Op-Ed: Occupy the Day After — Reclaiming Public Spaces

Zuccotti Park on Nov. 15, after the Occupy protesters were evicted. Reinhold Martin believes the removal of the protesters exposed a hidden reality in New York City -- that which makes our public space public is the fact that it is contested. Flickr/shankbone.

With the forcible evictions from sites in Oakland, Portland, Denver, New York and elsewhere in mid-November, and the violent suppression of campus protesters at U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Davis, the Occupy movement has entered a new phase in the United States, if not globally.

We might even say that the inclusivity expressed in the slogan “We are the 99 percent” has met the antagonisms that are basic to finance capital. This was particularly evident as the movement expanded into colleges and universities, and campus officials reacted by violently curtailing political speech when that speech dared even to hint at interfering with business as usual.

In such instances, the Occupy movement’s direct actions have confronted the double binds around which finance capitalism is organized. These include the double status of the university, in the United States, as both a site of enlightened learning and a financialized and corporate institution. These two identities are ultimately irreconcilable, and the critical consciousness nurtured in universities must eventually attend to the contradictions that define its own domain.

So too should architects and students of architecture interrogate the dominant premises of their education and of the field; especially since architecture is also caught in a double bind when, on the one hand, it celebrates enlightened culture and its appurtenances, like public space, while on the other it offers welcoming receptacles for capital to do its business, whether on campus or off.

A double bind is more than a simple contradiction that can be resolved by appealing to a higher logic. It is a no-win situation that, when left unacknowledged, is only resolvable through emotional or physical violence. It can only be cut or unwound. A classic double bind occurs when a child receives contradictory signals from his or her parents, or when a society overlays mutually exclusive messages one on top of the other.

A prosaic example is located just a few blocks northeast of Zuccotti Park/Liberty Plaza: Frank Gehry’s ridiculously named New York by Gehry, a luxury apartment tower designed for aspirants to 1 percent status that sits triumphantly atop a gruff, pseudo-contextual brick-faced public elementary school. Platitudes about fitting into the streetscape notwithstanding, the insultingly banal architectural treatment of the school, contrasted with the glistening tower above, repudiates in plain sight the “win-win scenario” touted by the supposed fusion of private and public interests.

So when in the early morning hours of Nov. 15, 2011, hundreds of New York City police officers in riot gear physically removed the Occupy Wall Street protestors and their equipment from Liberty Plaza, they made visible another double bind: That what we call public space is not and cannot be truly public in the sense of universally available and accessible to all; and yet, that we have every right to expect it to be so. Which is to say the eviction revealed that what makes public space public is the very fact that it is contested. This holds for all spaces legally or conventionally defined as “public,” including the now well-known category of Privately Owned Public Spaces, or POPS, of which Zuccotti Park is an example.

Continue Reading “Occupy: The Day After” at Design Observer.

Reinhold Martin is a partner at the firm Martin/Baxi Architects, and an associate professor of architecture at Columbia University. He is the author of “The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media and Public Space.”

©2023 WNET. All Rights Reserved. 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019

WNET is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Tax ID: 26-2810489