Art or Lunch?
Redesigning a Public for Federal Plaza
This is a day for the people to rejoice … because now the plaza returns rightfully to the people.
—William Diamond, New York regional administrator for the General Services Administration
At City Hall, legal battles over freedom of speech and assembly showed that even places that seem intended to be locations for acts of protest can be controlled through regulation. Regulation changes the symbolic and real possibility of places even when the places themselves remain physically unaltered. Ties between the steps of City Hall and the activities of the public sphere were severed and then reestablished through ongoing processes of regulation, speech acts, and litigation. Throughout this process, the steps themselves never physically changed. The story of 26 Federal Plaza offers no such physical constant. The plaza was redesigned twice in the space of ten years. Motivating each redesign were specific ideas about what public life should be. Each redesign framed particular publics by creating particular spatial and aesthetic settings.
While studying places that have been altered dramatically in a short space of time makes unraveling the values surrounding these changes difficult, it also affords us the opportunity to examine in greater detail the ways in which design—as a process of decision making and as a physical product—and the rhetoric of critique and debate surrounding design generate ideas about public space and its position as the site and subject of active
The history of Federal Plaza/Jacob Javits Plaza shows how government officials, artists, designers, and critics engage in ongoing processes of design, critique, and redesign. These processes define and redefine public space and public life. In 1979 artist Richard Serra physically changed the plaza by installing his sculpture Tilted Arc. He created Tilted Arc based on the idea that public art on a government-owned site should be confrontational and never complicit. Government officials did not share Serra’s values. They viewed the sculpture as an eyesore and a threat, and they actively and successfully sought to have the sculpture removed. The values of the government officials were not shared by art critics Rosalyn Deutsche and Douglas Crimp, who viewed Federal Plaza without Serra’s sculpture as emblematic of what public space and public life should not be: actively controlled by a few powerful and determined people. The values of the art critics were not shared by landscape architect Martha Schwartz, who redesigned Federal Plaza in accordance with the wishes of the government agency that hired her. At this time, the plaza was renamed Jacob Javits Plaza. Design critic Clare Cooper-Marcus did not share Schwartz’s view of how a public space should be designed, and has condemned the plaza.
This is of course a simplification of the story. Serra’s Tilted Arc and Schwartz’s Jacob Javits Plaza generated individual maelstroms of critique and countercritique about what a public space should be, what should happen there, and who should have a say in its ongoing management. But even this cursory glance at the redesign of Federal Plaza shows that looking at successive changes to public spaces reveals more than would the examination of individual designs in isolation. These two projects, Tilted Arc and Jacob Javits Plaza, have not been examined together as part of the site’s ongoing and contentious history. Discussions regarding Tilted Arc have not been part of landscape-architecture criticism. Rather, they have been conducted within the realms of art criticism or social criticism. Schwartz’s plaza was mainly
One could argue that this separation is warranted, since the two projects shared little other than a physical location. Serra’s Tilted Arc was a massive COR-TEN steel minimalist sculpture inserted within a preexisting plaza (Figure 2.1). Schwartz’s project, which remains in place today, involved a complete plaza redesign, from building edge to sidewalk: new purple paving, swirls of back-to-back bright green benches, blue enamel water fountains, curlicue handrails, streetlights double their normal height, and giant mounds of grass that give off puffs of water vapor (Figure 2.2). Whereas Tilted Arc was minimal, sober, and massive, Schwartz’s plaza is elaborate, jaunty, and colorful.
The ongoing history of Federal Plaza, including Serra’s and Schwartz’s designs and the debates that led to the demolition of Serra’s Tilted Arc and to the construction of Schwartz’s redesign, expose more about the politics of public space than does either event on its own. What is surprising in the Federal Plaza case is not simply that discourse and design are part of the same processes of cultural production—processes that determine the relationship between a public space and its public spheres—rather, it is astonishing that they are in many instances not clearly recognized as such by those people engaged in the very physical transformation of public space. The Federal Plaza case is an example of the inability or unwillingness of design criticism and practice to engage with public spaces as the sites and subjects of active public spheres.
