Whose City?

Smooth City and the Concept of Public Space Analysed on the Example of Autonomous Space Rog

an excerpt

Tovarna Rog used to be an autonomous space where different kinds of people and beings for many years not only cohabited but helped create a safe artistic space open for any kind of non-discriminatory expression. On the 19th of January 2021 at 7 am the municipality started demolishing the place without any warning, giving no time to the people involved to take care of their possessions. Among them, there were also migrants and prominent artists whose works got either lost or destroyed in the chaos. The official reason for the demolition was the plan on the Center for Contemporary Arts Rog.

In the flood of the comments following those events, I noticed mainly two emphasised views, whose diversity of starting points allows for simultaneous legitimacy and correctness, but at the same time shows a similar entrapment in the currently set systemic framework.

The opinion defended by the people of Rog and their supporters deals primarily with the issue of gentrification, control and freedom of the arts, and the ownership of public space. The opposing argument comes from a legal point of view, which focuses on the facts and evidence of ownership and emphasizes the illegality of squatting.

Although, as far as the official legal and political system of the Republic of Slovenia is concerned, the matter is quite clear, it is precisely the rigidity and obsolescence of such a system that should be called into question. Despite being considered impartial and thus neutral, in many cases, this is not the case, as the “legality” and “impartiality” behind it alone are not enough in some situations. There is also a need to reflect on the laws, which are often far from neutral. The majority-based model actively excludes and neglects the diversity of the rest of the community in many respects. This makes part of the population, such as refugees, migrants, the homeless and others, who are not always registered in the system for a variety of reasons, invisible and silenced. It is important to point out that this is far from being a problem specific to Slovenia – in fact, it started to become a visible problem quite late compared to some other parts of the world. The tsunami of gentrification and privatization, which hit cities like New York in the early 1990s, successfully washed away, among other things, the world-famous Amsterdam squatters and their autonomous cultural (but unprofitable) scene.

The movement, which started in the late 1960s, gained mass public support in the 1970s with the fight against the demolition of the old city centre (the plan was to build a motorway right through the centre of Amsterdam), which led to the integration of hitherto independent groups into a single organization united in its colourfulness. Although the squatting began mainly due to the great housing crisis, it soon shifted from a symbolic, politically oriented protest to a way of living. This combined activism with attempts at the existence of an autonomous community aimed at creating better living conditions in the city. The movement reached its peak in the 1980s with a network of non-profit activities such as restaurants, bars, clubs, theatres, exchange offices, bicycle repair shops, health clinics, galleries, newspapers and magazines, bookstores, cinema, radio, and various other cultural activities. Despite almost twenty years of operation, due to internal conflicts and declining public support, squatting began to fade over time, while the conversion of social housing into market rental housing and the general privatization of real estate only helped speed up the process.

The greed of the real estate market is, of course, nothing new. Almost traditionally wrapped in the cellophane of “purity”, “family values” and so-called “Global city”, it successfully legitimizes itself with it, while at the same time reforms in the name of such values ​​also enable the reorganization of the poor and stricter control through space. In this way, the city gradually moves from the ideas of democracy to an increasingly normative, regulated and exclusive environment. With a subtle but eerily manipulative approach, it is (unknowingly) supported by people who do not know the alternative reality and are deprived of the possibility of serious intervention. Transparency and inclusivity are the two most misused words in the contemporary architecture of the neoliberal real estate market. The first becomes synonymous with the presentation, the second has the consistency of mud.
Instead of actively involving the citizens in all phases of projects, the so-called participatory design meets only the minimum conditions and acts primarily as an act for the progressive appearance of clients. Another problem with such an approach is that instead of common goals and equal attention and opportunities for dialogue for all involved, it serves the interests of the most vocal ones. However, the participation of the community should not be limited to meeting only one of the requirements in the process of project implementation but should be handed over from the often purely bureaucratic role to all citizens. In this way, in addition to architects, designers and other experts, other residents would also be represented, especially those who live in the city but are excluded from such procedures.