Sites of contestation

sites of contestation

The following article is a collaboration I recently wrote with Diana Cristóbal, MsAAD Columbia Graduate and Adjunt Assistant Professor at the same school, taking as a base the idea explained in the article “The Shared Space” and developing further to analyze the relationship between social and architectural implications of the citizen’s protests around the globe:

Within the last years, citizens’ movements demanding a change in the political system have been increasingly relevant in different countries at different times: the Arab Spring in Egypt, the Indignados movement in Spain, Occupy Wall Street in the United States…

Taking a first look to both parts of the conflict through an architectural filter is easy to point out that architecture defines and celebrates the physical space of the so-called system: Banks, Companies, and Governmental Institutions are represented not only through an architectural typology but through a very specific aesthetic and materialization. This representational strength is difficult to find in the case of the citizens’ movements. Its lack of formalization in their spatial organization is originated because of the immediacy and diversity that usually defines those kinds of movements, based on tools as internet, social networks and instant messaging. However, we would claim that architecture still plays a very important role in the generation and multiplication of public protests and urban enactments.

Tahrir Square in Cairo, Sol in Madrid or ZuccottiPark in New York have become formal containers of the citizens’ claims. They embody an area of the city that belongs to them, a physical space where debates, negotiations, conflicts and power struggles within a society are played out. But what characteristics define those “sites of contestations” in contemporary societies? Has the physical definition of those urban spaces any influence in the emergence of those struggles between a state and its people?

There are certain representational, material, infrastructural and organizational strategies that define, in fact, those urban spaces in relation to the city. In the case of Tahrir Square, for example, is surprising the fact that it is a large and busy traffic junction. In opposition to what “traditional European urbanism” would expect, we are not facing a clearly defined urban space but an ambiguous and hectic site. A great number of buses and taxis make the square a key part of their services.

Besides, it’s underground garage and its subway station (Sadat is the main subway stop in the city, since it joints the only two Cairo subway lines), reinforce its infrastructural character. In addition to it being a public transport hub it houses numerous important old and modern structures. The Egyptian Museum, the National Democratic Party-NDP headquarters building, the Headquarters of the Arab League building, the Nile Hotel, Kasr El Dobara Evangelical Church and the downtown campus of the American University in Cairo, amongst others, are the buildings that represent and qualify the square.

Of course, history had also an important role in the symbolic meaning of this place. Tahrir Square witnessed a series of past events and changes of regimes throughout the history of the country that are physically represented through the statue of Sheikh Omar Makram, nationalist hero celebrated for his resistance against Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, located in the middle of the square.

Sol, in Madrid, is an example of a medieval European square, built in the 15th Century, which clearly defines the public space by the façades of the surrounding buildings. Its complete name is Puerta del Sol (Sun’s door) because it was one the entries to the city in medieval times, becoming over the centuries a meeting spot for commercial and political activities.

Nowadays this place is an important node within the city’s subway network. Under the square lies a public transport hub served by three Metro lines and its buildings house the office of the President of the city, and the head of the regional government of the Autonomous Community of Madrid. Symbolism is also a very strong factor of the square, since it is the zero kilometer of the road network for the entire country, and a traditional place of reunion where thousands of people gather every 31st of December to celebrate the end of the year.

If we take a look to Zucotti Park, we find a square of much recent creation, 1968, and a totally different typology, the “privately owned public space” (POPS) very uncommon in Europe and widely extended in the United States. In this case, what we call public space cannot be truly public in the sense of universally available to all, since is owned by the company Brookfield properties.

What makes it then a space sensitive to become a site of contestation? It could be argued that, again, symbolism and accessibility are key to the issue. This site is located in the heart of the financial district of the city (in a place also very damaged by the September 11 attacks) and it is very well connected to the subway network. However, it is the following distinctive characteristic what made it possible to become a settlement; the fact that, after an agreement made in its inception, it is open 24 hours a day. It might seem surprising, but this is one of the only spaces of its kind within the city of New York that are open during the night, and hence, transforms it in a square that is truly open for occupation.

Having analyzed those three important examples, would it be possible to determine what makes a space a site of contestation?

Typologically the three case studies are very different from each other. From a traffic junction to very well delimited urban plazas, the morphology of the space is not directly related to its capacity of contestation. Why then Puerta del Sol and not Plaza Mayor? Why Zucotti and not Bryant Park? Why not the High Line? We would like to highlight, in first place, the strong infrastructural capacity of all those spaces in terms of accessibility and location within the city; and secondly, its size. In the contemporary society of spectacle, where images are more powerful than words, the pictures of those sites when being occupied have a very strong capacity to mobilize people. Sites of contestation, hence, need to be big in order to be able to capture in a still image the relevance of the social struggle. Size matters, and the power of the image too.

Likewise, the symbolic character of the buildings around them becomes equally essential. The strength of a site of contestation grows exponentially when a picture captures thousands of people protesting in front of the building that represents the subject of the protest.

What is the role of the Architect towards those spaces? We should be aware that designing an open space doesn’t instantly make it a public space or a site of contestation, it’s our duty to analyze the characteristics of each space and the different potential ways in which generate social struggle. Only through this awareness will architecture be able to give an answer to citizens´ struggles and become a committed part of them.

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