Tilted Arcs and Curving Benches
While the fate of Tilted Arc may be familiar to many, two important aspects of the story are less obvious. First, this story offers a graphic example of how physical changes are made to spaces based on arguments about who the public is and what is in their interest. Second, the sculpture and its subsequent removal spurred political and academic discussions about issues, including the importance of public spaces tied to public buildings, the role of public art, and what constitutes public process. Together, these factors create a second story about Tilted Arc and its site, a story about diverse constituencies intervening in the creation of a public space. In other words, because of its removal, Tilted Arc generated a kind of public sphere.
Completed in 1967, 26 Federal Plaza was designed by architects Alfred Easton Poor, Kahn and Jacobs, and Eggers and Higgins. The building sits within New York’s civic center, the hub of government office buildings in
With forty-one floors, the building remains one of the tallest in the civic center. The building is easily spotted because of its stature and the pattern created on its surface by its zigzagging rows of windows. A large plaza sits on the building’s eastern side. When the plaza was originally designed, it had a large working fountain and its paving was patterned after Roman designs—in particular, Michelangelo’s work at the Campidoglio in Rome.4 While creating a European-style plaza may have been the architects’ intention, commentators on Federal Plaza found the plaza lacking.5 In a 1985 New York Times article, Paul Goldberger described the plaza as “an ugly space bordered by undistinguished buildings and centered, more or less, by an empty pool and dry fountain,” adding, “in a city of bad plazas in front of bad skyscrapers, this is one of the worst. Federal Plaza is a dreary stretch of concrete, punctuated by a poorly placed and poorly designed fountain; it was no urban oasis by a long shot.”6 Because it was built over the top of a parking garage whose structure could not bear the additional weight, the plaza had no trees. The fountain proved difficult to maintain, and was eventually turned off altogether. It may not have been a place where people wanted to linger, particularly after the fountain broke, because of the wind in the winter or the heat in the summer. The space was large and open enough, however, for protests and demonstrations. In 1971, for example, federal employees rallied there to protest a Nixon wage freeze.7 In this way, the plaza’s openness was an asset. It allowed the space to be used as the site for certain public spheres.
In 1979, through the GSA’s Art-in-Architecture program, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) commissioned Richard Serra to design a sculpture for 26 Federal Plaza.8 Under this program, one-half of 1 percent of the cost of any new building or building under construction is required to be set aside for the incorporation of fine art. Though the Federal
Because of its style, scale, material, and position, it’s not surprising that Tilted Arc drew such criticism and became one of the most controversial works of public art in the United States. The piece consisted of a long slab of steel that stretched across the plaza in a shallow curve. Unlike many sculptures in public spaces in New York City, Tilted Arc was not representational; it did not depict a historic moment or figure. Tilted Arc was, therefore, difficult to view and to interpret as art. Though these features were in keeping with the sculpture’s minimalist style, even within the genre of minimalism Tilted Arc stood out. The very material it was made out of also caused unease. COR-TEN steel is fabricated to rust, a finish most equate with scrap metal or waste, not with fine art. Tilted Arc also appeared uncontained. It did not sit on a pedestal, but rather appeared to come out of the plaza itself. It did not even stand upright, but rather angled in toward its concave side, giving passersby the feeling that it might somehow fall and crush them while at the same time appearing firmly rooted to the plaza’s surface. Because of its shape and position, the sculpture looked very different depending from which side of the plaza you viewed it. From one angle, its entire length appeared; from another, the thinness of the slab and the shape of the curve became more visible.
