Public Space: Fights and Fictions, a conference held in May at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, was a marathon lasting 36 hours. Centred on the politics of public space, the event gathered 31 guests, many of who were architects and urban planners, but also journalists, artists, novelists, curators, and researchers, all from various cities of the Global North (Berlin, London, Paris, Madrid, Sarajevo, Zürich, Rotterdam, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Vienna, New York, Oslo, Munich, Madrid, Toulouse, Lisbon, Athens, Zagreb) and the Global South (Karachi, Cairo, São Paulo, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Johannesburg). Taking advantage of Werner Düttmann and Sabine Schumann’s generous museum architecture of 1960, the ‘factory of thought’ materialised through several formats, including keynote lectures, performances, round table discussions, public interviews, and at night, DJ sets.

Beyond the propositions made throughout event, one could derive the topics of today concerning the relationship between space and society. In this regard, it is not accidental that the conference opened with a keynote lecture by Eyal Weizman, director of Forensic Architecture, on perhaps the most important architectural work accomplished in recent years. Organised as a research agency at Goldsmiths, University of London, this group of architects, artists, and researchers creates reports investigating various political and military crimes, to serve as evidence in potential or actual trials. Through this vision, public space can be perceived as ‘the scene of the crime’, from where evidence can be gathered in the context of an investigation.

Doreen Heng Liu, Anna Minton, and Kathrin Röggla answering questions after their successive interventions, kicking off the 36-hour 'factory of thought'
This vision can be associated with another one, presenting public space as the site of the State’s intensification of control, through the work of a few guests such as Anna Minton (London), Marvi Mazhar (Karachi), and Raquel Rolnik (São Paulo). Although the logic of the militarisation of pub- lic space in Europe (London, Paris, and Brussels) shown in this scope is not fundamentally different from that experienced in some cities of the Global South, one could see in the juxtaposition of dis- courses the different intensities that separate them. To an enthusiastic Scandinavian presenter advocating gentle ‘guerrilla’ appropriation of public space, who concluded his presentation by saying, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission”, a participant at the conference responded: “In Egypt, if you don’t ask for permission, you get shot!” Through this contrast of visions, the fundamental difference in the way bodies experience public space could be appreciated. While some urban contexts may facilitate the current trends of flash mobs, Face- book events, giant picnics, and other such forms of participative appropriation of public space, others produce a territoriality that reflects and enforces social and political control by the dominant order. However, this inequality in regard to public space should not be interpreted solely by comparing different geographical and political contexts. Within cities, bodies do not have equal access to public space. In ‘the right to the city’, a concept coined by French sociologist Henri Lefebvre in 1968 de- scribing the public’s right to claim the use of space – which came up repeatedly during the conference, may not have been interrogated enough. Of what does this notion of ‘public’ consist? Although the differences of wealth had been evoked, the intervention by Nana Adusei-Poku, Research Professor in Cultural Diversity at Rotterdam University, certainly helped, by interrogating the forms of racial segregation often contained in the notion, a dimension for which architects and planners have a responsibility. Taking the example of the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements’ disruption of public space in the United States, claiming it to be a space designed against African Americans, she invited the participants and the audience to learn to challenge the political violence exercised within societies themselves.

The fact that the conference ended with more questions than answers is fundamentally a good thing. Architects and planners, by exercising their professions, take decisions that can either reinforce the given order of a society or challenge it. The introduction of doubt in their practice is therefore a healthy element, since it necessarily involves a certain degree of deconstruction in the way this order is implemented through public space. Reflective events like this can be said to be successful not because they unpack a set of universal solutions for the examined problem, but rather because they trigger a certain degree of uncertainty in the way urban practitioners reflect on their own profession. We can only hope that the various ‘agents of doubt’ of the Fights and Fictions event were heard when they raised their concerns, and that the designs that will emerge from these conversations will indeed reflect such doubt.

Participant Nana Adusei-Poku, at one of the keynote lectures
Cairo-based architect Omar Nagati presenting Contested Space in a City in Flux: Scenes From Public Space in Post-Revolution Cairo
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