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Thoughts on urban planning, city design, architecture, the built environment, social issues, Seoul, Korea, and soon... London

19.6.04

civic realism - eraser of difference? 

Peter G. Rowe in the first chapter of Civic Realism (1997) defines the two concepts that constitute the title and how they interact, and in particular, how they interact in relation to urban planning and what public spaces should do.

Using Sienna's Piazza del Campo as an example, Rowe defines a civic place as one that is “more than public” and “recalled fine moments from the past, and provided palpable guidance about what form of public behaviour was not only acceptable but preferred” (7).

A civic space is then one that historic (i.e. carries the past forward), but normalises behaviour -- not only guiding the behaviour of inhabitants of that space toward current norms, but also normalises and reifies what is considered as proper behaviour by the dominant cultural group (though this line of argument requires more development, I will not do so here, mainly due to a lack of time).

Rowe defines the real, in terms of architecture and urban design, as that which is “clearly understandable” (7). In the case of civic realism, and the exemplar Campo, architecture is to represent “civic life and expectations” (7). In other words, architecture and city design are realistic when they depict their physicality as it is and convey with clarity what is considered normal, if not ideal, public behaviour.

By extension, then, using civic realism as the basis and/or ideal for design means creating for either the status quo or an idealized version of public life.

Rowe’s notion of civic almost harkens back to the Enlightenment concept of civilisation, which, as Richard Sennett explained in The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (1990), was the great eraser of social difference and identity. Back then, civilisation “was about the virtues of a certain kind of disguise” (Sennett, 79). Under the notion of civilization, people treated “one another without reference… to their identity” (Sennett, 80).

Upon first impression, the practice of civic realism then becomes the practice of pacifying the different behaviours of social groups that do not meet norms, of regimenting the system and of suppressing difference (this will have to be further qualified through further reading).

Rowe’s argument for civic realism leaves some room for optimism. If urban design has the power to influence behaviour in such ways, then it could be used to normalise behaviour not considered normal; that is, it could urban design could be a tool to counter and challenge conceptions of what constitutes normalcy and civilization, as well as to assert new ones.

As contemporary systems for designing and developing architecture and the city are usually most influenced by those with money and power, the responsibility may then fall to the designer her- or himself to create spaces that give “palpable guidance” about what forms of public behaviour, other than the norm, could be deemed acceptable.

I will revisit this issue upon completing the book.

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