To passersby, it is a jumble of tents and blue tarps, the iconic symbol of the displaced, the temporary, the makeshift. Set against the orderly but dull architectural backdrop of McPherson Square, the Occupy D.C. encampment is a low-slung and seemingly haphazard arrangement. But it has made this sleepy public space, used mainly by office workers and a few residents of nearby luxury condominiums, one of the busiest public squares in Washington. To use the argot of urbanism, the protesters who installed themselves at McPherson Square on Oct. 1 (and another group that has occupied Freedom Plaza a few blocks away) have done what so many planners, designers and architects strive for but fail to achieve: They have “activated” the urban core.
Whether the Occupy movement, which has taken over parks in cities across the country, fizzles or grows, whether it has resonance and can translate its message into concrete change, are political questions. But looked at solely as an aesthetic and cultural phenomenon, it has deep roots in ideas with established pedigrees in the world of art and architecture. Its anti-consumerist ethos, its impatience with the media and its love of theatrical intervention in city life make it a direct heir of the Situationists, a radical European avant-garde collective begun in the late 1950s with ideas that remain influential today.