From Timeless to Transient: Recent Books on Public Space
Learning from Oktoberfest?
The book Does Permanence Matter? accompanies the eponymous exhibition held in winter 2017/18 at the Architecture Museum of the Technical University of Munich. Both the exhibition and book are based on a research project by the Harvard Graduate School of Design. A team of scientists led by Rahul Mehrotra investigated temporary urban structures in very different forms around the world. These include markets and military camps, refugee and mining settlements as well as urban infrastructures for religious and secular festivities. In addition to brief descriptions of the exhibited projects, the book contains several essays and interviews by Richard Sennett, Saskia Sassen, Arjun Appadurai and Manuel Herz, among others. The book is especially interesting when the authors address specific places – be it Oktoberfest in Munich, Carnival in Rio or the refugee camps in southwest Algeria. Particularly impressive is the description of the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, India, where every 12 years a temporary city covering an area of 19 km2 is erected and visited by up to 30 million people per day. The contributions do not address what more everyday urban development might learn from such temporary structures. The book makes it clear that temporary urban planning will have to further hone its processes and strategies in order to achieve sustainable results. In this case, “sustainable” is not meant in the sense of durable – when provisional structures become permanent – but rather social, ecological and economic sustainability.
Analogue Toolbox for Urban Space Analysis
Who stays where and when in the city and what they do can be important indicators of the quality of urban space. In Leben in Städten, Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre present a variety of methods with which the behaviour of urban dwellers can be observed, quantified and mapped. The book was published in Danish and English (under the title: How to Study Public Space) as early as 2013. Now, at the initiative of the University of Applied Arts Vienna, the book is also available in German.
Most of the methods presented in the book were developed and tested by Gehl and his office over the last 50 years. The volume also contains a historical overview of the history of urban space starting with Camillo Sitte. But the methodological chapters also have a rather retrospective character, especially since they often refer to Gehl’s decades-old studies. It may be that basic techniques of counting and observing people are still relevant today. Yet it would have been desirable to have a stronger reference to modern methods as well, such as automatic image analysis or how mobile phone activity on the streets can be recorded. The authors only selectively address how to move from analysis to a better design of public space. Moreover, the German edition suffers from the quality of its translation and proofreading, which makes reading it a rather difficult task.