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Definitions of Public Space as Common Space

zaterdag 2 mei 2015
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  • Wim Cuyvers, Intervention on cemetary, 2008

Wim Cuyvers 

In an article on museums as security space in the art magazine De Witte Raaf, the architect Wim Cuyvers (google him and his 'transgressive architecture') gave a series of definitions of public space that merit to be considered apart from their context and deserve to be translated, as they give a very unusual but inspiring content to concept of ‘public space’.


1. Public space is the opposite of private space, it is the opposite of privatized space.

2. He who privatizes space has acquired this space, he bought it or has inherited it, he confiscated or occupied it. He is protected by laws, habits and power.

3. He who privatizes space, has power.

4. He who privatizes space, exercises control over it.

5. The powerless needs public space.

6. Public space is uncontrolled space.

7. Public space is the space of powerlessness.

8. Public space is economically insignificant, worthless space.

9. The perfect public space would be this space where everyone could do anything at any time.

10. So, public space is a Platonic notion: one hundredth percent public space seems unthinkable.

11. The street is far less public than one would think at first sight: the street separates various flows of traffic, it avoids conflict between these various flows of traffic: you need to have a car to be allowed on one part of the street, or a bike to be allowed on another part of the street.

12. Likewise, the square is public space only in limited terms, the pub owner or shopkeeper appropriates this space, installs his terrace or his goods and carefully sweeps the garbage away.

13. Leisure kills public space.

14. One can recognize public space by garbage littering it: in society unequivocally focused on profit, the places littered by garbage are ignored places.

15. Public space is the space of loss, not the space of profit.

16. In public space garbage is blown against a vertical structure, a sidewalk, a long wall of an industrial building, a railway verge, a natural rift: the garbage or those considered garbage by society.

17. Public space is the space of squander (of energy), not the space of frugal saving.

18. Public space is, by definition, located near privatized space; a remote forest is no public space.

19. The moment of social transgression is this moment when one gets in touch with oneself and the world.

20. Real transgression happens outside of monitored private space: the child looking to light a small fire, the first sexual encounters, drugs,…

21. Public space is the space of transgressing the social norm(s).

22. Public space is the space of being.

23. Public space is the space of non-possessing.

24. Public space is existential space.

25. Public space is the space of need (the compulsion of having to transgress the societal norm).

26. Public space is the space where those in need are.

27. Public space is the space where those in need meet each other.

28. Those in need leave their traces in public space (garbage from garbage), such as their bodily fluids: tears, urine, blood, sperm. There is no one to sweep it away, the space belongs to no one, nobody feels responsible for it, no one has appropriated it.

29. People of different ages, race or culture, people with very different needs, all seem in search for the same public space. Those who are, in various ways, in need seem to read space in a virtually identical way: the child and the aged, the drug addict and the person looking for impermissible sexual encounters…, all make use of public space in the same manner: right beside a parking lot near a bustling road, just behind a screen made of bushes. Those in need, who give in to their need, who accept it, read the place, read the space in the same way.

30. He who accepts his very own need will see public space, will read it and understand it. He reads this space as did the other destitute person, who, before him, has seen and identified the space as being ‘public’.

31. We all need transgression, we need the space for the transgression, we need public space; we are all in need and vulnerable.

32. When a writer writes a book, the reader reads a different book and a next reader will read something else. It seems we can read space univocally, without disruption or interference, when we accept our need (instead of power and knowledge, overview and comprehension).

33. Via space a non-verbal – or maybe better pre-verbal – speaking becomes possible.

34. If I am able to read space in a way similar to many others, I’m able, across this space, to speak with those others; about myself, those others, about our needs and our fears, about the world.

35. I can touch you, for just one moment, through (public) space.

36. Maybe common space, the space we have in common, is a better word for public space.

Source: these theses are taken from Wim Cuyvers, Musea voor actuele kunst, van het bordeel via de school naar Ikea. De Witte Raaf, editie 128, juli-augustus 2007 (translated by Liesbeth Kennes)