is not about individuals understanding each other as such, but about agreeing a price. Everyone here follows their own private interests and – as the sensitive commentator on Arendt, Richard Sennett, remarks – according to her private affairs have no place in the public realm. [11])

The difference in the two authors’ points of view is seen as well in the disparity between their disciplines. Arendt is a philosopher and is interested in the condition of man (the title of her book in the original English version) and how he can, by means of encounters in the public space, rise above his individual predetermination to ordinary mankind. Arendt searches for the idea of active life as a particular ideal of humanity. Bahrdt, conversely, is a sociologist trying to interpret the empirical reality of the city. As he says himself, he voices the view of Max Weber that a city is defined by the presence of a market; more precisely, we can speak of a city only where most of the economic activities of such a settlement are linked with a market.

The market (as an activity) and the market place (as a physical location) are also a place where, according to Bahrdt, the public sphere was born in the Middle Ages. This is a meeting place for people who do not know each other, who cannot assess each other in advance, and communication comes about even if only in the context of haggling over a price between the seller and buyer. They must find a common language in the widest sense of the word – certain rules they can agree on together. This temporary, freely shaped meeting establishes certain mutual relationships that Bahrdt labels incomplete integration, to distinguish them from the transparent, permanent relationships of social groups such as the family or the hierarchically ordered feudal domain. It was thanks to urban freedoms in the Middle Ages that a public sphere could emerge in cities as a sphere of incomplete social integration. Its negative limitation has however a positive meaning. Bahrdt writes: “The meeting of individuals as individuals is therefore possible only where integration remains incomplete, that is, where there does not exist any continuous, all-embracing fabric of mediating bonds. Thus where people met, communicate with each other and somehow stylise themselves with regard to each other, without one being exhaustively fitted into some kind of joint order for the other.”[12] These encounters of individuals as personalities that take place in the mediaeval market place are a sign that people recognise each other as people, rather than with regard to some kind of determination (such as kinship). The market place is thus a place where an elementary democracy is born, because it is established precisely on respect for the other person as such (rather than on their role in some social system).

In the same way as the city is only place where the true public sphere can be born, so it is the only place where true privacy is possible as a sphere into which one can withdraw in the face of exposure to public contacts.  It is precisely through this polarity of the public and the private sphere that Bahrdt defines the essence of the city in the sociological sense. “The city is a settlement in which the whole of life in its daily course demonstrates a tendency to polarisation, meaning that it takes place either in a composite form in public, or in private. A public sphere and a private sphere that are closely related without losing their polarity.”[13]

Bahrdt pointed to several important moments for us in his book: first, that this polarity of the public and the private sphere did not and does not exist everywhere – in the countryside it is too easy to look into someone’s privacy (there is therefore no true privacy) and the society that gathers on the village green is not anonymous (in the sense that the necessity of coping with the anonymity of others is an impulse to develop the public sphere). Another moment is the stimulation or activation of the role of the anonymous public sphere. The need to bridge the distance between mutual strangers on the public stage leads to the cultivation and refinement of a system of unwritten rules that enable us to coexist in a common space. These include such banal rules as walking on the right of the pavement in order not to bump into each other, ways of speech and address, fashion in clothing. The public space teaches us how to make something clear to each other and at the same time be considerate towards each other. In his book, Bahrdt devotes great attention to specifically urban forms of behaviour as ways of presenting ourselves to the other person so we can be intelligible to them, but at the same time so that our intimate sides are protected against a mass of strange eyes. Stylisation is a necessary form of behaviour in public, unlike the immediacy of life in private.

