Introduction: The Future of Public Space

"A city isn't just a place to live, to shop, to go out and have kids play. It's a place that implicates how one derives one's ethics, how one develops a sense of justice, how one learns to talk with and learn from people who are unlike oneself, which is how a human being becomes human."
Richard Sennett, The Civitas of Seeing (1989)

Montreal has a lot to celebrate in its vibrant urban life. As one of the world's great cities, opportunities here abound for urban spaces to do what they do best: serving as stages for political rallies, bringing people together in annual festivals, mixing the gazes of strangers of different cultures and classes. Centres of social gathering and political exchange, public spaces allow the city's residents to meet in a virtual agora of intellectual and social exchange.

But in the world at large - and even here - public spaces seem to be quieter than they used to be. The public meeting place has traditionally been at the heart of city life, forming the gathering spaces where we live, work, and play. However, modern public life is beginning to shift away from the squares, parks, and boulevards that form classic urban public spaces. In the age of urban bricolage, we attend this event or that place, compiling our identity by creating a ever-shifting palate of carefully selected, often socially homogenous places. We have the ability to design our urban experiences à-la-carte, customizing our surroundings rather than engaging the gritty mélange of public life head-on.

Montreal's Quartier International, university districts, and proposed Quartier des Spectacles cater to our desire for easily accessible spaces at a city-scale. The city is gradually becoming divided into bite-sized thematic morsels, each seducing patrons with matching banners and street furniture. Yet this new breed of public space tends to close its borders to street walkers, street vendors, street art - elements that might disturb the carefully stage-managed environs. An obsession with security drives undesirable elements from the old public spaces and parks of the city, whose beautification the city has invested in.

On the other hand, does today's public even want the old public spaces? Our preference for privacy and solitude has forged the success of the underground malls of consumer culture: anonymous and climate-controlled places where the cash register is central. Rem Koolhaas and his Harvard research group go as far as to suggest that shopping has replaced ancient forms of social life, around the world.

With our cities becoming consumer theme parks, where is the diversity and multiplicity of authentic public life to be found? What role should the traditional public spaces of our cities now play? Is it possible to locate -- or create - new forms of public domain that fit within our contemporary lifestyles?

The Biennale gathers some of the world's foremost visual artists, architects, urban designers, and landscape designers to respond to these multi-faceted questions - and raise new ones.

And you - the public - are invited to attend and participate.



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