Magic Mushrooms

Despite its initial controversy, the mushroom-shaped Metropol Parasol by Jürgen Mayer H. became a true democratic public space during May's public protests.

What leads to a space being chosen as a place for political expression in a city? Just days after Ethel Barahona reported in Domus 749 , how difficult it was to predict how the people of Seville would come to accept the Plaza de la Encarnación in future, Jürgen Mayer's "mushrooms" were converted, as if by magic, into the city's public space par excellence—a space within which the political exists as a public expression of the plurality of the people within it.

The fact of the public embracing the amorphous reticulated structure is highly paradoxical, since the Parasol itself had been the focus of intense polemic in the city. Its poor material execution was out of kilter with the excessive and growing financial budget for its construction, which brought the local authority to the brink of bankruptcy. It is paradoxical, as I say, that in a country experiencing the convulsions of a profound economic crisis, with an unprecedented unemployment rate, that the so-called Spanish Spring, largely linked to the battle against job insecurity and the poor economic situation in the country, should have chosen Mayer's ruinous mushrooms as one of the main places from which to launch its protests in Seville. However, perhaps it was because the demonstrators were aiming at something else, a broader horizon for discussion that could ignore the pettiness of the budget adjustments of any particular government.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
"They don't represent us" (referring to politicians in general) was one of the principal slogans of the movement behind these demonstrations. The Puerta del Sol (Madrid), Plaza de Cataluña (Barcelona), Plaza de la Encarnación (Seville) and dozens of other squares all over the country were occupied by spontaneous mass groupings brought together on social networks behind the motto of "real democracy now". The succession of events that unfurled is no doubt significant to the world we live in today, where dreams can take flight on the Net but culminate in physical and heated face-to-face confrontation. Whoever called the demonstrators of Seville out into the Plaza de la Encarnación seems to have got it just right. The very reverie of the Mayer backdrop provided the perfect excuse for demanding change. Since the demonstrators said that the traditional powers did not represent them, what point was there in demonstrating once again in the square before the town hall? The masses seemed to appreciate the lack of attachment to and preconceived ideas about a structure without any local tradition, which became a place in which it might be possible once again to imagine something new, with all the ideological significance this entails.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
However, apart from the popular claim laid to the symbolic value of Mayer's illusory forms, the phenomenon I experienced in the Plaza de la Encarnación derived from some more weighty problems. As I spent those days in Seville, my direct experience of the events reminded me of the principles that Richard Sennett used in a difficult and complicated way to define the spaces of democracy. Two fundamental models from Classical Greece were at the root of his Raoul Wallenberg Lecture in 1998: the Pnyx and the Agora.
Dynamically active thanks to its location, the square has the potential to emerge as a crucible of different overlapping lifestyles, the clear manifestation of the plural nature of contemporary urban life.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
The Pnyx was a disciplined space, explicitly designed for oratory, where the community patiently took turns to speak and listen to the opinions of their co-citizens. The Agora was a place in which the most dissimilar of public uses took place (commerce, legal affairs, religious rites and sporadic amorous encounters) reflecting the very plurality of life in the city itself. Sennett stressed that the democratic public space of today should be based around superimposing and updating these two models, with people having to be patient and able to wait a long time listening to the opinions of others, as well as observing and being aware of the diverse kinds of life that inhabit the city.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
In my own experience of these protests, Mayer's Parasol seemed to answer, almost at random, the questions that Sennett raises, and which are so very relevant now to the real and direct democracy demanded by the demonstrators. As I have mentioned, except for some specific points, the success of the protests in this aspect seems to have been more the result of random chance and circumstance than the true intent of the German architect. However, these are the facts. The democratic space functioned, and it has certain peculiarities, curiously linked to Sennett's descriptions, that could have helped this to happen. Firstly, as a covered public space, the Plaza de la Encarnación enables people to get together for prolonged periods of time in a city where summer temperatures reach a suffocating 45 degrees, meaning that meetings—as was a requirement for Sennett—could last for hours or even days, as is the case with the camps in the square.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
Like the agora, the square also breathes plurality. Located on a small site in the city, the square weaves the northern part of the centre (bohemian and working class) together with the southern part (well-heeled and institutional), and is crossed by a street that runs from west to east and jolts this space with a chaotic collage of different kinds of activities and users. Dynamically active thanks to its particular location, the square has the potential to emerge as a crucible of different overlapping lifestyles, the clear manifestation of the plural nature of contemporary urban life. However, interestingly rather than fortuitously, the requirement for the market to be sited on the ground floor makes the Plaza de la Encarnación a raised square with a broad stairway, which was appropriated by the demonstrators as an improvised Pnyx for officiating at their various "parliamentary" assemblies, speeches and meetings.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
This was intensified by another, rarely mentioned factor which is the rather modest scale of the square itself. This meant that all the people gathered in it could be individually identified. As a result, we were not confronted by a formless and unrecognisable clamouring mass in these demonstrations. Rather, we could make out the faces and actions of our companions, making up a multitude of different individuals, representing themselves of their own free will. So, are these characteristics the things that make a space the ideal place for exercising citizen-led democracy? Not necessarily, according to Sennett, because these features only help to articulate the interpersonal relationships that are necessary in order for such democracy to occur.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
The mass protests on 20 May under the new Metropol Parasol in Seville, by Jürgen Mayer H.
The true democratic profile of these spaces in fact depends primarily on the spirit of the people inhabiting them. This may be the most important lesson we can take away from this experience. There is no reason why public spaces should be just a place for enjoying aperitifs and cappuccinos, but they will only reveal their full depth and plenitude as democratic spaces when citizens voluntarily choose them to do so. In the scant two months that "the mushrooms" have been open, they have not only gained the kind of widespread public acceptance that, not so long ago, was far from certain, but the experiences that have unfolded beneath them have also come to form an integral part of their memories.
Francisco González de Canales

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