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. 

Editors' Note

For further reading, see Reinhold Martin’s follow-up to this essay, Occupy: The Day After, published on Places in December 2011, and Mimi Zeiger’s The Interventionist’s Toolkit, Part 4.

Reinhold Martin, “Occupy: What Architecture Can Do,” Places Journal, November 2011. Accessed 02 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/111107

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Past Discussions View
  • 11.11.2011 at 13:35

    Since we're talking about housing and grassroots organizing, I feel that it's necessary to mention the individuals and families out there who are already building their own paradigm:

    “Cohousing is a type of collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods. Cohousing residents are consciously committed to living as a community. The physical design encourages both social contact and individual space. Private homes contain all the features of conventional homes, but residents also have access to extensive common facilities such as open space, courtyards, a playground and a common house.” –from cohousing.org

    Living in a neighborhood where you have a social and physical support system is just good common sense. There are examples of affordable housing that closely follows this model (Petaluma Avenue Homes) and seniors (Silver Sage), as well as families and singles all over this country (and canada, and australia, denmark, england, etc) For a really thorough breakdown of cohousing, and some stellar examples check out Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities by Katie McCamant and Charles Durrett.

  • 11.20.2011 at 00:59

    thanks for this post. might i add that as architects, we can not only offer alternative models, but also direct actions?

    numerous groups around the us have started researching publicly owned public spaces--the result of that data collection feeds directly into possible avenues for occupy action [including #whOWNSpace, whose page links to this very essay! http://nyc.thepublicschool.org/class/3826]

    discourse on the topic has been addressed prior to the occupation [http://occupyeverything.org/] and after it, by a few conferences and calls for papers. it is important here to negotiate the line between critical discourse and profiting from a 'trend' of some sort--sadly some projects fall in the later group but hopefully some have successfully avoided it.

    i agree models are important--and hope architecture studios take note, and conceive of thoughtful ways to frame the problem without resourcing to indulgent beautifully rendered formal excesses--it is so easy to imagine uncritical utopias.

  • 12.09.2011 at 17:38

    To imagine utopias without an analysis or understanding of the forces likely to generate or oppose those utopias seems likely to end up in the endless formalisms that seem to typify the genre. Yet, a design education - particularly in its current academy-based incarnation - with its emphasis on multi-disciplinary thinking beyond the strict boundaries of physical sites, offers a way out. If contemporary architectural design can largely be seen as acknowledgement and the subsequent interplay of what may be contradictory forces - be they social, cultural, political, technical, financial, aesthetic, etc - then the various schools of thought which differ largely in terms of the foregrounding and resolution (or non-resolution) of those particular forces offer ways to think politics in general. Politics, too, is the interplay of sometimes irreconcilable and contradictory forces, and, just as in architecture, a smooth reconciliation where all sides are appeased isn't usually possible. In other words, designers, if they apply to politics the thinking that they regularly employ in their professional endeavors, can make connections and trace force vectors in ways that sociologists and political scientists can't. It then seems to me that the next step is to arrive at some sort of analysis and understanding of our current situation; only then would the designing of alternate worlds - which should, I think, always be in conjunction with other social actors sharing similar goals - make sense.

  • 12.14.2011 at 23:36

    The idea of infrastructure in a public meeting place seems a bit out there for me to understand. Architectural these spaces were designed to act as places of community but no thought was really taken in regard to someone dwelling in them permanently. For permanent infrastructure to exist in these places would be counter intuitive. The rate of homeless people dwelling there as ‘permanent residents’ would increase the poor sanitary conditions discussed above, creating a breeding ground for increased physical health concerns as well as social problems of laziness and counter-productivity. It would act as a homeless shelter and the former programmatic require of the space as a meeting and gathering place for the community would be destroyed; unless the city sees a homeless shelter in public space to be a positive. The positive urban aspect of a place like Liberty Plaza would be downgraded to nothing.
    The need for temporary structure is an idea to be considered. With the current “Occupy Wall Street” movement making its way around the country issues of shelter are very important and should be addressed by officials. The use of shelters used in emergency situations and natural disasters are something that might be plausible for temporary usage. Temporarily allowing the public space to be transformed into a place for social and political movements to take place is a great idea and would increase our citizen’s ability to response to political agenda. The architect is not likely to consider any public site they design as a possible place of radical movements. Permanent infrastructure of long term shelter – in my eyes as architecture student – at the urban level is not an idea that should be developed further.
    The spaces are serving purpose as places of meeting for the occupy Wall Street participants, and that is awesome, but none of these people will be there forever.