Obviously, we can find many of these ideas in other sociologists of the city. Bahrdt however is able to relate his sociological analyses of interpersonal relationships and behaviour to the physical form of the city. Especially interesting for us is the urbanist and architectural projection of the basic polarity of the public and the private world, in particular because Bahrdt emphasises the particular ambivalence of this polarity. He notes the distinction and separateness of the two spheres but at the same time the connection without which the two poles would be impoverished. Bahrdt perceives primarily traditional (historical) forms that fulfil this role of mediation: semi-public or semi-private spaces in the context of traditional block developments (courtyard, front garden, balcony), commercial functions in the context of ancient forms of domesticity (the workshop and the shop in the mediaeval residential house, the shared drawing room in the bourgeois apartment) and so on. However, the theme of the structural definition of borders and transitions between the public and the private is permanently topical.

Bahrdt is not writing a social history of past centuries. For him the mediaeval market place is rather a model example of an interpretation of the public sphere in its early days (although he documents scenes from today’s municipal trams in a similar way). His book is actually called Moderne Großstadt (The Modern City) and a large part of the book is devoted to a criticism of the present (meaning the 1960s). Its essence can be summed up precisely in the too strict separation of the public and the private spheres, leading on the one hand to the encapsulation of the private sphere which closes itself into its own family life without interest in public affairs, and on the other to a reduction of the public sphere, in that constantly more areas of urban life are subordinated to bureaucratic regimentation; then at the same time, an urban space devoid of social functions succumbs to transport systems. “The more the city as a whole turns into an almost impenetrable jungle, the more he withdraws into his sphere of privacy which in turn is extended ever further; but at length he comes to realize nevertheless that not the least reason why the urban public sphere disintegrates is that public space has been turned into an ill-ordered arena for tyrannical vehicle traffic.”[14]

Jürgen Habermas used the quotation from Hans-Paul Bahrdt in his essential work Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere).[15] Habermas’s reflections on the concept of the “public” should not be overlooked, even though the relationship of his concept of the public sphere to the urban space is very distant and somewhat vague. His concept of the public sphere is briefly outlined in the encyclopaedia entry “Public”: “By the “public” we mean primarily the field of social life in which something like public opinion is formed. It is essentially accessible to every citizen. Every conversation in which private persons gather in public constitutes a part of the “public”…. Citizens behave as a public if they are without pressure, that is, under certain guarantees that they can assemble and associate freely, discuss matters of common interest.”[16]

Unlike Bahrdt, and like Arendt, he does not connect participation to the public and the way it is constituted with the practical sphere of life (business, work), but with a particular specific activity, with debates which – briefly put – are led on political themes. Unlike Arendt, however, he does not see the place where this public was constituted for the first time as the agora – an outdoor urban space. Habermas sees it rather in the cafés and salons at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries.[17] Literary sessions began to take shape here in discussion, and debate opinions about society’s limitations with respect to the ruling power. Habermas sometimes speaks of the literary public in order to distinguish it from the political public, establishing itself in the form of solid institutions (parties). According to him, the public sphere mediates between society and the state, its fundamental role being the forming of public opinion through mediation to achieve critical control of the state power. A prerequisite is the guarantee of freedom for such an exchange of opinions, and an important medium is not only direct dialogue but also the press, the media.

One cannot show the concept of Habermas’s concept of the public with the public space in the urbanist sense and with its topical problems in a straightforward way. Habermas’s thoughts and his analyses of the later decomposition of the public sphere in the consumer society (“From a Culture-Debating (kulturräsonierend) Public to a Culture-Consuming Public” is the title of one of the important chapters of Strukturwandel der Őffentlichkeit) became part of the discourse of the rebellious younger generation in western Europe in 1968, and found clear parallels in the field of architecture. His observation of the transformation of the critical role of the public in the sphere conversely manipulated with the help of the media, in particular, had its parallel in the critically manipulative nature of modern urbanism that at that time began to make its voice strongly heard. We will look at it more closely later, in the chapter about the historical development of the public space.  At this point, let us just be content with the concept – although Habermas himself does not talk of it – that the urban space has to be considered as political space. Not only in that deeper sense in which Henri Lefebvre writes about it from neo-Marxist positions, in his work on the “production space”,[18] but in the specific sense as a place for political action.[19] The physical public space can become a place where the public control of power is executed, a place that politics must in the end enter for it to become fact – as we were persuaded on the squares in Czechoslovakia in 1989, or in American cities during the revolt Occupy Wall Street and its echoes.

