Claiming Free Speech by Angeliki Giompre / Nefeli Kalantzi / Zoe Spiliopoulou
Identify a public space
Colleges and universities throughout the world are by definition marketplaces for free expression and thought. Free and constructive debate of ideas is a vital part of their social role and should be a fundamental right of all. Recent actions by the City University of New York (CUNY) are attempting to set severe limitations to the right of free speech within the campus. The proposed “policy on expressive conduct”, as called, threats to confine demonstrations in designated “free speech zones”, contradicting its original mission and concept as a public university. “Demonstrations may be limited to areas designated by the University or its units for that use by members of the University community”. At the same time, the proposed policy would also undermine the use of public space for assembly, which is protected under the First Amendment.
Our proposal uses CUNY’s City College of New York (CCNY), the first free public institution of higher education in the United States, as a benchmark to redefine the purpose of free speech and free expression in a highly public space. Our design intervention aims to secure the institution of free expression, shield it against future threats and re-claim its vibrant and democratic character. Within CCNY’s campus in Harlem, we have identified the large open space in front of the North Academic Center as an ideal opportunity to create a space that educates its users, allows them to engage in productive debates and encourages them to freely express their thoughts.
Our team re-imagines the possibilities that a major outdoor space of a public university in New York City can offer to its community, while embracing and encouraging the freedom of speech. We believe that the threat of imposing “free speech zones” in a public space, where no amplified noise can be used, no distribution of flyers is allowed and the interference with others is on the edge, will hush the public dialog. What if we designed this public space as a social space, a space accessible to all?
As a first step, we propose to replace the existing furnishings with a flexible urban unit that promotes social seating while encouraging multiple uses. These units offer solitary or group seating, can become working stations for CCNY’s students and host book exchange shelves open to the public. Their linear form and configurations within the space accommodate the moving patterns towards the main entrance and allow for great flexibility in the case of a temporary event or a large manifestation, without compromising other activities/movements.
A big component of our proposal is the use of the exterior curved wall of the North Academic Center as a physical manifestation of Free Speech. The wall will have a lighting installation screen where words, representing one’s thoughts, will be projected in a continuous way on it. Its scale, central location and openness towards the street and the campus make it a place-making device that draws the public into an interactive space.
It is critical for the implementation of our proposal to engage the university community as much as possible. This project will operate as an arena for their free expression, from conceptualizing the project until making it their own.
We propose to include the design of the urban units into the core syllabus of the School of Architecture that is part of CCNY’s campus. A design-build studio for its students will offer a creative insight into this project, while the units, that would be proposed and fabricated every year would successfully reflect the change in the needs and uses of the units. In this process, our team will help define the syllabus of the course, we will work as consultants and critics and outreach to the larger university community in order to have a participatory process.
For the “Free Speech” lighting installation, we will partner with an art institution, such as the Public Art Fund or the Percent for Art program by NYC’s Department of Cultural Affairs. These funds will supplement those allocated by the university, such as the City College Annual Fund that supports educational initiatives and improvements in the physical space of the campus.
Angeliki Giompre is an architect living in Athens, Greece. She has completed her education in Greece and the UK, where she obtained a MA in Architectural Regeneration and Development. Public space and its social attributes has constituted an important part of her research, through which she offers insights on the design and function of the project.
Nefeli Kalantzi is an architect and urban designer, trained in Greece and the US. She holds a MSc in Architecture and Urban Design from Columbia University and is currently working at a landscape and urban design firm in NYC. Her multi-scalar design approach informed the design of the project at site and detail level. Nefeli will be the local liaison for outreaching to CCNY’s community and Public Art partners.
Zoe Spiliopoulou is an architect and Urban designer living in London, UK. She holds an M.Arch in Urban Design from the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Sociology of space is one of her greatest interests and it has affected the way she perceives architecture and urban design. Her input on this project was focused on how space can respond to the demands of diverse people that seek their right to free speech.