Society as Theatre: exploring the Theatrum Mundi forum


What makes a successful public space? The elements, spatial and social, have been debated and experimented on for much of the history of cities. Writing in 1980, William H. Whyte famously explored the “social life of small urban spaces”, closely examining the aspects that make a successful public space in New York City (watch his documentary on the subject here). Writing in his 1974 book The Fall of Public Man, famed urbanist Richard Sennett explored the notion of public space as ‘the theatre of the world’ and argued that this role has been steadily declining since the 18th century Enlightenment cities.

His latest project, the Theatrum Mundi/Global City forum picks up on these notions almost 40 years on. The initiative, dubbed as a ‘new urban forum’ seeks to investigate notions around public space and how the design, or indeed redesign, of these spaces can “breathe new life into our cities”. Many have argued that with the rise of the self-centered individual, in constant search of self-expression, that quality of public spaces has experienced a marked decline. An increasingly institutionalised fear of crime and terrorism has also seen street life move into more controlled, enclosed and often privatised spaces, like the shopping centre. Thus ideas of public life have become increasingly associated with processes of consumption and commercial transactions.

The forum is comprised of 2 parts: Theatrum Mundi and Global Street. Theatrum Mundi, with its focus on urban culture, seeks to bring architects and planners together with performing and visual artists to re-imagine public spaces. Cape Town’s Infecting the City festival speaks strongly to the ideas behind this forum. Global Street, on the other hand, investigates the effects of the globalisation of labour and capital on the city street and street life. The project is currently only operational in Great Britain, the United States and Germany but is hoping to expand its reach in the future, particularly looking to the Global South.

A public space scene from Cape Town’s Infecting the City festival

As with any undertaking of this sort, there are questions around practical applications. The project was only launched this year so its success in this sense remains to be charted, but in the meantime the forum does seem to  be providing a place for conversations around issues of public space that have muted over past decades, as well as representing an attempt to “grab the debate around the design of public space back from private interests and disinterested bureaucracies”. The forum boasts a great range of reflective pieces from Sennett and others on a diverse array of topics including ‘Social Movement’, ‘The Architecture of Sound and ‘Light and the City’ (see FCT’s post on this exact topic here). It can be argued that forum itself perhaps represents a type of public (virtual) space of stimulation.

In 1974 Sennett writes that “the classic ideal of the theatrum mundi attempted to convey one union of aesthetics and social reality. Society is a theatre, and all men are actors”. If this is so, then men need a stage befitting of their performances.