Gábor Bindics: The most powerful change in public space is when people dare to use it.

Gábor Bindics. Image: Archive of Gábor Bindics

Gábor Bindics studied cultural management at the University of Pécs and alternative energies at the Budapest University of Technology. He worked at the National Portrait Gallery in London and founded a silent cinema in Paris. He is the founder of the Cultural Centre Dunaj and the Švihaj Šuhaj cycle courier service. He is currently leading the project of the Old Market Hall in Bratislava and working on the project of reopening the Grössling Baths.

Michal Matlon:  Gábor, you said that what interests you the most is how spaces impact social life. Could you tell us when you first realized that spaces could have this impact? What made you think about it?

Gábor Bindics: Fifteen years ago, I was living in Paris. Together with my friends, we set up a cinema in the center, near the Luxembourg Garden. We found an unused space and looked for its potential. But to see this potential, we first had to understand the space well.

An architect usually responds to such an understanding with architecture. But I was interested in how we could work with this space without adding mass. That’s when I started reading about the philosophy and sociology of space.

Grössling Bathhouse. Image: Archive of Gábor Bindics

Over time, I discovered many authors who inspired me. One of the most famous is Foucault, who coined the term “heterotopia.” It’s a word that describes a space in which you can discover an additional depth. For example, he talks about a library, in whose books you can find stories that lead you to their own microcosm.

Gradually I discovered other philosophers like Henri Lefebvre and Béla Hamvas. To me, Lefebvre is probably the most important. He says that every space has a quality he calls “trialectic.” This means that it consists not only of the physical part but also of the social and subjectively experienced part.

After reading about this, I started asking some new questions. For example, why is it that when we create a space today, we mainly focus on the physical part of it? We have great architects of physical space, but lack architects of social and experienced space.

Grössling Bathhouse. Image: Archive of Gábor Bindics

It’s the same in how we communicate architecture. When we talk about a new development today, we mainly talk about how cool the apartments will be, but we don’t talk about their human qualities and potentials. It’s all very technical.

But I have learned that we can change the experience of a space even through its name. I’m now working on restoring the Grössling Bathhouse (Kúpele Grössling) in Bratislava, Slovakia, which has been closed for decades. And in this project, we debated whether we should call it a “public” bathhouse. 

The word “public” has a rather positive connotation in English, as something available to everyone. But in Slovak, it can even have a negative connotation. And that can change the way people perceive the place. For example, in Slovak, “public house” means a brothel.

Enabling Physical Experience

Natalia Olszewska: I like the idea of a library as a space with additional dimensions accessible through the books. It made me think about how digital devices are now often replacing them. We still have libraries, but sitting down and reading a paper book is a rarer experience now. Are you interested in how this affects spaces and their social life?

Gábor: It sure does. Returning to our bathhouse example, these are often filled with steam and have a very high humidity. So, of course, people don’t use their phones there. And we can help people rediscover physical presence through spaces like bathhouses or libraries. We design spaces to enable people to have that physical experience.

We don’t want to regulate people’s use of digital devices formally. But the space has to be designed so that people naturally put them away. That’s one of the reasons I’m interested in sacred spaces and how that perceived sacredness influences our behavior.

For example, if you grew up in Europe, you probably understand that you shouldn’t shout in a cemetery or a church. These rules are not formally regulated, but people share them through social learning.

Grössling Bathhouse. Image: Archive of Gábor Bindics

What’s interesting is that we can create sacredness even in non-sacred spaces. That’s one of the reasons why we combined the functions of a library and a bathhouse in the Grössling project.

We want to develop a sacred atmosphere in this space and we even chose the architectural concept in the competition based on this. The winning team impressed us by creating this atmosphere, for example, by how they handled the interface between the street and the interior of the building.

When you walk by a church where there’s a service, you can only get a limited sense of what’s happening inside. You can hear the singing and look through the doors, but you can’t get a complete picture. If you wanted to see more, you’d have to become part of the action, and new rules would apply to you.

The Impact of Social Interventions

Michal: Since in your work you introduce changes in many public spaces, what was a project where the impact of the intervention surprised you? For example, by the strength of its effect?

Gábor: One of the most impressive things for me was the change around the Old Market Hall (Stará tržnica) in Bratislava. It was an unused building with a square in front of it. We rented it from the city, renovated, and reactivated it.

We did this in several ways. For example, by working with lighting to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere where people want to spend time, but also to improve the place’s safety.

Old Market Hall, Bratislava. Image: Archive of Gábor Bindics

We chose the businesses renting retail spaces on the edge of the market hall so that at any time of the day, at least one would be open, keeping the place vibrant and safe.

For me, the most powerful change in public space is when people dare to use it. But this only works when the right balance is achieved. An interesting example is the city of San Francisco, which has received much criticism in recent years for letting the city’s homelessness and addiction problems get out of control. The situation gradually became unsustainable because there was no self-regulation of behavior in public spaces.