  • 12.15.2011 at 02:34

    We are all aware that public housing has been an issue for a great amount of time in many parts of the country, so to analyze this phenomenon is of great help to not only architects, but public housing officials, real estate agencies, urban planners, and many more directly affected by its consequences. However, I concur that analyzing the forces that cause the issues related to public housing is a more appropriate first step. Performing accurate diagnostic work is an effective process to leading to possible outcomes, emphasis on possible solutions and not perfect ones, which was stated in the article. In addition, creating these urbanist places of affordable occupancy is too complex of an issue for just architecture alone to solve. I have noticed in my design studios in school that more and more architecture students are developing these valorizing forms in their design, but decreasing in understanding of how it performs. I am not afraid to state that I have been victim to this as well. Understanding the essentials of designing affordable public housing is about integrating interdisciplinary approaches to design. More and more firms today are introducing diversity in their educational backgrounds, starting with architecture, and proceeding with such knowledge like sociology, which understands how people react and adapt to spaces. Others focus on real estate, what the value is in a property and how that value is affected to its location. Included in the mix are urban planners as well, by developing strategic plans to emphasize where the value in a neighborhood is, and how the location of a new public housing project could affect present and future conditions of a neighborhood. All in all, the approach of public housing in urban areas is best suited for a multitude of educated professionals that together can develop possible solutions. Architecture can only extend its helping hand so far.

  • 12.15.2011 at 14:53

    I don’t believe that the concept of infrastructure to support a public meeting place is too far out there to be considered architecturally relevant. But I do agree that temporary dwellings utilized in permanent situations fail to meet basic qualities which permanent dwellings are required to meet. Additionally, it these temporary dwellings are miss-using a space that was originally intended to be a public space. The act of inhabiting for longer periods of time result in the exertion of control and ownership, the public plaza is a public square, not one to be owned.
    However, looking past this minor issue, we see a more important issue which the Occupy Wall Street movement has brought greater attention to. As stated in the article, too often do architect professionals and students design for the institutionalized 1 % and neglect the greater 99% and subject them to the standards of the 1%. There is a giant market for dwellings and infrastructure that support the 99%. As architects and designers we must really challenge the status quo.
    As a current architecture student, I am seeing this profession changing right before my very eyes. In addition to the typical firm environment that so many students seek upon graduation, there are non-traditional or alternative ways to utilize my knowledge and talents gained from my architectural education. I see the issues and challenges posed by the Occupy Wall Street movement as a window of opportunity for many young forward thinking architects. With the economy and job markets becoming more difficult, I believe finding alternatives to traditional architecture practice will begin to address important issues like those brought to our attention by the Occupy movements.

  • 12.15.2011 at 16:49

    Any time there is an issue of organization, planning, and ordering chaos the architect’s role becomes drastically apparent. These settlements are shining a light on issues that have been going on for many years. It is time, especially for young, emerging architects, to engage in this dilemma of housing, public space, and what the current needs of our civilization are. Architecture is frequently associated with trophy buildings and high-dollar projects. I believe firmly that the time for those types of projects is swiftly being swept away by the pressing need for people to have homes. This problem will not go away until we make a conscious decision as designers, architects, planners, and engineers to rectify the issue.
    This transformation into publically owned public space is quite beautiful and much needed. As people begin to understand the current state of things and begin to awaken and respond, public infrastructure will take on a new meaning and new requirements. What we are experiencing is a shift, not in what public space is used for, but what public space means. With this emerging need architects will have a pivotal role in facilitating this need of public spaces, be it for living, gathering, etc. The Occupy settlements are a glimpse of people gathering around a cause and expressing their right to gather and be heard. Accompanying these gatherings are many more people feeling that they are not alone in experiencing these injustices. Resulting in a new phenomenon of people wanting to be together, feed off of each other, and join forces in order to change the things that, individually, we have sat aside and watched. Architecture can be many things, but it is most definitely a response to the needs of the people. Right now the people are expressing what they need in public spaces, it is our job to fulfill that need.

  • 01.10.2012 at 16:19

    This is a heck of a relevant article, and I'm not sure whether the historical relevance of the topic was considered when writing it.

    Wall Street once roughly followed an actual earthen wall which was built as a barrier to hold back the encroaching English settlers and native Americans when New York was still New Amsterdam, and under Dutch control.

    The Wall Street we know today could be scene as an equally important wall, albeit a symbolic one, which strengthens and reinforces the separation between the "1%" and the other "99%." A wall which facilitates and strengthens the divides between the excesses of the haves, and the needs and deficiencies of the have-nots.

    In this sense, the huge buildings that line the streets -- the banks, financial institutions and trading companies -- could be seen as the towers, turrets and keeps within a castle wall, architectural appendages meant to protect the royal aristocracy that lives within it.

    In medieval times, if peasants and commoners felt their lords, barons and kings weren't providing for them, or worse, taking their livelihood out from underneath them, they would sometimes rise up and try to take the castle. Sometimes they'd be successful but in most cases such uprisings failed.

    Following this comparison it seems quite appropriate that, at a time when American commoners are losing their homes and jobs at an alarming rate while the top 1% lives off of their toils, the masses are now storming the castles of the rich barons who they perceive as holding them down and taking their livelihoods from them.

    Not taking sides -- just making an observation of the underlying metaphor of the architecture here. Thanks!