To those unfamiliar with the history of Tilted Arc it might seem logical that when William Diamond, the New York regional administrator of the GSA, said, “this is a day for the people to rejoice, because now the plaza returns rightly to the people,” he was referring to the day the sculpture was unveiled. This was not the case, however; he made the statement upon the sculpture’s removal. Two days before the statement was published in the New York Post, a crew worked through the night sawing and torching the 120-foot-long, twelve-foot-high, several-inch-thick COR-TEN steel curve.11 The
Photographs of the sculpture’s demolition and of the arc-shaped cut left in the plaza after its removal illustrate the outcome of an eight-year legal battle between the artist and the client. Hundreds of newspaper and journal articles published up to, during, and well after the sculpture’s removal indicate that the piece and its fate remain symbols for those who fought either for its longevity or its demolition.13 While some of this writing examined the “rights” of an artist in the face of the dismantling of his work, much of it dealt with an underlying ideal of public space.
Tilted Arc quickly became one of the most controversial works of public art in the United States. Serra’s most vocal and powerful detractors, whose combined efforts led to the sculpture’s dismantling, were Judge Edward D. Re, chief judge of the U.S. Court of International Trade, and Ronald Reagan–appointee William Diamond, the GSA’s New York regional administrator. In August 1981, the same year that Tilted Arc was installed, Judge Re sent a letter to GSA Administrator Gerald Carmen, calling the sculpture “the rusted steel barrier in front of our courthouse.” Re argued that it “destroys not only the beauty and spaciousness, but also the utility of the plaza, which has been used for ceremonies.”14
In 1985, Diamond convened a hearing to decide whether or not Tilted Arc should be relocated in order to increase what he called the “public use” of the plaza. Diamond appointed himself as chairperson for the hearing, and appointed the panel members who would debate the question. Diamond sent out hearing announcements that stated, “the purpose of the hearing is to decided whether or not the art work known as Tilted Arc … should be relocated to increase public use of the plaza.”15 The official GSA public-hearing notice contained similar language: “The General Services Administration is contemplating relocating the artwork … to increase public use of the plaza.”16 A flier distributed in the Federal Building prior to the hearing read, “The GSA will hold a public meeting on ways to more fully utilize the plaza… . This could include the relocation of the large metal sculpture known as Tilted Arc.”17 A petition titled “For Relocation,” which circulated before the hearing, stated: “We, the undersigned feel that the artwork called Tilted Arc is an obstruction to the plaza and should be removed to a more suitable location.”18
Hearing testimonies against Serra’s work most often cited dislike for the aesthetics of the sculpture. They described Tilted Arc as “a wall of steel,” “a rusted metal wall,” or “a scar on the plaza”; they stated that it should be “relocated to a better site—a metal salvage yard” or that its removal would “reprieve us from our desolate condemnation.”19 One person commented that it sent the wrong message to people visiting the building to apply for U.S. citizenship, because it reminded people of the “iron curtains from which they escape … they should not be compelled to circumvent a rusty reminder of totalitarianism.”20
Many commentators paired the sculpture’s ugliness with the idea that because it was so imposing, it prevented the plaza from being used as a place for relaxing or special events, which in turn created a kind of double argument: people were repelled from the plaza because of the sculpture, and therefore the plaza could no longer function as a public space. One official with offices in the Federal Building stated:
I … remember my dreams of additional seating areas, of more cultural events, temporary outdoor exhibits of sculptures and paintings, ethnic dance festivals and children’s shows. All of those things are just memories now, ending with the installation of Tilted Arc. … The Arc has condemned us to lead emptier lives.21
Others, who did not comment on the merits of Tilted Arc as a work of art, argued that its size prevented people from using the plaza. A representative of Community Board 1, in which Federal Plaza sits, stated that the board voted in favor of removing Tilted Arc because it “obstructs most of the open space … and both dissuades and denies the public most uses that the public plaza could be used for… . Mr. Serra’s sculpture has … contributed to the public’s rejection of this space.”22
Serra and his supporters argued that removal of the sculpture was tantamount to its destruction, given that Tilted Arc was a site-specific work. It was argued that “The specificity of site-oriented works means that they are conceived for, dependent upon, and inseparable from their location.”23 In support of this claim, Serra noted that at Federal Plaza the sun moved across the site in the same direction that the workers moved into the adjacent Federal Building. He argued that he planned the sculpture “so that there would be no shadows from the sculpture at midday … thus maximiz[ing] the
