12.03.2011

Temporary Urbanism

It seems, warranted or no, that Occupy Wall Street's tenure at Zuccotti Park has come to an end.  While their aims were diffuse, and poorly defined, the protesters did succeed in changing the course of the national conversation about inequality in America.  Some dismissed them as a joke.  Others called them terrorists.  Debate aside, I think they served as a long-overdue counterpoint to John Boehner's job creator meme, which claims that there is an ongoing capital strike by financiers.  This rumor remains pernicious even after being repeatedly factually disemboweled.  


Politics aside, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Occupy movement is their chosen mode of protest -- claiming public space and living on it until demands, whatever they may be, are met.  This occupation strategy has at least one historic precedent in the Bonus Army, which didn't end well for either side.  The idea of a tent city, with its lending library, kitchen, and media center, got me thinking about temporary urbanism.  Tent cities have historically been associated with refugee camps or natural disasters.  Tent cities set up on purpose have usually been the seeds of a new city, built around an economic boom like a gold rush or oil discovery.  Occupy has inhabited a new philosophical space, built around a purposeful impermanence, neither building the foundations of a future community nor reacting to a physical disaster.  Rather, it is responding to a political crisis, and is built around the tenuous bonds of the internet, rooted as firmly in the ether as it is in reality.  


While the New York Occupy movement has been cut off at the knees, it continues on in many other cities, among them Boston, Denver, and L.A.  As winter descends, the inhabitation strategy looks increasingly difficult.  However, some politically motivated designers have been working on solutions to the weather.  Taking the Tiny House idea to a whole new level, these folks have created some small structures that use a combination of insulation, small volume, and heat-reflective surfaces to create spaces fueled only by body heat.  By staying on wheels and within a certain footprint, they avoid any zoning issues because they aren't classified as actual buildings.  


Sage Radachowsky's Occupy Boston shelter.  Image courtesy of RelaxShacks.  



This idea, of tiny structures on impermanent foundations has been tried before.  In 2006, DesignBoom hosted a competition for new homeless housing that would provide mobility, security, and shelter.  While the winning entry was rather uninventive, it addressed the basic needs of lockable storage, a dry place to sleep, and space to collect scrap metal as a source of income.  This idea is not new -- Lester Walker drew a rolling homeless shelter in his 1987 book Tiny, Tiny Houses.  A better tent is not a solution to the long-term, chronic issues of poverty and homelessness; however, compact, warm, mobile shelter at least gives people a sense of independence and self-determination while removing the threat of freezing to death from their daily life.  


Elsewhere, long and short-term encampments have sprung up all across America.  Woodstock kicked off a tradition of festival camping, from Bonnaroo to Burning Man.  Out in California, a community of misfits, dropouts, and retirees have colonized an abandoned military base called Slab City, with sometimes tragic results.  The Mad Housers have been working in Atlanta, taking direct action to house the homeless where they live.  A community has sprung up in the system of flood and drainage tunnels under the streets of Las Vegas.  Similarly, underground dwellers, derogatorily referred to as "Mole People", have lived in abandoned or incomplete subway tunnels in New York.




Ironically, and unfortunately, the political aims of the Occupy movement have come into conflict with the social realities of some of the Occupy sites, as these temporary campers intersect with the permanent residents of the streets.  The Story, a podcast from North Carolina public radio that I listen to, recently aired an episode about Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland.  The Oakland segment includes some description of how the camp had been infiltrated by homeless people and "druggies" who were undermining the political goals and image of the "legitimate" protestors.  This struggle is typical of the fractured coalition that makes up the far left, as many competing interest groups -- environmentalists, socialists, anti-war protestors, human rights activists, etc. -- attempt to make a coherent strategy.  On the right, the Tea Party has been far more successful at ideological consistency, partly because of their corporate funding.   I just hope that the political role of the Occupiers doesn't undermine or overshadow the plight of the voiceless occupiers that have lived in our streets for years.


It seems that Occupy has touched a cultural nerve deeper than the direct issues it claims to address.  In some ways, it is reverting to a more elemental way of living, acknowledging the impossibility of establishing permanence.  An article at Design Observer succinctly summarizes the role of architecture in the Occupy movement, and our responsibility to the world as designers.  To quote from the that article, the central tenet of the protestors, and perhaps us as designers, is the simple idea that another world is possible.


Going forward, this field of micro-architecture seems to be exploding in popularity, piercing the public consciousness in outlets as big as the New York Times.  I co-habit in about 400 square feet.  It's tight, but we make it work.  I wonder if I could survive on half that space?  Could we all?  Should we?  Time to build a tiny house and find out . . .



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