Richard Sennett considers Habermas’s concept of the public to be the second of three lines of thought dealing with the meaning of the public sphere. The first is linked with Hannah Arendt, while he ranks himself in the third – alongside the anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the sociologist Erving Goffman.[20] This line is labelled the “performative” school. Sennett himself accepts this label, associated with performance and theatre productions. These authors are interested in the methods whereby people introduce themselves to others in the public space. This concept too obviously comes close to Arendt and her concept of the public space as a space of appearance. For Sennett, however, it is not about political action but scenes from everyday life, gesture, the rituals of everyday behaviour, clothing, ways of speaking. We use all these means to express ourselves in public and present ourselves to each other.

Nevertheless, it is plain that for Sennett the political level of life above all was just as important; more precisely, the search for possibilities as to whether and how the public space – including the physical – could offer incentives for bridging conflicts that arise between different ethnic groups, social classes and generations in society. The key definition of public space, recurring in different variations in all Sennett’s books and essays, emphasises that it is a place where differences can meet. Sennett examines how to transform these differences into something inspiring, or at least prevent them from ending in conflict, in the example of Jerusalem and the lovely but unsuccessful attempt to offer a meeting place for Jewish and Palestinian residents through the reconstruction of a city space in front of the Gate of Damascus;[21] or of a stroll through his own Manhattan, where in many places to cross the road means a transition to a completely different world.[22]

Starting with his first book, devoted to the relationship of the public sphere and the city, The Fall of Public Man[23], Sennett seemingly repeats many theses we have heard already. Among them: the increase of urban anonymity as something in essence positive; the enrichment of human experience providing possibilities of meeting something different, unknown, unexpected, in the public space; the need to stylise action in the public space that Sennett likens to playing roles onstage. What, however, distinguishes Sennett from mentioned previously texts is his detailed and original analysis of the decomposition of the public sphere in the modern city, in both the social and the structural sense.

Sennett paradoxically speaks simultaneously of the blurring of boundaries between public and private, and of building impenetrable walls between the two worlds. This paradox is not easy to explain, not even if we were to repeat Sennett’s historical excursions to the end of the nineteenth century when, according to him, the seeds of these phenomena began to manifest themselves. Sennett emphasises above all the self-centeredness of modern man, the bias towards oneself, towards one’s internal, self-experiential life. What is meant by this is not primarily selfishness in the moral sense of the word, but a return to subjectivity and intimacy as the true and only place where man really can be himself. “To know oneself has become an end, instead of a means through which one knows the world.”[24] Public life is thus experienced as something external to us, detached (participation in political action is only an occasional duty) or even threatening. Unknown foreign people are preventatively perceived as potential threat, because they do not easily fit into the transparent spheres of our private life (family) linked by intimate relationships.

One manifestation of this hypostasising intimate sphere (Sennett speaks of the tyranny of intimacy) is however that we project the expectations and ways of perceiving that correspond to relationships in private into the public sphere – in this sense Sennett speaks about a confusion between the private and the public, and about the blurring of the boundary between them. (We could say: as though we were looking at the world around us through the wrong glasses.) This expectation however must necessarily be disappointed, which again strengthens the feeling of the strangeness of the public sphere. We mentioned earlier that one man presents himself to another in public by means of gesture and speech. We should however refine this formulation – especially insofar as Sennett’s concept is concerned. In his view an effort at self-presentation like this is disproportionate for the public sphere; it corresponds rather to relationships in private. The public sphere is founded rather on factual, impersonal relationships; actions here are – and must be – linked with roles that are acted while wearing appropriate masks. Sennett’s partial metaphor of the public urban scene as a theatrical stage is especially illustrative here: the actor onstage does not represent himself but a particular theatrical figure; and the performance is not about his own person, but about what is said here about the world. Only thanks to this depersonalisation of relationships in public can we be capable of agreeing over something that connects us, in spite of the fact we are different subjects. “‘Public’ behaviour is a matter, at first, of action at a distance from the self, from its immediate history, circumstances, and needs; second, this action involves the experiencing of diversity.”[25]

