Hailey’s book surveys the history and the symbolism of camps, from recreational camping to refugee and displaced-persons camps. The visual power of the occupied McPherson Square recalls the childhood emotional associations of backyard camping as much as the insecurity and fear associated with the blue tarps that became ubiquitous after Hurricane Katrina. It is also a relatively rare American encounter with squatting, a phenomenon that has defined, energized and irritated some of Europe’s most creative cities, including Berlin. While to some the camp may look like a pragmatic solution to a basic problem — how to shelter a group that seeks impact by drawing out over time a small protest, rather than organizing a massive, one-day march on the Mall — it’s also a study in self-expression.
“There is a self-consciousness to camping,” says Hailey. “It is a truly applied aesthetics.”
The Occupy D.C. movement is transforming McPherson Square into an urban hub.
Explore Occupy D.C. up close
That self-expression makes McPherson Square a dynamic study in improvisation and adaptation. Signage, made mostly with recycled cardboard and pizza boxes, is everywhere, creating a cacophony of anti-capitalist messages that resists the bullet-point thinking of commercial and organizational culture. Practical adaptations to living outdoors take on artistic resonance. To make it easier to fill water jugs, someone has created an elegant system of two bamboo sluices that channel water from a drinking fountain. No one would take credit for this small “hack” of standard urban furniture. But that refusal of authorship is also part of the Occupy value system.
The complexity of the movement’s motivations and goals is also seen in its paradoxically conservative use of space. Without creating formal rules, the occupiers have essentially “zoned” the park into residential and public spaces. In the northwest corner, tents for a kitchen, an information booth and a planned falafel shop are kept separate from the living areas. A large field in the southwest quadrant has been left open for public meetings and sport and to accommodate a brace of ducks that are also resident in the park.
“After that, it’s open to all,” said Anthony Sluder, when asked if anyone can pitch a tent anywhere. Sluder, who was manning the information tent, said newcomers were welcome to “any space your neighbors don’t care about.”
Imagining a city on the fly
The idea that people, working through consensus, can solve basic problems such as how to regulate public space, security and infrastructure is one of the most powerful spurs to current architectural thinking. Younger architects and planners are studying how people actually use space rather than adopting top-down design ideas fashioned by governments or urban theorists. A new sense of post-Utopian architecture is replacing older, modernist efforts to impose ideal order on the intractable city. After analyzing how people in Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela, or shanty town, respond to their harsh urban environment, the architects at Atelier UM+D (based in southern Brazil) proposed designs for an innovative skyscraper that would blur the lines between public and private space, organize residents around basic needs such as food and medical care, and allow for far greater adaptability than most carefully programmed urban buildings.