Julia Novitch | Interviews

Public Space and Citizenship: An Interview with Elihu Rubin

Shadow Place
Spread from the book Records In, Of by Julia Novitch, 2012. Featured in Graphic Magazine #22.

Elihu Rubin is an architectural historian, urban planner, and documentary filmmaker. He is the Daniel Rose Visiting Assistant Professor of Urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture and the author of Insuring the City:  The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape (Yale University Press, 2012). He is interviewed here by Julia Novitch, a 2013 MFA candidate in Graphic Design at the Yale School of Art. 

Julia Novitch: You hold a PhD in the History of Architecture and Urbanism and a Masters in City Planning and you teach courses here at Yale on urban design, research and representation. You are also a documentary filmmaker with a focus on urban landscapes. How did you arrive at these particular areas of study and work?

Elihu Rubin: I knew that I didn't want to be a designer, but wanted to be involved in development politics — to sit at the interface between people, architects, developers and government. I'm interested in facilitating conversations about urban futures, and I think that's one important role for planners — who, in some sense, are outsiders. But the truth is that anyone can be a planner. It means showing up. It means attending public meetings. It means participating and asking questions for your own benefit and for the benefit of your neighbors and fellow citizens.

JN: You also conduct these conversations in other ways — in your filmmaking, for example. I’m curious to hear about your research process. When you enter a particular site, or when you consider a particular historical moment, what are the tools at your disposal? How do you begin to unpack it? What are the visual strategies you're employing in your filmmaking?

ER: As an urban historian, it's about storytelling. Each urban landscape, the combination of built and natural environments, presents an opportunity to unpack the different forces at work in a city — the political economy of development, the role of regulations, different kinds of cultural myths and ideas, the discourses of architecture and design as different trends move through. The landscape is a mystery — a kind of “whodunit?” — that masks what are often conflicting and contested interests. I want to pull it apart and uncover the forces of production. My work also involves talking to people. At the moment, I'm interested in building armatures that allow people to participate in telling stories about places, such as using the web or public forums to unspool a very rich tapestry of a place over time.

JN: In a sense, building an architecture or a system to collect input?

ER: That's exactly what it is. Building an architecture for collective participation, and allowing the participants to think about its meaning. And this relates to my strategies in filmmaking. I'm more interested in films that are open, exploratory — films that define themselves through the process of making. I find that placing oneself in an urban space with a camera ignites conversation. “What are you shooting?” And that invites me to ask questions in return. In my ideal vision, the videos you make in the field act as a catalyst for even more conversation. The goal is to bring the film back to the area from where it came — to show the film and give people a chance to respond. It's like kicking off a public meeting. And that's one of my models for using film as part of an urban planning process.

JN: What spaces have typically needed the most improvement in the city? How do we begin to address the question of failed spaces? Where do we see them now, and what is causing them?

ER: As often as not, ignored spaces — spaces that are unused, that seem inactive — are as much about what surrounds them as the space itself. People are extremely adaptive; they will adapt to a space that isn't designed very well if the things around it suggest it as a place to be. For example, traffic — something to observe. The great irony of the city of urban renewal was the desire, on the part of planners and many business interests, to relieve congestion in the city. They forgot that a certain amount of congestion is a productive kind of congestion. Congestion implies activity, importance, economic vitality and desirability.

JN: That word has very negative connotations — congestion — and yet I see your meaning when you contrast an absolutely packed city like New York with a city like Detroit, which has gone through the process of emptying itself out. In order for these public spaces to be enjoyable at all, you need people, period.

ER: Public spaces can be charged politically because they enable citizens to gather, to represent themselves and to transmit messages. There is also a more benign sense of public space as a place where we can just idle. And yet there are tensions in terms of belonging to those places, the right to just be in those places. How long can someone who has nowhere else to go spend time in that space? The test of a public space is its tolerance. Public spaces are not always easy places, nice places, pleasant places. Public spaces are often difficult places where our tolerance for other people who are not like ourselves is tested. This is why social norms like “civil inattention” — a term taken from the sociologist Erving Goffman, and which refers to our right to be left alone — end up governing many public spaces. I can be here, and you can be here, and even though we may not agree with each other, we both tolerate each other. For me, that is part of the definition of cosmopolitanism.

JN: You mentioned that public spaces are available for people to transmit messages. Is the Occupy Movement changing how people are thinking about public space? Is it changing how urban historians, researchers, or others in your field will write about public space?