If the fear of a hostile outer world leads us to build impenetrable ramparts around our private world (home becomes a sacred place), then this disappointed expectation of personal relations in the public sphere too leads to the demarcation of similar barriers. Instead of following potential common interests with others, a common identity is sought; and the other side of the common identity is the exclusion of those who do not belong to it.

Sennett’s essentially socially psychological analyses of action in public and of its transformations are often also based on parallels in the structure of the physical space of the city. Especially the topic of boundaries as impenetrable barriers, or conversely, edges where there is an encounter of differences appear many times in the context of examining social relationships and in the interpretation of buildings and urbane formations. Nowadays, the search for a common identity linked with the excommunication of those who are “different” (in colour or social status) has its most radical physical manifestation in the building of “gated communities”, where warm neighbourly relations based on personal relationships can prevail thanks only to the fact that they are non-public spaces and everything foreign and different is excluded from them. According to Sennett, this decomposition of the public sphere is not only a threat to society-wide cohesion, but at the same time an impoverishment of the residents of these modern ghettos: “People grow only by processes of encountering the unknown….Love of ghetto, especially the middle-class ghetto, denies the person a chance to enrich his perceptions, his experience, and learn that most valuable of all human lessons, the ability to call the established conditions of his life in question.”[26] An encounter with dissimilarity on the inclusive urban stage can provide an important impetus for such a reassessment of stereotypes and ingrained social prejudices.

Sennett is not a naïve fantasist. His humanist enthusiasm for the renewal of a fully-fledged public space does not stop him making a factual diagnosis of the time and of specific situations. Even on a stroll through the previously mentioned diversity of Manhattan, he notes that we are usually only able to tolerate the dissimilarity because we do not notice it and prefer to close our eyes to it. (We react to difference with indifference, with apathy.) In later essays, he intensifies his description of the emptying and alienation of the public sphere by pointing to the commercialisation and consumer orientation of life that leads to the individual looking on the public sphere around him or herself as one great shopping centre whose primary role is to satisfy individual desires. He/she no longer considers him/herself as a component of it, but a customer.

Nevertheless – even with the awareness of the limited possibilities of architectural means – Sennett looks for ways to support architecturally that encounter with dissimilarity offered by the city, and to transform it into positive experience. We will refer some of its specific subjects in the following text. Here we can describe them only in general terms as the forming of weak permeable boundaries in place of solid walls; overlap as a method of linking various functional and social fields of the city; a certain openness and indeterminacy in the potential use of public spaces that allows development in time and the occurrence of something unexpected and spontaneous, and gives the place a chance to become “narrative space”.[27]

We could undoubtedly analyse a number of other authors who devote themselves to the philosophical and social aspect of public space. The point of these probes, however, was not to summarise the whole breadth of contemporary sociological views on this issue[28] but first, to draw attention to key personalities who anticipated later discussion in the field of philosophy and the social sciences (the works of Arendt, Bahrdt, Habermas may belong to an earlier age, but no serious argument can do without their reflections even today). Secondly, this methodological retrospective was intended to highlight above all those ideas that clarify the deeper meaning of the public space, and that determine what makes the public space truly public. We consider that crucial and often repeated moment to be the definition of the public space as an open stage on which we can, in impersonal encounters, confront a variety of views of the world and seek the connection that allows us to share in this world.

