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Street Protest Architecture - Dissent Space in Australia

Street protests appear suddenly in prominent public places - their effect is to stand out in public, in dramatic and symbolic contrast to a context. In their conspicuousness, they enliven and animate the city as a form of public theatre.
Gregory Cowan

Issue #65, January 2004

Street protests appear suddenly in prominent public places — their effect is to stand out in public, in dramatic and symbolic contrast to a context. In their conspicuousness, they enliven and animate the city as a form of public theatre. Berthold Brecht developed the idea of 'city as theatre' in his constructivist creative productions in modern Germany, and Frankfurt School thinkers Benjamin and Adorno theorised its modernity. In such theatre-cities, protest structures surprise and challenge both governments and citizens, actively engaging them in public space as players in the 'political' affairs of the city and state. These constructions are more than mere physical phenomena, endowed with ideas and motivations on a larger scale than the city. They represent more than buildings, and however unsettling, they form a necessary part of the civic architecture. Protest structures help to bring human and domestic elements into public and political life. Architecture in western traditions connotes constructions of authority and significance owing to its definition of the Greek origin of arche tekton, original or authoritative making. As such, protest structures are frequently misunderstood as the antithesis of architecture, but on the contrary, their architectural role in democratic cities is significant.

This article suggests that conflicts and encounters between the ancient continent of Australia and its more recent Western/global architecture and culture are indicative of a process which gives rise to an architecture of protest. Architecture has often been regarded as an edification of ideas, but importantly, it is also used experimentally. In the avant-garde traditions of art, the case of experimental protest constructions is of interest because it suggests where our unsettled society may be going, rather than only where it has been. In the unsettled world today, many Australians are looking for a direction. Protest architecture is not so much driven by the construction of materials and shelter as it is by the relations and tectonics of people and ideas. In the context of cultures of social debate and dissent mediated through television and the internet, street protest architecture is primordial, real, and tactile.

This article highlights a series of Australian case studies of protest constructions, from the 1970s and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra to more recent protest constructions for Sydney 2000 and Perth 2003, noting that the architecture of protest construction is ephemeral, mobile, and highly collaborative. The essay traces from states of invasion to illegal occupation, to federation, world games, and global protest. A new movement of convergence activism is a mode of organising and building a movement that recognises the affinities and connections between land rights, environment and spatial freedom of many kinds.

The suggestion through these examples is that we appear to be dealing with an endemic Australian condition, which, however marginal, is a noteworthy model of democratic architectural process. Subverting the official and institutional state architecture, which is massive white and permanent, this architecture of counterculture is instead light, colourful and spontaneous.

. Reclaim The Streets, King Street, Perth — 31 August 2002 (photos D Narbett / Perth Indymedia, copyleft, compiled by Gregory Cowan)
Reclaim The Streets, King Street, Perth — 31 August 2002 (photos D Narbett/Perth Indymedia, copyleft, compiled by Gregory Cowan -- Perth's first Reclaim the Streets, marking and protesting Australia's non-participation in the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.)


In The Temporary Autonomous Zone (1991), the poet Hakim Bey expands the idea of uprisings — the beginnings of which are found in upsurging protest movements. An alternative term is the Latin form insurrection, a term some historians use for failed revolutions. Rather than being socially ineffective, Bey argues, these 'failed revolutions' are liberating — providing an escape from the direct conflict of the protest culture with the state, and from what he describes as the "Hegelian spiral of that 'progress' which is secretly nothing more than a vicious circle". Through uprisings, culture is liberated beyond "progress". Such protest constructions, it is argued here, are effected by an architecture that operates beyond this circle of progress; a thinking and practice that operates 'outside the square'.

Collapsible Architecture

The notion that architecture might be collapsible, tentative and ephemeral developed especially in the political climate of the 1960s. In Paris in 1968, inflatables played a key role as architecture for protest. The structures were theatrical, colourful and transportable, well suited to a new culture of mobile and global people's movements that came to a flashpoint in Paris in May 1968. The situationists' mapping and idea of the city as human centred, erotic space influenced the farthest reaches of the newly mediated Western world.

The notion of architecture with minimal means was well known in indigenous Australia. The range of applications of architectural design extended to tombs, hunting hides, animal traps and landscape enhancements from windbreaks to firestick farming. Materials were sustainable and in many cases regenerated between use because of the passive and mobile-extensive use of resources.

Urban public space was part of a culture new to Australia with the invasion. Roads streets and market squares were developed ancillary to private space, while places of worship and government institutions held great importance as civic spaces in the nineteenth century. As Peter Murphy observed in Civic Justice: from Greek Antiquity to the Modern World (2001) concerning the new world in the context of North America, Protestant colonial communities were motivated by the idea of a divine obligation to settle a new homeland.