ER: Occupy has changed the way people will think about public spaces. When I first visited Zuccotti Park — which is land technically owned by private interests, not government — I saw it living as this community, or town, replicating many urban functions. I said to myself, this private space is living out its wildest fantasy of being a public space. The movement has raised awareness of access to spaces. A lot of spaces are nebulous. Is this a public space? Can I really be here? But Occupy has heightened our awareness of those kinds of questions, which will ultimately lead to stronger arguments for the right to occupy those spaces. It’s incredibly important. And it's actually building an alternative.

JN: An alternative to what?

ER: In the broadest way, an alternative to the dominant system of work, property and capital. It is literally building a new way, and it’s doing it in very close proximity to the dominant ways. It has infrastructural challenges — even in terms of people being able to go to the bathroom — but it is an encampment that is a real place outside of the norms of ownership or even tenancy. It's outside the norms of commuting from home to work. And yet can't this be a legitimate way to live? Where we produce for ourselves, we share with each other, and we organize in this different way? The answer is yes, it can, and it showed us how arbitrary so many of the relationships that govern our daily lives are, although they're quite ingrained. The interesting thing — and this is not an original idea — is that the spread of information technology and the incredible capability of the Internet for creating public forums will not displace the importance of physical space, but will actually complement it.

JN: This is absolutely key to me. The idea of occupying public space has a very long history, particularly in relation to protest. But here we see this incredible injection of Internet culture, and as a result, you're able to spread the movement so quickly, to so many places at once.

ER: And it did happen so quickly. We live in such a media-saturated age, especially in the devices so many of us carry around. We've lost touch with the idea that urban space is itself information technology. Urban space is media. Not just the architecture, but the sounds of the city, the smells of the city, the rhythms of the city — that's so much media. In my view, it’s a richer media than anything else that could be piped into our headsets or handsets, and I think that Occupy helped people realize that again. Even though Occupy in New York was completely wired — there were people typing away in the media booth all the time — I think it also suggested a rediscovery of urban space as media and our openness to it.

JN: The idea that the city itself is a type of media — providing us with data and stimuli — is fascinating to me. And yet, as we walk down the street, our attention is often drawn to other types of media — some form of virtual network, something conjured through the devices in our pockets. Why does the phone win over the city in terms of capturing our attention?

ER: Social norms are being rewritten as people walk down the street sending text messages or listening to things in a headset. I think of Hemingway and others in Paris — they write, they paint, and then where do they go? They go to the public house or the cafe because that is their social media — that is their social network, and the technology for it is the café. It's a piece of information technology, and it functions in that way. Today, it's so much different. It's lovely to keep in touch with friends in these different ways —  Facebook and the like — and we know from places where it's been activated politically how potent it can be. People point to Tahrir Square in Egypt as being a place where social media helped to catalyze a very physical revolution. But it really has changed forms of sociability immensely. People are choosing to use the technology of the phone handset to stay connected to a world in which they're more comfortable, as opposed to opening themselves up to encounters, experiences and visual sensations that exist in the city itself. So I send my students off on urban drift. That's taken from the 1950s French art group, the Situationists, who would roam around Paris en dérive — on drift — which is a willful, active disorientation in order to begin picking up the social material of the city. I do that because I think we gain a lot from this active disorientation. Our tolerance for getting lost and disoriented is waning. We have all the maps on our phones now. Yes, there's uneven access to this information, but it's becoming more and more pervasive across many different class groups — so that you're always getting where you want to go. You already know where you want to go, as opposed to discovering new things.

: What would happen to the city if we kept going to the places we knew or the places that were recommended to us by our phones? Does it become narrower and narrower?

ER: It points to a broader trend in urban consciousness in which we just become less tolerant. We become less tolerant of the unexpected, of disorientation, and even less tolerant of social encounters that we haven't otherwise planned. I think that those skills of being able to be lost, of being able to have encounters, are important social skills — even survival skills — but also skills of citizenship, where we begin to acknowledge other people and their rights to urban space. The urban drift is a part of the arts of citizenship — asserting your own right to be on a sidewalk and the rights of others, where their presence is as much media as you need because it really is quite rich. Today, we actually handicap our ability to adapt by our reliance on all of these additional mechanisms. But cultivating a tolerance for the unexpected is its own reward.

This interview is excerpted from Graphic Magazine #22. Designed and edited by the students of Yale Graphic Design, Graphic #22 consists of 317 pages of new works, including 32 dialogues with a range of thinkers and makers connected to the University. It will launch on May 5th during the 2012 Yale Graphic Design MFA exhibition.

Posted in: Politics, Social Good

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