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Paul Gunther

Paul Gunther

Posted: February 18, 2011 06:00 PM

Some well-analyzed celebrations of the role social media in galvanizing and fulminating the Cairene events of Egypt's Revolution have been tempered by others like Malcolm Gladwell and Frank Rich, pointing out that such tactics no matter their un-censorial rapidity should never be mistaken for the more profound strategic imperatives born of history and the gradual forces of person-to-person interplay. History was the cause. It took advantage of such astonishing new tools, rather than the other way around. Twitter and Facebook can never displace underlying pathways born of years of reasoned discussion and shared consensus shaped by a maze of personalities merging points of view. In the case of Egypt (like Tunisia) the real catalyst for political upheaval was the progress of representational democracy in the face of the soul-deadening inequities of autocracy.

Whichever arguments hold, what is clear is that one central requirement of this change was and always will be the central gathering place itself -- the geographic locus as the ultimate destination for social media's crowd-building impulse. Social media as a formal means of communication works in isolation and can only congeal with forward momentum when there's a place to go. The individual text messages achieve collective expression only in the crowd and those photographing or reporting on the crowd as a potent force united by a compelling cause. The events of the last three weeks simply could not have unfolded without the traditional plaza of Tahrir itself. Designers and public policy makers take note. The fact that the adjacent real estate of such a prominent plaza de facto attracts more globalized enterprise such as tourism and the media add to its worldwide place-making capacity. (Note that the reactionary thugs that failed in dispersing the crowd change emerged from a dystopic can of worms of highway interchanges, whose shadows and lack of sidewalks stood in metaphorical contrast to the sunny square itself.)

Western tradition, like that of Meso-and South America and much of the Middle East makes the point best of all: Mexico City's Zocalo has been a place of celebration and tumult since the age of the Aztecs; likewise Athens' agora, Rome's Forum and its necklace of squares; Renaissance patterns centered on cathedrals and piazze from the largest city states to the smallest village in a counterpart balance of commerce, discourse, and redemption.

Paris's Place de la Concorde of 1755 became Place de la Revolution during the Revolutionary period with expression of joy and exaltations freedom and equality soon giving way to a reign of terror. An equal opportunity surfeit of zeal . Yet concord returned and so with it the eponymous moniker. Despite swirling traffic, it remains a dignified crossroads ready and willing to embrace its citizens when communal expression calls for it. If the Fifth Republic ever fails, surely it will start here!

Of course such gathering places were too often the sites of repression and rage sometimes at the mercy of minorities like the Jews of Nuremberg in and around its central platz and the countless Nazi rallies of frenzied precision in every central square. Closer to home from Reconstruction even through the 1960s the town square often with its nearby courthouse provided the ideal setting for public lynchings when proud families would gather for photographs beneath the innocent African American victims of tribal terrorism.

Red Square in Moscow and Palace Square in St Petersburg allowed Lenin and his comrades to unleash a utopian vision that soon led to seven decades of tyranny yet the same plazas heralded the Soviet collapse in a prideful context of eventual healing. Other plazas play host to the good and the bad as in Beijing's Tian'anmen Square in 1989 basking portentously in the post-Soviet glow of an explosive democratic freedom only to bleed a few days later into a convenient corral for firing squads. Yet these very stains add meaning to its sense of place and its inevitable future zero ground for public expression ahead in inevitable prelude to change. The square knows all. It bears witness. As its meaning comes finally and only from the human actions it allows.

While Bahrain's Pearl Square was yesterday's rallying point and today's target of repression, the fact still is that it remains center stage for the events unfolding and where all other modes of communication and tactical intervention will find its global audience. Pearl is the Mideast's new political chessboard.

The risk therefore from a design and planning perspective as stitched into broader cultural forces impelled by history, seems to be the outright elimination in much of the 20th- and 21st centuries of such essential urban forms. The central plaza as civic gathering place faces extinction. Why? Because of the preponderance of the automobile, the surrender of public policy and public land for use by density-driven commercial developers maximizing profit with the spur of tax incentives, the uniform subdivision of suburban land, and so many design professionals and educators still under the philosophical sway of Le Corbusier's radial "city" with its horizontal sprawl of disparate land-devouring housing and intermittent shopping malls. (It is hard to imagine revolution taking shape in a Walmart parking lot as for starters the cars getting folks there would leave no room for anything else much less a rally ...) In other political systems, autocratic regimes deliberately preclude the creation of public gathering space (read modern Shanghai) as a purposeful invisible hand of future repression. None of this present realities leave room for what's now seen as the extravagance of the plaza or the central square even if to the eventual detriment of its larger surrounding community.

The architecture and design communities along with the land-use decision-makers need to take notice and act accordingly as the built future unfolds. The young especially should look at the facts and act now in opposition.

There are exceptional few doing so already notably among the New Urbanists, who look to tradition for such newly radical patterns and the humanistic enterprises they encourage such as walking to shop, attend school, worship, or just gather together on foot. All New Urbanist schemes call for at least one square as central formal planning tenet. And while they may have in mind more the lighting ceremony of a Christmas tree or 4th of July fireworks display, there is nonetheless the architecture resulting to accommodate any manner of community gathering as events call for -whether or not summoned by Facebook.

There are others on the case, but the cause seems lost unless more take stock of the example of Tahrir as a powerful reminder of the central square and and its home for the marketplace of ideas even when it is evil giving way to good.