shelter as symbol

architecture—and the expanded, overlapping disciplines of urban planning, art, and other types of cultural production—has played a prominent role in the development of the occupy movement. from tahrir square—a protest known primarily for the name of its site, an urban square—to the acampadas—encampments, meaning the act of camping out, of settling a shelter on the outdoors—the occupations of 2011 have been very much based on the appropriation of space as the vehicle for protest.

because the basic need for shelter has prompted some of the occupations in the us—houses foreclosed, houses without people and people without homes—settling usually private activities in the public realm takes on a special poignancy. by displaying the private act of dwelling on the public realm, protestors have made visible the disparities and inequalities of the system. the problems generated by dealing with homeless people trying to find a refuge at occupy camps only highlight these disparities.

however, it is important to distinguish this type of conflictive appropriation from more phenomenological discourses of clearing space and making place. in the excitement of the protests, some critics have seen occupy as an argument for more heideggerian strategies, without understanding that the tactics of the movement have been, from the start, discursive, argumentative, and political—and therefore incompatible with such objectives. that is, physical occupation has been one of many tactics of occupying different types of space (including the space of the media, and digital space) and the movement should not be reduced to the purely physical act of bodies on the commons. in other words, the occupation has included both the physical realm of the commons (as theorized by hannah arendt) and the public realm of media (as theorized by jürgen habermas).

perhaps because of this, within these protests, the tent—a very fragile, small shelter—has gone beyond its utilitarian role to become the symbol of the movement. for now i’ll end with some examples of tent tactics:

the beautiful floating tents of occupy cal at uc berkeley, on 18 november 2011

ows marched to duarte plaza using lit tents as their banners on 20 november 2011

protesters were asked to pitch a tent in their own lawns as symbolic protest by occupy la around 30 nov 2011:

the wonderful dancing tents of melbourne confused the hell out of police on 3 dec 2011.

the night after occupy boston got evicted, the general assembly was held at the boston common. the crowd had mixed feelings until someone brought out a tent—this tent was not evicted! it was all a bit ridiculous and sentimental, but also very direct. yes, they didn’t take it all. yes, we will still occupy. 

occupy boston makes a miniature tent city in front of the fed on 24 december 2011—they got evicted!

finally, the movement to occupy symbolically by pitching a tent in your own private space has been reinforced with these diy tiny tents. i like this one occupying an atm:

as the movement hunkers down to strategize over the winter, there is some time to reflect on what has happened and what comes next. i’d like to say that what comes next has to do with going from symbol to action—architecture as protest, is it possible? can architecture ever truly be revolutionary? some say no. yet at the same time, following chantal mouffe, architecture always inevitably has a political dimension—it is for us to decide which one.

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