POLITICAL MACHINES

Cell phones are political machines par excellance. This has been shown several times in recent years but nowhere better than the demonstrations against the government in Tehran over the past weeks. Twitter and instant messaging as well as texting were used to organize the resistance and also to communicate its existence to the news media around the world. Still, people had to physically put themselves on the streets of the capital, claiming its public spaces as their own. The virtual world was still subordinate to the physical one, and actual space remained the prime contested territory, as the repressive, violent responses of riot police and the Basij militia demonstrated. If that is so, then we must concede that architecture—the design of physical space—still has a role to play in human affairs, even—or especially—those having to do with politics.

 We are well acquainted with the monumental architecture of official power, the large and expensive buildings that demonstrate the wealth of private corporations, arts institutions, and stable governments. But what about the architecture of resistance to established authority? What about the architecture of rapid political change? Such architecture cannot be expensive, because those who need it are not sponsored by banks and mortgage companies. Anyway, there isn’t the time for the usual building process. Political architecture of this kind must be improvised, spontaneous.

 Politics is, at its best, a mechanism for people to change their lives for the better. This means empowering those who have been disempowered by prevailing institutions. The architects of such architecture can only provide concepts of designs for spaces enabling political change, as well as models for structures that serve as its mechanisms. However, they cannot expect that these models will be followed to the letter. Rather, they serve as inspirations and guides for those who will actually invent an architecture of change, from the materials and situation at hand, be they educated as architects or not. Better, I believe, that they are the best of educated architects, so they can bring the scope of their knowledge to bear on the task, and their instinct for the poetic in human experience.

Freespace structures (leaning, bridging, suspended) inserted temporarily into the streets of Zagreb, Croatia, during the political crisis of 1991. Serving as communications centers and personal spaces, they become active instruments—machines—of change:

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