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Occupational Hazard

What could a motley collection of pop-up tents possibly have to offer architecture? Asks Jeremy Till

A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral at Tent City University, part of the occupation of the small remaining piece of publicly accessible land in the City of London. Tent City has as its catchphrase: ‘Anyone can teach; everyone can learn’. This presented a challenge to my professorial/professional authority as part of the occupation’s much wider challenge to the current location of power in the financial institutions of the city. Sure enough, my lecture, entitled ‘Ten Theses on Scarcity’, was not received with the passive respect that one is granted in a ‘normal’ university, and I felt rightly humbled by the critical concentration of the cross-legged audience.

One question resonated strongly in that fragile tent with noises off (of demonstrators, of sirens) providing a charged acoustic background. The question posed was how the occupation may or may not provide lessons for architects. In the shadow of St Paul’s, that clearest of all symbols of the representational power of architecture, what could a motley collection of pop-up tents possibly have to offer?

The answer may lie precisely in Tent City’s motto, with a call for the dissolution of traditional power structures. Anyone can teach; everyone can learn. The occupiers are teaching if only we (as architects) can be bothered to learn. But to learn, we need to listen. And to learn, we have to unlearn, casting off our attachment to the representational in architecture in terms of visual and formal signals.

It was just that fatal attachment that led the profession down a cul-de-sac in the so-called boom years of the first decade of the 21st century, in which architecture’s display was reduced to mere commodity. On the one hand, this was seen through the excesses of stars that made up one per cent, and on the other it became apparent through the production of dross in the wrapping up of discredited procurement processes that made up the the remaining 99 per cent and resulted in an ever thinner veneer of aesthetic surface. In the world of the economy, the systems and values of the one per cent are imposed on the lives and worth of the 99 per cent, so in architecture the priorities and discourse of the one per cent dominate the production of the remaining 99 per cent.

As the occupiers, shouting, ‘We are the 99 per cent’, challenge the inequalities of that equation, so architects need to question the values of the one per cent, which are so uncritically perpetuated through education, the media and the desire industry in general. This is where we can learn from the occupiers, not from the way they look, but from the resilience and brilliance of their organisational structures, and from their overall critique of the structures of power. For this, everyone needs to visit the occupation to see what a truly public space feels like: public in the sense of shared, discussed, contested − in which actions play out contingently in front of our eyes as a set of social relations, rather than the false public of the controlled, mediated and over-represented spaces of the rest of the City of London.

The second lesson concerns the dissolving of power. There is a sense of despair in the architectural profession that we have given up ‘control’ of the production of the built environment to others: to developers, to project managers, to government procurement systems. What brings these supposed invaders of territory together is an attachment to a particular set of priorities, those of the neo-liberal marketplace, which the occupiers are now so poignantly exposing.

This suggests that the seizing of control of the production of the built environment by others is not quite as permanent as once thought, because the very foundations of the marketplace are being undermined from both within (the impossible equations of endless growth and crude economic instruments) and without (the ever-louder voices of the 99 per cent). It also suggests that there is an opportunity for architects to join the 99 per cent in proposing alternatives that the developers, project managers, procurers and others in the thrall of the one per cent simply do not have the understanding or imagination to create.

If ever there was a time for architects to offer the world something more than window dressing for the machinations of the market, it is now. As Reinhold Martin notes in a brilliant piece on Occupy Wall Street and related protests in the online journal Places: ‘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.’ This calls not for a reinvention of the Modernist utopias, nor the production of spectacular images of evanescent progress, but rather for a realignment of architectural values against those that have dominated for too many years.
The market has let us all down: that much is clear.

What the occupiers teach us, through their spaces, their behaviour and their critique, is that other forms of social organisation are not only necessary but possible. And if you believe that new social structures find their home in new spatial relations, and if you believe that social justice goes hand in hand with spatial justice, then there is a place for architects to play in this new world, acting as spatial agents for others. But only if we all accept that anyone can teach and everyone can learn, bringing our knowledge modestly to the fragile shelter of occupation, there to be shared and modulated by the voices of others.

Readers' comments (1)

  • this is an extremely inspiring piece, we will be referring to it in our discussions today about creating more commons and claiming land in the city

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