History of the Public Realm


The course investigates the structure, function, and symbolism of public spaces in Western Europe and in North America from the Renaissance to the 20th century. The characters of public space, its role in defining people’s identity, the social interaction and rituals it hosts and produces will all be analyzed in relationship to the urban form.

Italy since antiquity and up until a short while ago led the world in the conception and realization of public space. If one takes medieval cases such as the Piazza San Marco in Venice or the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Renaissance beauties such as Piazza Santissima Annunziata in Florence and Piazza Ducale at Vigevano, Baroque set pieces such as the Piazza of St. Peter’s in Rome, or modern interventions such as the Piazza del Duomo in Milan and the Piazza della Vittoria in Brescia, there is no doubt  that the designers worked with an excellent sense of human scale and architectural ability, while their patrons sought to inscribe the final product with a positive vision of power. Most public spaces that are worth considering have resulted from deeply rooted political struggles and thus are not simply the effects of design, but indeed are manifestations of the social process.

Public space in Italy functioned as the medium for information, and in certain circumstances still does. With the cumulative effects of telematic innovations, however, since the introduction of Marconi’s radio to the rapid saturation of cell phones and internet, the role of public space has radically declined. There can be a few exceptional moments of mass returns to public space, such as the funeral of Pope John Paul II or the Occupy Movement of 2011 (maybe even Saturday night at Campo dei Fiori in Rome, when thousands of suburban kids mob the space), but in general people no longer rely on public space for the reproduction of their daily lives.

There is a long-standing tradition of American architects and civic promoters researching the beautiful public spaces of Italy for inspiration:  visible at the Chicago World’s Exhibition of 1893 and catalogues in Civic Art, by Werner Hegemann and Elbert Peets in 1922. During the 1960s, when the alienating effects of Modernist architecture were being criticized, architects attempted to supply cities with new versions of the piazza. Although the plaza of the World Trade Center in Manhattan was modeled on Piazza San Marco, it was never mistaken for a piazza and never functioned as one. The moral remains that the vitality of public space derives more from the social process than from the design.