The street is irreducibly public. It is a space for action, for doing politics and all sorts of other things like trading, playing, meeting, talking, sitting, watching. And for that reason it is a site of government, too.
The street is a conduit, a space of movement as much as of gathering. To control the street is to control movement along it. It can be stopped by a barricade, and its surface, its very fabric, torn up and used for missiles. The ‘politics of the street’ suggests unruly, antagonistic forms of action. We gather in a square for an event; we gather in the street because we have nowhere else to go.
The street is a space in which territory is marked out by fences, gates and barriers, boundaries and crossing points between public and private, sacred and profane. The buildings which line it begin with more or less sophisticated forms of sorting, by pass or entrance fee, taking a coat off, collecting a key. These processes are managed and watched over by porters, wardens, receptionists and security guards. Even and especially public buildings are controlled in this way, as our access to public space is carefully calibrated and measured. The street is a space of government as well as gathering, of administration as well as action.
The movement of cars along the street is directly governed by the traffic light and the traffic warden. The light works electrically and mechanically, controlled by sensors which make its operations responsive to the changing volume of traffic. The warden works socially in a similar way, her work a continual interplay of observation and encounter, judgement, honour, status, negotiation and ‘street bargains’. Traffic wardens are ‘street specialists’: they learn about the way the street works by trying to regulate it, and learn about regulation by observing and managing its effects in the street.
The Greek agora and the Roman forum are intrinsic to classical conceptions of doing politics; they are the public spaces which make interaction and discussion, the trading of perspectives, the formulation, validation and announcement of decisions both necessary and possible.
The square is a made space, designed and built according to a plan, at an intersection of streets and thoroughfares. It is a space of gathering: a place to be, to talk, to protest, to celebrate, to remember. It often has a monumental aspect, affording significance to what goes on there; it may be named after a person or event, it will likely have a statue or memorial at its centre. Bounded, centred, populated, it is the archetypal political space. The square itself makes politics possible, has political effects.
Square of Free Citizens was a slogan which appeared in the streets of Sarajevo during and after the workers’ protests of early 2014.
Walls, doors and windows
The wall is an ancient if rudimentary way of doing politics: we think of castle walls as serving a dual and inextricable function of protection and exclusion. They are perhaps a form of anti-politics, a presumption against gathering and meeting because interaction might lead to fighting as much as talking. The Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall were extended castle walls, in this sense, but we should not forget the way in which cities grew up similarly around castles and strongpoints: the city is predicated on security.
Walls were characteristic of the divided cities of the twentieth century, such as Berlin and Belfast, and remain the basic political technology of the West Bank and the US-Mexico border. For the most part, however, their effective borders are now close to the centre of most states, at their major airports, and are built and maintained electronically rather than in stone, brick and concrete.
Borderwall as Infrastructure was an entry in an architectural design competition which reimagined, in detail, how the barriers built between the US and Mexico might serve integrative and productive functions. Different ideas included incorporating into it renewable energy systems, a library, theatre, a jogging path and cycle track, even a Catholic confessional.
Friendship Park was built in 1971, in a circular form bisected by the fence. Though they were still separated, communities from both sides could share what had been reconceived as a single space, and took part in artistic, political and religious events, bilateral NGO meetings, weddings, parties and more. The park was closed on the US side in 2009.
Barricades are thrown up in insurrectionary times, usually across city streets. Their immediate function is to block the passage of police and military personnel seeking to restore a version of order. But their significance is to question the nature of that order and to assert a different kind of order behind the barricade, to order the world differently.
For the most part, however, the physical and practical boundaries between the small, bounded social systems that make up our lives – the household, the school, the workplace – are ‘such mundane things as walls, doors, window shades, and locks’, Arthur Stinchcombe explains. ‘In modern society few of these are made to withstand a concerted effort by a group of men to breach them (in contrast to feudal societies, for example). Yet these fragile doors and windows effectively prevent police or private citizens from interfering with our sleep, our classrooms, our toolbenches, or our bars, at least most of the time. This is because a door is a legal entity of great importance: legitimate concerted social efforts to break down a door may only take place on legally defined occasions.’
A window is a permeable boundary; like a door, it makes for certain kinds of exchange between inside and outside, private and public. It allows those inside a building to look out, and sometimes, less effectively, those outside to look in. But the window, like the door, is seen nevertheless, and in this way marks the kind of relations those inside wish to have with those outside. In this limited sense, all windows are display windows.
A key material quality of the window is its ‘susceptibility to destruction, to smashing’. To break a window is to damage the fabric of a building, but serves also as a symbolic assault on the property relations it seems to stand for.
Like any other built space, the corridor had to be invented. Its special, dual quality is to promote access and communication, while also protecting privacy and secrecy. People move between rooms unnoticed by the occupants of other rooms on a corridor, while what goes on in those rooms remains uninterrupted by – and often unknown to – those outside. Corridors sort and separate people and functions.
Mark Jarzombek describes the use of a corridor in a military barracks near Saumur in 1770 as ‘the all-defining and autonomous element of the design. It is an antimetaphysical space that cuts soldiers out of the natural order of life and family to reconstitute them in a new social order’. And it is an essential component, likewise, of the order and function of the monastery, the prison, the hospital, the school and the university, as well as the office building and the shopping mall. It is a key feature of Charles Barry’s English Houses of Parliament begun in 1834, which includes a Commons Corridor, a Lords Corridor and a Chancellors Corridor. These were an expression of concern for a specific Victorian social structure, and guaranteed not only that everyone was in their right place, so to speak, but that in moving around the building they would encounter only others of the same social rank. Over time, in Westminster as in the Capitol and other national and local legislatures, the corridor has become an in-between space, the lobby, in the building but not in the room, a place for private exchange about public affairs. It’s where the action is in The West Wing.
