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Best of 2011 in architecture: Christopher Hawthorne

The Occupy protests and their tent-dwelling participants create a spin on the notion of portable community.

December 18, 2011|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • Tents of protesters around Los Angeles City Hall.
Tents of protesters around Los Angeles City Hall. (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

"Any camp," the artist and architectural visionary Constant Nieuwenhuys once argued, "is a form, however primitive, of a city."

There were times when 2011 seemed to be unfolding as a test of that proposition. Thanks to the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in Zuccotti Park in New York and spread quickly to Los Angeles and other cities, rising frustration over income inequality began to take on an unmistakable architectural and urban form.

Forget the blobs, boxes, starchitects and destination buildings that dominated much of the last decade. In architecture, 2011 turned out to be the Year of the Tent.

Whatever your feelings about their political merits, the Occupy gatherings represented a new chapter in the long history of the relationship between protest and civic life — and urban design — in this country. Unlike a traditional march, after all, an encampment packed with tents doesn't depend on a particular building or space to give it architectural character. It has architectural character of its own. It doesn't snake through the city; at least for a few weeks, it creates a new part of the city.

That the protesters chose sites that played right into our traditional notions of civic space and urbanism — Zuccotti in New York, City Hall in Los Angeles, Ogawa Plaza in Oakland — was at the heart of their appeal to the national media. Of course, it turned out that Zuccotti is actually a privately owned public space, one of those civic hybrids that do a persuasive imitation of a traditional civic plaza. But it was thanks to the occupation that many people learned of that fuzzy legal status.

It seems clear that the Occupy movement has more power as a critical force than a revolutionary one. It is not the same as the Arab Spring protests in its approach to the city; I'm not even sure that the two movements belong in the same essay, to say nothing of the same sentence.

From an architectural point of view, what the Occupy protests created this year was a new spin on the notion of portable community — a counterculture that can be packed and unfolded, put away or redeployed, in a matter of hours, thanks not only to flexibility of tented urbanism but also to the powers of social media and new technology.

To a large extent these features of the Occupy encampments have been chewed over already by critics and pundits on the East Coast. What hasn't been as clear is that the protests gained new layers of architectural symbolism when they arrived in Los Angeles.

In New York much of the visual power of the Occupy tents was in their stark contrast to the imposing neoclassical monumentality of Wall Street architecture. In L.A., where the Occupy village began filling with tents at the beginning of October and was finally cleared by the LAPD on Nov. 30, that sense of contrast melted away.

In fact, as Charlie Hailey points out in his 2009 book "Camps: A Guide to 21st Century Space" — a generally overlooked book, by the way, that is looking more prescient by the month — Southern California architecture has long blurred the line between tent and building and in the process played up its own sense of impermanence and exposure to the elements.

Rudolph Schindler conceived of his own house on Kings Road as a camp, albeit a self-consciously Modernist one. Albert Frey's provocatively cheap-looking work often skirted the line between temporary and fixed. So did many of Frank Gehry's early projects.

And given L.A.'s tendency to bulldoze its architectural history — not to mention the apocalyptic qualities of its earthquakes, wildfires and wind storms — maybe you could argue that we are all just camping here in any case.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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