In Australia this obligation to settle was ironically reversed by the Aboriginal Land Rights movement. The cooption of the ephemeral, portable, collapsible architecture, with the example of the beach umbrella and the camp tent in the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy 1972 was a brilliant strategic use of what had become leisure icons in middle class Australian culture. These elements were used as much in their strategic placement on the land as they are inherently symbolic. The ambiguous forecourt space in front of 'Provisional' Parliament House was an English lawn. The neatly mowed green lawn, so environmentally foreign, yet so colonially familiar to Australia suggests the natural environment tamed and controlled, in the same way that the national emblem features the kangaroo and emu astride the crest. In the insignia of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, two kangaroos are featured for symmetry, but they also wear collars — suggesting the loss of freedom of the wildlife which tragically accompanies the operation of civilising the wilderness.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy appeared at Federal Parliament, symbolically reclaiming land for Aborigines, a dramatic architectural symbol of the need for reconciliation. With the social justice activism, and the global perspective increasingly afforded to Australians in the 1960s, the tent embassy provided an architecture that allowed a group of Aboriginal land rights activists to represent a nascent Aboriginal nation. It was formed to represent a downtrodden and decimated group of people, who were being treated as foreigners in their own country. For the first time, a national Aboriginal flag was flown. The flag may be regarded in itself as an act of reconciliation-of a Western world symbolism of national flags, combined with the new political reality of federal Aboriginal nationhood. The mobile, temporary, and collaborative construction and maintenance of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy represents the advent of a rich architecture of land rights activism. Activists for Aboriginal land rights are deploying the architectural structure and symbol of the tent to reclaim the freedom to dwell nomadically across the Australian continent.

Reconciliation Place and Protest Space

The Government of the time reacted quickly to pass new legislation to prevent camping in public space in Canberra, allowing the Government to evict the peaceful protesters. However, the Tent Embassy was later restored and is now an enduring landmark in Canberra. Despite the National Heritage listing of the Embassy, its maintenance is an ongoing issue, and the most recent controversy surrounds the institutionalisation of Reconciliation Place as a permanent monument which some fear is intended to usurp the Embassy. In doing so, the Australian Government fails to recognise, accept and respect the values and life pattern embodied by the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. The Gungalidda Elder Wadjularbinna, a custodian of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, has condemned the National Capital Authority's plans to build Reconciliation Place in Canberra as part of "a conspiracy to undermine and eventually replace the Tent Embassy." Wadjularbinna has described the plans for a reconciliation place as a refusal "to recognise, accept, and respect our living system, which is a unique, complex and balanced system of law/lore, spirituality, religion and social organisation." Maintaining the temporary Tent Embassy is therefore critically symbolic for Australia. Its culture of democratic activism, avoiding the Western tendency for architecture to become monumental and institutionalised, suggests a significant space for reconsidering architecture in the Australian environment and articulating the contrast between "White" and indigenous cultures.

The encounter continues between the Aboriginal Tent Embassy activists and the 'state' — the Australian Capital Territory authorities. Late in 2002, a sculpture was erected and removed by police. A Tent Embassy activist was arrested for reclaiming the Coat of Arms from Provisional Parliament House, arguing that indigenous permission had not been granted to use the kangaroo and emu in the Australian coat of arms. When in 2003, electrical power was cut off to the information office — one of the oldest parts of the Tent Embassy, the environment group Greenpeace supplied Photovoltaic Panels to provide adequate energy. More recently, the office was burnt in a fire and when authorities seemed about to use the opportunity to remove the structure, a safety fence was constructed and there was an altercation leading to the removal of the fence by the police when the National Capital Authority deemed it illegal.

Perth Peace Protest Embassy, March 24, 2003 — photographs and photographic collage by G. Cowan
Perth Peace Protest Embassy, March 24, 2003.
Photographs and photographic collage by G. Cowan.


Protest Architecture as a Democratic Tool

A "die-in" protest was held at the busiest intersection of Perth, Western Australia on the middle of Saturday the 22nd of February 2003, after war was declared on Iraq. In reclaiming the street intersection from the usual vehicular traffic, about ten thousand peace protestors, in the largest known gathering of its kind ever held in the city marched around the central city and to the United States Consulate and a newly established Peace Tent Embassy, opposite. The Perth Peace Tent Embassy had been established two days earlier following an immediate march on news of the attacks on Iraq without a United Nations mandate. Hundreds of citizens of the comparatively affluent community of Perth had responded to a campaign including e-mail and text-message communications to join the spontaneous protest march, only hours after the new allied bombing campaign had started.

