Thinking Politically about Design: Public vs. Private

Posted on June 29th, 2017 by Lucía Morón

Crick Centre Photographer in Residence Lucía Morón examines the role of private and public space in the design of public buildings

Public space must be accessible to all. It is a space open to the interaction of people and is subsequently characterized by constant visibility. As long as it is visible it is accessible, and therefore it is also collective.

The opposite is private space: closed, inaccessible and invisible, where the presence or absence of doors and walls lends visibility or invisibility to their spaces.

We could say then that the passage from the public to the private moves from the most external to the most protected places. Public spaces are places open to all, while the most ostensible symbol of privacy understood as appropriation is the closure, the fence.

Faced with these concepts, it would be interesting to consider whether the existence of fences or fencing around so-called “public buildings” protects or marks a distance concerning the access to interaction and development of social activities.

Photography courtesy of the author

In both Buenos Aires and other cities of the world, public space is being displaced by privatized or pseudo-public spaces in which diversity and freedom are delimited.

In Argentina, the Plaza de Mayo is much more than a square: it represents the stage of the social and political life of our country. The founding of Buenos Aires began here. It is an iconic place that has been and continues to be witness to many significant events in our history. In the midst of a great social and political crisis, in December 2001 a large section of the square had to be fenced off to protect the Pink House. This was carried out in a public space that is, at the same time, now exclusive: it does not encourage dwelling in the space but rather a dispersal of the people, and especially of those considered strangers: possible perpetrators of dangers associated to crime and insecurity. The local people do not dwell here for too long because of the imposing fencing that tacitly remits fear, and the enclosures drive away those who seek to make temporary use of the space. The public and open use of space has been restricted and reserved to a portion of society.

To surround the Plaza de Mayo as if it were any other public building was to distance it from the people to whom it belongs, depriving it of its essence and identity by enclosing it upon itself.

According to J. Borja, public space can be valued for the intensity and quality of social relations facilitated by its ability to mix groups and behaviours and to stimulate symbolic identification, expression and cultural integration.

The public-private relationship has been unbalanced by a strong shift towards the private and a consequent disinterest in general.

Although urban public space continues to be favoured in the exercise of citizenry and for the expression of civil rights, its presence in large cities is diminishing due, among other things, to the social activity that requires its protection.


Lucía Morón is the Photographer in Residence at the Crick Centre.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.

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