While Serra and his supporters emphasised the site-specific nature of Tilted Arc in arguing against its relocation, they downplayed claims of the sculpture’s aggressive character.28 In an interview with art historian Douglas Crimp, Serra suggested that he had intentionally designed Tilted Arc to be massive and imposing, stating:
It is necessary to work in opposition to the constraints of the context, so that the work cannot be read as an affirmation of questionable ideologies and political power. I am not interested in art as an affirmation or complicity.29
Serra and his supporters unsuccessfully countered the “public use” argument by asserting that events on the site were infrequent. They argued that the physical location of the sculpture did not preclude such events from happening in the future and that the state of the site prior to the installation of Tilted Arc was so inhuman in scale that it was inappropriate for events anyway. Douglas Crimp observed:
The designers of the Federal Plaza managed to create a space that was inhuman in its scale, and in the way the wind whips through. The fountain could never be turned on because it would completely sweep the plaza with water… . They were talking about how Tilted Arc prevented all these wonderful events from happening on the plaza, but we knew what bad faith that was. Have they organized public concerts in the plaza since?30
In his hearing testimony and in later interviews, Crimp argued that the GSA pushed the “use” versus “sculpture” argument to develop a false sense of divisiveness between government workers and the artists who lived and worked in the neighborhood. He wrote, “I believe that we have been polarized here in order that we not notice the real issue: the fact that our social
I urge that we keep this wall in place and that we construct our social experience in relation to it, that is, out of the sights of those who would conceive of social life as something to be feared, despised, and surveyed.32
Crimp elaborates Serra’s position that art can change social habits. Left in place, Serra’s sculpture might challenge us to walk, act, think differently. But to Crimp the “publicness” of public space is tied neither to aesthetics nor government designation. Neither artists nor officials make public space.
The plaza is defined as it is used by a public. If a public takes over that space and holds political meetings or rock concerts, then it becomes public through that use.33
By arguing that public space is generated through public actions, Crimp emphasizes its dynamic nature. He underscores the fact that no matter how a plaza is designed, if government officials limit how it can be used, it is not a public space.
Art historian Rosalyn Deutsche also discusses the GSA’s manufacture of a conflict between the public use of the space and the obstacle of Serra’s sculpture.34 But Deutsche emphasizes that the very terms public and use can be used to control public space. For Deutsche, the significant issue of these debates was not the questions of whether the government had the authority to remove Tilted Arc, whether Serra’s piece was “good public art,” or whether the space allowed for public events. Rather, the debates show how the GSA controlled public discourse and, therefore, public space through rhetorical means. The GSA chose not to define public and use in explicit or precise terms. Instead, they presented them as givens, as implicitly understood terms. For Deutsche, public space is the site of democracy. It is not just that we live in a democratic society and therefore that we should maintain openness in public space, but rather that public space is the democratic realm. It is the “place” where democracy happens.35
Categories like “the public” can, of course, be construed as naturally or fundamentally coherent only by disavowing the conflicts, particularity, heterogeneity, and uncertainty that constitute social life. But when participants in a debate about the
Hearing testimony in favor of Serra’s work focused on issues related to the aesthetic merit of the work itself and resisted questions about how the GSA’s decisions indicated a desire for control of the plaza:
While the Tilted Arc debate frequently included complex material critiques of art’s production and of aesthetic perception, it nonetheless obstructed interrogation of the conditions of production of New York’s urban space.37
As Deutsche and Crimp argue, unquestioned definitions of terms public and use can be used to control discourse about public space. This point is of great importance to design practitioners and critics and could have informed the next phase of design and criticism of Federal Plaza. Public space is both physical and rhetorical. Rhetoric can be used to control who is and who is not considered part of the public. Rhetoric can claim incontestable uses of spaces that exclude groups and individuals. If you are not there for the concert, why are you in the space? If you are not part of the ceremony, why are you in the plaza? While a landscape architect might design a space that has the flexibility to support varied uses, that offers physical accessibility, that provides spaces that can be temporarily co-opted by different individuals and groups, that same site can be made equally inaccessible by what constitutes appropriate “use.”