Although Perth is known as the most isolated capital city in the world, there has been sense developing in the post September 11, 2001 era that important allegiances are being developed globally at two extremes. At the elite political level, there are national interests prosecuted by the Prime Minister internationally in the name of national security and economic growth. But at the street level, there are allegiances built by social justice communities and activist groups, coming together at meetings and rallies, supported by an enormous Internet network available to the ubiquitous middle classes. The tent embassy goes a step further, providing a memorable physical form and a noticeable physical street location to accommodate debate and dissent about what seemed a physically remote set of issues — the cooperation of the Australian leadership in invading Iraq — as the campaign developed. As the government policy and the tax expenditure flowed toward aggression, the Perth Peace Tent Embassy made a stand. It continued well into April, for over thirty days, as the official war continued, and despite the onset of some very wet weather as the local weather changed towards winter.

The Tent Embassy represents a conveniently ambiguous form of architecture: it is sometimes an information stall, a storage place, sometimes a picket, displaying signs and placards, and sometimes a place to sleep secretly. It is assembled and disassembled quickly at will, but it is makeshift and therefore invokes dismissal by the cultural mainstream as 'inferior' and 'pathetic'. The Tent Embassy phenomenon is remarkable as an architectural expression of an element of the civic community for at least three reasons: it is ephemeral, appearing and disappearing rather unpredictably, and without adherence to the restrictive long term planning protocols of local councils; it is moveable and transportable, making practicable its assembly by diverse activists in small private cars or public transport; and it is a collaborative construction to which additions and subtractions are made organically and collegially. The Tent Embassy form effectively defines a focus and a forum for public debate through the attention activists draw and provides an unmediated face to face nucleation point for building the activist collective and community.

Tent Embassies have developed in Australia especially since 1972 as an effective and useful activists' tool, owing a great deal to the Australian Heritage Commission-listed Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. Like the architectural strategies of the Archigram and the Utopie Group in May 1968 impressed the European and global avante garde architectural scene, the tent protest at provisional parliament sowed the seeds of a new way of thinking about architecture, to humorously subvert institutions and bureaucracy. Global activist groups such as Reclaim the Streets, Critical Mass, and Space Hijackers continue this idea, with ideas emanating from their ideological and activist centres through networks of virtual solidarity to the corners of the globe.

The notion of justice both locally and globally is of interest to a large number of citizens in the modern city, despite the apparent lack of a place for these issues to be aired, according to Peter Murphy. Murphy holds that the American republic is founded on a compromise between resistance to authority and civic rituals of justice. As the first great republic to disavow the city, the lack of the classical city's equilibrium of contending forces has enduring and tragic effects on political and social life. The humanist legacy of civic pride, proportion, symmetry, and moral beauty is reflected in the great Italian city-republic with a great influence on Europe and the New World.

Reconciling Nomadic and Sedentary Civic Architectures

The spontaneity and collapsibility of the civic protests are significant features of the protests discussed above. The humanity and humility of these structures are a poignant architectural expression of the individuals and collectives behind organising them and temporarily emplacing and inhabiting them. Like the ideological structures which have above been compared with the activist thinking of Hannah Arendt, these activist spatial occupations of the city can be seen as attempts for the New World city to reclaim the citizen's expression of the freedom of the peripatetic and peregrine in the classical city. The Greek peripatetic denotes the wandering scholar, studying and learning on the path, while the Latin peregrini were those free to wander in public places. For there to be a freedom to walk (let alone to dwell and to protest) in a public space, there must be public spaces in which to wander, and a social belief in their importance. However, in reference to this public space res publicae Murphy suggests the American republic lacked, this could be extended to Australia.

The street protests described above rely on their ephemerality, mobility and collaborative construction and maintenance for their effectiveness. The appearance of temporariness both theatricalises the Tent protest and gives it a modesty and humility. The movement of these protests allows them to be assembled and relocated with minimal equipment and unskilled erectors. (It has also been interpreted by zealous law enforcement personnel in the past as read as an invitation to dismantle structures.) The collaborative nature of the protest encampments reinforces the shared "power" of the collective of people supporting them.

Within a broadly social-justice related protest moment around the globe — a movement which is not uniquely Australian — there appears to be a culturally 'Australian' architecture developing — both political and physical — as an agency of protest occupations in public space. This model suggests a potentially valuable strategy for building the city by addressing the equilibrium of forces of the sedentary and the nomadic. It suggests there is hope for the democratic and popular use of architecture rising from communities and sustainably expressing their dreams visions, and desires.

Gregory Cowan is an educator and architect from Perth, Australia, currently teaching in London. He recently studied community development in India and is beginning a major project on urban cultures and street architecture.

Credits: Reclaim The Streets, King Street, Perth, 31 August 2002 photos Copyright ©2004 D Narbett/Perth Indymedia, compiled by Gregory Cowan
Perth Peace Protest Embassy, March 24, 2003 Photographs and photographic collage Copyright ©2004 G. Cowan

Copyright © 2004 by Gregory Cowan. All rights reserved.