In this article, I should share a strong architectural experience I encountered last Saturday. The working group at Occupy Wall Street of which I am part, Education and Empowerment, and more specifically The Nomadic University, was invited to the New School as we would be provided with a classroom for us. The President of the New School, David E. Van Zandt, actively supported the movement and encouraged students and professors of the New School to participate in various events organized by Occupy Wall Street. That is also how our working group was granted a classroom for whenever we would need it.
Notwhithstanding this generosity, people in the group including myself experienced the violent power of architecture as we rarely did before. It would seem pretty obvious to anybody that having ideas as a group of people in public space does not happen in the same way as in a classroom; however, experiencing it is another thing: I have been writing a lot about the hurtful inherent characteristics of architecture’s physicality, but I very rarely felt it violently to that extent in a somehow domestic environment. We usually gather in the public space in an open atrium often crossed by pedestrians. Having a working group meeting in that space is fundamentally expressing the openness and the generosity of the Occupy Wall Street movement. On the contrary, meeting in a classroom on the 6th floor of an academic institution brought us back to a well-known situation where knowledge is explicitly owned by one or a few people and secretly distributed to a selected audience. Architecture changes the way we think and act. “Walls have ears”: we certainly feel this way when we are in a closed environment. We self-censor and become embarrassed to waggle our fingers as a sign of approval like we do on Liberty Square.
Liberty Square and the other spaces of social movements around the world are places of production of knowledge; not an academic one that can be peremptorily declared correct or incorrect. It is, rather, the formation of a collective knowledge that allies a theoretical background with a continuous experience of the real. The space in which such an alchemy occurs is never innocent. The issue might be that those who understand that the best, are precisely the ones who produce the spaces of control (classrooms, hospitals, factories, offices, prisons).