Criticism was central to the history of Tilted Arc. Criticism defined, challenged, and redefined public space. Criticism influenced physical changes at Federal Plaza and positioned the history of Tilted Arc within larger debates about the politics of public space. For Serra, it was more important that Tilted Arc be confrontational than pleasing, since the purpose of the sculpture was to criticize political power. To Re and Diamond, the purpose of public art and public space was to provide comfortable settings for relaxation, not to challenge the power of government institutions. Hearing participants developed critical strategies to argue against Re’s and Diamond’s assertions. Crimp and Deutsche developed standpoints on the role of public art and
Jacob Javits Plaza and the Use of Public Space
In 1992 the GSA hired Martha Schwartz to redesign the plaza. At this time, the site was renamed Jacob Javits Plaza in honor of a former U.S. senator. Schwartz completely transformed the space. What was once an open, if inhospitable, area is now filled with oversized furnishings bordered at the building edge by a broad path and antiterrorist bollards. In the main portion of the plaza, six swirls of bright green benches and six giant grass-covered mounds create a kind of broad maze. The mounds were designed to give off mist on hot days. The mounds and benches take up much of the surface of the plaza, which is also dotted with blue enamel water fountains, orange mesh garbage cans, and tall black lights. The surface is covered with swirls of purple-and-black paving. Around the edges of the plaza nearest the sidewalk Schwartz installed a series of steps where the sidewalk was lower. The steps’ handrails end in huge black metal curves. Changes have been made to Schwartz’s project. The grass mounds are now covered with boxwood and no longer emit puffs of water vapor.
Critical responses to Schwartz’s redesign reiterated the idea that Tilted Arc prevented the public from using the plaza. Art critics who were so vocal during the Tilted Arc hearings have not responded to Schwartz’s redesign. Landscape-architecture critics and historians have written about Schwartz’s work, but not in the critical context set out by Deutsche and Crimp. Instead, their arguments represent GSA-sponsored attitudes about the role of design in public space and in public life. Articles on Jacob Javits Plaza found in Landscape Architecture, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Land Forum, and the Spacemaker Press monograph Martha Schwarz: Transfiguration of the Commonplace38 contain rhetoric similar to that used by the GSA in their testimony against Tilted Arc. Such writings commonly state that the presence
It is ironic that Schwartz refers to debate as a scab that won’t heal. Perhaps more important than leaving a physical marker indicating the former presence of Tilted Arc would have been for Schwartz’s project and critical responses to it to revive the discussions raised during the legal battle over Serra’s sculpture and to take on the difficult question of what a public space in front of a major public building might be. Instead, Schwartz’s plaza and the rhetoric surrounding it gave permanent form to a GSA-approved definition of public and appropriate use. This definition emerged out of a distorted interpretation of the site’s contentious history. Articles on Schwartz’s company’s Web site,41 in Landscape Architecture,42 the Spacemaker Press monograph on Martha Schwartz, and the Land Forum “Rants and Raves” article43 include false, misleading, or uncritical readings of the site’s contentious history. For example, the article announcing Schwartz’s 1997 American Society of Landscape Architects Award for Jacob Javits Plaza reads: “[w]hatever the inherent merits of Tilted Arc, its location on the plaza was both a visual and physical obstruction for pedestrians and its presence effectively precluded any other use of the space.”44 The brief description of Jacob Javits Plaza by Martha Schwartz, included with photographs and a plan published in the Spacemaker Press monograph on Martha Schwarz, reiterates the idea that the sculpture was removed because it conflicted with the site’s use. The questions raised by Deutsche’s and Crimp’s writings regarding how the words public and use are defined or deployed are buried again.
With so much attention being paid to how Federal Plaza could have been a place that people could “use,” it is ironic and perhaps shocking that the final design prescribed such a narrow program. In actuality, only one use is described by Schwartz: eating lunch.
