Phase II – 2012

2012 Urban culture, public space, and resources – Aesthetics and materiality

The pooling of already-existing expertise at the Technical University of Vienna (Vienna UT), including in the fields of technology, sustainability, resource conservation, ecology, and aesthetics, represents a major challenge for cross-disciplinary research on public space and urban-cultural themes, if the material production of space is to be dealt with systematically across centers and interdisciplinary centers (interdisciplinarity).  Urban practitioners, including landscape architects, urban planners, urban designers, and architects, are concerned primarily with resources such as the quality of materials and the aesthetic expression of public space and built cultural aspects. In the course of climate change, they are working to conserve resources and integrate new energy-saving technologies into the ecologically oriented design of public space.

In planning culture, informal processes surrounding political resources play a major role in the question of which actors and institutions influence particular parts or the general aspects of urban development and advance the material production of the city. Resources can thus also retain a political dimension in the course of so-called resource pooling. The access to and availability of sensitive, interactive technological and infrastructure networks is also playing an increasingly large role in the critical political economy of the city and more extensive actor-network analysis.

Similarly, the focus in urban development on the scarcity of resources and their possible management is per se economic. With cities’ increasing competition for attention and reputation – in the symbolic and media economies – “soft”, intangible resources are becoming more and more culturally significant. In 2012 the Interdisciplinary Centre for Urban Culture and Public Space (SKuOR) is therefore aligning its efforts through the interdisciplinary combination of different viewpoints, which already exist within the Vienna UT but are fragmented and disconnected, toward the importance of a wide variety of resources to the development of public space. Identifying productive links between technological and built change and social and design progress is conducive to ensuring the protection of the use value of public and collective goods and the public character of public spaces as places where public life unfolds.

The study of material urban living conditions always involves an implicit social issue, even if many researchers are unaware of this in light of the prosperity of the Western world. Only when material provisions are at a minimum level in terms of a city’s quality of life will urban practitioners comprehend the actual privilege of their ongoing normative task: the high-quality material furnishing of urban areas, especially of public spaces and residential areas, is a core task of helping the urban population maintain satisfactory living conditions. In addition to this obligation with regard to material standards, freestyle aesthetic advances gain importance, even against the backdrop of increasing oversaturation of information and attention deficits, if the slowing down of contemporary rhythms of life in the capitalist meritocracy and freedom from stress in overstimulating urban space is to be encouraged.

Researchers are often suspicious that aesthetics are used in the service of economic enhancement and de-politicization of socio-political issues or of favoring structural social segregation in public places through the use of symbolic codes. On the other hand, aesthetics have far-reaching effects on perception and carry meaning in the built environment that reflects the values ​​and traditions of urban society. In public space, a wide range of aesthetic perception comes into play: beyond the aesthetics of the everyday and of high culture, aesthetics in general speaks to subtlety, and therefore to the experiences and feelings of the people – their emotions. Used cleverly, in the optimal scenario, aesthetic standards can be used in the service of urban society to establish meaning, to stimulate well-being, and to sustainably engage new technologies in a broader sense – not just for the majority of voters.

The theme in 2012, “Urban culture, public space, and resources – Aesthetics and materiality”, therefore refers to the many understandings of the materials from which public space is structurally arranged and built, as well as of the materiality of urban-cultural interventions. Abstractly speaking, we are concerned with the material production of space as a facet of the social production of space, an area where aesthetics can be given a particular, albeit ambivalent, role. At the same time, aesthetic change is an essential analytical starting point in urban studies for research into the widely varying phenomena of social change.

Therefore, in 2012, the Interdisciplinary Centre for Urban Culture and Public Space has chosen an interdisciplinary approach with the goal of bringing together the diverse expertise of heterogeneous faculty and staff at Vienna UT. Within our institution we are working across disciplines, occupations, and subject areas in order to gain knowledge about new technologies for public space and for urban-cultural interventions. Similarly, we would like to address the broad social embedding of technical innovation and sustainable materiality within the context of cultural and sociological insights and criticism. Finally, aesthetics can also serve as a social-scientific approach to knowledge production in urban planning and to advance insights in urban research; thus, it represents a connection to the other year’s themes.