Overprogrammed CitiesPosted: April 26, 2012
Occupy Wall Street, as most people understood it, ended late last fall when protesters cleared out of Zucotti Park. Throughout the physical occupation, the media and Internet had scrutinized OWS excessively but failed to converge on a meaningful consensus about what the movement meant and whether it succeeded or failed. The most common critique of the protesters, that they didn’t know what they wanted, was not exactly wrong but not quite right either. As Dmitry Orlov has written, “The occupiers demonstrated quite forcefully that they exist, and that they stand apart. It was not a political revolt, but an ontological one: ‘we are not you.’ Thus, making specific demands would have been superfluous.” In this sense, OWS was more successful than not. The medium was the message, to borrow the most famous McLuhanism.
Photo via NYTimes
A huge part of Occupy Wall Street’s significance, in other words, was its reclamation of urban public space for an unprogrammed purpose. If the medium was the message, that medium was Zucotti Park itself, including the tent city that arose spontaneously and filled the square for months. This is surely a large part of the movement’s incredible resonance—that something so vital could happen in places that are usually so lifeless. OWS thus pointed to the problem of public space in major American cities like New York: We may have enough of it, and it may be clean and well-maintained, but we often have no idea how to use it creatively (or maybe we know but fear breaking a rule). Zucotti Park was a long-overdue retort to Robert Venturi’s cynical pronouncement about public space in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which practically begs to be proven wrong: “The piazza, in fact, is ‘un-American.’ Americans feel uncomfortable sitting in a square: they should be working at the office or home with the family looking at television.’” He exaggerates, but his polemic serves a purpose. Walk through any city parks during lunchtime on a weekday, and you’ll witness too much nervous fast eating by people who need to return to work.
Public space—and cities in general—have become overprogrammed. Programming is a core feature of late capitalism and is a cousin of what some call Disneyfication. A program for an environment, whether a park, an office building, or a mall, is the menu of activities that the space is designed to facilitate. The program can be rigid or flexible, but it generally guides the users of a space toward preferred behaviors, however gently. In a mall, the preferred behavior is consumption, an action that certain urban districts are now planned to encourage as well. These environments are not coercive but people tend to internalize the program and act the way they’re supposed to, because doing so is easier and makes the most sense.
Programmed public space can be wonderful, but cities need unprogrammed space too. The High Line—a recent megasuccess in New York’s park system—is as beautiful as anything in the city but highly programmed, dictating constant linear movement and a narrow range of acceptable activities. If you don’t believe me, go try to play ultimate frisbee on the High Line this weekend. Furthermore, this is a microcosm of the larger city. Enjoy your pleasant surroundings, shop, get brunch, but don’t do anything too unusual. Americans love European cities because you go drink beer on a bridge and meet interesting strangers hanging out there. No one anticipated those many specific uses when designing the bridge, a simple example of unprogrammed space and an antidote to the Disneyfication that can sap the life from otherwise great cities.
Occupy Wall Street transformed Zucotti Park, a programmed public space for well-behaved corporate lunch-eaters, into something loud, vibrant, and weird. By effecting this transformation, its participants delivered a message more compelling than any ideological soundbite and made a nondescript rectangle into a place where everyone wanted to be. In a city increasingly characterized by consumption, that is as radical as anything else the protesters might have done.