“At first I was outraged … but I came to feel sorry for those who had to use the space” … she developed what she called “an antithetical sort of piece.” “I would shape the space for the way people actually use it: to eat lunch.”45
The “lunchtime paraphernalia” and benches take up so much of the available space that sitting and eating may be the only use possible. As the plan view indicates, Schwartz’s plaza is filled with loops of benches. The curves of the benches are meant to “allow for a variety of seating—intimate circles for groups and flat outside curves for those who wish to lunch alone.”47 But their size and positioning make crossing the plaza very difficult. There is only one direct route across the plaza, and that route is only visible as such from one point along the sidewalk. The benches also make large-scale events such as concerts and demonstrations almost impossible. One might argue that concertgoers could sit on the benches, but their configuration is so multidirectional that the majority of people seated would be facing the wrong direction.
Landscape-architecture critics, including Clare Cooper-Marcus, have even questioned how successful Schwartz was in satisfying the needs of such a limited constituency. In her letter to Landscape Architecture titled “Statement vs. Design,” Cooper-Marcus charged that Schwartz’s plaza fell short of its goal of providing space to eat lunch, citing too much seating, an inappropriate scale of the seating arcs for intimate gathering, and the empty look of the site.
Endless swirling back-to-back benches set in mauve concrete with orange trash containers—is that the kind of space in which you would want to eat lunch? Is this the kind of setting where someone working under fluorescent light bulbs in front of a computer screen in an air-conditioned office would want to go to relax … a perusal of William Whyte’s Social Life of Small Urban Places … would suggest to the designer and her clients that “eating lunch” has many, many more subtle design implications than merely providing endless benches and eye-catching trash containers.48
In defense of her design, Schwartz drew attention to the fact that the “public” was consulted in the design process. They asked for and got lots of seating. Other critics commented that the mist from the green hills counted as a water feature, as advocated by William Whyte, and that artistic design improves public space.49
there is another group on the site every day that outnumber either of these groups: people from all over New York who need a green card, a new driver’s license, who must meet a court date, or serve on jury duty.50
Crimp’s point is emphasized in a series of newspaper articles that enlarge the scope of the plaza’s potential public, including groups as diverse as people forced to spend the night on the sidewalk next to the plaza in order to line up for an appointment at INS, and the 10,000 to 20,000 demonstrators who marched from Brooklyn to Federal Plaza to protest police brutality.51
The plaza is managed strictly. People are not allowed to demonstrate there. But the dominance of the physical objects within the plaza also severely limits what can happen. There is simply no space for even GSA-approved uses of ceremonies and concerts. Serra’s sculpture occupied less of the plaza than Schwartz’s redesign (Figures 2.3 and 2.4). There is now not enough room for events such as large-scale government demonstrations and protests. Even if a group could secure permission to hold an event there, the physical layout and the design elements of Jacob Javits Plaza would limit how many people could participate and what they could do there.
Ironically, the reason given for the repetition and oversized forms of the benches and other furnishings that crowd the space of the plaza today is that they are Schwartz’s critical commentary on public space. Schwartz’s work is broadly considered to be at the cutting edge of the field of landscape architecture because her design work can also be interpreted as critical work. What does the design of Jacob Javits Plaza critique? According to promotional material prepared by Martha Schwartz, Inc., the ASLA Award writeup, and an article by Elizabeth Meyers, the design for Jacob Javits Plaza addresses the difficulty of designing a public space in New York, where contemporary urban landscape design can be reduced to selecting stock items from the Parks Department’s list of appropriate materials … Schwartz is adopting another strategy for objectifying the public realm… . Playing by the rules, Schwartz’s design proposal for the Jacob Javits plaza includes, in her words, “traditional New York Park elements with a humorous twist.” … These elements (the trash cans, light standards, benches and other “lunchtime paraphernalia”) offer a critique of the art of landscape in New York City, where the ghost of Frederick Law Olmsted is too great a force for even New York to exercise … Javits Plaza is therefore a recognizable park, historic and acceptable to New Yorkers, but its familiar elements have all gone a little mad.52
The relevance of this critique to this particular site must be questioned. How important is criticism of street furnishings compared to the discussions of public space and the relationship of public space to democracy, as raised by debate over the appropriateness of the Tilted Arc? Schwartz offers Jacob Javits Plaza as a kind of wry joke on the difficulty of designing in a city that places so much emphasis on a historic style of design, suggesting: “I was tweaking New York City’s nose… . After Tilted Arc, I just wanted to give people a nice plaza to eat lunch.”53 The ubiquity of Olmsted’s nineteenth-century design style seems of little importance, given the plaza’s complex and controversial recent history. Schwartz has not only chosen an insubstantial target for critique, but, furthermore, her design gives permanent physical form to the GSA’s limited conception of public. The GSA’s position, revealed in the rhetoric of the Tilted Arc hearings and challenged by critics like Deutsche and Crimp, became material space in Jacob Javits Plaza.