The table is a social object: it is both instrument and document of what people do at it together, whether eating, talking, playing, writing, meeting or just sitting.
The desk is different. It’s always somebody’s: the Director’s desk, or Sarah’s desk rather than the kitchen table, or the cabinet room table. Only the Director sits at her desk and only Sarah at hers; others might sit near it but always apart from it, never at it. The desk is the Director’s territory.
In Antonello da Messina’s painting of St Jerome in his Study, the saint sits at his desk on a central dais, while the architecture around seems to serve simply to enclose him: ‘The whole space is organised around the piece of furniture’ Perec emphasizes, ‘(and the whole of the piece of furniture is organised around the book)’.
Both tables and desks cut the body in half, presenting faces and signs of status (such as jewellery, jackets and the institutional insignia they bear) to the public, while hiding the dirty zones of genitals and feet. Sitting without tables or desks leaves bodies exposed to each other.
In Oliver Escobar’s study of public engagement practitioners, tables were used to create ‘political microcosms’. The table at the front served as quasi-stage, from which speakers would address the rest of the room; it gave them a vantage point from which to articulate and express generic, framing narratives, which presupposed a shared perspective among the audience. And because it faced all the other tables, it also functioned as a watchtower or observation post, a site of surveillance. The other tables in the room were for discussion among purposefully selected and distributed participants.
…and a bed
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the government of France, then as now, was centred on Paris, or more precisely in the woods just to the south-west, on Louis XIV’s chateau at Versailles. At the centre of the chateau was the King’s Appartement, and at the centre of the Appartement his bed, where his rising would be attended each morning by courtiers and subjects. For he was the King, and in an elaborate ritual of washing and dressing became the King again each morning, and it was there they might catch his attention.
Joel Richman taught me about traffic wardens and much else besides: see his Traffic Wardens, An ethnography of street administration, Manchester: Manchester UP, 1983
‘Streets are the dwelling place of the collective…’: Benjamin, Arcades Project, op cit, p 879
‘We have a need to be together in public…’: Polly Coles, Italy Outdoors: The Piazza, BBCR4, 10 September 2018; 2:42; ‘As soon as people, or groups of people…’: Barbara Hepworth, cit Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth, Carvings and Drawings, 1952, in Nathaniel Hepburn, Barbara Hepworth. The hospital drawings, London: Tate Publishing,2012, p 46
‘This square was not part of any plan…’: Boriša Mraović, ‘Notes on an urban imagination: Sarajevo’, The New Metropolitan, 2015
‘Granted there is a wall…’: Jean Tardieu, cit Georges Perec, ‘Species of spaces’, in Species of Spaces and other Pieces, ed/trans John Sturrock, Penguin, 2008, p 39
‘All borders…’: Frances Stonor Saunders (2016) ‘Where on Earth are you?’, London Review of Books 38 (5)
Geert Mak, In Europe, op cit, p 614
Ronald Rael, Borderwall as Architecture. A manifesto for the US-Mexico boundary,Oakland, CA: U California P, 2017
On the barricade, see Mark Traugott, ‘Barricades as material and social constructions’, in Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, Disobedient Objects, op cit
In modern society.. Stinchcombe, A L (1963) ‘Institutions of privacy in the determination of police administration practice’, American Journal of Sociology 150-160, pp 150-151
‘The door breaks space in two…’: Georges Perec, Species of Spaces, op cit, p 37
‘Only to humanity…’: Georg Simmel, ‘Bridge and door’, in David Frisby and Mike Featherstone (eds) Simmel on Culture, London: Sage, 1997; pp 171-172
On the window, see Shirin Hirsch and Andrew Smith (2017) ‘A view through a window: social relations, material objects and locality’, Sociological Review 1-17; ‘susceptibility to destruction…’ is p 5
The Black Bloc communique was written by the ACME Collective, and posted on Urban 75, 12 December 1999
On the corridor, see Mark Jarzombek (2010) ‘Corridor Spaces’, Critical Inquiry 36 (4) 728-770, where the quoted material is pp 749-50, and David Trotter (2019) ‘Stir and bustle’, London Review of Books, 19 December 2019, 11-12, which is a review of Roger Luckhurst’s Corridors: Passages of Modernity, London: Reaktion, 2019
‘To live together in the world…’: Hannah Arendt, Human Condition, op cit, p 48
Ian Sansom talked about tables in his Furniture – a personal history of movable objects, episode 3, ‘Je suis un table’, BBCR4, 9 April 2014; this line comes at 08:23
On St Jerome in his Study, see Georges Perec,’Species of spaces’, op cit; the quotation is p 88, italics in original
Oliver Escobar explores the function of the table in his ‘Scripting deliberative policy making’, op cit, p 8
‘From the first chapter of Capital…’; Benjamin, Arcades Project, op cit, pp 196-197
Jeffrey Goldfarb discusses doing politics in the Soviet era in The Politics of Small Things, Chicago: U Chicago P, 2006, and this observation appears p 10
‘In small but important ways…’: Romand Coles, ‘Moving democracy’, op cit, p 695
‘It was important to have a table for meetings…’: Helen Schwartzman, The Meeting, op cit, pp 122 and 123-4
Foucault’s observation about the court comes in ‘On popular justice: a discussion with Maoists’, which originally appeared inLes Temps Modernes, and is translated in Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, edited by Colin Gordon, Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980; the quoted passage is p 8
Giscard’s study is described by Laurent Binet in The Seventh Function of Language, London: Vintage, 2017, p 60
Yanis Varoufakis appeared in the Guardian podcast ‘Can you take on the EU and win’, 8 November 2018, min:sec 05:15 to 08:55