Over Our Heads, Under Our Feet

written by Fabrizio Gallanti



Stay home, stay safe was a frequent slogan in the early days of the lockdown measures around the globe. The implicit message was that by accepting to spend most of our time without leaving our homes, the spread of the Covid-19 virus would slow down, if not halt entirely.

Immediately, obituaries for public space flourished in numerous design and generalist media. The argument was that, as it became often even illegal to be outside of the domestic realm, piazzas, streets, gardens or parks were destined to go extinct, substituted instead by a frictionless digital agora where we interact with each other still in our pyjamas. What numerous pundits forgot to remember, a fact very clear to many authors of the early 20th century avant-garde movements and modernist thinking, is that in public spaces, especially in metropolises, rather than being together, we are alone and anonymous within the multitude. This was clear to Charles Baudelaire, many surrealists and Walter Benjamin. So, as soon as the restrictions had been lifted, the first places where we have run to are benches in parks, the sidewalks and alleyways of our neighbourhood, squares, careful to keep distance from others and eventually wearing a protective mask. We don’t necessarily need nor want to talk to a stranger, that was not the case even before the pandemics, but instead we crave just to see people, enjoy the air, watch the branches of trees moving with the wind, take refuge in the shadow or be warmed by the sun. The public space today is the safest place to be, because more than anything else, it is just space, hence it allows us to be far from each other, not enclosed in a walled environment, where the transmission of the virus is more probable. Due to the fact that public spaces are not immediately associated with consumption and economy as bars, restaurants or shops, they seem not to generate any political or mediatic pressure to reopen. In fact, they were never closed, just empty for a while.

For centuries, architecture, whether spontaneous or authored, has provided an infinite array of gestures and tricks to make our stay in these places more pleasant. We should learn from this infinite catalogue and add new spatial inventions to continue to care for public space, and therefore ourselves.