Focus: Public Space The “Commons” of Common Spaces

Bishan Bookstore
Bishan Bookstore | Photo: Matjaz Tancic

Bishan Commune (碧山共同体) founder Ou Ning (欧宁) probes the possibilities of common spaces to act as facilitators of social progress.

At the basic level, common spaces refer to physical spaces, those with distinct boundaries that can be enjoyed by the entire public. But only when these spaces are truly in use by the public, belonging to what sociologist Jürgen Habermas calls the “public sphere”, do I consider them as part of the “progressive common space”.  This public sphere goes beyond physical spaces to include any space that allows for discourse between the boundaries of two countries or two communities, a place where individuals or NGOs can voice their opinions about social issues and approach a discussion. In this way, the internet – in places where it is unrestricted – belongs to this public sphere.

Furthermore, I believe that progressive common spaces include also the language, customs, culture, and memories created by the public in that space, what philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri designated as a new notion of the “commons”. It is an idea that transcends the conventions of traditional property rights (especially those of public land rights), and transmutes the “commons” into another progressive space.

The Public Sphere

In every Chinese city with the means for it, a plaza lies before the city hall. The primary function of this plaza is to serve as a symbol of political authority, its use typically reserved for official ceremonies and other large-scale government events. Although a public space, it serves, primarily, the government, its users primarily government officials. Unsanctioned gatherings are illegal, so these plazas are often empty and vacant. Often their names include the word “People”, but in reality, they are a space for power and authority, a declaration of political order and discipline over the people.

When public opinion is stifled, however, or when the entity of the nation begins to show cracks, “the people”, so to speak, may choose to “occupy” this political space for expressing their demands. In these cases, the single-function, state-controlled plazas unwittingly become “public spheres”, spaces in which, in the history of China, mass political action has taken place.

Interestingly enough, this word “plaza”, in the last three decades of the new economic movement, has been liberally appropriated by large shopping centres, becoming a term frequently used in commercial spaces. In Europe or the United States, a plaza is often surrounded by residential neighbourhoods as well as commercial shops, the multi-functionality of the space giving rise to a certain vibrancy. The appropriation of “plaza” by Chinese shopping centres, then, is a hope for this very atmosphere of vibrancy.

In 2009, as Chief Curator of the Shenzhen Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture, I requested that the Shenzhen City Government allow us to use the People’s Plaza in front of the city hall as the event’s main exhibition area. It was an effort to depoliticize the plaza, as well as a way of creating a new culture by transforming it into a common space for everyday use.

In 2009, the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism / Architecture used the Civil Square in Shenzhen as main exhibition site Photo: Liang Jingning 梁井宇
In 2009, the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism / Architecture used the Civil Square in Shenzhen as main exhibition site

The New “Commons”

In 2011, in the spirit of Hardt and Negri’s idea of the “commons”, a group of Italian intellectuals who had dubbed themselves the “TQ generation” (TQ being an abbreviation of Trenta-Quaranta, meaning “thirty-forty”, all of its members being between thirty to forty years old) launched the “Occupy Teatro Valle” movement.

An eighteenth-century theatre next to the Pantheon, the Teatro Valle was left without public funding following the global financial crisis. The city government of Rome, unable to continue supporting Teatro Valle’s operations, decided to privatize the theatre. TQ launched a movement to oppose the selling off of the city’s historic theatre, and occupied the theatre space. Using the strength of civilian volunteers, the group organized a large number of cultural and artistic events at the theatre, and through public fundraising, managed to sustain its operations, all while keeping the theatre open and free to the public. At Teatro Valle, the matter of property rights was set aside, and reinvigorated by all of the activity, the theatre became a common space that contributed to the movement of the new “commons”.

In 2014, the Bishan Bookstore, part of the Bishan Commune, opened at an old shrine in the province of Anhui within Yixian County Bishan Villagers’ Collective. Similarly, the legal property rights of the shrine remained unchanged, but the villagers volunteered the shrine to be used as a bookstore, free of charge. Today, it is also a vibrant “commons”: with free access to the public, visitors and locals alike come to read, purchase books, use the internet, relax, and participate in all types of book events and cultural activities. It is also used as a wedding venue.

Movable Accurate from Denmark in the Bishan bookstore Photo: Ou Ning
Movable Accurate from Denmark in the Bishan bookstore

With the gusts of success of the Bishan Bookstore in our sails, in 2015 I transformed an abandoned granary in Bishan into what is now known as the School of Tillers (理农馆). With some simple modifications of its traditional Huizhou architectural structure, it became a multi-use village cultural centre that includes a showroom, library, learning centre, tearoom, café, convenience store, and facilities for resident researchers. It is also a common space that engages the local villagers and unifies the community, one that encourages participation and the expansion of a new kind of rural community living. The villagers enjoy coming to the School of Tillers after their evening meals for a chat, or to participate in the organized activities that provide exposure to new ideas and cultural information. The space has even been used by villagers in resolving private disputes.

Villagers in the library on the first level of SOT Photo: Ou Ning
Villagers in the library on the first level of SOT

Cooperation from an Entire Society

When it comes to the creation of common spaces, the traditional residences of the Huizhou countryside demonstrate a basic principle: typically arranged as an enclosed residence with an interconnected set of rooms, its bedrooms are distributed around an open courtyard, each typically quite small, with more space given to the spacious main halls, usually far larger in size than the bedrooms. The modest private spaces, in fact, encourage the members of the family to congregate in the main halls and engage in the communal life of the family.  Similarly, in the “cooperative living” quarters of communes or eco-villages in New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, and the United States, the individual living spaces are small and simply furnished, such that its members are prompted to actively participate in the community’s shared meals and other activities.

But physical space alone, even arranging or designing it such that it encourages certain behaviours, is insufficient as an agent for creating common spaces that facilitate the progress of society. Many common spaces, toiled over by planners and architects, end up unused. The vacancy of common spaces in China’s rural areas is unquestionably tied to the wilting spirit of collectivism and the corresponding trend toward individualism. Systematic political restrictions are also no help in expanding the possibilities of the public sphere. The rigid realm of property rights, too, can only impede the ideas and movement of the new “commons”. To create progressive common spaces, planners and architects are simply not enough. This movement must rely on the openness of a nation and the collaboration of an entire society.