The Design Observer Group

Posted 11.07.11

Reinhold Martin

Occupy: What Architecture Can Do

Occupy Wall Street, Lower Manhattan. [Photo by Kadambari Baxi]

As Occupy Wall Street and related actions across the country and around the world continue to grow and proliferate, it is important to note — in emphatic support — that architects and students of architecture have been involved in a variety of ways. It is also important to note that urbanistic — and to a lesser extent, architectural — considerations have played a key role in the physical occupation of prominent sites in cities and towns. In New York and well beyond, this has further entailed the reclaiming of a public sphere that for decades has been dominated both practically and symbolically by the economic and political interests housed on Wall Street and in the equally conspicuous monuments to financialization that loom over Zuccotti Park (unofficially renamed Liberty Plaza), including the mirrored behemoths now under construction on Ground Zero. But just as “Wall Street” is not located merely on a few narrow blocks in Lower Manhattan, so too the practical and symbolic role of architecture is not limited to the provision of tactical support for urban occupation, however important that may be.

In New York, with winter weather arriving earlier than expected, participants have been confronted with a significant challenge. The daily organization of OWS follows democratic, decentralized procedures, and a variety of committees and working groups contribute to the General Assemblies through the now famous mechanism of the “people’s mic” and associated protocols. Together with other committees, the architecture and town planning committees are tasked with spatial organization and the provision of shelter. They must therefore respond to actions by police and municipal authorities that systematically push life on the occupied site toward a sort of permanent state of emergency. And just as Baron von Haussmann cleared the streets of Paris to allow light, air, and the military to penetrate the city’s working-class districts, these municipal actions are often couched in the language of hygiene and safety. Witness, for example, the successful resistance mounted by occupiers to the requirement that they leave the encampment to allow officials to clean the park. Or more recently, witness the removal of electrical generators, deemed fire hazards, by city authorities the day before a long-predicted but unseasonal snowfall. And so on.

Occupy Wall Street, Day 36, Lower Manhattan, October 21. [Photo by David Shankbone]

Such moves and countermoves demand constant vigilance with respect not only to a politics of space but also to a politics of life, in which the provision of shelter plays a highly visible and strategic role. Assisted by decades of voluminous research and activist practice in slums, emergency housing, and encampments of various sorts worldwide, the field of architecture has acquired a kind of improvised expertise in such matters. Still, we must always remember that, as at Liberty Plaza, these desperate measures respond to more than just circumstantial economic patterns. The inequalities they seek to ameliorate result from systematically enforced structural crises instigated by the very processes, including neoliberal or corporate globalization, being contested by OWS in the first place. Architectural discourse and practice must learn to think and act concretely at these structural levels as well.

Take shelter. As the ongoing foreclosure crisis has demonstrated, the housing sector in the United States and worldwide has arguably been the most fully privatized and financialized of the three key areas that support human life, the other two being health care and education. In the United States, public education and publically supported healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid still exist, though under constant threat; but public housing is being demolished across the country, to be replaced, if at all, by government-incentivized “affordable” housing built by developers, often at lower capacity. At the same time, it is not an exaggeration to say that the prison-industrial complex has grown into a kind of de facto housing program for an increasingly exurban underclass. In these and many other respects the cult of homeownership on which the American national imaginary still turns has been met by an equal and opposite culture of dispossession.

Closely related to the struggles over the right to appear in public and to stay there and be heard, as in OWS, are a series of global struggles over the right to shelter. Not as a universal and standardized “human” right per se, but as a political right that corresponds with the responsibilities and privileges of democratic speech. A society is being built in Liberty Plaza and in the network of affiliated sites around the world: a model of how to live, both in microcosm and in macrocosm. In this context, simple spatial decisions, like whether to meet the demands of cold weather with clusters of smaller, individual tents or with larger, collective “dwellings,” acquire a symbolic resonance. Old, historical patterns, like the alternative-lifestyle homesteading popular in the 1960s, tend to recur. But at Liberty Plaza, as in society at large, the architectural question on the table is not only about survival — how to live, how to occupy, how to shelter under adverse conditions — but also about how to live together in public. We can call this the housing question.

Top: Occupy Wall Street, September 25. Middle 1: Occupy Wall Street, September 19. Middle 2: Occupy Wall Street, October 21. Bottom: Occupy Wall Street, November 2. [Photos by David Shankbone]

If transformed from a professionalized and theatricalized culture of expertise to a form of collective action, the practice of architecture can help to respond to this question. Experiments in public or social housing of many kinds, though imperfect and contradictory, were a mainstay of architectural modernism in the first half of the 20th century. As were housing policies and practices not immediately reducible to market imperatives. The now-iconic demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis in 1972 was seen by many as signaling an end to efforts to house what was called, in the 1950s, with no small hint of paternalism, the “greater number.” Today we can speak more inclusively of housing “the 99%,” but this is a challenge that can only be met in an equitable manner with political imagination.

Architecture is capable of mounting a profound critique of the status quo. In doing so, it can also model partial worlds and offer up these models for public discussion and disputation. Not perfect worlds, but possible ones. With respect to housing, then, is it not time to take up again the question of housing publics with renewed vigor, and with attention to the integral relation between housing models and structural, societal change? Is it not time, also, to refuse the so-called common sense of privatization and financialization, and to construct new processes, strategies or institutions — rather than ever more refined forms of indenture — dedicated to the common provision of shelter? Rather than be content with emergency measures, the field of architecture can take inspiration from the steadfast refusal to leave signaled by the Occupy movement, by refusing to play by the rules as written by developers and banks. And architectural thinking can contribute something invaluable to this extraordinary process by offering tangible models of possible worlds, possible forms of shelter, and possible ways of living together, to be debated in general assemblies both real and virtual.

We must not be satisfied merely to ask how such models might conform to the supposed “realities” of a fetishized corporate economy. Rather, we must ask, quite pragmatically: What sort of political economy, and what sort of society, would be required to make another way of living possible or even conceivable in the first place? For there is nothing preventing us, in an agonistic and participatory manner, from devising and debating forms of shelter — of housing — that correspond, in microcosm and macrocosm, with the still-resonant slogan of the anti-corporate, anti-globalization protests from which the Occupy movement has itself taken inspiration: Another world is possible.