On a site that is managed less as a public space and more as a controlled antechamber to the Federal Building, the site’s “humorous” appearance is troubling. No written review of the design of Jacob Javits Plaza has argued whether it is now a public space at all. As we saw at City Hall, government ownership does not indicate public accessibility. That is to say, simply because it is a publicly owned space does not mean that it is a public
While security may seem an incontestable concern, Crimp points out that the GSA has used this issue in defending its control of the plaza. The GSA, Crimp argues, today uses the issue of security in the same way it used the issue of aesthetics in the events leading to the destruction of Tilted Arc—namely, to divide and distract dissenting voices. In the case of security, the GSA is constructing an “other” that is dangerous to the “real” public. As Crimp observed:
I would submit it is we—the public—who are on the other side of the wall, and it is we whom Judge Re so fears and despises that he wants that wall torn down in order that we may be properly subjected to surveillance.55
While it is incorrect to say that certain physical forms lead to a public space, design can limit a person’s ability to decide what she would do in a space and how she would do it. Many factors can lead to decisions that limit public space. In the case of Federal Plaza, those factors may have included a desire for greater control, personal dislike of a controversial artwork, and a desire for greater visibility of activities on the plaza. In other cases, decisions may be based on greed, prejudice, or revenge.56 Crimp fears that: “[T]he William Diamonds of this world … want a shrinking public sphere. That’s where their power resides.”57 The power of dynamic public space increases and decreases according to how we imagine and create it. When we create constrained places, we limit the possibility for action. When we conceive of a prescribed set of activities, we shut out the potential for a more varied and diverse public life.
At City Hall, government officials used regulation to control how the steps were used and by whom. At Federal Plaza, the same results were achieved through rhetoric and design. It takes much longer to physically change a space than to enact regulations governing what can happen there, but physical changes are more durable. Regulations can be applied and retracted in days or weeks. Designs exist over longer periods of time. While it is more obvious to a passerby that a space has been redesigned than that a space has been newly regulated, designs are less easily “read” as controls. Redesigning a space is also more costly than setting out new regulations. But because of these costs, new designs are often subject to some kind of review. Review processes and redesigns themselves generate a body of assertions about the role of public space.
Given the fact that physical designs are more intractable and, perhaps, more difficult to analyze, tackling the role of design and critique in public space seems all the more important. But the question remains, what should Schwartz have done? How should she have designed the plaza? The answer, of course, depends on what kind of site and subject of active public realms the plaza should support. Given there is a practically limitless number of people who are affected by U.S. federal policy and who therefore are potentially part of the “public” of Federal Plaza, and if we agree that speech, protest, and demonstration are important forms of expression and should occur at the location of the accountable government body, then at a minimum Federal Plaza should include a large open area. Providing such a platform need not prevent office workers from having lunch. There is plenty of
At Federal Plaza, we saw how discourse about what should happen in a public space was concretized in built form in a government-controlled location. But what about public spaces that are not directly tied to public buildings? What about design projects that transform entire portions of the city, including not only streets and sidewalks but also buildings and land that are privately owned? In the next chapter, we will move uptown to Times Square to examine the ways in which design, rhetoric, and law transform private and public space alike, according to what is deemed to be in the public’s interest.