“What's in there for me?” Lowering the public threshold in Cultural Spaces with spatial interventions

Author: Mar Muñoz Aparici, TU Delft


Cultural buildings –museums, libraries, theatres– are in continuous transformation because they embody collective human significances . In urban settings, existing cultural buildings are struggling to redefine their purpose and align with late modernity’s everchanging public values (Bauman, 2000). For decades, art centres have attempted to approach art to citizens –to “lower the threshold”– through spatial and programmatic changes. New cultural building designs try lowering the public threshold by paying attention to public space design, material transparency, strong branding, or accessible programming. However, in cultural building reuse lowering the threshold to partake in cultural public life presents other design challenges. Introducing a cultural programme in an existing building within an existing community demands a different approach to spatial practise. In this research, design interventions explore the spatial construct of a public threshold blending the boundaries of architecture, urbanism, and art practises.

When a private citizen expands its “bubble” (Sloterdijk, 2011) to join others in public life, that defines a liminal point, the beginning of the public experience. The boundary of public life rarely coincides with the boundary of its condensers, public buildings (Poot et al., 2018). Therefore, to lower the public threshold of buildings, design must challenge the construct of its limits (Stevens, 2004). While visibility, accessibility, and appropriation are the variables defining spatial publicness, citizens often wonder “what’s in there for me? ” and do not dare to cross the public threshold (Sennett & Sendra, 2020). Designing public buildings considering that these variables start well before the enclosure of the building offers an original approach to bring culture closer to citizens.

The case of art centre Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam shows how relevant designing the public threshold is for cultural spaces willing to contribute to public life. While being a renowned institution with a rich collection and network, their newly opened “dépendance”in Rotterdam Zuid failed to engage with citizens. Bringing people into a public building has three overlapping layers: programmatic, operational, and spatial. In this case, the building hosting the cultural program was opaque, enclosed, and unclear failing on all three publicness conditions.

In this design driven action research, I explored how to overcome the threshold that stops citizens from engaging in the cultural life of “dé Hillevliet” in Rotterdam Zuid, the Netherlands.

The process consisted of 4 phases: analysis, cocreation, intervention and analysis. With a focus on art and design as means to connect with citizens, I used urban and architectural tools to understand the spatial challenges present in the surroundings. After collectively cocreating an intervention, I designed a prototype spatial intervention allowing for a new way of appropriating the building and its cultural programme. Reflecting on the processes, actions and decisions behind this intervention design helped create knowledge into how architectural design practise can contribute to the activation of cultural programmes and therefore the strengthening of public life


Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid Modernity. Polity Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/308980...

Poot, T., De Vos, E., & Van Acker, M. (2018). Thinking beyond dualities in public space: the unfolding of urban interiority as a set of interdisciplinary lenses. Interiors, 9(3), 324-345. https://doi.org/10.1080/204191...

Sennett, R., & Sendra, P. (2020). Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City.

Verso Books.

Sloterdijk, P. (2011). Spharen Volume I: Bubbles. In.

Stevens, Q. (2004). Testing the Limits: Building Thresholds and Urban Liminality. LIMITS: 21st Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand, Melbourne.