Freedom of Assembly and Public Space Today

A lively panel with audience participation made for a thoughtful Sunday morning discussion on the relationship between architecture, urban design, and the use of public space.

Laura Trimble

Event: Freedom Of Assembly, Public Space Today, Part 3
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.16.12
Organizers: The Center for Architecture, City College of New York School of Architecture, and Pratt Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment.
Welcome: Rick Bell, FAIA, Executive Director, American Institute of Architects New York Chapter; Lynne Elizabeth, Director, New Village Press
Moderator: David Burney, FAIA, Commissioner, New York City Department of Design + Construction
Speakers: Roland Anglin, Faculty Fellow, Director and Associate Research Professor, The Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies, Rutgers University; Joan Byron, Director of Policy, Pratt Center for Community Development; Daniel Latorre, VP, Digital Placemaking, Project for Public Spaces; Signe Nielsen, FASLA, Principal, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects; Michael Pyatok, FAIA, Principal, Pyatok Architects; Quilian Riano, Founder, DSGN AGNC
Closing Remarks: Ron Shiffman, FAICP, Professor, Pratt Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment; Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, ACSA, Distinguished Professor, Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York

Last year the Center for Architecture initiated a series of discussions titled Freedom of Assembly, the first of which, in December 2011, was a swift reflection upon the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Last Sunday was the third panel of the series that accompanied an exhibition entitled “Beyond Zuccotti Park.” The exhibition, in turn, is derived from a book by the same name. In all, the Center has become a forum for one of the most relevant intersections of occupy-thinking and standard architecture and planning practices.

Engaging us this time were activists, designers, and city planners. Rick Bell and Lynne Elizabeth, director of the New Village Press, opened the event with a discussion about what should be done now, a year after the occupation. New Village Press is a subsidiary of ADPSR (Architects Designers & Planners for Social Responsibility).

Joan Byron argued that European city master plans be used as a model – and that New York should have one (this city’s most recent comprehensive master plan dates to 1969). She suggested that the Bloomberg Administration’s recent plaNYC 2030, technically not a master plan, favors established interests. NYC Department of Design + Construction Commissioner David Burney, FAIA, who moderated the event, described the capacity of the city government to transform public space. He cited recent and future developments in Times Square and the Department of Transportation’s creation of bike lanes.

Michael Pyatok, FAIA, of Oakland-based Pyatok Architects, showed his firm’s design of the plaza in front of Oakland, California’s City Hall; New Yorkers in the room noted the lack of an open and accessible public square outside of our own city hall. Signe Nielsen, FASLA, while initially supporting the open expression at Zuccotti Park, described her sense that the proliferation of tents represented a misuse of public space, Pyatok said the Oakland Occupation suited the space. He designed the amphitheater-like steps as “the living room” and the adjoining lawn as “the people’s mattress” – useable metaphors for a livable city.

Quilian Riano spoke about “politics as design and design as politics,” describing his efforts to analyze spaces of conflict in whOWNSpace, a project documenting “work-shopping” public spaces (especially privately owned public spaces, or POPS) in New York. whOWNSpace identifies potential sites for public space within cities.

Daniel Latorre, a software designer who works at Project for Public Space, was perhaps the panelist closest to the Occupy movements. He is part of Occupy Town Square, self-described on its Facebook page as “Mobile, daytime outreach occupations, held in parks and other public spaces around NYC, building the movement for economic, social, and environmental justice.”

Ideas presented and debated at the three-hour long session described the potential role of municipal government in commissioning public spaces that could be designed to encourage open dialogue and participatory democracy. There was no consensus, however, that a design solution could be created, despite Pyatok’s example, in response to social movements. The ability of architects, landscape architects and urban designers to plan spaces is limited by the terms of engagement. Closing remarks by Ron Shiffman, Hon. AIANY and Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, also among the editors of the book, were more upbeat, noting the value of the dialogue about the design of public space in advancing issues of social justice.