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TBC: Privacy in Cities

Beatriz Colomina. Photo: Job Janssen

Beatriz Colomina. Photo: Job Janssen

In 1996, Beatriz Colomina, Professor of Architecture and Founding Director of the Program in Media and Modernity at Princeton University, published the groundbreaking book, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media (MIT Press). In it, she argues that as new forms of mass media emerged in the 20th century, such as film, photography, television, and advertisement, they changed the way and the purpose with which modern architecture was produced. According to her book, this shift drastically altered the relationship between public and private in the experience of architecture—publicizing what was once private, and thus radically transforming our experience of architecture and space.

If anything, the transformation of both architecture and mass media has accelerated in the years since Colomina published her seminal work. With this in mind, I got in touch with her to ask where she feels we stand with this public/private dichotomy today.

Why does the public-versus-private relationship with architecture matter? How does this translate to the overall experience of the city?

Architecture has always been about what is private and what is public. There has never been a clear line between them. Most of my work is devoted to the fact that private and public are in a permanent, unstable relationship. There are multiple privates and multiple publics. You can be in a very private space in public space and vice versa—in a very public situation in private. This has become exacerbated with new technologies. We can even say that the staging of the private in public has become an art form.

Do architects and planners have the responsibility to take this into account in their work? 

Do they have a choice? With new media, we have all become experts at staging our own private life. So it is not so much that we are exposing our privacy. It is that we have become actors of our own private life. In as much as the architect is asked to provide the stage, the architect becomes a collaborator in this performance. I’ve heard young architects that I admire, like Andres Jaque, talk about how young clients request spaces that look good in the background of social media images. This reminds me of the debates at the turn of the 20th century about an architecture designed to look good in photographs.

How does the public/private experience of architecture and planning today differ from that of the modern era? 

Photography, film, the telephone, radio, etc. profoundly changed the sense of what was private and public, what is inside and outside. With the telephone and radio, for example, you have the literal intrusion or eruption of the public into the private space of the home. In the last two decades an unexpected revolution, of at least the same significance [as] the ones that brought us modern media, has taken place. The internet, email, blogs, Google, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram . . . have profoundly changed the way we work, write, analyze, interact, play, and even make love. Can we expect architecture not to be affected?

A concluding note:

The issue of privacy and public space was an essential part of the conversation at the Lab in Mumbai, where we discussed how Mumbaikers define privacy in public and domestic settings, how they experience that, and where. But Colomina’s work and insights suggest that the issue of privacy is not just one of how an individual experiences and uses public settings in a private way, but how the private experience of the city itself is becoming increasingly public, and how that, in turn, is actively shaping our cities.

Do you have any thoughts on where this leaves us, as architects, planners, or simply citizens of a city? Is it good, or bad? Should it be more formally recognized and addressed? If so, where does that conversation need to go? Add your thoughts in the comment section below.