Public space in extremis

How the global Coronavirus shutdown revealed the vulnerability of public space

Miloš Kosec

As large parts of the world are struggling to come to terms with the new normality in the age of Coronavirus pandemic, the public space in many cities has already been drastically transformed. Empty streets, closed public buildings and evacuated tourist zones remain physically the same as before, but their everyday use has radically changed. The public squares and pavements designed for meeting, stalling, flâneuring and protesting have been narrowed down to a space of only the absolutely unavoidable and carefully monitored transit: to work (for those who can’t work at home, at least), to the nearest shop and to the park, where it is still allowed. The radically impoverished urban pulse is measured by the lack of everyday sounds, with the sole melody of the ambulance and police siren giving it its beat. It is the urban equivalent of an immune response in the human body: shedding functions suddenly deemed unnecessary and focusing all of the available energy to limit the damage and fight the disease.

What does reading the drastically changed global urban landscape in a time of a quarantine shutdown entail? The sudden, unexpected and synchronised experience of the shutdown is unparalleled in modern times. Even in the more devastating epidemics of the past centuries, the plague has spread out slower; similarly, its global effects were examined and compared only centuries after they happened. This is why the present epidemic rings especially meaningful in a globalised world where bits of information and commodities travel quickly and largely unhindered (something that is still not true for all humans). As most of us learned in the preceding weeks, a virus is by most accounts not a living organism but merely a piece of information capable of replicating itself through attacking the cells in a body. The virus is therefore the necessary and constituent negative of the world wide webs of information, transport and commodity exchange we got used to in the globalised world of the past decades. The shutdown throughout the world is not merely allegorically analogous to information age technology but is its constituent part, as the prevailing terminology of the epidemic makes abundantly clear. As of yet, it is less clear how the global reboot will be organised.

Due to the virus size and imperceptibility, it is hard to experience the epidemic in any other way than through the negative: through what is not seen, what is not perceptible and what is not experienced. Outside from the very real and perceptible effort of the hospitals and emergency services, the public sphere has almost completely evacuated the public space: it has largely migrated to online services. A question remains if we are experiencing a strong shift towards the private, as most people’s lives in quarantined areas are at the moment taking places almost exclusively within the walls of their households. More probable is a total breakdown of the dichotomy between public and private. If an amalgam of workplace and home has become the norm overnight, we are possibly experiencing an accelerated decomposition of the concept of the private. The walls of our homes still prevent bodies exiting or entering against our will (with the exception of the police and medical services in some of the countries that have enacted emergency measures). Hence the usefulness of walls and architecture for enforcing the quarantine rules within the population. But the walls remain hopeless against the telephone and internet signals that enable the work from home as well as surveillance, Skype with family as much as constant work-related series of Zoom meetings. This has been true before the epidemics as well, but is only now reaching the truly global proportions and exhibiting its potential for durability. The first spatial sacrifice of the pandemics is the concept of private, which is dissolving in front of our eyes.

The question to ask ourselves today is: Are we experiencing a fundamental shift in how urban space will function in the future? What is the role left for the public space after the global experience of the shutdown, then, if public sphere can be “outsourced” so swiftly and effectively to within the walls of our own homes? Is the once public space to linger on merely as a backdrop of utilitarian, instrumentalized and carefully policed functions of the state? The city in extremis has thrown into disarray most of our lives, work and social relations. But a number of people who are otherwise suffering from trauma, depression or anxiety, reputedly experience it somewhat differently. Theirs is a life of daily experiences of disarray, of stress and mental health put to the test. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, the surrounding “objective” world (as most like to think of it) has aligned with their daily experience of extremes and anxiety. I suppose this does not make it any easier for anyone, but it does grant certain social legitimacy to perceptions otherwise too often dismissed as individual or subjective. “In extremis” has become the objective condition of the everyday.

Perhaps something similar to this psychological alignment can be experienced in spatial terms, within the urban fabric, at least for the duration of the pandemic. Nonuments, buildings structurally left out of the everyday normality, have suddenly lost their constituent contrast to the “normal” buildings around them. At the present, there is precious little separating an empty brutalist building from a closed shopping mall, or an almost empty old town core from an abandoned industrial complex. For a time, at least, they have become equal, perceptible only through the functions and people not inhabiting them. It is as if much of the city, or better: much of the world has become a gigantic, if temporary, nonument – largely superfluous spatial remnant of the total mobilisation of the society in the fight against the Coronavirus. This is obviously, and thankfully, a phenomenon of limited duration. Nevertheless, it presents us with something more than a thought exercise. It is a simulation that sharpens our understanding of the buildings normally left out of the mainstream and of the processes that had led them there. The age of Coronavirus presents us with a renewed chance to start reading the negative, the invisible and imperceptible – because precisely the negative, the invisible and imperceptible can change the public sphere in an instant. The virus clearly demonstrated that. Our ability to reinvent the notion of the public space and the role of the nonuments from the leftovers of the urban fabric into its building blocks will be decisive in the fight for the public sphere; regardless of what sort of space the public sphere ends up inhabiting.

Text by Miloš Kosec