We all love those old city centers. In many ways, they are why we travel to different cities. The old towns, with their narrow streets and an ambiance of culture, in a human scale. They are attractive not only because of the abundance of restaurants, cafés, and other leisure activities that suit the agenda of the tourist, but because they convey an idea of a city space that feels different from many of our contemporary public spaces. To me, a big portion of this charm is in the details that make the whole. The curve of a railing, the mosaic of tiles on an entrance, the detailing of a lamppost. "They don't make them like this anymore", we feel, and we're right. Most of the times, they don't. Why is it so, that the very things, the details, that make us feel like home in old city spaces are so rarely seen in newly built spaces? 

The reason seems to be found in the history of urban planning - more specifically, in the development of prefabrication and the division of labor into separate tasks. There was a time, when everything that you found in public space was made by hand. Builders worked in teams, and it was logical to put the one with the best eye for finishing and detailing, to do that part. So the overall result had artistic vision inscribed in it, as a natural part of it. As the industrial prefabrication progressed, hand labor became relatively expensive. Furthermore, the division of labor led into increasingly specialized tasks done by increasingly specialized professionals, while the resulting space started to be seen as something also fulfilling a specific task. So we arrived at a situation, where public space is something that 

Is this the change we asked for? Is there a middle way?

Is this the change we asked for? Is there a middle way?

  1. is usually meant for a certain task specifically - such as playground to play in, or street to move from a to b - instead of mixing the uses
  2. is planned in millimeter detail by a group of experts that each have a clear, functional role 
  3. is build exactly according to those plans by another group of specialized professionals

There are of course, many good sides to this development. One of the bad sides is, however, that public space has lost, in many parts, its inbuilt artistic quality. In the separation of tasks, art was also separated, becoming something you can add to a space if it fulfills a need in the space - such as marking an important square, or, making a problematic part of a city less restless. Artistic quality became an excludable part of public space. In this process, we lost part of the idea of public space as a way to express, experience and appreciate beauty in the mundane of the everyday. (Or, maybe sadly, for a while, the blankness of the life-as-a-machine-functionalism was an adequate expression of who we were.) Do we still share this ideal of a clear, stripped, functional public space? Did we ever?

Today, as we communicate and meet more and more trough screens, choosing our audiences and connecting with peers, urban space has become the only place where we meet all kinds of people, were we come to contact with groups that we normally would not. This, our last truly common space, should be able to reflect our values not only as groups of consumers, but as citizens, more and more so as citizens of the world, that have this shared life in common, right now. Art has this capacity to convey shared meanings. There is huge value in artworks placed in urban areas, as they remind us of different ways of seeing the world, communicating in an intuitive way. In addition to separate, well-chosen artworks however, I feel, that we should be able to reinvent a common ground of culture, an overall appreciation of the everyday spaces we share. To me, this means re-integrating culture into the processes that create these spaces. 

Prefabrication is part of today's world, and in parts, so is specialization of professions to different kinds of planners and builders. We don't need to bring back the past. To integrate artistic meaning into our urban areas, in a way that suits our current methods of working, we need to get the contemporary artists that used to actually build the details, to join the work around the drawing table where the decisions are made. That is, as professionals working inside the team in the field of urban planning and design. This way, the artistic forms that are created can replace the regular ones - and their building costs! - resulting in a space that is both of contemporary functional quality, and inscribed with artistic meaning and beauty. 

Values change, urban space follows.

Values change, urban space follows.

This is not percentage-for-art, and it's not the place to make the most politically challenging artworks either. Also, the inclusion of contemporary artists in the field of urban planning doesn't mean unemployment for landscape architects and other creative professionals already there. It means recognizing 

  1. artistic meaning as an integral part of our shared urban spaces
  2. professional artists as the best available talents in building this meaning, teamed up with a group of other highly skilled professionals of each their own specialized fields.

It's professionals collaborating to create something meaningful and beautiful out of an everyday task, building on each others' strengths. 

Having worked in the field of urban planning both as a contemporary artist and architect specialized in urban surroundings, I've seen that there are really no obstacles to this kind of collaboration. All we need is a shared belief that, if we wanted to, ordinary public space could be both beautiful and meaningful, and some training to understand each other’s professional language. Personally I hope to be able to be part of this process, in building public spaces that actually reflect our shared values in our ever more diverse cities. If this feels like something you would also like to work for, contact me, and let's see what we can build together.

- Maija Kovari / CitiesAreOurs.com