Thomas-Bernard Kenniff


Public space is neither a fixed thing, nor a stable concept. This paper applies the term ‘dialogue’ as a conceptual basis for the idea of public space as something that changes according to multiscalar and overlapping contexts, with use and discourse. The concept of dialogue is developed from the dialogism of Mikhail Bakhtin whose related notions of ambivalence, polyphony, heteroglossia, carnival and chronotope are used to support a dialogical understanding of public space. The paper develops this understanding by creating a parallel between Bakhtin’s dialogism and the Barking Town Square by muf architecture/art (2004-2010). Through this parallel reading, the paper suggests that design proposals for the public realm are valued propositions that suggest a particular transformation of aesthetic, ethical, social and political relations through the ordering and transformation of spatial relations. No design, no conception, and therefore no dialogue creating public space can be neutral—but inevitably takes place within a fraught dialogical context inseparable from individual positioning and responsibility. The question of boundary maintenance thus arises inevitably, and the paper examines a range of such problematic demarcations, including between public and private, typologies and flexible criteria, immediate and social contexts, and ideals and reality. Given dialogue’s condition of ambivalence and incompleteness, the paper argues that the inherent contradictions to the concept of ‘public space’ are its very conditions for existence.


How to Cite
Kenniff, T.-B. (2018) “Dialogue, ambivalence, public space”, The Journal of Public Space, 3(1), pp. 13–30. doi: 10.5204/jps.v3i1.316.
Author Biography

Thomas-Bernard Kenniff, Université du Québec à Montréal

Thomas-Bernard Kenniff is Professor in the Environmental Design program at the École de design, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), where he teaches design studios, theory and criticism. He joined UQAM in 2015 after having taught in the architecture schools of Carleton University, Ottawa, Université de Montréal and Université Laval, Québec City. He holds a PhD in Architectural History and Theory from the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture and a Master of Architecture from the University of Waterloo, Canada. His research addresses preoccupations tied to the public realm, working out the ways in which subjectivities and relationships are transformed by the collective practice of making social space. He is currently working on a three-year design research project on the recent development of Montréal’s public realm that looks at how public space emerges from the multiple interfaces assembled between associations and individuals. Thomas-Bernard’s work on public space and design has developed through multiple lenses including dialogism, participant-research, oral history, urban identity, interstitial space and uncertainty. He is co-director, with Carole Lévesque, of the design research lab Bureau d’étude de pratiques indisciplinées.


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