Most of the authors mentioned above offer a concept of the public space that is labelled normative. They present a certain ideal of the public space that – although it was theoretically treated as a historical prototype of the Classical agora, the mediaeval marketplace, or the bourgeois society of the Enlightenment – scarcely existed in any perfect form. Objections to the idealisation of history, to overlooking the fact that the possibility of participating in the action on the public stage was always somehow regimented and was not there for everyone (slaves and women were excluded from it in the ancient world, in the nineteenth century those without property, etc.) – such objections appear frequently and justly in specialist literature. However, that does not change the fact that ideals thus formulated can serve as criteria that enable us to judge whether specific urban spaces and their living content approach the nature of a public space, or are distant from it.

[1] Čapek, Karel, Letters from England translated by Geoffrey Newsome, London, Claridge Press 2001, pp. 32-33.

[2] See Oriol Bohigas, “Rekonstrukce Barcelony” (The Reconstruction of Barcelona) in Alena Novotná Galardová and Petr Kratochvíl (eds.), Praha – budoucnost historického města (Prague – The Future of a Historic City), Prague 1992, pp. 107-116.

[3] Tom Avermaete, Klaske Havik and Hans Teerds (eds.), Architectural Positions – Architecture, Modernity and Public Sphere, Amsterdam 2009. – Antje Havemann and Klaus Selle (eds.), Plätze, Parks & Co., Detmold 2010. – Petr Kratochvíl (ed.), Architektura a veřejný prostor, Prague 2012.

[4] George Baird, The Space of Appearance. Cambridge, Mass.1995.

[5] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition.  Chicago 1959, pp. 45, 48..

[6] Idem, p. 177.

[7] Idem, p. 53.

[8] Idem, 48.

[9] George Baird summarises in his book attacks and defences on the idealisation of the Classical, and in my opinion devotes himself very thoroughly to Arendt’s relationship to the public space in the architectural sense.  Public Space / Cultural / Political Theory. Amsterdam 2011, pp. 28-35.

[10] Hans-Paul Bahrdt, Moderne Großstadt, Hamburg, Rowohlt 1961.

[11] Richard Sennett, “Veřejný prostor”. Zlatý řez, 32, 2009, pp. 4 – 7.

[12] Hans-Paul Bahrdt, Idem, p. 65.

[13] Idem, p. 62.

[14] Hans-Paul Bahrdt, “Von der romantischen Grossstadtkritik zum urbanen Städtebau”, Schweizermonatshefte, 1958, p. 664. (Quoted from Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Cambridge 1989, p. 159.)

[15] Strukturwandel der Őffentlichkeit was first published in German in 1962.

[16] “Őffentlichkeit” in Ernst Fraenkl and Dietrich Bracker (Hrsg.), Das Fischer Lexikon: Staat und Politik. (2nd edition), Frankurt am Maine 1964, p. 220.

[17] For a comparison of the two authors see for example: Petra Gümplová, “Modernita a úpadek veřejné sféry: Koncept veřejnosti a deliberativní politiky v díle Hannah Arendtové a Jürgena Habermase” (Modernity and the fall of the public sphere: the concept of the public and deliberative politics in the work of Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas) in Jiří Šubrt (ed.), Historická sociologie, Pilsen 2007.

[18] Henri Lefebvre, Production de l’espace, Paris 1974.

[19] David Harvey, Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London, New York 2012.

[20] Richard Sennett, “Veřejný prostor” (Public Space), Zlatý řez, 32, 2009, pp. 4 – 7. 

[21] Richard Sennett, “Prostory demokracie”, in Petr Kratochvíl (ed.), Architektura a veřejný prostor, Prague 2012.

[22] Richard Sennett, The Conscience of the Eye, New York, London 1992, pp. 123-131.

[23] Richard Sennett,  The Fall of Public Man, New York 1977

[24] Idem, p. 4.

[25] Idem, p. 87.

[26] Idem, p. 295.

[27] Richard Sennett, The Conscience of the Eye, p. 190.

[28] In the Czech environment the latest summary of sociological literature on the theme was by Pavel Pospěch, “Městský veřejný prostor: interpretativní přístup” (The urban public space: an interpretative approach), Sociologický časopis, 2013, no. 1, p. 75-100.