There's a bit of a house-of-mirrors quality at Open to the Public: Civic Space Now, at the AIA New York Center for Architecture in New York City's Greenwich Village through September. From the outside, at LaGuardia Place, you peer in and see an umbrella-capped hot dog stand, a Citibike, and a wrap-around mural of Times Square. Step inside, and you'll find the perfect backdrop for a selfie that makes it seem like you're on the crowded steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is an exhibit about public space, in a public space, with public space outside, all around. This reflection on an essential ingredient of cities requires a moment of orientation.
The very notion of public space, a subject largely reserved for design professionals until about a decade ago, is a hot topic today. The threshold event that pushed it into popular consciousness was probably 2011's Occupy Wall Street encampment in Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park—a privately owned public space, just to add another level of complexity. Worldwide, the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo that year also underscored the connection between place and public discourse, with all the mobilization power of social media mixed in. In recent years, the practice of guerrilla urbanism—taking over parking spaces or entire streets for mini parklets, spontaneous art displays, and chair bombings—has further changed the definition and understanding of public space and its function.