In our projects, we have so far been able to strike the right balance and help people develop a sense of ownership. Rákoczi Square in Budapest was a place known for prostitution for a long time. The market next to the square and the revitalization of the square was done by a team of citizens, and we were partners in this project.

Old Market Hall, Bratislava. Image: Archive of Gábor Bindics

During this time, the team has involved the people who used to work there in the past into the new life of the area. They organize community breakfasts on Saturdays and an urban summer camp for children.

It’s essential that people learn to see spaces as their own, but it’s also important to set the boundaries so that it doesn’t become extreme. For example, if someone is shouting in a space and so occupying it with their voice and emotions, that has to be a behavior that people learn to regulate.

Coming To Terms With History

Michal: What was the most challenging or complex project for you?

Gábor: In Bratislava, not far from the Old Market Hall, there’s a square dedicated to the Slovak National Uprising, which took place towards the end of World War II. During the uprising, a part of the population, then ruled by a German-allied regime, revolted and fought against it.

It’s a sensitive topic in Slovak history, and the square is often perceived as a place of remembrance. Our task was to gently revive this place in the city’s center, as it was last renovated fifty years ago. The project is called Živé námestie (Vivid Square).

In the architectural competition, we chose a Berlin studio called Loidl. Their approach suggested that while urban design is important, the activities and people who live and work in the space are even more so. So we started collecting stories related to this place and its buildings.

Old Market Hall, Bratislava. Image: Archive of Gábor Bindics

We researched the place’s history, the buildings’ architects, the stories of the people who worked there, and the events that happened there. And we thought about how to connect these stories and people to the square’s future.

We found out that how the square interacts with and supports its buildings is crucial. For example, by planting trees in certain places, we can hide or highlight certain buildings and frame them. This helps to tell the story of the site in a certain way.

Another way to make that connection was to show these stories to the public during development. We made an exhibition of the stories we found so that people could reconnect with the place. 

With the turbulent history of the last century, almost everyone who could carry these stories in their memories is gone. Very few people have grandparents who could tell them about the square because most of them have only recently moved to the city.

Rakoczi Square, Budapest. Image: Archive of Gábor Bindics

Natalia: I think we are also talking about the symbolic meaning of places. And meaning can give people more agency and autonomy over a place. We can help create that meaning through different interventions.

We can work through stories, as you mentioned, but also through concepts like place attachment, accumulation of positive experiences, and helping people create new relationships.

This is also a significant issue for Poland. We now have a few million Ukrainians in the country, some temporarily, some perhaps permanently. And the question is how to help them integrate and make them feel better here.

You can help them with basic things like finding jobs and housing. But there’s undoubtedly something that architecture and urban design can do as well.

The Sit Down project, Bratislava. Image: Archive of Gábor Bindics

Gábor: Yes, it is a very important question of how a new resident can connect with the place where he or she lives and build an identity. Unfortunately, sometimes a false identity is built.

There’s a city in Ukraine called Lviv, which used to be a predominantly Jewish-Polish city. After World War II, when people were resettled all over Europe, they sent all the Germans from the Polish city of Breslau (Wrocław) to Germany, while all the Poles from Lviv were resettled in Breslau. The whole population of a city came to a completely new place and had to start their lives anew, without any continuity.

Unfortunately, as in the 20th century, it seems that the 21st century will be no different when cities are replaced and people have to flee their homes.

And this is similar to the situation we’re facing now in Bratislava. In 1920, Bratislava became an important city in Czechoslovakia. It began to grow rapidly and change its identity. And if this history is not properly understood and worked with, you can discover some problems when working with public spaces and making changes.

Lisbon. Image: André Lergier on Unsplash

When we were working on the Square of the Slovak National Uprising, we encountered resistance to moving the monument that was there. So we discussed it with the people who actually took part in the uprising.

Unfortunately, we talk very little about the negative side of our past, and when we talked about the connection between the uprising and the statue, there were a lot of ambivalent feelings.

That’s when we realized that we had to tell the story of these events through the site in a new context and leave the statue where it is, even though we believe that a change in this place would be welcome. We couldn’t move it until the nation made peace with its history. I’m sure your readers can think of similar examples in their cities and countries.

So, to answer the original question, understanding the past and the future of this space has been a difficult task, and it shows that it goes far beyond architecture. Here we have to confront the past and our identity.

Bologna. Image: Max Nayman on Unsplash

Michal: I know there’s a considerable debate in the United States about whether to keep or remove Confederate statues in different cities, for example.

Natalia: It sounds like all interventions in public space are also interventions in human consciousness and unconsciousness.

Michal: Apart from your own projects, could you give us some examples of positive transformation of public space and its social life?

Gabor: For me, such positive examples usually involve the topic of identity or elements that give an urban space a different quality. A good example is Porto and Lisbon, which have recently worked a lot with their identities and their expression in public spaces.

On the other hand, Bologna has been a great inspiration to me lately. Their public space makes a lot of use of arcades, and I have strongly experienced their many qualities.

They give a new, more intimate layer to a place. They change its shape and experience, and they provide shelter, they make you feel more at home. I think we should work much more with arcades and passageways in our projects.

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