Tuesday, 7 December 2010

UCL Occupation visit


This blog has been rather silent of late, in what is turning out to be one of the most 'interesting' periods I can certainly remember. It's so strange, as I know that if I were still a student I'd be getting fully stuck in, but I've been left sat at desks, watching the protests as they unfold on the news and on twitter, wishing that I could be counted amongst the bodies.

So on Friday after 'the day job' I finally went down to the UCL occupation, in the company of Owen and Will and Joel, to see what was going on. Through the quad, the first thing that you notice is the chalk on the walls: in this case it was the old 'the point is to change it', which to be honest rather set the tone for some romanticised-quasi '68 nonsense. Once inside the building we were shocked to see that there was a soiree underway mere metres from the occupation, filled with champagne quaffing funders, seemingly completely unaware of what was going on a couple of doors down.

Past a security guard hanging around nonchalantly in a yellow jacket, up a few stairs, and past a table of people in their early twenties, opening a bag full of beers. Then pass through a pair of doors, and any notion that this is a rag-tag bunch of bourgeois hipsters, acting out while still at Uni is dispelled. There's about 50-100 people sitting around in a circle in front of a large projection on the wall of the agenda for a meeting. There's another 50 or so people milling around the periphery. One chap is trying to push the agenda along, while a young woman to his side is constantly inking a flipchart with points being made. There are laptops everywhere - some are twittering away, others -you imagine- are liaising with one of the many, many other occupations going on at the moment. The crowd are mixed more or less equally between the sexes, although the room is almost homogenously white. When people speak up they are mostly English and middle class - this is not an equivalent social group to that seen at the protests out on the streets in the last few weeks, although it's probably fair to say that more or less everyone in the room had been out there at the protests too.

The meeting is orderly - when people agree they shake their hands in the air, which I was told is something that you could see at the climate camp last year. The air is dedicated, but not necessarily professional, which may well be deliberate. It's certainly democratic, the chairperson merely trying to let as many people be heard while also moving everything forwards. Frequently, at the end of a discussion, someone will stand up and identify themself as the person to speak to afterwards if the point needs further discussion. It's very well organised, with people performing roles such as PR liaison and so on. You could easily run a business in this fashion, for what it's worth.

The meeting is adjourned, and a lot of people move off, but there are still around 100 people around, some off at the sides, and some bringing chairs up to the table. I had arrived thinking that I would just be hanging around, getting a look and then listening to Owen speak, but I suddenly find myself sitting behind the table, having to think up an impromptu talk myself.

Owen discusses 'Student Architecture', the latest ugly property bubble to get underway. Many luxury housing projects shelved when the recession hit are now returning as student flats, in which parents of foreign students are fleeced for up to £1000 a month for rooms that are yet smaller than the yuppiedromes that the developers no longer have the confidence to build. Owen rightly points out that companies like UNITE are among the most rotten and horrible developers in the construction industry, inflicting cheap and shitty buildings onto our cities that only a moron wouldn't recognise as repeating all the worst mistakes of the 1960s housing. It's truly shocking, and yet it just keeps on going.

I quickly try to discuss the uses and abuses of 'radical theory' in architecture over the last 50 years. Inspired by my reading an article about the occupation where architecture students said that they were inspired by the radical theories of Bernard Tschumi and Colin Fournier, I ramble somewhat, but try to get across the idea that if you are a clever architecture student who wants to read political theory that deals with space, don't go looking for it in the writings of architects. I prattle on about how because of the hermetic culture of architectural academia, and because of architects self-appointed renaissance man arrogance, as well as the futile nature of architecture practice in general, architect's theory often ends up as an awkward cloak that envelops all kinds of indulgences in its arcane misused terminology. I try to put across the point that theory has become a method of furthering one's career by doing a few years of academia, with radical theory aestheticised to the point that it can no longer be used as actual critique, and rather just adds a frisson of danger and exclusivity to one's formalism. I also mumble something about reading Lefebvre or Benjamin, but then I would say that, wouldn't I? My talk drifts off into silence, lacking any conclusion.

Will comes up next and discusses the privatisation of public space, and how one can read the subtle hints of it. He utters a great sequence about how classical architecture was intended to instil deference in its relationship with its public, and how modernism - especially post-Corbusian modernism - attempted to break down architecture to a more egalitarian form-human relationship, but then ended up being attacked for the supposed 'inhumanity' of those very forms. Now we have exclusivity expressed mainly through commercial space, seeing as genuinely non-shopping related public spaces are fewer and further between. And of course, this is accompanied by an insidious and worrying privatisation of all public space.

What was most heartening however; was that after the talks a discussion ensues for what I was told later was almost two hours. There are about forty of us, and we have a very interesting exchange of ideas. A few students want to discuss the occupation as a model for 'new space'. I think, yes, of course, it can be seen as an experiment in communal living, and lots can be learned, but at the same time there has been no real shortage of short term small scale experiments of this sort over the last 100 years. One student puts it well when she points out that they cannot say that what they are doing 'works', when they know that they are only likely to be there for a week more at most before being thrown out. I agree with her, in that occupation can only exist as an antagonistic bubble within a hostile wider environment. Owen points out that there were larger experiments with communal living in the early Soviet era - the Narkomfin for instance, and that they have a lot in common with post-war housing, as stepping stones to collectivity.

Another line of criticism is that the speakers have been too negative, offering only critique, and that there is a fertile world of community architectures and so on that need to be addressed and understood. Jeremy Till is mentioned. There is broad agreement from the panel, but also concern that again, the economics of scale have to be considered - I for one am very dubious that isolated examples can spread to become common practice without being adopted by some agency that has huge amounts of capital at its disposal - i.e. the State. Owen discusses Ralph Erskine's Byker Wall housing estate in positive terms.

There are also discussions of the state of architectural education, including the suggestion that the 1 student 1 project final year tradition is well overdue being abandoned as an inappropriate and unrealistic method. There is also a fair amount of 'what is to be done'?

Afterwards there is a performance by Slade students who are in occupation next door. At this point it becomes a bit too hipster-private-view for my liking, but then the occupiers have been working very very hard and deserve some relief, and some of the sketches performed are very funny. We are kindly supplied with a glass of wine, and a number of further conversations continue afterwards.

So… what? I was incredibly heartened by the occupation, but I am also fearful. The State is, of course, powerful, and obviously doesn't plan to stand for this kind of thing. But on the other hand, our dear leaders are fucking lightweights, with a background in PR and no real history of struggle. They hardly have a mandate, and even before any of their plans have begun they are facing massive protests, and the looming prospect of a g****** s*****. Thursday the 9th is coming up, and to be honest the government is going to win their vote. But it'll be an ugly win, one which only goes to show how utterly weak they actually are. The big question is how the heat of these occupations and protests will be kept up between now and March when the unions finally decide to get fully involved.

All in all the occupiers are very serious, resourceful and committed, and I wish them all the best, along with all the myriad other occupations, instant protests and actions.

And I should add that Aaron Porter is an absolute disgrace. It is in times like these that you see who is genuinely capable of empathy and strategy, and who is only concerned with their own well-trodden miserable career path. Scumbag.

My Christmas wish is that the students, the workers and the youth find their common ground and bring this zombie government down. Please Santa?

1 comment:

Phoenicia said...

Great post. How lucky we are to live in such interesting times!